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Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 31 May 2013

Apple Endorses Google Glass

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, would appear to be the anti-Jobs, the man who Steve never was.  Despite having the best top job in the world - and let's be fair, most top jobs look great from where we're sitting, so running Apple has to be the top job of top jobs - he's never looked that comfortable in the role.  He always looks like he's waiting for Steve to pop up and when's the last time you saw Tim Cook wearing a turtle neck sweater?  That's no way to run a hip tech company, surely?

He's been talking about what is coming up in the Apple world ahead of the announcements expected real soon - it's a tradition that Apple like to maintain that they deny anything true and dismiss anything they forgot to invent as a fad.  Like seven inch tablets, for example.  Of course, if Steve had been right then Apple would have been laughing all the way to the bank, but nobody would have remembered he dismissed seven inch tablets as too small to be of practical use.  Now Apple are just laughing all the way to the bank.

So Tim has been talking about Apple - he's really sorry about Apple maps, by the way.  Tell that to the driver who used it to cross the San Francisco bridge and came off the other side in Widnes, Cheshire.

He's pretty dismissive about the iWatch, which pretty much confirms it's nearly ready. Unfortunately the interviewer forgot to ask what colours it wasn't going to come in so we'll have to guess, but I reckon white has to be up there.  And black, for variety.  I guess between the two colours they'll go with anything you choose to wear as long as it's a black turtle neck sweater.

He was extremely dismissive of Google Glass - something about it only appealing to a very specific market, so I guess the bookies will stop taking bets now.  Google must be cock a hoop as Tim has practically endorsed their product.  Is it too late for me to patent the iBowTie?

But Google have another celebration on their hands because Apple are thinking of producing Android apps, which means they've already produced them and are trying to work out how they can launch them without losing face. How about they try mentioning they may be thinking about it?  That might work.  The first App to be ported? How about the iShovel?

Finally he did confirm that iOS is going to be overhauled, like that's been a secret.  It's better than throwing the towel in.  We all know by now that it is going to be a lot less fussy than the current version, visually, but actually I think most users want it to work better, not keep on moving backwards with each iteration.  However Tim has alluded to a more customisable desktop - he's not committing which means it's a done deal, of course.

Apparently all of the above will be confirmed - or denied if we're reading this on a parallel universe - on June 10th.  If Google could rush the production of the Google Glass forward then someone could record the whole presentation using them and upload it onto YouTube on the fly.

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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Google Circles on Twitter

I think I get Facebook.  It took a while and I'm more of a voyeur than a doer, but it makes a kind of sense.  For me, the thing that makes the most sense is that in the main you are swapping information, whether that is personal, generic, family, humorous, pithy, witty or sad with people you know, if only tangentially.  Of course it allows you to share such moments with perfect strangers too, but unless you are a famous media star or struggling author you probably wouldn't, would you?

But Twitter is a different beast altogether.  Perhaps if we just allowed ourselves to form a tidy Twitter group, a collection of like minded people who we could share 140 character gems with several times a day, it would be a bit more like Facebook.  But we don't stop at friends and family - partly because Facebook is already seen by our nearest and dearest as the main portal for sharing this kind of information.  I very much doubt is anyone has a Twitter list of followers composed mainly of family, friends and work colleagues, whereas most FB accounts are made up mainly of those people.

And of course Twitter has this counting thing, or maybe collecting thing, where it becomes imperative to collect followers, like we're all destined to be a Svengali like character.  Some people have thousands of followers - I know because I'm one of them.  One of the thousands of followers, that is.  My list of followers is a lot more modest.  Some of us are very selective who we follow, because the person involved is famous, or shows promise, or looks capable of writing interesting or funny tweets.  Most of us demonstrate the above selection skills and do follow people because of all those reasons and maybe more, but to be fair most of the people we follow we do so because they followed us or we took an arbitrary chance.  And there's the collecting thing to account for, too.

Nothing with any of these ways of using Twitter are wrong - if we stick only with who we know, who we can recognise and who we agree with then we may as well stick with Facebook.  In fact, I'd like to retract the bit about agreeing with, but all the rest I stand by.  The Twitter way allows us to expose ourselves to the thoughts and memes of strangers, to peek into the minds of people in lands far away and sometimes beyond our experience.  My Twitter account includes red neck gun toting right wingers and liberal minded Democrats, folk that believe in God, UFOs and fairies, not necessarily all at the same time.  Me, I'm a floating voter and believe in hardly anything I can't see, touch and smell, and sometimes some of these people say things I absolutely disagree with, but sometimes they touch my consciousness.  Of course I don't actually read the vast majority of the posts at all, only the ones I see when I dip in.  I'm fairly certain that's true of many Twitter folk, especially those allegedly following 50,000+.

This, of course, is the strength and weakness of Twitter.  If you follow enough people, because they interest you or because they followed you and you want to try and keep it that way, then it becomes difficult to wade your way through the various jokes, bible verses, UFO sightings, fairy folklore, political rants, homilies, promotional plugs, links to blogs (yeah, they're out there too, would you believe it?) and myriad other 140 characters or less wisdom filling up your Twitter stream.  Surely there's a better way.

I think Google might have achieved that, and that's using Google Circles.  With Circles you group the people you connect with into logical groups.  Like one huge Venn diagram intersecting your virtual life.  I've looked at Circles and in many ways it makes absolute sense - you allocate individuals to specific circles and you manage how you interact with each circle, including who you post to within that circle or even across all circles.  It can be as private or public as you want it.

So why isn't it as big as Twitter?  Good question.  I guess the real reason is that it arrived about four years after Twitter did, arriving even after I started social networking - I was a proponent of anti-social networking for quite some time so I've got an excuse, what's Google's? - and I feel that most of us have done the initial investment work in Twitter already.  Specifically, millions upon millions have done the spade work and aren't up for doing it all over again without a good reason.  So for any one of us to abandon Twitter - surely we haven't got enough spare time to play with two similar social networks? - means we have to start building a new set of followers and people we want to follow.  It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation, I reckon.  But it may yet happen unless Twitter gives us tools to partition our followers and those we follow in some way.  There will be many a time we will want to send a message out to everyone who has decided to follow but there are other times when we might want to reach out only to people who follow a certain profile.  And there will be times when we just want to listen to what the UFO community are saying.  It may not be often, but where else is a sci fi writer to get his inspiration from?

So perhaps it's time for Twitter to provide a few more tools to help us partition our lists, otherwise maybe Google will start to eat into Twitter's space.  At the moment I think it is unlikely, but Google can be very persistent about these kinds of things.  Now would be a good time for Twitter to extend the scope of the network.  And to explain what it's there for, while they're at it.


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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Nearly New Apple Sells For 400,000 Euros

A computer is found and the internet is lost, or so it seems.

In fact, two computers have been found recently, both dating back to the dark ages and both apparently in reasonably good working order. 

The first computer to show its resilience is the one that Sir Tim Berners-Lee used to create the internet back in 1990.  I'm not sure what make it is, reports just mention that its stored in a glass showcase in the CERN facility where Tim was supposed to be searching for sub atomic particles but was just goofing around on the internet instead - so much has changed, don't you think?  If he'd waited a few more years he could have just Googled for the answer to life, the universe and everything.  That would've put paid to his day job.

Anyway, the guys at CERN decided a little while ago that they ought to celebrate the invention of the World Wide Web, hence the purchase of a glass case.  They also decided to see if the machine would boot and it did.  Then someone realised that while the hardware was interesting, what was more important was the first web page - so a quest was launched to find that.  Mind you, the Large Hadron Collider is out of commission for a couple of years while the mechanics have it on jacks, so I guess the rest of CERN are just twiddling their thumbs right now, so it's nice they've got a hobby.

It seems that the first web page - which consisted apparently of a few words and some links, again so much has changed - cannot be found.  But hang on, if it was the first webpage, what were the links to?  I think that now the Higgs Boson has been found (in a drawer in the admin wing, apparently) then the scientists at CERN should devote the next ten years to answering this question.  Whatever, they can't find it and it seems they lost the whole of the internet in 1992 as well.

Given the money we spend on CERN and the intellectual prowess of those who work there it seems a little surprising that they can lose the internet, but they've fessed up and apparently they did.  Mr Berners-Lee was globe trotting trying to hawk the idea of a World Wide Web in 1992 and was carrying what amounted to the totality of the web at that time on a stand alone hard drive. And it was lost, somewhere in California.  That was probably the last time the whole internet would fit on a hard drive, now it seems improbable it would fit on a planet, but somehow it does.  Mind you, if we had to lose the internet again today, California is still the most likely place to do it.

The other computer to be found is an original Apple 1 computer, built around 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac and even has Woz's signature on the motherboard.  Being built in the second half of the Seventies it is unlikely to be hiding the fledgling internet, but then again I wouldn't be surprised as virtually everything else about the early Apple products were 'borrowed'.  OK, Woz improved an existing computer design and both he and Steve Jobs provided a full hardware interface, which was an improvement on the competition back then.  Apple were good at borrowing ideas - they didn't design the first spreadsheet but by gum, it made them popular.  And that Windows, Icons, Mouse & Pointer (WIMP) interface that Jobs whinged about Bill Gates nicking for years on end was stolen from Xerox by Steve himself, shamelessly.

Of course Apple is a different company now.  Steve has gone and Woz has retired, probably due to RSI from signing millions of iPads.

Anyway, the Apple 1 was sold at auction last week in Europe for nearly $375,000, which is even pricier than its original selling price of $666.66.  We shouldn't be surprised at the price, Apple products are always expensive. What's more, it appears that like the computer Tim Berners-Lee used, it still works.  Now, if only that hard drive could be found and connected to the Apple 1 then the ultimate time machine would be made - the first Apple, holding the whole of the internet.  Now that would be a sight worth seeing.


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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Amazon - A Fan of Fiction

I don't think anyone can doubt the impact Amazon has made on literature.  From a seller of second hand books, to a pioneer of the electronic book via its Kindle eReader series of devices, Amazon have paved a path into history.  No matter what you think of Amazon, and I have some strong views that aren't all flattering, they've provided the means for established authors to reach new readers and for new authors to reach any readers both in print through its CreateSpace subsidiary and in eBook form.  They are now breaking into a new area.

There's a literary style named Fan Fiction where authors use characters from other books and create their own stories using them.  Some authors, and for that probably you should read publishers, are very protective of their creative constructs.  You might get away with parodying James Bond in a book - though who on earth would want to do that? - heaven forbid anyone trying to create a new James Bond story for sale without incurring the wrath of the Fleming estate or whoever owns the rights to the characters.

Some authors are quite cool about the idea - apparently JK Rowling is happy for Harry Potter characters to be written into new stories.  I guess JK has made enough cash to not have to worry about the odd redirected sale, but probably more importantly she has confidence that her creation is well established and known for what it is.  Plus there's a certain marketing savvy in allowing imitation - allegedly the sincerest form of flattery- because it keeps your characters in the public eye longer without any marketing effort.  If the attempt is poorly done than it just makes your effort appear better and if its good then it just enhances the character.

Fan Fiction isn't new in concept either.  The multi-million selling 50 Shades of Grey book was originally a Fan Fiction work based on Twilight. Now I'm not sure exactly how that works, but I'm reliably informed that's what started it.  It was also self published and although not my cup of tea is my favourite reply to accusations that self publishing won't work.  It will and it has already.

Amazon have started a Fan Fiction concept in the US - no news on if and when  it will be rolled outside of the US - that allows Fan Fiction books and short stories to be published through them.  The new service, to be named Kindle Worlds, will be launched with authors given the right to produce Fan Fiction for three TV series as a result of Amazon negotiating a deal with Warner TV.  The three series are Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girls.  Predictably I've only heard of one of these series.

Author royalty rates are 35% for extended short stories of over 10,000 words, with 20% going to authors producing stories of less than 10,000 words, or essays as they used to be called.  In return for these royalty rates, which are remarkably similar to the standard terms anyway, Amazon get the world-wide publishing rights to the stories.  This marks a new direction for Amazon, which has acted as the facilitator for books up until now.    It leads me to speculate if they are looking at a broader publisher role.  That would tie in with the approach they've been pushing with their Amazon Select programme where authors sign up to sell their books exclusively through Amazon in return for listing in the Kindle Library, where they take a chunk of royalty for every book of theirs that is borrowed.  Perhaps Amazon is looking at locking authors in further by acting as the publishing house?  Speculation, sure, but not an unreasonable synthesis of their intentions possibly.

The Fan Fiction might be a good opportunity for aspiring writers to cut their teeth in the eBook business and it gives them the chance to develop their own plot lines with established characters.  It's not for me - I'd be too busy attempting to parody the stock characters to  make a successful Fan Fiction writer, I suspect.

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Monday, 27 May 2013

Four Xbox Ones for the Price of One

Microsoft have been making a lot of noise over the Xbox One this week, rolling out the specs and bigging up the promises.  They've told us pretty much everything we need to know about the new console apart from one critical piece of information - the price.  There is a rumour floating around, started by a German sales outlet that suggests that the new box could retail at around $800 but to be fair, it's a guess, not based on fact.  My guess is that Microsoft are letting the market - that's you, by the way - suggest the launch price before going public.   This is a bit like the ploy I suspect Google are using to gauge public interest in Google Glass - start the rumours floating, see who bites, set a price.  The German retailer is probably off the mark - well they have been for years, it's Euros now - but it's a starting point.

One way of working out the starting price is to compare the competition, see what they're charging for comparable devices and assume that the new gear will be somewhere near that.  The difficulties start in deciding what is comparable, given the media slant the new Xbox is taking and then working out whether Microsoft are likely to undercut the competition to get market share or set a premium to show their product, in their opinion, is better and therefore commands a higher price.

But here's an additional factor to consider.  Microsoft claim that anyone who buys a Xbox One will get four Xboxes in the trade.  To be fair, three of them are virtual and floating around in the Cloud, but what it means is that when you boot up your machine it will have four times as much processing power available than it has under the hood.  You might think that it would be easier and more transparent of Microsoft to just beef up the spec of the console itself, already touted as ten times  more powerful than the Xbox 360.

However that would increase the manufacturing costs by a significant factor and would make the console much less attractive.  Bang goes the market share.  But unless you don't sleep, work, eat or, well live away from your console, you won't be sat at it twenty four hours of the day.  In fact I'm fairly certain Microsoft knows how long the average gamer sits in front of his or her console and although you're a long way from being average I'm sure they know the upper and lower boundaries, the Standard Deviation and every other statistical tool in the book.  So they have built a raft of virtual machines that effectively quadruple the processing power of your Xbox One when it needs it. 

I doubt we will need this benefit when we are streaming films or porting data between Microsoft Office applications, but when we're walking through a mist laden swamp, rifles held aloft as we watch clouds of mosquitos home in on us just before we take incoming fire, well, we might be glad of the enhanced rendering that the extra processing power provides.   When we don't need that power those three Xboxes will be available for someone else, somewhere else so Microsoft don't need to install three sets for every box they sell. 

I think we may see a lot more of this approach - it's not strictly a new idea as graphics rendering software has used the power of networks during the quiet hours for some years - your organisation might have used it themselves if they have a graphics department - but farming the work out to the Cloud for parallel processing in real time, that's an interesting idea and one that may have taken the competitors by surprise.  The only real question is whether the games developers can take advantage of the development.

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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Microsoft Office Coming to Android

The one big advantage of Windows 8 loaded on a Microsoft Surface, RT or Pro, is that as well as being a functional tablet computer it runs a version of Microsoft Office.  This productivity is the elephant in the Apple and Android offices.  Sure, both companies are trying to address the issue with bits of apps and opening up their development environment to encourage developers to create solutions, but ultimately Office is Office.

That was one of the compelling reasons why I picked up a Surface RT a week ago and although I've spent more time typing on Google's Blogger interface than on Word I have played a little with the Office 365 applications loaded on the RT and they're refreshing in their familiarity.  The only fly in my personal ointment right now is the lack of a viable print option.  As mentioned in my earlier posting on the RT, Epson haven't developed a driver for my model right now, but as my RT and my Acer laptop are both connected to my Skydrive account I can produce a document on the RT anywhere I want to and then print off from the laptop without physically transferring any files  Not the best solution, but workable in the interim.

However Microsoft are playing one of their famous long games.  They've announced that a version of Office is going to be available for Android machines by producing Office Web Apps for the Google OS.  Don't go searching the Google Play store any time soon, though, as the apps are very much in the concept stage.  It used to be called vapourware in the olden days, but with the stakes high and the resources backing it, I guess this will happen.  Microsoft are talking about a release in maybe twelve months' time, so set your watch, diarise in Outlook if you have access, but forget about Access as that isn't included in this.  Confused? My work is done.

My guess is that Google are getting close, in Microsoft's presumably humble opinion, to producing enough functionality in their own apps to make users consider migrating.  Open Office, the open source office software, should have done that but has failed, however Google is quite persistent at these sorts of things.  What Microsoft probably fears is that Google, with its Chrome browser and entry price Chromebooks might put a visible dent in Microsoft's Windows 8 product and, more importantly, its dominance of the Office software market.  Particularly as Google have indicated that they intend to migrate their Chromebooks to an Android version so that there's compatibility between mobile phones, tablets and their laptops.  That could start to affect the Microsoft dominance in the way that Linux hasn't.

So making Office applications that will allow users to produce Office compatible documents on their Android tablets makes a lot of sense.  It allows users to port documents across devices but will keep the Office dominance centre stage.  I guess many of us will like to draft a Word document on the fly on our tablets, perhaps on the train home from work, but will then transfer it to our computers running full fat Office to top and tail it.  So the Microsoft initiative makes a lot of sense.

Whether it'll stop the Google Juggernaut remains to be seen.  The one year lead in time leaves Google with plenty of time to make their own offerings more appealing, so we have a technical race on. Hold on to your hollyhocks.


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Saturday, 25 May 2013

Xbox One New Media Giant

When I was at the Gadget Show Live we took a well earned rest in the Microsoft demonstration workshop somewhere near towards the end of the show.  We'd been on our feet for hours and felt the need to sit down and let someone else do all the talking - to be fair, I do go a bit when I'm at one of these bashes.  To be honest, I wanted to see what Windows 8 had to offer - many of the machines on display outside of the Microsoft trade stand didn't have usable software loaded so I couldn't see how it worked with Office, for example.

Anyway, a Microsoft guy pitches up and shows us that he's got a Windows 8 mobile phone, a Dell laptop running Windows 8 and he pointed vaguely in the direction of the right hand side of the stand and declared he had an Xbox over there.  To be fair he could have pointed at any old pile of geek tech nonsense because gaming isn't really my bag.

Then he went on to demonstrate how you can stream a film on one device, stop it and pick up the film on any of the others.  He also showed how you can control the Xbox with the  mobile phone, remotely if needed, so you could set your Xbox to record a programme while travelling home on the train.  He did some gaming things that washed right over me - there's a good reason why I don't have any of those gaming machines at home.  We've got enough tech gear gathering dust without adding any more.  Now I'm not naïve, I can spot a well rehearsed presentation when I see I see one - I've spent many years as a technical and systems instructor myself- and I suspected that there was a suitable amount of smoke and mirrors at play.  To be honest, at one point I was expecting David Copperfield to walk on.

Anyway, as we walked out of the presentation I turned to my wife and mentioned that I didn't know the Xbox was a full media machine and deep inside I thought it could be the way forward, the link between smart TVs, DVRs and downloadable content.  It appears it wasn't an illusion after all.

Microsoft have just released previews of their latest iteration of the Xbox and it seems that gaming, while still a core element of the machine, it isn't the be all and end all of it.  In fact they've made some changes under the hood that has angered a lot of die-hard gamers, moving the processor technology closer to standard PC equipment.  That does mean that it should be easier to port PC games across to the new Xbox, now called Xbox One if you're asking, but apparently there are issues with backwards compatibility.  You've got to hand it to Microsoft, they do have a habit of resurrecting the same old chestnuts every so often - I could be writing about the windows 95 launch and not need to change many of the words here.

But the parts of the new device that interest me is the media aspect.  It looks like Microsoft are pitching this at a new audience and producing a machine that will appeal to those who watch films and TV, listen to music and maybe play the odd game.  To help sell the new version they've built Kinect into the machine instead of having it as an add-on.  This part will not only contribute to interactive gaming but also gives you access to voice commands to control your media watching as well as allowing you to wave your arms around to stop and start recording.  In fact, going back to the demonstration, you should be able to wipe the Windows 8 tiles across your TV set with a wave of an arm, making your TV into a virtual touch screen.

But looking a little deeper it looks like Microsoft are positioning themselves into providing media access, stepping onto the toes of Apple, Amazon including their Lovefilm subsidiary, and Netflix.  Whether they'll tee up a strategic arrangement with one or more of them remains to be seen, but going back to that Windows 95 period I would suggest that any such strategic alignment is likely to end in tears for whoever signs up with Microsoft.

So Windows 8 isn't just a new operating system, it's a paradigm change.  Instead of having a separate instantiation of the OS on each machine you own, acting independently to all other instances, they all work together.  You log in using your Microsoft login and you access anything you have legitimate access to on any Windows machine you are logged on to.  I can't comment on how this new Xbox looks like to the gaming world - and I'm aware there are a few unhappy bunnies out there - it certainly looks interesting to those of us who use other forms of media.  One to watch.


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Friday, 24 May 2013

Google Targets PayPal

PayPal is probably the most inspired half hour's work anyone has ever done on the internet.  Of course, without its older sibling, eBay, it would never have happened, or if it had it would have been in serious competition.  But it grew out of a need to service the burgeoning eBay as it grew from a niche website into a global phenomenon and the users needed a safe way to pay each other.  What the PayPal team come up with is what is called an escrow account, a neutral place where the buyer can lodge a sum of money pending receipt of goods bought.  The seller only gets his or her money once the transaction is complete.

It grew quickly because nobody else thought to build a system like it at the time.  The big banks were making lots of money on dodgy deals that eventually turned sour and they had to be bailed out by their local governments, or you and me as I like to think of them.  Not all banks needed bailing out - quite a few managed to limp through the credit crunch and some just rolled over.  I don't think I ever heard any suggestion that the bank that calls itself PayPal had to rattle a cap near a government.

Of course PayPal doesn't have conventional current accounts although you can lodge money in there earning zero interest if you want.  If that sounds familiar, it's probably because your present current account pays pretty much the same as PayPal.  However your current account probably provides you with a cheque book to make payments from and I'm not sure PayPal does that.  I'm not sure they'd want to either, given that it's an antiquated payment method put into shadow by PayPal's instant payment methods.  You can pay bills and automate regular payments through your normal bank account and this is probably an area PayPal doesn't compete in - yet.

Because they're solvent, international, uninhibited by national boundaries and have a branch on every laptop, mobile phone and iPad I suspect that many of us find ourselves using PayPal for more than paying for bargains we've won on eBay.  Many do so already as many on-line traders already accept PayPal for what could be considered normal transactions without an eBay presence and I've noticed a plethora of local shops that accept PayPal payments so that kids can convert their paper round wages into internet trading vouchers without the need of involving a national bank.  In fact I wouldn't be surprised to find that some people had their weekly wage paid into PayPal right now and in fact, for those who would struggle to open a conventional bank account, PayPal is probably a good option as it doesn't allow you to overdraw, a reason why some people can't obtain a conventional bank account.

In fact, some of us do have a portion of our wages paid into PayPal already.  Many international authors using Smashwords, which funnels all the payments made into Apple, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and so on pays us authors via PayPal, or at least most of us. 

Now there is a rule that suggests you can't have a Coca Cola without a Pepsi; it's a rule that market forces insist on eventually but one that PayPal have managed to avoid for some time.  It looks like the challenge is on its way, though.  Obviously the mainstream banks are still a bit tarnished with the credit crunch and will struggle to persuade consumers to move from PayPal and into their arms, but of course the new giants aren't from the financial sector but are the tech companies.

Google, a company that does appear to have the requisite solvency to challenge PayPal, is having a go.  In fact they've been doing this in the US for a while, but they are moving into the UK now with a service called Checkout.  It works much like PayPal - why try to fix something the isn't broke? - and it's for on-line payments.  There's an uphill battle in store for Google - most of us have a PayPal account because we've dabbled in eBay in the past and these accounts already exist.  As PayPal has rolled out more usability then we've moved with them.  We're going to need a compelling reason to sign up for Checkout, and I guess eBay won't be nudging us towards them.

But competition is usually a good thing, so it will be interesting to watch what happens with Google Checkout.  I can't see how they can make the process cheaper or easier, and of course forcing people using Google Play to use their service is commercial suicide, so the only way is up.  Perhaps we can look forward to getting some interest on money lodged in these accounts or maybe they'll move into the mortgage business?  Whatever they do, it's likely to benefit the consumer.

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Thursday, 23 May 2013

RT, But Not Farty

I've spent the last few days getting to know my new tablet, the Microsoft RT.  In many ways this has been a voyage of discovery as I'm learning a new way of working with a tablet and with a new OS.

The first impressions of the RT are very promising - clearly someone at Microsoft has been paying close attention to Apple as unpacking the RT is very much in the same vein as unpacking an iPad or any other Apple product, down to the white packaging and the carefully laid out compartments for each item.  Also in keeping with Apple products, the RT comes with minimal instructions or indeed any other peripheral equipment.  Basically it is the RT and the charger.  The one thing that does strike you, though, is that the RT is a solid piece of hardware - it feels solid and does weigh a bit more than an iPad in my estimation.  The screen size is figured to be larger than the iPad, too, but due to its widescreen format it may or may not appear to be.  The screen format is designed around watching films.

The keyboard is an optional extra - you can use the RT like any other tablet, but I would expect you wouldn't be getting the best out of the supplied Microsoft Office package if you decided against a keyboard.  With my purchase the keyboard was supplied in the price - £399.99 or about US$650. There is a choice of keyboard - they have a flat keyboard with no moving parts that senses when you tap the keys and is essentially waterproof - possibly a good option for those who need to type in a pub.  The alternative is a micro-keyboard that's quite tactile and is the option I took up.  Being a touch typist I find it works very effectively and can recommend it, but please note it is quite clacky in use.

Placing the keyboard close to the RT allows the magnets to do their stuff and the keyboard attaches itself effortlessly and firmly.  Removing and reattaching is a breeze and the keyboard itself doesn't have its own power supply - all power is derived from the Li-Ion battery supplied in the tablet.  Initially, though, the keyboard won't be recognised until you've started your RT and set it up.  However the keyboard provides protection for the screen when it is closed up, and given my recent experience with the Nexus screen cracking spontaneously I can be forgiven for being a little protective of it, even though the guys at the Microsoft stand at the Gadget Show did insist that the screen is Gorilla Glass, as per the iPad.

It's worth recognising at this point the differences between the RT and its big brother, the Surface Pro.  Apart from the price - and for reasons that I haven't worked out I could have bought the same model, with the same keyboard in the same shop for £150 more than I did. Naturally I resisted. The Pro would have cost a lot more, no matter what deals they were doing.  The RT is basically based on mobile phone ARM processor technology and comes in 32gb and 64gb flavours.  I chose the 32gb version which comes with MS Office, the Windows 8 OS and a handful of apps installed and I have about 16gb left to play with.  However there is a micro SD card port that takes up to 64gb cards - one on its way courtesy of eBay for £12.50 including postage - so there's no real need to fill the hard drive up with photos, music and documents.  And of course it automatically links to your SkyDrive account so anything you have up there in the cloud is available on the RT.

So, we have a mobile phone processor.  What else is different?  Well, the biggest issue anyone might find is that you can only load native Windows 8 software on the RT, whereas on the Pro you can load Windows 7 software.  There are some obvious gaps in the limited software that I like to use, including some Apps that are freely available on Android and iOS, unfortunately including Sherlock, the feature of a recent posting.  I've checked with Everett at Kaser Towers and he's not interested in supporting the RT OS while it's still a niche OS..  However this is a new OS and support is building.  For example my printer, an Epson all in one WiFi model, isn't currently supported but Epson state on their site that they are working on making their products Windows 8 compatible.  Until then I'll have to transfer any documents I want to print to the laptop via SkyDrive.  However, as I said in an earlier posting, this device does address the issue that Apple and Android have failed to tackle with their tablets and that is making it a machine you can do useful work on as well as play.  Until Office is available for those other OS machines, this is the most practical option open.

But this is supposed to be about what the difference is between the RT and the Surface Pro, well one major difference between the two models is that you have to pay for MS Office on the Pro, so that makes the RT even better value.

In use the Windows 8 OS is different from any previous Windows interface, but a couple of years of using iOS and Android devices has prepared me for many of the features and I didn't even look at the on-line manual for the first six or so hours of playing with the RT.  As I'd had a preview at the Gadget show I knew to swipe from the right hand side to get the charms, as MS call them, visible.  The most useful charm is the Windows 8 charm which takes you to the Start screen.  From there you can look at your emails - although you need a Microsoft email account to access the on-line features of RT it does allow you to link other email accounts such as Yahoo to it - or one of a dozen other tasks straight out of the box. 

The browser does take a little getting used to - MS were late to the field with tabs in earlier versions of IE and in the Windows 8 browser they appear to have disappeared again.  However, when viewing any webpage, if you swipe down from the top of the screen you reveal all the open webpages and can toggle freely between them.  You can close down ones you no longer need to keep things tidy, but you don't need to - Windows 8 will close down ones you're not using after a decent period.  It's the same with Apps - they stay running until the system decides you're not playing any more, then it closes them down in the background.  You can also save webpages by pinning them to the Start screen.  So if you always open the same webpages every morning you can pin them and you can open them straight off.

Checking what Apps you do have open at any time requires a nifty swipe from the left hand side of the screen, arcing around and returning to the side of the frame.  At that point the left hand side turns into a column of icons showing you what Apps are open.  Touching the App you want to work on opens it up full screen.  if you decide to stick with the App you're currently viewing, just swipe the column back into the side.

Clearly I've only just scratched the - er - surface of the RT but early impressions are very favourable.  I've written this blog entry with the supplied keyboard and RT sat on my knee while sat on a sofa.  I have a wireless mouse plugged into the USB port and I'm currently streaming Joe Bonamassa tracks from the Xbox channel for free, listening through my Sennheisser wireless headphones with no latency issues.  The sound through the built in speakers is pretty good too.  All in all the RT is living up to the promise it makes in the adverts, although I have got over the novelty of clicking and unclicking the keyboard on and off.


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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Nexus 7 - Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

I've just paid a flying visit to Ambleside, in the Lake District.  Regular readers will know that I rate this part of the country very highly and Ambleside in particular.  The occasion was a visit to Zefferelllis Jazz Bar to listen to a blues band and to take in a few strolls in the countryside.  As is my habit I popped my Nexus 7 in a side pocket and had a full day of strolling around Lake Windermere.  I've travelled many miles with the Nexus carried in this manner - it's one of the attractions of a pocket sized tablet is that it fits in a pocket.

Anyway, on the last leg of the day, heading back to Ambleside on a lake ferry, I pulled the Nexus out of my pocket to read an eBook and found the screen cracked in multiple places and the device unresponsive - it turned on but the touchscreen didn't work so I couldn't unlock the device.  Basically it's just showing my background photo and the PIN keyboard.  I've rotated the device through 360 and tried the keyboard on all four rotations - nothing doing.

Back in Ambleside I Googled the fault using my wife's iPad and it appears that it isn't that uncommon.  In fact, if you follow the message boards from product launch to today you'll find a couple of trends.  Initially the main problems appeared to be around light leakage from the body, put down to loose screws holding the back away from the front.  Then the screen cracking reports started appearing.  Now they seem to be the main complaint about the Nexus 7 and by all accounts I've been quite lucky getting nearly nine months out of mine.

Of course you've got to take the reports with a bit of caution - devices that haven't had a fault of any kind won't have generated the kind of report we're talking about, and the Nexus does appear to have been a fairly successful product.  So it's difficult to decide how big a problem this is.  However there are some common threads filtering through and one, worryingly, is that the screen is not covered by the warranty.  The other, and I've verified this through searches on Google and sites such as eBay, is that the screens are expensive to replace. In fact, to pay ASUS, the manufacturer of the Nexus, to repair it costs about the same as buying a new device according to many reports.  From instructions posted by techies it also looks to be quite a problematical task as well, which is possibly one reason why ASUS levies such a high labour charge.

I contacted the store I bought the Nexus from, PC World on-line.  I say contacted, I mean I listened to a series of menu choices and when I got to the bit that referred to ASUS products I received a phone number and a suggestion that I should really phone them.  Did I not hear them, put the bloody phone down, why don't you?

So I phoned ASAS.  Here's a thing - calls have to be between 0900 and 1700 and cost at least 5 pence a minute on a BT landline, an undefined amount on a mobile, no idea about over the employer's VOIP.  So an early stack and back at home I worked my way through another menu - eight choices to listen to and I still got it wrong.  For anyone going through this, choose the EEE option, which I think is option 2.  There I spoke to a polite man who explained how it works.  First you need to find the serial number on the Nexus - I'm still looking.  It's on the transparent sticker at the bottom of the device on the back and the writing is both miniscule and virtually as transparent as the sticker.

I explained the situation and he said that if it was assessed to be user damage my warranty wouldn't cover the repair, but if it wasn't my fault, it would.  That sounds reasonable, so I asked for what to do next, apart from using a scanning electron microscope to read the serial number.  Well, it seems you log onto the ASUS repair web page, apparently UK.ASUS.com/RMA and fill in a form.  After a few days you receive instructions on how to courier the device to their authorised repairers who will make an assessment on who is to blame.  By the way, this isn't a conversation, let alone a debate.  They decide and that's that.  If they determine that it is a warranty repair you'll get your device back and working within a month or so.  If it isn't a warranty repair then you can have it repaired - cost currently unknown apart from rumours on the web, but expected to be about the cost of a new device, or you can have the damaged item back.  However if you take the damaged item back you do have to pay for the courier and the labour charges which are estimated to be about £50.  And you agree to this as soon as you fill in that form and start the ball rolling, so you may find yourself having to choose to pay the price of a new Nexus to get a repaired Nexus, or a third of the price of a new Nexus to get an inoperative model back.

I did speak to my household insurance and they're quite happy to cover this item for accidental damage, even when I told them that I didn't believe I'd damaged it.  But I do have a £150 excess on accidental damage claims, so it hardly seems worth it as that's the price of q new Nexus 7.

Whatever happens over the Nexus I'm certain that I'll be without it for a while - the repairs seem to take weeks according to many reports, and I'll likely only be doing that if it's agreed that it is a warranty repair.  In the meantime I've picked up a Microsoft Surface RT with a tactile keyboard so that will be my go-to tablet from now on.  It's day three and I'm still getting to grips with the new Windows methodology, but it's clearly a versatile machine  A first impressions report in tomorrow's blog.


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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

For Customer Service, Scream For Help

Automated phone systems must have seemed a real good idea when they were first created.  In fact, judging by the number of companies that put automated systems in-between you and a person they all seem to think they're a good thing.  Consumers seem to be of a different opinion, though.

Of course, compared to paying a salary, they're very cheap and in principle provide a good way for people to get to the right service when they need them.  Back in the good old days you would call the company you wanted to talk to and would be greeted by an employee who would try to put you through to the correct department.  Then a couple of things happened.  First, companies got a whole lot more complicated and second, we all got access to more phone time than anyone had ever had before.

Now, when you want to speak to someone you often have to run a gauntlet of menus - some punish you for not listening to all the options - and often we are expected to pay for the privilege of calling to complain.  Miss an instruction, misunderstand what the recording is saying, lose your concentration for two, maybe three seconds, and you could be on a trail that leads you nowhere.  Sometimes the options just don't reflect anything you'd like to do.

For example, options to spend more money with the company are often the first layer of choices, even when you've explicitly phoned a help line or a complaints line. Once you've battled through them you can find yourself choosing between one inane selection over another, in the hope that one of them will lead to a selection that reflects what you really want.

I'm still waiting for 'to throttle a member of staff, push option 1, otherwise for any other form of staff mutilation press any other key' option.  It gets a little worrying when you phone up and are given the choices 'press 1 for sales, 2 to buy anything from us, 3 to self destruct your handset.'  of course, that's a standard phone message from B L O'Feld Industries.

A retired British IT manager, Nigel Clark, decided that he'd found the perfect way to while away his retirement and, armed only with Skype to keep costs down he's produced a website designed to provide the correct and shortest menu choices for thousands of British services.  He hopes to not have to keep the site updated through his own meticulous research - so many trains to spot, retirement so short - but has a hope that the companies involved will take the moral high ground and sort out their phone menu choices.  Some have agreed to, mainly the ones contacted by the BBC and told their company was going to feature in an article.  I suspect that if I tried the same approach I'd get a virtual cuff across the ear for my efforts.

I think that while Nigel has done a fantastic job of building the website (link here) the point is that companies really should be using the technology to help us better.  I realise that people are the most expensive part of the systems, but by the time most of us reach them we are so wound up with being sent around in circles that we waste a large amount of the opportunity to whinge and complain about being sent around the houses.  This takes up valuable call centre agent time and pushes the queue further back.  And why don't they invest a bit more on the clarity of their systems?  Perhaps the tape is worn, but I find the sound quality is often just a mumble.

The options should be short, realistic and maybe the unpopular/complaint type options should be first and go straight through to a trained advisor, because I think if the person calling can be calmed down by a real person quickly then many complaint issues will go away.  If they don't, then perhaps the complaint is truly justified and when you think about it, that call is actually doing the company a favour.

In the meantime, if you're in the UK and you want to phone an organisation to complain then you can do worse than checking out Nigel's website.  You may want to leave a message on his voicemail f you think his website is good.  That's option 6 on level 5, just to save you struggling.

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Monday, 20 May 2013

Do I Know You?

I've recently read an interesting book called 'You Are Not So Smart' by David McRaney.  I obviously felt my self esteem was ascending too fast when I bought it - another Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, by the way.  Have you signed up yet?.  David is correct, and his fun to read yet informative book playfully burst plenty of bubbles about how we all make mistakes all the time.

One part of the book discussed the  part of the brain that recognises others.  Basically it is a feature of all brains, not just human, and the size of it dictates how many people we can usefully interact with.  It seems that humans have a particularly well developed capability and consequently we can, on average, cope with about 150 people effectively.  Add more than our limit and we get a bit flaky.  It appears that all those Facebook and Twitter collectors of Friends and Followers are kidding themselves when they announce they have hundreds or even thousands of Friends.  Sure, they may have a lot of names associated with their profile but research apparently shows that no matter how many names and faces we interact with on-line, we don't exceed our personal limit.  The number of people we interact with, including those on FB or Twitter stick with our limit - the rest are all lip service.  Seemingly, before we had administrative constructs to allow larger gatherings, this is thought to be why villages tended to top out at 150 in the past.

My limit, by the way, is probably about ten.  Or maybe I'm just very forgetful, I don't know.  A few individuals are known to have an upper limit of over 200 people they can deal with personally at any given time, but most stick to the average.  This doesn't mean you can't get to know more than 150 people in your life - you probably exceeded that before you got to High School - but once you reach your limit then some tough love decisions are made on the subconscious side of your brain.  When you allow a new person to become part of your life, someone who has probably not featured for some time, is pushed out.  Not totally, but enough to not pop into your thoughts randomly.  I can't be the only person out here finding myself looking at someone I know I've spent days, maybe weeks with in the past and can't even recall their name.

So when you get those Friend requests from people you've met in passing by the water cooler, beware, if they start to feature too strongly in your life, on or off-line, then you may be sacrificing someone from your past.  But heck, if they've been pushed out, you probably didn't spend too much time thinking about them.

It makes me think about a TV demonstration I saw some years ago, rustled up by the BBC to show how poor witnesses actually are in helping the police and the courts.  The BBC invited a load of people to come and watch a TV show being made and let them queue outside Television Centre in London.  While they were queuing a car came sliding around the corner and a shoot out started right under the noses of the people waiting.  Apart from the 2 million others watching on TV they couldn't have had a better view of the action.  Then they were taken inside and had witness statements taken about what they had seen.  Predictably the results of the statements were all over the place.  The numbers involved, who did what and when and, of course, the racial backgrounds were all incorrect or varied enormously.  For example, all of the actors involved were white, but many were identified as being black by the witnesses.

We do this all the time, fill in the gaps and let our beliefs and prejudices drive that process.  I got to wondering after reading the book if the finite number of people we can juggle in our heads had a bearing on the outcome, and on all other real witness situations.  Here was a bunch of men and women, presumably all filled to the upper limits of their faces, presented with a fast moving and heart stopping situation.  Because it was significant they would have had to accept that these new faces needed to be included in their limit, which meant they had to start losing some people, if only temporarily.  Then, drama over, those guys involved in the shoot out became less relevant and perhaps they were being pushed out by new faces - the interviewers, for example - because let's face it, they were taking valuable space.

I don't know the answer to that one, but it gets me thinking even more that maybe social networks are going to run up against problems with the human brain.  OK, we can rack up thousands of Friends on FB and limitless numbers of followers on Twitter, but what happens if we start to interact more dynamically with them?  Right now Facebook is where we tell anyone we might know that we've had a bad day at work and Twitter is where we shout at a load of strangers who are also shouting at us - but luckily nobody is listening.  But if I do start to listen, does that mean I'm going to have to sacrifice my memory of someone I know and care about just to squeeze some random avatar into my brain?

Please let me know what you think of this concept, but please don't ask me to get too involved unless you're ready to pitch Aunt Mabel into oblivion.

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