Nokia is back, but not out of the woods yet

January 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Smartphones

I think we can all agree that Nokia has not been doing too great the last few years. Sure, the Finnish telecom giant has released some interesting smartphones, like the N8 with its amazing camera. But it has not been able to grab headlines, like its competitors, at least not for the right reasons. When Nokia announced its partnership with Microsoft about a year ago, I was actually very excited because I felt going with Windows Phone for its smartphones would allow Nokia the stability and functionality it so badly needed.

Let’s take one step further back, to Mobile World Congress in 2010. There, in Barcelona, I witnessed when Microsoft unveiled the new Windows Phone 7 operating systems for mobile devices. I wasn’t exactly blown away but what I saw, but I was convinced it could compete with iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and all the rest. Microsoft had thought in new ways in terms of the interface as well as functionality, which is not something that can be said about Microsoft very often.

Then we waited. First we waited for any Windows Phone smartphone to appear, and what first came out didn’t exactly impress too much. Then we waited for Nokia to introduce its first Windows Phone device and while we waited we got the N9.

Finally, in October 2011, Stephen Elop stood on stage at Nokia World in London, declaring that the Lumia 800 was “the first real Windows Phone device.” As it turns out, the Lumia 800 is basically the N9 but running the Windows Phone OS. I’ve had a Lumia 800 for a few days now, and I can say it’s a very, very nice smartphone.

But I’m not going to review the Lumia 800 in this article, for that you’ll have to wait for the Tbreak tech labs team to sink their teeth into it. What I can tell you is that Nokia seems to be on the right track again, and that’s good news for you as a consumer as well as the industry as a whole.

With the Lumia 800, and presumably also with the Lumia 900, which I’ve not tried, Nokia has beautifully designed, high-quality smartphones, which run a cutting-edge mobile OS. Sure, the Marketplace for Windows Phone may only have 50,000 apps compared to the 500,000 you can find for iOS, and that is a problem, but it’s a problem that can be made to go away. Nokia and Microsoft have to push hard to get great apps, and a lot of them, developed for the Windows Phone OS. One such app, which many of us are waiting for right now, is Carbon for Windows Phone by UAE-based dots & lines.

By adopting Windows Phone as the OS for its smartphones, Nokia remedied the one big problem it has had over the last few years: Symbian. Now, Nokia can focus on its industrial and product design, something it has always been good at, and spend less time developing an OS. And I, for one, think that is a good thing.

Nokia is in the game again, baby, and I, for one, wish them all the luck in the world.

Picture by Olga Berrios.

SOPA is dead, long live SOPA

January 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Industry, Internet

January 18, 2012, will go down in history as a day when the Internet community managed to stop a piece of legislation from being enacted in the U.S. That seems to be the common view held after it seemed as SOPA was cancelled after the protests, which darkened and disabled websites around the world. Even right here on this site we could read, “SOPA is now officially dead.”

But is that really true?

As far as I can tell there is no guarantee that SOPA is dead, but chances are we won’t hear a lot about it for quite a while.

First, let’s just quickly look at what we’re talking about. SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a bill introduced to the U.S. Senate, and its equivalent in the House of Representatives is PIPA, or Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. Although they are legislation in different parts of the Congress, they are really aimed at accomplishing the same thing, namely to curtail online piracy and copyright infringement.

My understanding is that this gives government as well as companies the right to go after the distribution mechanisms of illegal distributing copyrighted material, like websites and Internet access providers, instead of the end users. So far, it’s been the end users, the people who download movies with BitTorrent, which the music industry has gone after and sued. With SOPA and PIPA, that would all change.

To protest SOPA and PIPA, Reddit.com announced it would shut down its site on January 18. Many other sites followed, including Wikipedia, and sites around the world went silent on that day. The day before the protests, the author of the SOPA bill, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, said he expected the work on SOPA to continue in February: “To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and Members to find ways to combat online piracy.” He added, “Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February.”

As it turns out, the online protests on January 18 had a measurable effect. The day after, the number of opponents in the U.S. Congress to the bill, increased to 101 from having been only 31 previously. It would seem that politicians do listen to voters after all.

Then on January 20, Chairman Smith seemed to back down: “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy. It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.” And he finished, “The House Judiciary Committee will postpone consideration of the legislation until there is wider agreement on a solution.”

So does this mean that the January 18 protests have completely won over the proponents of SOPA and PIPA? Some say that SOPA and PIPA won’t come back in any way shape or form this year because it’s an election year. Politicians have too much to do with the Presidential race, to gain or retain seats in Congress, as well as local elections, to bother to keep on fighting for SOPA and PIPA, especially after this very public protest.

But as far as I can tell there’s no guarantee that the legislation won’t come back later, perhaps in a different guise.

My guess is that SOPA and PIPA will come back to the top of the agenda in U.S. politics at some point. The commercial interests driving them are far too powerful and rich that they would just leave it well enough alone. However, it won’t be under the names SOPA and PIPA. Those names are now tainted, and most Americans, indeed scores of people around the world, associate the acronyms with greedy corporations trying to get the government to write and implement legislation that will merely punish ordinary people.

The battle may have been won, but the war is far from over.

Photo by Steve Snodgrass.

Are you excited about Microsoft Windows 8?

At Microsoft’s BUILD conference in California in September last year the company showed off Windows 8 and gave us a lot of information about what the next generation of its operating system will be like. Even though Windows 7 has been a big sales success, concerns about slow uptake, especially in businesses, have popped up from time to time.

In the latest worldwide figures from StatCounter about desktop operating systems, Windows 7 has the lead over Windows XP, a situation that it has just recently acquired (in October 2011). That means an OS released in October 2009 has just passed an OS released in 2001. Surely that can’t be a very comforting situation for Redmond.

Add to that, that Windows XP is still the number one OS in large markets around the world, including China, and we suspect that this is a headache that Steve Ballmer is making his teams work hard at – how to get users to switch to Windows 8 faster than they did to Windows 7. It certainly doesn’t help that research company Gartner has said it expects the uptake of Windows 8 will be slower than that of Windows 7.

The developer preview version of Windows 8 that was introduced at BUILD last year has, by all accounts, been well received. Undoubtedly we still have lots to find out about Microsoft’s plans for the OS, even after CES last week.

So how will Windows 8 be received once it is officially introduced?

Obviously we don’t know, but one key issue, I think, will be how well Windows 8 runs on existing hardware. Microsoft’s Vice President of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, said last year, “everything that runs on Windows 7 runs on Windows 8.” For Microsoft’s sake, I hope that’s true even though I fully expect the latest 2012 hardware will run the new OS better than computers from 2011 or earlier.

One other thing I think will be important is the integration between touch and traditional interface. Windows 8 will just be “one operating system,” for both tablets and computers; that much has Microsoft said. For example, on a computer with a touchscreen, you can use the Metro interface for touch, and what looks like Windows 7 with keyboard and mouse. How well apps, information and other types of integration works between the two modes will be important for usability.

I am actually very excited about seeing what Microsoft comes up with for Windows 8 and how it develops over the coming months. Hopefully, after the public beta has been in circulation a while, Redmond will announce a launch date. Then we can start preparing for what is set to be another big Microsoft Windows launch.

Photo by BUILDWindows.

Apple prevails – the three top smartphones in U.S. are iPhones

January 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Google, Smartphones

Unfortunately, we hardly ever get any sales or other market information about the Middle East and that’s also true for Apple. The iPhone 4S was introduced not long ago, and it’d be so interesting to know how well it has done.

Unless Apple changes its policies and practice in terms of sharing sales figures for the region, we’re left with what we can gather from other corners of the world.

If we look at some of the latest smartphone sales figures from the U.S., I think you will be surprised.

TechCrunch has published figures by research firm NPD that show that iOS came out on top in the October-November 2011 time period with a 43% market share in the U.S. Android is still ahead though with 47% share, which is down from the 60% it had in Q3.

What’s also very interesting – although not very surprising – is that smartphones are occupying an increasingly large part of the mobile handset market. In other words, we buy more smartphones and less featurephones and other mobile phones. In fact, two out of three handsets sold in October-November were smartphones, up from 50% the year before, according to NPD. Furthermore, nine out of the top ten phones sold in the period were smartphones.

That’s a lot of smartphones, no matter how you look at it.

For me the biggest surprise, however, when looking at the NPD numbers is that Apple occupies the top three slots of top models sold. The iPhone 4S is number one, followed by iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS occupies the number-three position.

Yes, that’s Apple ahead of all the Android handsets, including those from Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and LG, and that with its iPhone 3GS, a phone introduced in 2009.

That sure surprised me.

We hear so much about the Android juggernaut, that Android is outselling iPhone, and there’s no doubt that Android has come a long way in a short period of time. And even though I am an Apple fan and currently an iPhone 4S user I occasionally stray over to the Android side, mainly due to the wide range of hardware that is available.

Google executive Andy Rubin posted on Google+ that 3.7 million Android activations were carried out on December 24 – 25, 2011. That’s an amazing number, but it seems that iPhone still trumped Android for the holiday sales, as well. For in-store sales at AT&T in U.S., supposedly 66% was iPhone.

But don’t think for a second that Apple and iPhone now somehow beat Android. Sure, Apple has raked in more money to its already burgeoning war chest, and Android may not be top of all the charts, but the force that is Android will be hard to stop. Just look at all the new devices – from smartphones to tablets and beyond – all running Android, which were introduced in Las Vegas.

However, for now, let Apple bask for a second in the glow of having the top three selling mobile phones in the U.S. for the October-November 2011 period.

Photo by Yutaka Tsutano.

The big tech show is not dead, but it needs to change

January 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Industry

The 2012 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show just got over in Las Vegas. CES was first held in 1967, and it certainly has changed over the years. But is it getting too big? Is it not worth the big bucks anymore that companies pay to exhibit there?

For CES in 2011, 140,000 visitors, 30,000 from outside the U.S., flocked to Vegas to take in all the latest in consumer technology and gadgets. That’s a lot of people in one place, even in a city like Las Vegas, which is basically built on tourism.

I’ve been fortunate to attend a few CES spectacles as a reporter, and I can tell you that it is backbreaking work; from early morning press-tours to late-evening parties, and interviews and press conferences in between. Sounds glamorous? It’s not, I can tell you. There’s just too much to cover and you fight desperately to try to filter things and decide what to write about.

But that’s a topic for another day. By all accounts, CES 2012 was a huge success and the usual websites, magazines etc. reported from Vegas with fever-pitch frenzy.  I saw a tweet the other day from a reporter, which said something like “we posted more than 100 stories today from CES.” That’s just crazy.

But there is that much – and more – to report on, and that’s sort of the problem. For big companies, like Intel, it’s a chance to stand out, but spending, presumably, millions of dollars on CES must be giving them reason to pause and think whether it’s worth it. For small companies, I can only see it being worth it, if they have something really spectacular to show off that every news outlet will pick up.

And then you have citizen-journalism. Being away from CES this year, I’ve picked up so much news via tweets and other social media messages from individuals at the show- regular visitors and not professional reporters. That, I think, will have a more profound change on these shows more than anything.

Although CES is a spectacular show I believe the future is in smaller, more frequent and directed events. Apple has realized that- one reason why they dumped MacWorld Expo in 2009, and Microsoft has as well, making this CES its last. Now we’re just waiting for the rest to catch up.

And that also goes for GITEX in Dubai, although that’s a different beast altogether as it relies much more on enterprise tech and CES is obviously focused on consumers. However, I would suspect we could ask many of the same questions about GITEX as we do about CES. One thing I have to say to the GITEX organizers is that you have to catch up with the times and realize that social media can make or break you.

Photo by VentureBeat.

Why knowing how to code is a good skill to have

January 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Software

I think CodeYear.com is one of the most exciting and innovative ideas that have come along in a very long time. As I write this it says on that page, “236,059 people have decided to learn to code in 2012.” That’s an amazing number of people.

CodeYear is a project by Codecademy.com to try to get more people writing programming code, or at least to get a taste for what it means to program.

I signed up even though I’ve got quite a bit of programming experience already, and I really hope you do too. If you’ve never written a single bit or byte of code, perhaps never even thought about it, then you’re the perfect candidate for this project.

If you have no experience of computer programming, it basically involves writing commands that the computer will understand to get it to carry out certain tasks. That could be to display a web page, type an article, play a game or just make a phone call with your smartphone. Everything you do with a gadget today requires software and software has to be programmed. Software is clearly of critical importance today. Just look at what sells a smartphone today. Sure, having a big screen and fast processor helps, but having a lot of apps,  great apps, available for it is a competitive advantage and arguably as important.

I started out programming using BASIC in my high school’s computer lab. As I quickly got the bug, so to speak, I moved on with Turbo Pascal and remember trying to develop an application like Microsoft Paint. And I did it too. My application may not have been as robust as Paint (in other words it crashed a lot), but it could do a heck of a lot more than Microsoft’s application. Then I moved on with Assembly language, C and some C++. In more recent years it’s been PHP and ActionScript that has kept me busy.

But I am not a programmer. Not so much because I don’t make a living out of writing code but because it’s something I’d not like to do to as a job, nor would I like to spend that much time writing code. To me hacking together some code is fun and something I enjoy doing from time to time but that’s about it.

I am however very grateful that I got to spend a lot of time writing code earlier on in my life because I think it’s given me a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for what it takes to develop an application, whether it’s for a computer, a smartphone, or the web.

So come on, sign up for CodeYear.com and get programming. If you do continue on to actually developing a piece of software, let us know and we’ll share it here with others. I think once you give software programming a go, the bug will bite you. And this is the good kind of bug.

Photo by James Cridland.

My New Year’s resolution: really try Google+

January 6, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Google, Internet

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve made my share of them over the years. You know, the usual ones like get fit, stop smoking, do unto others, etc. Well, I never really smoked so I couldn’t stop but most of the other common ones I’ve committed to at some point or another.

For 2012, I’ve really not stated any resolutions other than I’m going to do my darndest to get better as a writer – after all that’s how I make my living and what I enjoy doing – and really have a good go at Google+.

Although Google+ started way behind Facebook and Twitter, it is catching up rather fast. According to some estimates, there will be 400 million people on Google+ by the end of 2012.

Even if Google makes it to 400 million by the end of this year, that’s still dwarfed by Facebook, which right now already claims more than 800 million users. But that’s beside the point because I don’t need 800 million or even 400 million to communicate with on a social network; I just need a few hundred or a few thousand at the most, of the right people to join me.

In terms of social media, I’m more of a Twitter person than anything. With a bit over 3,000 followers I’ve been blessed beyond what I deserve and I enjoy Twitter on a daily basis.

For me, Facebook came in second place after Twitter, and still does to some extent. I’m still more comfortable with Twitter, but Facebook has found a special niche in my social networking activities, and it compliments Twitter nicely. For me, I keep my profile on Facebook more private than I do Twitter and I think that’s why it works.

When it comes to Google+, I’ve had an account from very early on but even after a few attempts at trying to figure out what it could do for me, I’m still very much a Google+ virgin.

In the last few days, I have, partly for work-reasons, had to get active on Google+ again and although it still confuses me with Circles, Hangouts, and whatnot, it is also starting to intrigue me.

I think what appeals to me is that Google+ feels like more of a complete social networking environment than both Facebook and Twitter. Now I can see myself doing much of what I do with the other social networks in Google+, and possibly something more too.

But I clearly have a lot left to learn as I +1, share, hang out, and more. I’m not quite sure what Google could have done to make Google+ more immediate and user friendly but right now lots of things about Google+ baffles me.

I remember when I started using Twitter I took to it right away. And I didn’t have many issues with Facebook either. Now I think the comparisons are somewhat unfair as when I started using Twitter it was a very basic tool and not at all as extensive as Google+ is today.

So come on, link up with me on Google+ and let’s have some fun. And Happy New Year!

Apple QuickTime turns 20 – Happy birthday

January 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Apple, Blogs, Software

Apple’s QuickTime technology has just turned 20 years old. Apparently it was on December 2 in 1991 that Apple released the first version of QuickTime. On Wikipedia QuickTime is described as an “extensible proprietary multimedia framework developed by Apple Inc., capable of handling various formats of digital video, picture, sound, panoramic images, and interactivity.” Basically it’s a collection of technologies, now a part of Mac OS X, that handles video and other types of multimedia content.

I bet you that you’ve used QuickTime at some point or another, even if you’re a Windows user. If you happen to be a Mac user, you probably use parts of QuickTime on an everyday basis, without even realizing.

Imagine 160×120 pixels, 10 fps

I was actually running QuickTime from very early on, as I was lucky enough to have a preview CD shipped to me by Apple. The CD contained hundreds of movies, lots of utilities, sample code, and much more. Even a video of say 160×120 pixels and 10 fps was amazing then, and many of my friends were mightily impressed of what my Mac could accomplish.

I still have a very definite favorite QuickTime movie from those early days. The speaker voice says that the power of the Macintosh Quadra the computer is advertising “will take your breath away.” It continues: “but what makes this technology so revolutionary is what it runs on: Your imagination.” And the video you were watching zooms out to reveal that you were in fact watching a small QuickTime movie on the display of a Quadra.

Although I actually had a Quadra at the time I remember the video more because of QuickTime than because of the Mac. On that Quadra, which had a 64040 processor running at 25 MHz, I think QuickTime could squeeze out a 320×240 video at about 30 fps.

In those early days of QuickTime, games and interactive multimedia applications started appearing on CD-ROM. There was From Alice to ocean and, of course, Myst. My favorite was a quirky game about a spaceship, which I can’t even remember the name of anymore.

QuickTime was pure magic

Back then QuickTime was pure magic. Times have changed and today QuickTime is not that special anymore. QuickTime as a stand-alone technology has all but disappeared and it’s not something that users are excited about anymore, it’s just there in the Mac running when it needs to.

And that is just as it should be.

I was glad that I was around when it was first introduced because it made us view the world in a new way. But other technologies will come along that provide current and future users with the same awe.

Whatever is the coolest thing tomorrow will be a natural part of what we do the next day. That’s the way of high tech.

For now, be assured that Apple is still working hard at QuickTime, even though it’s now “just” a part of the Mac OS X operating system.

Reality check! Smartphones still in minority

December 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Blogs, Industry, Smartphones

Most of you reading this own a smartphone or two, or three. Having a smartphone, regardless of brand, has become almost like a human right in large parts of the world and no doubt, smartphone sales are booming. IDC expects 472 smartphones to be sold worldwide this year, with Android and iOS being the two dominating platforms.

But even with booming smartphone sales, let’s not forget that smartphones are still a small part of all mobile phones in the world. You could be forgiven to think otherwise reading the headlines in magazines and tech websites.

Almost 6 billion mobile phone subscribers

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) expects [PDF] 5.9 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 2011. I know it’s a bit of apples and oranges, but this means only about 8% of all mobile handsets in the world are smartphones.

No doubt, this share will just keep increasing. IDC expects smartphone sales to almost double to 982 million by end of 2015. That’s a lot of smartphones.

But some of the functionality of smartphones, like GPS, web browsing and email has trickled down to another type of mobile phone, usually called feature phone.  In fact, over 70% of mobile handsets that shipped this year were feature phones. This number is expected to at least remain stable if not increase.

So as much as us tech writers want to talk about smartphones, when you read some headlines about record smartphone sales, think again and remember that however smart they are, they are just a small portion of the market.

What is it that makes a smartphone so, well, smart? I would imagine that most of us are lured by the big and bright screens, the fast processors, large storage capacity, fast mobile data connections, and more. To me what makes the smartphone smart is the apps.

But more than anything, for most customers, we’re probably lured by the idea of having the latest and greatest. That’s the way it so often is with tech, wouldn’t you say?

Switching to feature phone?

I can admit that I’ve thought about dumping my smartphone at times, instead going for the week-long battery life that a feature phone can offer, and often better voice quality as well. But as much as those things appeal to me, whenever I’ve tried to live with a feature phone, there’s something I’ve missed from the smartphone and I ended up switching back.

Right now, I am still in love with my iPhone 4S. It fulfills a range of roles, and has in some ways taken over what I do with a computer as well as tablet.

But a feature phone will beat it on several key points. And for all its wonderful features, the iPhone 4S, as well as all other smartphones, are still a small percentage of all mobile phones sold in the world.

That’s a reality worth keeping in mind.

Photo credit re-ality.

Open your eyes – Retina Display will be everywhere soon

When the iPhone 4 launched in 2010 one thing Apple made a lot of noise about was the so-called Retina Display. As is the case with the iPhone 4S, its predecessor has a 3.5” display with 640×960 pixels. Apple states the resolution as 326 ppi (points per inch), saying it exceeds the ability of the human eye to detect individual pixels from around 10 inches away. The resolution necessary for this is usually states as being around 300 ppi.

Now it seems we’ll see the Retina Display concept spreading to other devices, including coming iPad models as well as MacBook Pro portable computers.

iPad 3

The most obvious choice to get the Retina Display upgrade would be the coming iPad, presumably called iPad 3. It’s supposedly arriving in just a few months, which would be just in time for the annual cycle Apple established for its tablet by introducing iPad 2 a year after the first model.

But will iPad 3 really get enough pixels to reach 326 ppi, like the iPhone? Well, if we believe rumors, iPad 3 will be 2,048×1,536 pixels, which would mean 264 ppi.

So why “just” 2,048×1,536? It’s twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of the current iPads, meaning there will be less work for developers to get their apps to work on the new display. Since everything just doubles, current apps should work just fine, while apps written to take advantage of the increased number of pixels can look even better.

And let’s be honest, that many pixels on a 9.7″ display – assuming Apple won’t change the physical display size – will still be a lot of pixels. If Apple wanted to add the “HD” label to iPad 3, it still could, as it would exceed the usual benchmark for HD, 1,280×720.

If this is one change we can expect iPad 3 – no surprise here – to featured a faster processor, possibly quad-core, and a much faster graphics system as well. To drive these many pixels, Apple would have to beef up the GPU quite considerably.

MacBook Pro

There are also rumors that Apple’s MacBook Pro will get a higher resolution in 2012. Some sources say 2,880×1,800 pixels, which if we’re talking about a 15” display would mean 226 ppi, still far from the iPhone’s Retina Display.

Currently you can get up to 1,680×1,050 pixels on the 15″ MacBook Pro, which equates to just 132 ppi. I think you just imagine the same display at almost three times the pixel density.

For that to really work Mac OS X will have to start supporting resolution independence. Right now, interface elements like menus and buttons are a set number of pixels big. If that continues with a much-higher ppi, things will just look smaller.

With resolution independence, a user interface element can look about the same real-life size but be built from more pixels, thereby giving it a smoother and crisper look. Basically, with resolution independence, the interface doesn’t depend on a particular pixel resolution to display elements in various sizes, it can scale up and down and still look good.

This is certainly the direction that Apple is moving in but a good guess why they haven’t already is that the +300 ppi displays haven’t arrived yet. Already in 2005 John Siracusa wrote that the “race is on” for “the affordable 300dpi display or the resolution-independent version of Mac OS X.”

For Macs that may be what Cupertino is waiting for, displays with Retina Display pixel density. My guess is that we’ll see Retina Display in iPad before we see it on Macs though, probably as soon as in a few months.

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