Saturday, 24 February 2018

Google without Gmail

It might seem crazy but you can have Google services without Gmail.

Gmail is the Google Email service that scans your incoming mail so you can receive relevant adverts. You can find stuff with Google search by "Googling" but to pay for the "free service" you are the product. You are sold to advertisers, your searches are monetised, the results are prioritised to fit Google's business needs.

That's the deal. Google services paid for by advertising. Some people do have a moral stance on this and don't use Google but others want to just use services that are genuinely useful.

The problem with signing up with Google is you will often get an unwanted and unnecessary email address. Windowsphone users that have moved to Android probably only need the Google Play Store to download apps. Most everything else they use is in Microsoft apps - including email. Although, to be fair to Google, the Maps and Photos apps are pretty great!

What people don't realise is you can actually sign up for Google services with other email addresses such as, Hotmail or Yahoo.

Just go to sign up for Google without Gmail and use any email address you have. You can even use a work email address if the only thing you want to do is sync your browser bookmarks in Google Chrome.

Another legitimate reason for having an extra Google account might be a teacher wanting a YouTube channel for showing videos created for students that are separate from their regular account. There could be many others.

If you have a reason to tie Google services to another account. This could be the way to do it.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Victory in the virtual assistant battle seems to be in sight

The battle of the virtual assistants could be over.  This battle started on the smartphone but progressed, in 2017, to smart speakers and home automation.  On smartphone, your virtual assistant could be activated by voice or touch, answer questions, read email, advise on the weather, provide directions, tell you about your appointments and much more.

The technology was based on the idea that consumers are no longer storing their data on their PC or on a memory card inside their mobile phone but in the cloud. In this instance for "cloud" substitute Google, Apple or Microsoft.

Apple's Siri was one of the first. It debuted on the iPhone 4S. Microsoft announced the most personal assistant on Windowsphone. The Microsoft entry was called Cortana - after the helper in it's Xbox games series Halo.  Google launched Google Now followed, in 2016, by the Google Assistant.

All of these mobile tools could talk to you or you could ask queries. In effect replacing search. The other side of all this help was that your data was now in the cloud. Your location, preferences, transport choices, work place etc. Google, for example, could now target an advert for a special offer based on where you were each lunchtime. The vast data volumes created allowed all kinds of new opportunity for services to end up being useful for consumers but also useful for the cloud service providers.

Amazon had no mobile platform so it created the Amazon Echo. A digital speaker that, among other things, could let you buy stuff from Amazon just by talking to it.

The important features of a virtual assistant is that it's always available, it's everywhere, it learns new stuff and it's genuinely useful. It also needs to understand context. So if you ask about the weather in Paris and then ask how far "it" is then the virtual assistant needs to understand what the "it" is and you still mean Paris.

Microsoft decided in 2017 that it was now out of the mobile phone market. This relegated Cortana to the PC. Google and Apple retain their virtual assistants on mobile. Amazon has effectively created a new market for an assistant in the form of the smart speaker. Moreover, both Google and Amazon have allowed people to add functions to their devices as "skills".

No one is sure where this is going. What seems to be happening though is that Microsoft is falling behind for consumers. Absence from mobile, the smart speaker market, lack of context for Cortana and lack of availability in many markets is making it less useful. it may have a second life as a business service being a virtual assistant for office 365. However, in January 2018 the virtual assistants that have most consumer traction are Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa (Echo).

Cortana won't disappear because it's really just an interface to the Microsoft Bing Search engine. It's most likely future is in the enterprise rather than in the smartphone or smart speaker.  Apple is an unknown quantity but it only seems to be interested in Siri as a phone helper for iPhone users.

Monday, 1 January 2018


There was a time when every computer had its own operating system. Then gradually, over time, the main computer operating systems got to a smaller number. This became Windows on the PC and server with Mac OS and varieties of Unix/Linux. For most computer users, 90% of PCs ran Windows.

When mobile phones started connecting to the Internet a whole fresh set of operating systems turned up including Android (a Linux variant), IOS for iPhone and iPad, Windowsphone for Windows devices. It was recognised that mobile devices would not be using a keyboard and mouse but fingers or a pen-like device. For users, this meant an OS that would respond to gestures.

Most people see Microsoft in a poor light compared to Apple. Apple styles itself as an innovator and, in terms of the iPhone, this was true. However, when Microsoft released Windows 8 it had an almost revolutionary aim. It was going to create a PC interface and applications environment that was touch first and worked on mobile. Windows 8 and Windowsphone 8 would be one core OS would run on both devices. With Windows 10 Mobile the Universal Windows Program (UWP) ecosystem allowed developers to create software on PC, Mobile, Xbox One and other places that were essentially the same.

The vision was largely killed because they lost the mobile battle, Windows 8 was received poorly and their application store never took off. Whether UWP will succeed is still an open question. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, described merging PC with mobile as a cross between a fridge and a stove. You could say he wasn't impressed.

In 2017 Google is trying to bring Android apps to ChromeOS. Similarly, rumour has it that Apple is trying to bring IOS apps to Mac OS X.

There are problems with trying to get apps that normally run on a 5.5-inch screen with touch to work on a 14 or 15-inch laptop. Bear in mind that Apple has no touch interface on any PC. What does seem to be true is a degree of merging the mobile application experience with the conventional PC. Who would have guessed that Microsoft's idea for Windows 8 may become the mainstream in the next couple of years across all PCs? I am sure that Apple, rather than Microsoft, will ultimately claim the credit.

Sunday, 10 December 2017


In the 1980s the first PC viruses emerged. Boot sector viruses invaded the floppy disk. Almost immediately the first anti-virus products emerged. Doctor Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit was one of the first. Alan Solomon had, in fact, created standalone anti-virus tools for some time as S&S Enterprises.

Back in the early 90s I was a beta tester for this product and my then boss was involved in selling it. The PC industry was pretty small and I had a small part in the development in the UK anti-virus industry. Consolidation led to the product being sold and we all moved on.

The key point was that the business opening was that DOS and Windows wasn't very secure. This didn't really matter too much when computers weren't networked to the extent they are today. Two decades later Microsoft have had their Trustworthy Computing programme which brought about fundamental changes in the Windows platform and the modern BIOS.

Which brings me to the question someone recently asked me. What sort of anti-virus protection do you use?

Mostly I am a home user. I dont do work at home. I do productive stuff but not work. I like to separate my life in that way. So I just use Windows Defender. Microsoft now protect PCs in several ways including secure boot, TPM, and Defender.

How good is Defender?

For the most part for home users it's enough. Check out the AV Test centre;

Defender isn't the best in class but most of the time for most things it's going to do the job. Other software is often bloated and tries to do far more than just AV protection. Defender works with pretty much most common viruses in the wild and crucially is part of Microsoft's overall defence so you benefit from the research it does into protecting business in the cloud.

For business use the story is different. You probably want to have more than one anti-virus product and the tests for those can be seen here;

Business users need a full security strategy of protection.

One of the best in test results is Kaspersky Labs. It does pretty well in the lab tests and has top results. You can buy online or discounted at retail. It seems to have one downside - it's Russian. Government agencies are now warning against using it. The reason is simple - an anti-virus product accesses all your files and, in theory, could be a security risk.

It all depends on where you sit. My own view is I treat my PC as compromised because I can't know for sure it isn't. I usually upgrade the "home editions" of Windows to the Pro edition so I can protect my hard disk with Bitlocker. I keep backups of files on disks and in the cloud. I carry out best practice regarding email and websites, secure passwords with two-factor but if my PC got a virus I have a clean USB to rebuild the PC from scratch.

You can't be completely paranoid using a home PC but just installing anti-virus is not the only way.

So yes I use Microsoft Defender. Microsoft have come a long way from third party AV being a requirement because there was no security in Windows. In fact the biggest security focus now seems to be shifting to mobile and Google's Android OS on phone.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Powershell Symlink to Onedrive

I have more than one PC. To be precise, and overly pedantic, 3 Windows 10 laptops. All are slightly different and of various ages. One I use with a Windows 10 Insider Build to keep up with the next thing coming down the pipeline. On each, I do a bit of Powershell.

Powershell is the latest generation of Windows command line tools. The Linux enthusiast would look down on the Windows command line of whatever generation but Microsoft has always provided command line tools.

In the early days MSDOS was a command line OS. It did little but create directories (folders), copy, move or delete files. It ran “” which some said was just a basic file system manager and way of loading programs into memory. It wasn’t difficult to disagree. Developers brought out alternatives to this such as 4DOS, literally “for dos”, by JP Software. They also produced 4NT, which enhance the Windows NT command processor and 4OS2. The latter was for the IBM OS2 Operating System of the late 80s and early 90s. Years ago I visited JP Software, then based in Boston, and got to meet Tom Rawson who ran the whole thing at the time. Although to be fair I should add the principle developer was Rex Conn.

However, I digress quite considerably. The main point is that the command line, for many users of Microsoft operating systems, became quite powerful and many attempts were made to turn it into a scripting tool. The advantages of scripting, as opposed to programming, was that regular administrative tasks on a PC could be automated. Engineers could set up processes that repeated steps at a specific time or over a range of machines.

Microsoft got the scripting bug too. VBSCRIPT became a scripting language used by many. However, it was a bit clumsy because it was tied closely to the Windows GUI and not really to the command line. This often meant an uneasy use of object orientated programming in places where engineers wanted simple procedural choices to get stuff done quickly.

This brought the world to Powershell. Microsoft’s command line interface that allowed you just to type commands, process text files, setting up common configurations and much more. Mostly it let an engineer write a few lines of commands that did everyday tasks quickly. It was also extended into many of Microsoft’s core business products like Sharepoint, Exchange and Lync. It is everywhere and having a bit of Powershell knowledge is a good thing.

Keeping my personal Powershell library of stuff easily backed up and automatically updated has been a challenge. By default a folder is created at “c:\users\username\documents\windowspowershell” and your startup scripts are dumped there. (You replace “username” in the example with your own login name in Windows to find this location because I am doing a generic example here).

If you install Onedrive sync on your PC then you end up with a path to your documents of “c:\users\username\onedrive\documents”. The obvious issue is that your Powershell settings and default script location is local rather than synced in the cloud. The easy solution to syncing everything up is to do what Unix/Linux guys have done for years – symbolic links. You put a link in your local document folder pointing to Onedrive.

1. Run cmd.exe as administrator.
2. Go to “c:\users\username\documents\” on the command line and rename “WindowsPowershell” folder. Use the RENAME command. Use any name you like.
3. Once the folder is renamed create a symbolic link with the command “mklink /D WindowsPowerShell C:\Users\username\OneDrive\Documents\WindowsPowerShell”

That’s it. Your local Powershell reference actually points to Onedrive now. Remember “username” in this example has to be replaced with your actual computer username.

Repeat on all your PCs and your Powershell scripts will follow you around your PCs.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Being progressive rather than universal

Microsoft was not short of ambition for its tiled interface and One Windows strategy. Microsoft was doing what no other tech firm had done - uniting mobile to desktop/laptop PCs in one experience. Apple had two OSs available - IOS for phone/tablet and OSX for its desktop/laptop users. They were different and had different interfaces. Google had two OSs - Android for phone/tablet and ChromeOS for its Chromebook devices.

Of course, even One Windows doesn't mean exactly the same OS but it does mean components have such similarity that the interface appears the same to users and, with little modification, apps can run on all platforms.

Unfortunately, the app platform UWP (Universal Windows Platform) was hobbled from day one. Microsoft had a poor quality application store, ever-changing developer tools and standards and a Store that only worked (on the PC side) for Windows 8 and latterly Windows 10. While people used legacy versions of Windows such as Windows 7 and XP the apps were "invisible". They also kept rebooting WindowsPhone from 7 to 8 then 8.1 and 10. Each iteration became a year zero where developers were faced with re-writes.

UWP also became fragmented. Developer "bridges" allowed conventional WIN32 legacy apps to be delivered in a UWP "wrapper" to aid installation. There was also a wrapper so that websites could be delivered as an "app" but were just launching a web connection. UWP became more of a way of distribution via the Store and adding notifications rather than being universal. Microsoft's interest in phone waned as they retreated from successful markets turning them into unsuccessful markets. It literally appeared their ambition was to achieve zero sales in mobile.

You can't have a "universal" platform if your universe consists of just the PC!

Just as Microsoft abandoned mobile devices, affected greatly by the dearth of good apps, PWA arrives.

Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are the force that makes apps unimportant. A PWA is a website that has components that run on a smartphone like an app. For most people they will act like an app. They can be pinned to home screens and may even work offline. Mechanically a PWA has "manifest" of components that make it work online or potentially offline using the web.

There will be some applications like CAD, Photoshop and games that will need to run natively on the device they are coded for. However many phone "apps" can become progressive and can work across any device. Google and Microsoft are onboard with the concept. The next Windows 10 update with Edge will support PWA. The Windows Store will be able to wrap PWA "apps". Maybe even Windows 10 Mobile devices could run PWAs and then have parity of function with Android devices.

There is irony here. Could it be that Google backing for PWA makes Windowsphone viable?

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mature Mobile

The iPhone X is almost here. We are just days away from the event that comes 10 years after the original iPhone. We have the iPhone 8 on sale and the iPhone doing clever stuff with face recognition.

In the last few days Apple has been forced to deny it has reduced it's high manufacturing standards for facial recognition on the iPhone.

The "revolutionary" aspect of this phone is it unlocks just by looking at it. By unlock I mean that you have to be the owner of the phone!
Underlying this technology is the Israeli company that created the tech behind the Microsoft Kinect sensor. This week saw Microsoft end the production of the Kinect sensor that was, at one point, the fastest selling games peripheral. Apple bought the company that created the technology behind Kinect and had them work on using the idea for facial recognition. However even then Apple are a little late in the game because Microsoft already created "Windows Hello". Windows Hello logs you in just using your face or other biometric on Windows PCs and Phones.

Microsoft was there first. Despite the "death" of Windowsphone devices it's a little bit strange that 2 years after Microsoft had a facial login it's Apple that claims the technology as new.

On the iPhone 8 bulging battery photos have shown that even this phone, largely little changed from it's predecessor, has also been reported as having issues.

Google has also launched the Pixel 2. Made by Google is the slogan. This device has also been hit by some criticism. Screen burn on two-week old devices has hit the press.

The problem with all mobile makers is that the smartphone market is mature. Changes now are incremental not revolutionary. Most manufacturers are now finding it hard to add the killer feature that is sufficiently different from last year's model. You would be hard pushed to find much change from 2 or 3 year old phones!

This years' update season of new devices seems to prove there is not much reason to upgrade devices at all and pay premium prices. The only real reason is fashion. Being seen with the latest device.

The market is now mature. People are keeping their old devices much longer because there are few technical reasons to upgrade.