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Near Field Communications – how it can change our world

By on November 21, 2010

No cards, no plastic, just your mobile.

Last week I was wondering how likely it is for us to use our mobile phones to pay bills, make reservations, etc. As if in response, a few days later the ISIS initiative was announced in the US which basically covers all my needs as a mobile phone user.

Basically Near Field Communications (NFC) is the name of the game here, or for the future of all mobile devices. In a nutshell, you’re using your mobile phone to transfer information to an NFC device in close vicinity (around 10 centimeters). So for instance wherever you need to make bill payments where a credit/debit card is required, such as supermarkets, restaurants, airports, etc. is where NFC capable mobiles will come in handy. Or even places that use top-up cards such as public transport (busses and metros), etc. Sharing information between NFC enabled mobile phones will simply be a matter of a touch of button, no hunting of a Bluetooth signal or pairing and authorizing will be required. Things will get much simpler and easier.

So what the ISIS represents is a union between AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon to build a huge network of information and trade enabled via NFC capable smartphones. This will essentially allow for a more convenient shopping experience for both consumers and retailers. Ideally your mobile phone is used as a credit/debit card to make payments, or any loyalty cards that you would have for various retailers will also not be needed anymore as your shopping info (card numbers, previous shopping history, etc.) is stored on your mobile. These details can not only be used to track your transactions history, but also used by retailers (and yourself) to target specific offers and products suited to your needs.

Of course, there are a lot of security concerns as well, such as information being deleted completely or even manipulated. While the former is not hard to do, with extremely specialized equipment, the latter is virtually impossible. Then again, security risks are also equally considerable on your WiFi connection, so data theft/manipulation over the RF signal on NFC devices is something being treated as importantly as any other wireless data communication.

ISIS is certainly a step in the right direction for how mobile phones will be used in the future. One can only hope that this tech becomes a success and is actually viable for consumers in terms of simplicity and security. NFC can’t become mass market soon enough!


More productivity from our mobiles

By on November 14, 2010

Why are we still limited by our mobile phones?

Half a decade ago I was fascinated when I heard stories about people using their mobile phones in Japan to do more than just make calls, send text messages and browse the internet. They were paying their utility bills, booking cinema tickets, making restaurant reservations and the like, directly through their mobile phones. Back then people in the Middle East (and much of the rest of the world) were still trying to figure out this newfangled technology called 3G.

Of course, it’s easy for me to whine about how such technological advances weren’t in effect here since long ago, but it takes a lot of time and a huge amount of resources to get everything working in conjunction so that millions of users are billed and informed properly.

With the new FTTH (fiber to the home) initiative and substantial increase in broadband speeds, the basic infrastructure has been laid down for massive amounts of data to travel amongst large companies and their huge customer base. Technology is no longer a limiting factor for us, as general consumers, to be able to communicate directly with the many organizations we deal with on a daily basis through our mobile phones, without having to actually call them.

Imagine making a reservation at the Chili’s nearest to your house directly through your iPhone/ BlackBerry/ Android smartphone. Obviously the advent of different app stores creates the issue of developing the same app for all the different app stores for the leading mobile manufacturers. It’s not easy to do this, but imagine the resources and time saved for both the companies and customers if payments and bookings (or whatever other services) could be done through a mobile phone. No waiting in lines, no calling the customer service department, no need to set aside half an hour to an hour to deal with simple tasks. Just load the app, enter your details, choose the options and that’s it. Life gets much easier for everybody.

I know that there are certain apps that already let you do this (e.g. Grand Cinemas) but I’m talking about a full-fledged service that basically allows me to get the job done without making any compromises. So instead of Dubai Metro2 (official metro app by RTA) showing my timings and station locations, I would much appreciate having the ability to add credit to my NOL card as well. Small things, but they make a huge difference in our lives.


Does my printer really need an email address?

By on November 10, 2010

Imagine the field day that a spammer will have if they manage to get the email address of your printer.

I must say that I was quite excited when I first heard HP talking about printers having an email address. For one thing, you wont have to worry about the right drivers for the right printer being installed in every machine that you just want to get a quick printout from. On top of that, it would allow you to send a print request from any part of the world and get a printout. It definitely got the geek in me excited.

But then I thought a bit more about it and now, I don’t really think it’s that great of an idea. For one thing, I’ve never sent a document to be printed if I wasn’t next to the printer to pick it up and take with me. So my geek dream of sending something from across the world is great in theory but one that would probably never be practiced.

The second and more important thing is the security aspect of it. Imagine the field day that a spammer will have if they manage to get the email address of the printer. Now, in HP’s defense, there are a couple of things they’ve done to prevent someone from doing just that. First, you have a string of really complicated characters as your email address that can be updated on a daily basis so it’s a bit like changing your Wi-Fi password everyday. Not very convenient.

The second and more reasonable option is to set a specific set of email addresses that the printer will accept email from and print. Sounds great but I can bet that over 90% of the people that will buy an email enabled printer won’t bother to set this up or even change the default address.

What we need is something that is convenient and secure. For convenience, we need something that works wirelessly and doesn’t require any drivers. For security, it should only work when we are in proximity of the printer and not necessarily from around the world.

Yes, I know that kind of technology already exists. It’s called AirPrint and Apple is rolling it out in the next update to the iPhone and iPad. Go ahead- call me a fanboy.


Do we need so many mobile OSs?

By on November 7, 2010

Too many to choose from?

The recent launch of the Nokia N8 and their revamped S^3 OS and the imminent launch of Windows Phone 7 handsets got me thinking, does the market have the capacity for 4 major operating systems? Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and Nokia’s Symbian 3; do we really need that many differently functioning smartphones? Note that I’m excluding BlackBerry from this discussion as I still feel that RIM’s smartphones are targeted more at businesses than the general mass market consumers.

To be fair to them, Nokia was the first one in the mobile industry with their Symbian OS that adapted quite well to their smartphones. I still remember getting my E71 and being amazed at its capacity to do so much, and yet it was nowhere near as big and ugly as their Communicator mobiles. When I picked up the Nokia N8 recently, what I saw was a beautiful handset, but the same old Symbian look and feel to things. Yes, there are additions, but the Symbian OS has hardly evolved in the past 3 years. Nokia believe this strategy will allow their existing users to easily transition into their high-end smartphones where familiarity will win them the sales they need in this competitive section of the market. I personally don’t see this happening as Apple, Google and now even the once archaic Microsoft continue to outdo themselves with each successive OS upgrade.

Apple was the new kid on the block 3 years ago, but now they’re the industry leaders in terms of innovation and simplicity thanks to which they’ve expanded their user base at an absurdly fast rate.  Like the iPod that revolutionized the portable music industry almost a decade ago, the iPhone continues to make huge strides in the Smartphone industry where now everybody is trying to play catch-up.  The iPhone alone is now as much of a household name as Nokia; one phone versus the brand image of an entire company.

And then there’s the Android OS. While Apple was busy basking in its own glorious success, this relatively unknown OS came out of nowhere (mostly in the past year) and is now threatening the iPhone’s global dominance. Of course, when you have the backing of a company as huge and resourceful as Google, success is only a footstep away. The Android OS has penetrated the Smartphone market with an alarming rate the likes of which have never been seen before. All because Google is quick to listen to consumer demands and implement changes, and of course, it’s free to mobile manufacturers whereby they themselves can improve on Android where Google didn’t, for instance HTC’s brilliant Sense UI.

Finally we have the Windows Phone 7 which is set to dynamically change the way we use, or rather view information on our Smartphones. WP7 represents as big a departure in Microsoft’s design as the transition from Windows Xp to Vista Windows 7. Built from ground up with the user experience in mind, WP7 represents a bold new step for smartphones in general. Whether this direction will prove successful depends entirely on Microsoft’s own support for the platform and how aggressively they push it towards consumers and developers alike. Ultimately a huge community will form around their platform if the goods are worth it. And, if the Xbox is anything to go by, this will surely be one of the biggest platforms in the mobile market.

In the end, multiple Oss aren’t necessarily a bad thing as the number of choices available in the market allows end consumers to get a product that suits their lifestyle. In such a competitive market where each manufacturer is vying to have the biggest market share with an OS that is simple to use, easy to keep up with and is also elegant to behold, there’s no place for a draconic design  that makes a user feel out place (and out of pace) in the 21st century.


The Tides Favour the Mac?

By on November 2, 2010

AutoCAD 3D engineering and design returns to the Apple platform

Not enough attention in our region was given to the announcement that came out few weeks ago- Autodesk, the maker of AutoCAD 3D engineering and design software, returning to develop for the Apple platform. Autodesk has actually started to ship its most famous application; AutoCAD, for the Apple Mac computers. The package includes a free mobile version called AutoCAD WS, specifically for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. The WS lets users edit and share their AutoCAD designs while on the move.

AutoCAD for Mac sports an intuitive interface that will feel familiar to Mac users. It also supports easy collaboration regardless of the platform in use, so users can upload and manage designs in their online workspace directly from the desktop and easily edit and share those designs through a web browser or Apple iOS devices.

Simply put, it’s a victorious moment for Apple which has been working hard to lure more enterprise applications to its platform. Autodesk applications are being used by 10 million professional engineers, architects, designers and artists in 185 countries.

“The release of AutoCAD for Mac marks the return of professional design and engineering software to the Mac platform,” said Amar Hanspal, senior vice president, Autodesk Platform Solutions and Emerging Business. “Both the Mac and mobile devices have become serious business platforms within the last few years.”

“Apple is thrilled that Autodesk is bringing AutoCAD back to the Mac and we think it’s the perfect combination for millions of design and engineering professionals,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. “The AutoCAD WS app is a bold new idea, a mobile version of industry-leading design software for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.”

The decision to buy a PC or a Mac used to rely heavily on software availability for every platform. Today, nearly everything is available on the Mac OS X. With the continuous success of the iOS based mobile devices, which basically requires a Mac OS X to develop for, the shift from using PCs to Macs seems to be gaining momentum.

No one wants to risk missing out on the rise of iPhone and iPad applications market. Those who provides applications on all these platform: PC, cloud and Mobile will reap the benefits. Those who don’t- better start packing.

You might see this as an incidental case- and it might be. It may also mark the start of a major move to Macs. According to netmarketshare.com, combined Apple devices have over 1% of global browsing share, which is now higher than Linux. Mac OS X had 5% of the global market share in last August 2010, while Windows remained dominant with 91.34% share. Microsoft might not need to worry, but they should keep a very open eye, the tides are slowly changing, against them.


Can the Galaxy Tab replace your Mobile Phone?

By on October 31, 2010

I decided to ditch my Smartphone for the weekend and use the Tab instead

Remember how when the iPad was announced, hundreds of skeptics branded it as an ‘oversized iPhone’? Well, the same goes for the Galaxy Tab – it looks more like an oversized Galaxy S phone, but unlike the iPad, the Galaxy Tab can actually make and receive phone calls- and it works with a regular sized SIM card. The Tab supports MMS, GPS, 3G, and even video calling as would any regular phone. Now, having played around the with Galaxy Tab for a few days, I decided to run the acid test and ditch my regular phone in favor of the Tab.

I do realize that this has its drawbacks- for one thing, no idiot in their right mind would hold a 7” device up to their ear to make a phone call. In fact, when I told people that the Galaxy Tab could be used as a phone, they instantly held it up to their ear and started laughing. I can easily see the humor in this – why talk about your device having phone capabilities when you know that people already envision a phone as something you can hold up and use.

You need to use a compatible Bluetooth headset or a wired one in order to comfortably make a phone call. If no headset is connected to the Tab, then it defaults to using its in-built speaker to broadcast your conversation to the entire world. While the speaker works well for conference calling, I highly recommend using a headset if you’re going to use the Tab for making phone calls.

The Tab did pair up easily with my Nokia CW-15 Bluetooth car kit, and showed all my contacts without a glitch, which was great. It supports Voice Dialing, but the problem with it is that you still need to tap the screen to confirm the number you want to dial, so it’s not truly hands-free say when you’re driving and need to make an urgent call.

Honestly, the Galaxy Tab is just a pain to carry around as a phone. At the press event, one of the Samsung staff casually mentioned that “You can put it in your pocket” and encouraged me to try and fit the Galaxy Tab into my already ludicrously skinny jeans. Even the video for the Galaxy Tab shows people sliding it effortlessly into their back pockets or their suits. Are these people serious? Are you really going to be walking around with a honking 7 inch device sticking out of your pocket?

Don’t make the assumption that the Tab will replace your phone – it’s probably the most uncomfortable thing to lug around. When I had to nip out for groceries, I couldn’t leave the Tab in car in case I missed a phone call. And I couldn’t put it into the shopping basket in case I put something on top of it. I stupidly weren’t wearing pants that were big enough to hold the Tab, so in the end I had to just tuck the thing under my arm just so I could have two free hands. With a cell phone, you slide it into your pocket and you forget about it. With the Galaxy Tab, you’re always mindful that you’re carrying this great piece of tech, but you don’t have any place to put it.


MacBook Air: Tempted again, disappointed again

By on October 27, 2010

To MacBook Air or not?

Looking at the new MacBook Air announced during Apple’s conference last week made me really consider buying one of the most beautiful laptops I’ve ever seen. A simple and elegant, yet extremely efficient and effective design process has been Apple’s philosophy since forever. The sleek form factor and beefier upgrades, especially in the graphics department, were exactly the kind of things I was looking for to push me over to the OSX side of the field.

I did like the MacBook Air when it first launched in early 2008, but back then the weak components inside did not provide with a better browsing and normal working environment than a netbook. Lack of easy upgrades and a high entry price completely put me off the thing. Now though, things have changed. While gaming has become a bigger part of Apple’s overall plan for world domination (thanks to the iPhone paving the way), Macs are still not devices I would go to for a proper gaming session. Still, something is better than nothing; an Nvidia 320m GPU is better than an Intel GMA or the old GeForce 9400m.

Of course, I’m not planning to play for a long time, nor anything as graphically intensive as Crysis. Just some WoW on occasions and a bit of StarCraft II whenever I’m feeling up for it, and maybe dabble in a little bit of Team Fortress 2.  All of these are old games, with some heavy shaders working under the hood; nothing the GeForce 320m can’t handle. However, can the system as a whole handle my gaming needs? Will the fan head into full speed of irritating whiny noises and completely destroy an otherwise silent experience associated with the MacBook Air? And even after all that, will the games look decent (I don’t expect full resolution and effects glory) and be playable at an acceptable framerate? Going through many forum threads, I’m looking at a bare minimum performance on games.

That said, gaming is not my primary focus with the new MacBook Air. I want it because it “feels” good, at least in my mind. It’s ultra-lightweight and small enough to be used anywhere without any discomfort whatsoever. So basically I’m picturing myself on my couch, legs up and all, playing some Cataclysm, quitting out and then writing about it in a blog post for MEGamers.  Sounds real nice, but what about the times when I want to do the same in my bed? Lights off, cozy blanket, finishing a match in StarCraft II and then working on some article with a glass of hot chocolate on my side table. Except I can’t type. No backlit keyboard.

After so many things that seemed right in the new MacBook Air, there are still one or two very fundamental items that are missing which put me off buying it. The graphics card isn’t too weak, and I can definitely get much better performance on the above mentioned games if I dual boot into Windonws 7, but that would utterly defeat the purpose of having a MAC. No backlit keyboard is also a huge issue for me, and what’s more irritating is that this was a perfectly good functionality available in the previous MacBook Air models.

At the end of the day I’m paying $999 for the new MacBook Air; it looks gorgeous, works smooth, plays some games and comes with all the brilliance of the Mac OSX (which I have yet to experience in its full glory). Or I can pay the same and get much better hardware and performance from an Alienware M11x (R2) with all the brilliance of Windows 7 that I use and love. Yes, it’s bulkier compared to the MacBook Air, but it’s got a backlit keys.


Windows Phone 7 you say?

By on October 13, 2010

Will Windows Phone 7 succeed or fail?

What Microsoft dubs as a “Complete Reboot” for their mobile strategy; the Windows Phone 7, is set for imminent release in Europe and Asia on October 21, 2010, and in the US on November 8th, 2010. Windows Phone 7 has been built from scratch, bearing no resemblance to its predecessors. It is considered by many as the last chance for a Microsoft come back to the mobile platform.

In the past, the Smartphone OS market had few competitors running against Microsoft, now the tides have changed, with big players getting in the ring, like Apple, Blackberry, and the rising contender: Android. According to Gartner research, Microsoft’s global Smartphone OS market share dropped further to 4.7%, while IDC showed some mercy, claiming it was down to 6.8% only!

So will users ditch their iPhones and Blackberries and line up outside of stores like with the iPhone? Guess not. Nevertheless, there are lots of new features which are worth checking, like:

Firstly and finally, Windows Phone 7 will use multi-touch technology. After relying for long years on the plastic stylus, Windows fans can use their fingers to navigate the interface. We are yet to see if this new feature is glitch-free.

Then comes the large and dynamic ‘live’ tiles, with the usual small icons gone, it’s all large and dynamic tiles. Those tiles allow for quick access to applications: sending emails, browsing the internet, playing music and exclusively, games on the Xbox system. Claiming to save power, the default theme has been set to a dark one, but it looked too dull for me. Luckily, this can be changed later on.

But it’s not only good looks that matters the most, it’s the ease of use and upgradability, and most notably, the application front. Installing an application on the Windows Mobile phones used to be a mental challenge, not guaranteed to work, or not to suck up the available memory needed to run other applications. Microsoft stated that what they lack in quantity of applications for the Windows Phone 7, they’ll make up for in quality. Gizmodo’s editor was impressed when managed to go through some of Windows Phone 7′s first games and apps, which are expected to total 2000 apps.

On the other hand, there are a handful of missing features, like the cut, copy, and paste function, full multitasking, and the inclusion of Adobe Flash. Recently Microsoft has announced that copy and paste function, along with the Adobe Flash support, will be added to the platform with future updates, but without setting a fixed date. Other features support remain tentative, or MIA.

The final verdict:
Will it top or flop, that’s the question we’ll have an answer for in the coming days. Rumors have it that the expected retail price for the first Windows Phone 7 will hover around $700 (without a service contract) and that’s a bit steep in the days of the global crunch. Personally, I tend to believe that Microsoft innovates only when cornered by strong competitors, but this belief is deterred by the unhappy memory of the ill-fated short-lived Microsoft Kin mobile phone, which was cancelled few months after its launch early this year, causing the head of the Devices division at Microsoft to quit his job.

Microsoft is also notorious for missing things up, pushing unfinished products to market, and relying heavily on later updates and fixes. Microsoft stopped innovating till the iPhone came out and forced the Microsoft lads to role up their sleeves to catch up. For all of that, I won’t hold my breath much, but I sure wish Microsoft would prove me wrong here.


GITEX 2010 cometh

By on October 13, 2010

What’s in store on the 30th anniversary of GITEX?

So yesterday I attended the GITEX 30th Anniversary press conference held at the DWTC Convention Hall. My first thought when getting the invitation was that of slight disbelief that this show has been going on for 30 years.

Of course, back then it was called the Gulf Computer Exhibition, with a mere 46 exhibitors and roughly 3000 visitors. In 1998 the event was officially launched as Gulf Information Technology Exhibition or GITEX as we have all come to know it, which has grown 93 times since inception. The growth of GITEX was the key focus of the press conference as well yesterday when some of the top names in the IT industry within the region were on hand for discussion. While all the speakers commented on the growth of GITEX, pretty much all company heads also talked about Cloud Computing and how it’s a big deal in the emerging market.

In fact, one of the big conferences to be held during GITEX is called GITEX Cloud Confex headed by guys from AMD, IBM, HP, etc. Apart from the Global Leaders’ Summit and Global Conference, GITEX will also hold the Mobile Apps & Content World debates on all 5 days of the Technology Week, focusing on different aspects of mobile computing. Definitely a great place to get an idea of mobile app development and advertising. On the final day (Thursday, 21st October) will be held the TiE Regional Start up Day where mobile app developers will be allowed to display their creations and pitch to potential investors. Checking out local talent is always one of the best things about such shows.

While there will be a lot of new product launches within the region, such as the Xbox 360 Kinect amongst many others, some of the star attractions of the show are also gadgets that won’t be immediately (if at all) available to the general public, such as Panasonic’s 152 inches 3D plasma TV.

Obviously there is more to GITEX than simply allowing companies to do millions of dollars of business through investments and creating new opportunities, launching new products and showcasing the latest tech from around the world. There’s the GITEX Shopper for which millions of people wait all year round. Discounts galore and clearance prices is what attracts the consumers from around the region. Obviously, the latest technology that’s just been launched (in GITEX itself) is also usually on sale here at very attractive prices.

So while the two events are in totally separate locations, expect full coverage on Tbreak for the latest on the show floor from GITEX Technology Week and the hottest deals from GITEX Shopper all next week, beginning the 16th of October.


The anticlimax to the BlackBerry debacle

By on October 12, 2010

Much ado about nothing

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Last week was a tense one for Blackberry owners- they weren’t sure if their beloved mobile device will be functioning a week later or not. But signs from Tuesday onwards started pointing towards the positive- that BlackBerry services will continue uninterrupted.

First of all, the prices for BlackBerry devices in the grey market started rising- don’t know where these guys get their information from, but they were obviously on to something. On Wednesday, I called Etisalat for their Blackberry replacement packages but they said that these packages will only be offered IF the ban goes into effect. Then word started spreading on BBM on Thursday and finally, it was made official early Friday that services will continue without any disruptions.

Details of the decisions reached between RIM and TRA are still a bit sketchy. The only thing we know is what was posted on TRA’s website: “The TRA has confirmed that BlackBerry services are now compliant with the U.A.E.’s telecommunications regulatory framework.” Obviously, this means that services prior to the announcement were NOT compliant with the framework. From that, one would deduct that RIM has allowed some kind of access to BlackBerry data to the U.A.E. government- possibly through an encryption key.

Whatever the details are, leaving decisions to the last minute was not necessarily the right way to go. Although I personally don’t personally know anyone who had already sold their Blackberry device, I’m sure that some people must have- at least since there was no official news until the 8th of October- or three days before the ban was supposed to go into effect.

Ideally, RIM and TRA should have kept October 1st as the internal deadline to reach an agreement- or not. This would’ve allowed current Blackberry owners at least ten days to evaluate their next move.


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