How Did I Get Here?

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Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?

There's Yer Feckin' Start Button

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Terrible fuss was made when Windows 8 introduced a whole new interface designed around touch, completely lacking the familiar and comforting Start Menu. Now instead of mousing through a list to find an app you were supposed to tap or click on its big bright “tile” on the new home screen.

This is an attractive interface, and as well designed for touch as anything from Apple or Google. The little problem is, the vast – indeed, vasty vast – majority of users do not have a touchscreen. They are still using mice, touchpads, and similar pointing devices. Because while touchscreens are cute and all, most people use Windows PCs for work things like typing reports or articles, or entering numbers on spreadsheets – things you need a keyboard for. And in those situations, a touchscreen is at best a frivolity. It’s actually inefficient because, at least compared to a touchpad, it requires you to move your pointing hand further from the keys.

For all these people, having to use an interface designed for touch is a small irritation but a constant one – and we all know how infuriating constant small irritations can be. In response, some PC vendors introduced their own solutions: third-party apps that imitate the old Start Menu. Samsung took a different turn, and equipped some of their Windows 8 laptops with an extension that looks remarkably like the Dock from the Mac OS X desktop. This has led me to formulate the theory that Samsung actually like Apple’s legal team personally, and look forward to meeting them.

Eventually though Microsoft responded to the outcry and yielded with good grace, restoring the Start Button to its pride of place in the free update called Windows 8.1.

Did they buggery.

They said they restored it. But if you’ve downloaded the 8.1 preview (or more likely, watched the demo video), you’ll see that all they’ve really done is placed a button on the taskbar of the Windows Desktop – a button that opens not the Start Menu, but that same old shiny tiled home screen. It is an improvement in that you can find your applications in the place that your hand has spent the last fifteen-odd years going to and so don’t have to change direction every. bloody. time (the “proper” shortcut is at the right-hand edge of the screen), but it’s still a touch-oriented interface on a mouse-oriented device.

Similarly, it won’t let you boot straight to a desktop like all previous versions of Windows. Even if you only ever want to use applications on the desktop, you have to get there through that damn screen of tiles. Every time.

A tip: If you move the Desktop tile to the top left position it becomes the default option, and so can be selected without any mouse movement at all by hitting the “Enter” key. Similarly you can put the Windows Media Center tile here – if you have it – to make Windows 8 more usable with a remote control. Or perhaps I should say, less unusable.

Why does Microsoft not allow these as options – even turned off by default? The reason is they want to ‘encourage’ software vendors to develop for the touch interface – by taking away any other option. In its visionary ruthlessness it’s a very Apple-like move, certainly a bold one. Probably, once the new religion catches on, they will allow flexibility and convenience again. But right now it’s just another little thing that makes me want to spend less time as a Windows user and more as a Linux one.

By the way, this is the first Windows version with a point-release name since Windows NT 3.51, way back in 1995. Though it should be pointed out that Windows 8.1 is known internally as NT 6.3. As the NT series started not at 1 but at 3.1, we deduct that to find that Windows 8.1 is really NT 5 – which was Windows 2000.

OK now I’m confused.

Linux For The Normal

Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04
Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.

Microsoft Makes Its Move

Today, the final piece of Microsoft’s strategy slotted into place. They announced Windows Phone 8, their new OS for phones. It’ll still have that pretty tiled “Metro” interface, but to the consternation of those few people currently developing apps for Windows Phone 7, just about everything else is changed utterly. We’ll see why later.

And that’s not even the most unexpected part of the new strategy. Yesterday they tore up the playbook and actually made a thing. Of course the software giant has done hardware before, almost from the start indeed. They produced their own mice to make sure the peripheral vital to Windows would be standardised and cheap. There was the highly successful Xbox, and the highly unsuccessful Zune. But this is the first time Microsoft has made their own… Laptop? Tablet?

A little from column A and a little from column B. Microsoft have decided, reasonably I think, that somewhere between the tablet and the ultra-light notebook there’s a product waiting to happen. And they call it Surface.

Which is a little confusing, because up till now Microsoft Surface was an intelligent multi-user tabletop wholly unrelated to this device (and now renamed PixelSense). Maybe they envisage integrating the two technologies at some future date, but really it seems they decided Surface was too cool a name for anything except their coolest product. The nerds.

Even more confusingly, Surface comes in two versions. Both are slim 10.6″ tablets. Both have a light and attractive magnesium alloy chassis. Both have a neat kickstand that props it at a good viewing angle. Both can use intelligent covers that attach with magnets. Shades of the iPad’s Smart Cover perhaps, but these are also keyboards, instantly transforming tablet into laptop. They come in a thin touch version and a slightly thicker one with some key travel, and both can be used with either Surface model.

So how then do they differ? In a word, fundamentally. The slightly more svelte of the two uses a RISC processor from ARM, like just about every tablet or smartphone on the market, and runs only “Metro” apps. It does have a desktop, but only as an environment for editing multiple documents with a built-in, touch-friendly version of Office. No conventional desktop software runs on this, so it is very much to the PC as the iPad is to the Mac. And much as the the iPad has a special, much-reduced version of OS X called iOS, so the Surface has Windows RT, a stripped-down variant so named because it only runs apps written for WinRT.

That should make the confusion complete… I’ll go over this again because it’s going to come up a lot in the next few years and you won’t regret getting it straight now: Windows RT, Microsoft’s operating system for ARM processors, is called that because it only runs WinRT.

So what the hell is WinRT? It’s the new Windows “runtime”, a programming environment providing simplified access to the hardware’s resources – memory, camera, sensors, network and so on. Apps are created to run in this environment.

OK, what about the other model, sometimes referred to as Surface Pro? It looks very similar to the basic version. The only different dimension is thickness – the Pro has an extra 4.2mm to accommodate (among other things) an Intel Core i5 processor, just like you’d find on a good laptop or desktop PC. So it has a perfectly normal version of Windows 8 for its operating system and can run all traditional Windows programs. In many ways this incarnation of Surface is simply a reboot of the slate-style Tablet PC, such as those made by Motion.

Except of course that it also has WinRT, and so can run just the same apps as the ARM version in just the same Metro touch interface. This then is the key idea: WinRT works on both the Intel hardware architecture and on ARM. The same apps will run on tablets, laptops and desktops, no matter who makes the chips.

So have you guessed? Yes, Windows Phone 8 also has WinRT. That’s why they had to rebuild it from the ground up. Before, the phone and desktop versions of Windows had been pretty much completely incompatible. From this on they will share a lot in common. The very same apps – with suitable adjustment for screen size, etc. – will run on phones as well now.

But wait, there’s more!

Another of Microsoft’s recent flurry of announcements was SmartGlass, which helps integrate tablets and phones with the Xbox and so with your TV. The possibilities are intriguing, especially if – as I think is a completely safe prediction – WinRT comes to the Xbox as well. No one else can offer a single platform for developers like that – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and perhaps game consoles, all running the same apps. For the first time in years, Microsoft look like a company with a vision.

The Missing Kies To Android Phone Syncing (2)

The MyPhoneExplorer Settings dialogue. Don't be scared.

When I told you about MyPhoneExplorer, the software that does for free what Samsung and other Android phone makers seem incapable of doing for money, I mentioned that there were helpful, comprehensive instructions. I did not, however, tell you where to find them… Here they are. There’s also a forum where you can ask any questions you might have. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in German, it’s an easy language to pick up.

Oh OK, the English section is here.

What follows are a few things I discovered for myself that may help you set it up right. It’s worth noting first that there are two parts to the software – a desktop application for Windows, and a phone app available from Google Play. Don’t bother downloading the latter though. On first using the desktop version, go the the Settings dialogue in the File menu and tell it that your phone is an Android and that you connect by USB (or set it to Autodetect the connection). Then when you plug the phone in it will install the Android app itself.

All I wanted to do was back up my photos and other files, without having to remember. Backups that need to be remembered are backups that don’t get done. Not when I’m in charge. MyPhoneExplorer can sync over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but as I often recharge my phone by plugging it into a PC I thought the most dependable way would be to do it automatically whenever the USB cable connects.

For this to happen of course, the program must be running on the computer. So I searched through the menus trying to find the checkbox that would make it launch on startup. And searched, and searched. To save you some considerable time, there isn’t one. You have to do it the old-fashioned way by creating a shortcut in the Startup folder. (Find the MyPhoneExplorer folder in the All Programs menu, click and hold the program icon and drag it to the Startup folder.) You know it’s freeware when the author finds the simple way just too boring.

There are other options for you to play with. Many, many other options. For example, you can choose whether to sync your contacts with Outlook or some other program. Under the menu item “Advanced 2” you can select the folder where your photos will be copied, so if you’ve already set up Kies to put them in a certain location you may as well use the same one again. Several copies of your pictures on different computers = Good management. Several copies on the same computer = Pointless (but pretty normal).

The crucial settings for syncing though are under the menu item “Multi-Sync” (see picture). A Multi-sync is what it calls a pre-set choice of items to sync all in one go. You can select exactly what you want to be copied, and where to. And while all the usual ones are available – photos, contacts, calendar and so on – the great thing for the power user is that you can create custom file syncs. For example, I copy across podcasts I’ve downloaded to the PC during the day. In the opposite direction, I have it transfer things I drew or wrote on the phone.

The crucial one here though, if you want things to happen all by themselves, is “Start Multi-sync if connection is initiated automatically”. Once that is checked the program should detect when you’ve plugged the phone in and start to sync, making backing your phone up as easy as putting it on charge.

If it doesn’t start, I dunno what you’ve done wrong. Try poking things randomly.

Tax The Rich – Bill Gates

Historic Microsoft photo of Paul Allen (left) ...
Little known fact: Microsoft were raised by a pack of wild Commodore home computers

With deficits the way they are, the rich are going to have to pay more. Unfortunately, almost everyone’s going to have to pay more, and it should fall more heavily on the rich… Just raising taxes on the rich won’t solve the crisis, but it seems reasonable to people – and there’s plenty of room to do that without creating disincentives or distortions.Bill Gates

I always did like Bill Gates.

No I mean it. In fact I liked Microsoft  – at least, more than most people I know. Now OK, a lot of that was just my perverse nature. You were meant to hate Microsoft with the burning passion of a thousand suns, so I had to see the other side.

But there is another side. Yes it’s true that Microsoft took advantage of ideas pioneered by Apple (and others, including IBM). It’s true that they leveraged their strategic market position to gain ever greater dominance. But I’m convinced that the world would be a poorer place without Microsoft and its vision of getting a personal computer onto every office and home. Others thought big, but not that big.

Sure, I would have preferred if they’d never become a virtual monopoly. Monopolies are always unhealthy and unfair. But the need to easily transfer data between organisations, alongside huge economies of scale in manufacture, maintenance, and training, meant that office computing was a monopoly waiting to happen. We are fortunate I think that it was not won by a business like IBM or Apple, who would have wanted to make both hardware and software. That would have been a far more total and stultifying monopoly.

Microsoft’s approach was to make only the key software, and encourage an ecosystem of hardware makers, application developers and services around that. It was an innovative business model that Apple and others learned a lot from. And though the ‘Wintel treadmill’ of ever-more-capable hardware inspiring ever-more-demanding software seemed endless, it meant that powerful computers quickly became cheap and commonplace, laying the path that brought the Internet into our lives.

No one should ever have as much power in business as Bill Gates did, but somebody was going to. I’m glad at least he is that rarest of capitalists, one not afraid to admit he has too much money.

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.