Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Stop Start World of Windowsphone

With the release of Windows 10 Mobile shortly we have another re-launch of Microsoft's mobile platform that went off the rails when the iphone danger was not understood back in 2007. If you care about a mobile ecosystem not being owned by Apple or monitored by Google to serve advertising then you may well be a Windowsphone user. However it's tough.

Windowsphone love is tough because while the OS is solid the ecosystem is not. Too few apps that matter to people rn on the platform and most developers, for obvious reasons, develop for iphone and Android.

However let's just switch back to 2007 for a moment and have look at the mobile world then.

Blackberry dominated the business smartphone world and it was well understood you had to have a keyboard to be a 'serious' business device. Nokia - remember them - were the largest smartphone maker in the world. Microsoft had a comprehensive mobile vision with Windows Mobile 6 on the phone and it's Zune player. You can see this vision in a video of the period - remember this is pre-iphone.

Apple, and their fanbois, keep quiet about the Rokr these days. This was a mobile phone they made in co-operation with Motorola. In reviews it was described as 'dull'. No wonder that Microsoft were not feeling pressured by Apple. Even the iphone in 2007 was hugely expensive, had limited storage, no 3G and Apple were forced to drop the price within weeks due to poor sales.

Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS was a mature offering looking a lot like the Windows desktop and was part of their mobile computing strategy. The Compaq iPaq was one of their Pocket PCs running Windows CE. This concept of mobile computing had been devised in 2000 some 7 years before the iphone but was the prefix 'i' just a coincidence?

After the iphone launch it was quickly apparent to Microsoft that touch devices were the consumer devices of choice so Windows Mobile was engineered to become Windowsphone. From 2007 to 2010 it became clear a re-design was in order and Windowsphone 7 adopted the 'metro' live tile design of the Windows 8 PC OS. Microsoft had gone all out for touch. However Windowsphone 7 had used the kernel of Windows CE and could not work on the newest hardware. The phone OS was also designed by a completely different group of people from the PC so integration, that should have been its strongest asset, wasn't there. Windowsphone 8 was quickly released incorporating the 'NT kernel' used by Windows followed by Windowsphone 8.1. Windowsphone 10 wont exist because the name Windows 10 Mobile is being used now in a strange reversion to the old name.

The name change goes deeper than just a name. It represents a stop start development process that has hindered almost everything about the platform and constant re-invention has not informed consumers of what makes Windowsphone different.

One problem Microsoft had from the start was they had no control. The model where partners built devices, which worked on PCs where Windows dominated, had a problem where Google was giving away Android to anyone who made a phone with almost no design restrictions. The iphone was developed in a closed ecosystem after Apple had decided it was done with a partner like Motorola and the Rokr. Microsoft had to wait for partners. It's biggest supporter became Nokia that was under attack from iphone and Android. Nokia decided to join Microsoft completely and quickly dominated the Windowsphone market.

Windowsphone 7 sold itself as an integrated platform around hubs. Your People hub would link to all you contacts no matter what email service you had and all your social networks. You could post one message to everywhere with one keystroke. Your photos would automatically upload everywhere. Customer friendly but services hated it. Google pretty much sabotaged attempts to get their services on Windowsphone and other services realised that if people were posting centrally without visiting sites then it was a revenue loser because people didn't see ads. So they all made subtle changes that stopped this integrated world working well.

Updating Windowsphone was also a nightmare. Only market leadership would force phone companies to push out regular updates but phone companies were not interested in this as they would prefer customers to buy new phones than get updates to prolong the use of existing products. Only Apple had the marketing power to do really comprehensive over the air updates.

With each OS update the integrated Windowsphone pulled those features into apps to make updates easier and be friendly to other services. Google just ignored Windowsphone.

Microsoft kept promising features and taking years to deliver. Their entertainment services like music, tv and video where half-heartedly delivered and almost no-one knew they had a music service.

Each iteration of Windowsphone started with writing the OS almost from scratch, changing the branding, names of apps, services and support.

As 80% is now Android almost every Microsoft service is available on Android. It's also there on IOS. I really like Windowsphone and Windows 10 Mobile but everytime I get an upgrade it seems to be a downgrade where we start from the beginning all over again. Some features in 8.1 have disappeared in the preview versions of 10!

If Doctor McCoy was looking at the Windowsphone (Windows 10 Mobile) he would issue that immortal science fiction exclamation - "Its dead Jim".

The next big deal for mobile seems to be mobile payments. After several false starts people are actually now getting used to contactless cards and a cashless world. Apple Pay has appeared, Android Pay is coming and Samsung have a payment network. Nokia had put NFC contactless chips in their phones for years and Microsoft could have had wallet and loyalty card functionality years ago. Guess what - it's coming "soon" to Windows 10 Mobile some 5 years after Windowsphone 7. Too late.

So you can look back at the Microsoft vision of the pocket pc in the year 2000, the first tablets in 2002, the mobile cloud world with integrated music in the 2007 with some bemusement. Microsoft saw the mobile world clearly but failed to dominate the market. The companies that seem to have exploited the Microsoft vision of the mobile future were Apple and Google.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

App Gap

I like the Windowsphone platform. It seems to me to be the most consistent interface that provides ease of use. Other platforms have screens full of icons that are at best confusing and at worst really fail to engage you. Windowsphones have excellent cameras in which almost every other platform is a poor relation and they integrate well into the standard PC ecosystem.

So I like Windowsphone.

The problem is that the modern phone is not a phone. It is a personal computing platform. Since Steve Jobs and Apple decided to let developers create apps for the iPhone the 'phone' has become a pocket computer that has the capability to make and receive voice communication.

This means if you want to do a computing task on the move you need a phone app.

The iphone is a developer favourite because it is a high quality fashion item. Developers find that if someone is prepared to pay anything up to £1000 for a two year iphone contract then 99p for an app is throwaway money. Even free apps that attract people to online shopping, buses and taxis are worthwhile because the iphone user spends money.

Android, and most often Samsung, are mass market phones that retail finds an easy sale and they go out the door by the bucket load. In that market app developers get to the mass market. Advocates of Android say it's not like nasty Microsoft or Apple because it's open source. Actually it isn't. Not only do most customers not even care the actual open source Android is ASOP whereas the variant most people use is heavily branded by Google in which the Google Play store and Google services are as embedded as any company.

Windowsphone has all the major apps. Facebook, Twitter etc are all there but unfortunately they are not updated as often as other platforms and are feature light. However this isn't the real problem. The real problem is the 'local' apps. Apps that help find local buses, etickets, parking, and banking apps. All of these and more stick to iphone and Android. Until this problem is resolved the Windowsphone user, like me, is a second class app citizen.

The danger for Microsoft is that even people who like their product may be forced, for reasons of utility, to abandon Windowsphone.

Sunday, 18 October 2015


The last 4 weeks have been pretty much "phonageddon". Apple have had their annual iphone love in. Google have announced new mobile devices and even Microsoft have announced their own Windows 10 Mobile flagship devices with Microsoft branding.

Iphone 6s is a mature device. They now have an annual cycle of releasing devices that differ little from last years' devices but are there to leverage the fashion buyer.

Iphone has now transcended technology and become a fully fledged luxury brand like Dior and Calvin Klein. It's reception at Apple events is almost religious and, despite the ease of online pre-ordering, the sense that "you have to be there" still generates the launch day queue.

It isn't a bad device but the error of big features has become incremental. Perhaps the biggest transition has been to a mobile payment platform Apple Pay.

The US market share for iPhone is substantial but in recent years US customers have gone off the 2 year contract. These contracts kept iphone affordable and the sim-only price is steep. Apple have realised that keeping the upfront cost down is important so they now have a monthly payment plan to keep sales on track and push the annual upgrade. Iphone is now something you can rent from Apple with an annual upgrade built in.

Keeping the iphone a luxury expensive item while making it affordable for people is a trick that is now the challenge for Apple not the technology.

Google were next up with successors for the Nexus 5 and 6.

Google are in a funny place with the 5x and 6P. The 5 was successful and the 6 was an expensive Phablet. The 5 looked like a well priced off-contract device whereas the 6 was too expensive.

Google also suffer from a multitude of phone makers creating Android devices that are never upgraded to the latest features, malware and a diffuse market that dominates without any brand control by Google.

The new Google phones are a bit whacky with fingerprint readers on the back. You are left wondering if that really is the most natural place. You need fingerprint biometrics for the new features like Android Pay - competing with Apple Pay. It's also the case that biometrics are now beginning to edge into the eye of the consumer as an alternative to passwords. The key driver being financial protection as devices are used for payments. Consumers want protection without the friction of typing in password all the time.

Finally there are the well trailed Microsoft announcements for the Lumia 950 and 950XL.

These are the first "flagship" devices for almost 2 years. Microsoft have been churning out low cost under-powered devices for months to interest developing markets. Meanwhile nothing for everyone else.

The new devices are Windows 10 and support Windows Hello biometric login. In this case an iris scan than seems to work at arms length. Continuum means that you can dock your phone, pu on a keyboard, mouse and screen to make your phone a computer.

The problem for Microsoft is a US market share of just 2.5%. There are countries with considerably more share but the US market is Microsoft's home territory. With low market share it means app developers don't create apps for Windows 10 Mobile. Microsoft have created 'universal' apps to help this and Windows 10 Mobile looks to be heading towards allowing Android apps to run too.

With many people using their smartphone as their primary computing device Microsoft feel they have to follow their customers. So Microsoft software is on Apple and Android too. Windows 10 Mobile is not full of exclusive Microsoft content. With tiny market share carriers don't care so Microsoft are trying the direct sales route. Microsoft are struggling as a mobile phone maker and it's not at all clear if these new phones will build momentum to the platform.

Each of the 3 mobile platforms have their own problems. Apple has the enviable problem that it is a market leader rather than a plucky minority player with rebellious tendencies. Google seems to need to re-introduce it's products after a year where the Nexus 6 didn't wow the fans. Meanwhile Microsoft needs to develop a strategy that defines what a Windows 10 Mobile device is for.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Changing the home lan

My home lan is a little strange. Its not probably what everyone has. Ever since I put a router into my home 20 years ago I have had PCs on a network. Back in 2012 I decided to buy a small server and put ESX on it to try a bit of virtualisation.

I choose a special offer from Dell. An underpowered T-110.

As it had fans it had to go into the attic room and eventually, after several incremental upgrades I got it onto 32bg of memory. It got upgraded with special offers and cheaper memory. The i3 Xeon processor is somewhat underpowered today but it's OK. You can pickup ESXi for free here.

If a pure Microsoft Hyper-V solution better meets your needs then have a look here.

Tip: Before buying your server make sure it uses virtualisation chip features!

Intel info
AMD Info

As it turned out I got the lab working pretty easily and subscribed to the now retired Microsof Technet Subscription service. This was the best value to test Microsoft OS's at a reasonable cost.

The issue that most troubled me was access via my laptop in my back room downstairs. if I could d stuff remotely over two floors then I would be able to watch tv, listen to music and check on stuff I was experimenting with. Most people of my age are familiar with girlfriends/wives saying "you are spending too much time with your computer". This way you can be social and technical at the same time.

The solution that seemed to work for a while was using powerline adaptors. You run your ip connection via your domestic electrial supply and it pops out back into ethernet.

Great. Except sometimes not great. Every so often, if my server generated a load of traffic, the electrical system couldn't cope and everything would time out and disconnect.

Not so good. The solution was, in the famous IT jargon, to pull out the plugs and put it back in again. Then things would work. If were just an Xbox and a couple of PCs the network would have been fine but I was running a small virtual data centre. Not as robust for that solution.

My new idea was to look at wireless to wired converters. I had an old Cisco Linksys E300 cable router. This isn't optimised for what I want but maybe it could be.

What you need is some new firmware. Fortunately some hackers have created exactly that here.

So you flash the firmware and set it up to go from wireless to wired. What is called a client bridge. It sort of works. The main problem is that you work out pretty quickly why the original firmware didn't give this option - the router runs horrendously slow and dhcp/dns forwarding is a bit of a nightmare. So back to the original firmware and maybe a quick sale for a few quid.

There is actually a home based solution to the issue. Loads of people want to covert wired stuff, like tvs, tivo devices and sky boxes to the internet but they dont have wifi. Hence you have wifi to wired boxes like this NETGEAR WNCE4004-100UKS N900 Universal 4 Port Smart TV, Video & Gaming Wi-Fi Adapter.

So you buy this box with 4 ports on the back and you have a wireless to wired adaptor that runs up to 300mbs. Plenty for the home server. Victory!