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After one week of Android Wear

I decided right away to pick up an Android Wear watch – I’ve been interested in wearables since I bought a fitbit a year or so ago, and Android Wear seemed to be the next logical step.  The watch I bought was the Samsung Gear Live, but I suspect most of my comments are likely to be relevant for most of Android Wear.  So, after a week of playing with it, here are my initial thoughts:

Battery Life:  I take of my watch every evening, so it has been no problem with plugging it into a charger.  I suspect I might occasionally forget, so I’m going to possibly need a backup watch for those days.  The battery seems to easily last through my waking hours, but I’m a bit concerned about travelling with the watch as, when flying to the west cost, I’ve had days bordering on 24 hours long – which I’m not sure it will cope with.

Maps: Many people have identified the directions feature as being one of the watch’s best.  And they are right – a brief buzz on your arm every time you need tu turn a corner is much less obtrusive than having to hold a phone out in front of you.  But it isn’t suitable for driving, which is a shame, because that’s what the app defaults to.  I haven’t yet figured out how to get public transport directions on the watch  -which is a big shame, because live bus times (along with directions to walk to the nearest bus stop) would be a big win.

“OK Google” : the voice recognition is quite impressive – and certainly up to sending text messages and (using the Bunting app) tweets.  However, voice control of the watch and phone leaves a little something to be desired.  To start with, you’re only ever going to say “OK Google” when showing the watch off, or in a car or your own home – so it is really best for hands free usage – you don’t particularly want to have to press any buttons on the watch to do anything.  It is rather good for starting playing music (“OK Google, play My Life Story” gets my phone playing mixes of Jake Shillingford’s finest), but not able to pause or skip tracks using voice – which would be handy when driving.  It’s also not great for launching apps – I use an application called Dog Catcher for playing podcasts – and when I ask my watch to launch it, it opens the Play Store page for the free version, rather than noticing I have an app with that name installed on my phone.

Range:  I’ve actually been quite impressed with how far away i can get from my phone, and still have the watch working.  This has two advantages:  Most of the time, I leave my phone on my desk charging when i’m at work.  The range means I can get notifications from it in nearby meetings rooms and the office kitchen which is handy.  The range also means I can contact my phone from anywhere in my house… should I lose my phone, a quick ‘OK Google, play music’ will help me track it down.

Apps: I’ve tried a few, so far, Bunting, a neat tool for working with twitter, and Evernote are my two favourites.  IFTTT lets you add buttons to trigger tasks – I’ve added a few for putting my phone’s ringer onto silent, for instance.  But I’m sure more IFTTT functionality would make the watch more useful.  App-wise, there is lots of scope for more development here.

Notifications:  You probably want to cut down the number of notifications you receive to your phone, if you use an Android Wear watch.  But that’s a god thing.  It is quite smart at filtering out notifications you don’t need.  Over all, notifications coming to the watch is the most important part of the android wear experience, and it is probably the place app developers should spend their time improving their apps and integrating with Wear.

Fitness features:  The step tracker just works, and lets you set a daily goal.  Fine, but nothing special.  The heart rate monitor requires you to stand still while you use it – so not great for tracking how much effort you should be spending when running or walking.

The watch faces:  There are a selection of faces to choose from, and they are fine.  But there isn’t yet a face which displays an analogue clock with day and date on the screen.  I believe it is possible to write new faces, so I’m waiting for one to turn up which meets my specifications.  As far as moving between low power and high visibility modes goes, the watch is quite good at getting it right, but not perfect.  Since you need to be in high visibility mode to use voice commands, this is a bit of a distraction when driving.  The visibility of the watch screen in the sun isn’t great, but despite some sunny days, I haven’t needed to cup my hand over the screen to tell the time from an analogue watch face.

Media Control:  This was the biggest surprise when it came to a use I hadn’t thought of for the Wear.  I’m a big user of netflix with my chomecast at home, and of DogCatcher for podcasts in my car.  Both of these apps put up notifications when they are playing, to allow you minimal control… and in both cases these controls turn up on the watch face.  So should I want to pause a track or a film, I just tap my watch – no need to dig around for my phone.  While these is scope to improve these features further, they are already the functionality i use the most.

My conclusion is:  The watch isn’t perfect – and in a year or two, if the wearables sector takes off, we’ll probably have much better models which are more suited to day to day use.  That said, it meets my needs, and exceeds my expectations so far.  Most of the downsides I’ve mentioned are software issues, so I expect the watch on my arm to become more powerful as time progresses.  We are still in an early adopter phase for wearables, but at this point you can see a viable consumer product peeping out from the future.

The Rebirth of the PC

People are talking about the death of the desktop PC.  While Rob Enderle is talking about it’s rebirth.  I’m conflicted about both these stories.  I think they are missing the trends which will really shape how we come to think of the PC in the future.

Looking at the market now, there are desktops, there are laptops, there are tablets and there are phones.  We also have vague attempts to cross genre, with Windows 8 trying to reach between tablet and laptop, while IOS and Android reach between tablet and phone.  But this isn’t the future, this is a market still trying to figure itself out. I’m going to limit my predictions to a particular segment of the market – the segment which is currently dominated by the desktop PC.

The reasons we have desktops are:

  • They are more powerful than laptops
  • They are tied to a single desk, so that management can control where we work (and where our data stays)
  • They are more comfortable to use than laptops or tablets (at least for keyboard entry and pixel perfect design)

However, the game is changing.  The question of power is becoming moot.  Machines seem to be gaining power (or reducing power consumption) faster than applications are taking it up.  There is less and less need for more powerful machines.  And, where more powerful machines are needed in a company, it doesn’t make sense to hide them under individual’s desks.  It makes more sense to put them in the datacenter, allocating processing power to the people that need it.

In short, we don’t need computers under our desks, we need reasonably dumb clients.  Network computers.  Oracle could have told you that years ago.

That said, dumb clients never quite seem to happen.  And the reason for this is that is that smart is so cheap, there is in point in tying yourself down, limiting yourself to this year’s dumb.

Tying the computer to the desk is increasingly being seen as a limitation rather than a benefit.  It doesn’t just prevent working from home, it also prevents hotdesking, and simple team re-orgs. What is more interesting to companies are technologies which let them keep data in controlled locations – and again the same technologies which let people work from home are also keeping data in the cloud – but locking it there so that it is harder to misuse.  This argument for the desktop PC is gone.

Comfort is more important.  But by comfort we specifically mean comfort for typists, and mouse operators.  Tablets are going to cut into the market for mouse operators, and combinations of gesture and speech technologies will gradually reduce the advantage of the poweruser’s keyboard.  Text entry will probably remain best done by keyboard for the time being.  But the comfort aspects are changing.  My bet is we will see an increase in big, screens angled for touch rather than display, while tablets are used for on screen reading.  Keyboards will remain for people who do a lot of typing, but onscreen keyboards will be commonplace for the everyday user.

So – by my reckoning we will have (probably private) cloud data, applications running on virtual machines which live in the datacenter and being distributed to big screens (and still some keyboards) on the user’s desks.

This isn’t a particularly impressive point of view.  Its the core of a number of companies who are playing in that field’s business plans.

But what is missing from the view is the PC.  As I said : there might be big monitors acting as displays for clients, but clients doesn’t mean dumb.

Smart is cheap.  We could probably power the monitors running smart clients – and some local personal, and personalized, computing – from our phones.  We could certainly do it from our laptops.  But we won’t.  Because we won’t want to become tied down to them.

We will want our tablets and laptops to be able to carry on doing what we were doing from our desktops – but thats an entirely different issue.  Indeed, since I’ve suggested we might want to run some personal programs locally, it suggests we need something on our desktop to mediate this.

It has felt, recently, that the IT industry is moving away from letting us own our own devices.  That the Apple’s and Microsofts want to control what our computers run.  Some have shouted ‘conspiracy’, but from what I know of the people making these decisions, the reason is hands down ‘usability’ tied with ‘security’.  However, there is a new breed of entrant in the market which cares little about this usability thing – the Raspberry Pi’s and android dongles.  Smart, but cheap.  You – not any company – control what you do with these devices.  They are yours.  And in a company environment, they can quite happily sit in a DMZ, while they run software that gets full access to the corporate intranet.

The desktop computer could easily be something along these lines.  No need to make the devices limited.  No need to limit what they are able to do.  All you need to limit is their access to privileged data and privileged servers.  These devices become the hub that you connect whatever hardware and whatever display are appropriate for the job.  I can keep my keyboard. Designers can have their Wacom digitisers.

But you also make sure that these devices can be accessed from outside the corporate network – but only the things running locally on them.  This might require a bit of local virtualization to do well, but Xen on ARM is making significant progress – so we’re near.

This is my bet about the desktop.  Small, smart, configurable devices tied in with private cloud services, and whatever UI hardare you need.

But my next bet is we won’t even notice this is happening.  These devices wills tart turning up in the corporation without the CTO or CIO giving permission.  At first it’ll be techies – and the occasional person using an old phone or tablet as a permanent device.  But gradually it will become more common – and devices will be sold with this sort of corporate use in mind.  You’ll get remote client software preinstalled with simple user interfaces for the common user.  They’ll come into their own as corporations start mandating the use of remote desktops and sucking everything into the cloud – taking advantage of the same networks that the engineering services teams have been forced to make available for phones and pads.

The desktop PC will stay.  It will stay because we want more, better, personal control of our work lives.

When the network computer does, finally, make the in roads we have been promised, it will have been smuggled in, not ordered.

(Oh, and we won’t call them desktops, we won’t call them PCs.  We will think of them as something different.  We’ll call them dongles, or DTBs (Desk Top Boxes), or personal clients, or something else.  This is going to happen without anyone noticing.  It might happen differently from the way I’ve suggested, but ultimately, our desktops will be low powered, small devices, which give users more control over their computing experience.  They’ll probably run linux or android – or maybe some MacOS/IOS varient if Apple decide to get in on the game.  And while companies will eventually provide them, the first ones through the door will belong to the employees.)

Wearing it on my sleave

ScratchInput SteveMann self portrait

Wearable computing.  Thats what we called it, back in the late nineties when I was at university.  It seemed like a great idea, never being away from my computer, instant ability to connect to the internet.  We wondered about the best way to do it – I was fantasising about a belt which could hold a twenty-four hour battery pack, some sort of input device – perhaps using combinations to buttons to let my type – or maybe a joypad spread 50:50 between my trouser pockets (though the thought of what using that might looked like was an issue) and, of course, some sort of output device strapped to my arm.

Later in life I got a Nokia Communicator.  These days I have an ageing Android phone, and I’m well behind the times with wearable computing.  The phone is now doing the job of the wearable computer – it does everything we wanted and more, in a more sensible and more acceptable looking way.  The reason I’m behind the times, is that wearable computing has become fashionable.  Its about being up to date, more than it is about the technology.  I’d bet the people drooling over the latest iPhone weren’t impressed by the technology like we all were a few years ago – they just wanted something new and cool.  And thats cool like a pair of jeans, not cool like the demo of Xen on ARM I saw the other day.

But I don’t want to talk about the new iPhone, because its a step improvement, not a game changer.

I want to talk about the iPod Nano.  Because the iPod Nano has been changed from a square to a rectangle.  And this interests me no end – because you can no longer put it into a watch strap and use it as a watch.  And this seems to me to be a weird decision from Apple.

Now, I’m not going to say the iPod nano was the publicly acceptable face of a phase of wearable computing we haven’t yet reached – mainly because I never saw anyone wearing them as a watch.  But those what straps sell.  And some people love their Nano watches.  And Apple must have been aware of this – because they sell the watch straps in their stores.

And I can’t believe Apple were unaware of the Pebble watch which was causing a lot of buzz earlier this year.  I can’t believe Apple don’t want a part of that market, somewhere down the line.

And so, the only reason I can think of for stopping people from using the iPod as a watch is that Apple have plans (possibly vague plans, but plans nonetheless) to enter that market.  Amongst the possible ideas I can think of are an iPhone on your arm (unlikely – watches make for ungainly telephones), an ipod touch on your arm (plausible) or an apple TV on your arm (interesting concept, bordering on the plausible).  Battery size would be the big issue for all of these, but we aren’t so far away from it being possible.

I began pondering on the names:

iArm would cause trademark conflicts with Arm

iWatch sounds horrible – unless you’re talking about Apple TV on your arm

iBand has potential.  And brings to mind the various flexible displays which are coming close to commercial production, along with a clever magnetic ‘smart strap’ inspired by the iPad smart case.

If I’m right, and the iPhone is effectively uninteresting now, and the people pushing back the boundaries don’t feel like the iPhone is the place to work, then Apple have got to be looking at something new.  And Apple tends to do best when they become the first people to see the advantages of using new technologies to make a step change in existing markets (think of the micro hard drive for the original iPod, the larger sized solid state memory for the iPod nano, the capacitive touchscreen & multitouch for the iPhone or the retina display).  Right now the wearable watch is taking off (slowly, but step by step its happening) and a half decent low power flexible waterproof screen would be a game changer – especially if done with the design genius of Apple.

It’s only a thought, but Apple’s rise to dominance has always been about mobility and individuality.  We all know that the iMac and the Mac Pro are unloved, while the macbook (especially the air), the iPod and iPhone are where Apple’s heart is.  Apple TV never really fit in this slot – it felt like a horizontal extension of iTunes rather than something genuinely new.  It isn’t Apple’s core.  An iWatch – that just might be.

Could Apple be getting out of the watch market, so that when they enter it, they are doing something new, on their own?

Given the 7 inch tablet, do we still need phones?

The advantage of the 7 inch tablet over the 10 inch is that it can be taken everywhere.  My kindle (7 inch) slips nicely into a suit or coat pocket.  I’m sure it would slip just as nicely into many handbags or briefcases.  If you have a device that ges everywhere with you, and which can do cellular communication, why not use it as your phone?

You, like me, might grasp the idea that holding a 7 inch tablet to our face like a phone is a non-starter.   And you, like me, might feel that a bluetooth headset isn’t something you want to have pinned to your ear all the time.  So the 7inch phone is likely to make you look faintly ridiculous.  Maybe it’ll become fashionable, but I’m getting old and grumpy, and it is clearly more sensible to hold something chocolate bar sized to the side of your head than something paperback book sized.  If only because your arm will hurt less.

My initial thought was:  What if you could have a bluetooth handset.  Just a microphone and speaker in a chocolate bar sized box with almost infinite battery life talking just to the tablet?  I can see a market for this.

But I can also see a market for something else:

Take the same box.  Put proper cellular communications and a cheap arm processor inside.  And lots of battery.  Don’t give it a screen.  Because the owner will already have a tablet in most places they go to.  But do give it Siri.  Or something like Siri.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the iPhone nano.

The iPhone nano will do all the jobs that a phone is good at – calling people, letting you make notes and record and be notified about appointments.  But it won’t do the things that a 7 inch tablet can do better (email, web browsing, reading ebooks, watching video).  And while your 7inch is quite portable – and will go to work, to clients and to the pub with you, your nano will go everywhere with you, so you’ll always be in touch: not just in the office, but also in the gym and int the park playing with your kids.

Without tablets, the iPhone nano doesn’t make much sense.

And, given that I own a kindle, a smart phone and a 10 inch tablet, for me the 7 inch tablet doesn’t make much sense.

But a 7 inch tablet and an iPhone nano – that seems to make perfect sense to me.

 

So, given the 7 inch tablet, do we need phones?  Yes.  Most of us will need phones.  But will we need smart phones?  Maybe, but not today’s smart phone.

And, for all I know, Apple might just have spotted just this path, and already be moving in that direction.

Microsoft Surface For Windows 8 – is it a good idea?

Some quick and initial thoughts on MS releasing their own Surface tablets:

Q. Did I expect this?

A. A week ago, no.  A day ago, I thought it was a possibility, based on the ideas below.  I still thought that an ARM tablet for developers to have early access to was more likely.

Q. Will their OEM partners mind?

A. Yes.  Yes they will.  And they may well bitch and moan a bit.  But let me ask you a few more questions:

Assuming Microsoft really are betting the consumer shop on windows 8 (and it seems they are), do they actually have to compete with anyone other than Apple?

If Microsoft are competing with Apple, will they (based on previous experience of the OEMs) have a better chance if they make design decisions about hardware?

Would their OEM partners mind if today MS announced that they could license XBox?

Q. Will OEM partners keep on manufacturing tablets?

A. Yes.  Probably.  If I told you you could go out and sell your own ipad compatible device, do you think you might consider it.  If MS is clever they will design one device (well, two – one for ARM, one for Intel) and put it at the sweet spot, price wise, for the home user.  Other OEMs can fill the niches on price, power or features.  My bet is that they will.  A bigger question is:  if MS are successful, how long will they feel the need to support their OEMs as much as they do today in the consumer segment?

Q. Can MS function as a hardware company?

A. They don’t have to.  They are no more a hardware company than Apple.  Or indeed than Dell.  All their hardware is going to be built by the Foxcons and DNIs of the world.  What MS are is a brand label, a design house, a venture capitalist, an advertising agency and end user support.

Q. Can MS keep prices low?

A. They would be stupid not to. Each tablet sold is the loss of one windows licence fee.  So thats how much profit they need to make on the tablets.  Meanwhile, by keeping quality high, and prices low, they will be telling their OEM partners the prices they need to aim for.  There was no other way MS would be able to ensure that the pricing of windows tablets would be competitive with the iPad.

Q. Overall?

A. MS are adapting to a new marketplace. And are doing it rather slowly, but more skillfully than I would have expected a year ago.  They really do seem to be betting their consumer shop – but they are trying their best to stack the deck in their favour.  Will it work?  I think there is a good chance they will carve out a strong postion, albeit not the market leading position they used to have.  With this new hardware strategy, they are playing an interesting game : will licensing their OS to other manufacturers be a bigger win, than the amount it costs to support said manufacturers.  Interestingly Apple played this game once and that gamble didn’t pay off.

Oh, and I don’t think this affects the corporate / enterprise space at all (at this point).

Q. Will MS’s history mean they only repeat the bits of Apple’s history that they want?

A. Watch this space.

 

ARM and Windows 8

Aside from demoing ARM tablets, we know little about what ARM based Windows 8 devices will be like.  John Gruber, over on Daring Fireball has been suggesting that ARM tablets won’t run the windows desktop.  But Gruber’s comments seem less insightful than he usually is with Mac based ponderings – perhaps because he doesn’t  know as much about the architecture and environment of the new Windows 8 sphere.  So here is my take on the matter:

Originally, I guessed that we would only see .net/javascript on ARM.  I was wrong here, MS have already said you’ll get native ARM code for your applications – mainly for power reasons, as far as I can tell (we’re in an interesting situation here – low power is now trumping high performance, and some of the benefits of writing for high memory/disk/hertz systems are now being taken away from us again).  That said, those applications will have to be recompiled – and possibly have certain bugs fixed.

The metro apps you see are actually glorified COM components which offer up a number of interfaces (the contracts we’ve heard so much about, and the most important, but least spoken about contract:  Launch – the contract that causes your app to lauch).  These interact with the new WinRT runtime, which they call through vtable indirection.  Very simple, very clean.  Now, there is no reason why metro apps can’t call the win32 runtime – in fact they can – they just won’t be allowed in the Windows Store unless they do.  And anything which can call win32 can be a desktop app if the desktop exists.  And it does… the Metro UI is actually explorer.exe as far as I can tell – it is, itself, a win32 app using at least some of the desktop’s functionality to do its magic .  So unless Microsoft say “no Win32 tablets” that makes it impossible to say “no desktop apps”.  Personally, I think too many things – even if not metro apps – are going to rely on Win32 for this to be a plausible approach.

Now, there is another issue – people, right now, are talking about ARM servers (withs lots and lots of low power processors in them).  These are going to run win32.  They may not have the desktop (there is lots of talk of servers being only ServerCore these days), but they will also have win32 – nothing else makes any sense for the server – at least not for a long time

So either we will have win32 ARM apps that run on servers but not on tablets – which seems an unlikely restriction to me, we will almost certainly have desktop ARM apps.

(There is one other thing in favour of desktop ARM apps – Visual Studio is a desktop app, and I would seriously expect it to be ported to Windows ARM.  Being able to run your dev environment on your ARM tablet will be a potential major boost for MS developers)

So Desktop ARM apps – what will they be like?  IF MS do their job, mostly unused.  They’ll be there (but most desktop apps won’t be ported), and the consumer or business traveller – the real target for the ARM tablet, either will choose to stick to metro and the web, or will be connecting back to base remotely.

ARM desktop apps will exist – they’ll be available and work – but they won’t be used, and, as such, they won’t be a problem.

 

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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