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Books written by Ray Sullivan

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Could Microsoft Buy Nook?

Barnes & Noble are fighting an uphill battle, as are many of the traditional bookstores world-wide.  To be fair to B&N they recognised that the future of literature involved a heavy helping of eBooks and consequently invested in their eBookstore and launched generation after generation of ground breaking Nook eReaders.

The only mis-step I can see is that they took too long to establish themselves in the UK.  We may not be the largest eBook market on the planet - that's the US - but we're pretty big players.  They had an opportunity a year and a half ago when they were being wooed by Waterstones, a  UK bookseller filling a similar market segment to B&N.  I have no idea what went wrong - possibly they were a little too alike - but B&N didn't sign up and Waterstones started to stock Kindles, for goodness sake.

That brief outburst of frustration is not that there is anything wrong with Kindles - I have one and think it's great, I use the Kindle app on my Microsoft RT too. Technically I have it on my Nexus, but as I can't get past the cracked startup screen I don't count that one.  No, my frustration is due to Waterstones badmouthing Amazon and their overt attempts at ruling the eBook world.  If I didn't know better, I'd say I was writing copy for Waterstones back then, certainly I didn't have the monopoly on concern over Amazon.  But, the deal with B&N apparently gone south, Waterstones jumped into bed with Amazon even though their online eBookstore sells ePubs, not Kindle books.  Talk about mixed messages.

Anyway, B&N are struggling, have been for a couple of years.  They design their eReaders in-house, which is ballsy for a bookseller - it must be all those electronics books on the shelves - and they've been building them themselves too.  Now that does surprise me - I assume they are the first tier in the production chain, working with whichever factories produce their products, but now they are looking for someone to take over the whole production process.  They're still going to continue to design them in-house though, at least for the time being.

They'd be long gone, I reckon, if it hadn't been for a couple of handouts - or investments as the market probably calls them - and one of these was from Microsoft.  But the road is still very bumpy and there's a lot of concern about the future viability of B&N eReaders.  Speculation is that Microsoft may be muscling in for a takeover.

It makes a lot of sense, assuming B&N are truly up to their neck in muck.  Microsoft would get a foot in the eBook market, another step towards erasing the Apple differentiation and one that sits well with the Xbox music.  Also, the platform could be used to launch further Windows 8 tablets - maybe there's still life in RT after all?  And it keeps B&N as a viable entity in the eBook world and I for one would be grateful.  I'm unlikely to buy a B&N product right now - as I said they left it late launching in the UK and I'm up to my ears in Kindles, Microsoft Surfaces and cracked Google Nexii right now, but in another time I might consider it.  As an author who sells a proportion of his books through the B&N network to their clearly discerning readers, I want them to continue , if only to challenge Amazon.

The sale price is rumoured to be in the region of $1 billion, which suggests B&N aren't out of the game yet.  My guess is that Microsoft will be looking to get in before the main holiday sales push - there's only one real time to gain market share and that time is coming up in a few months.  So we should know before September  is out.

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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

OMG - New Ways to Waste Money

One thing is certain in this modern world - there's no shortage of ways to spend your money, assuming you've still got some.  In fact I have a belief that the likes of Groupon and Living Social exist solely to provide avenues for us to spend money we  would otherwise struggle to offload and might otherwise have to save.  They certainly save us all the tedium of trawling through the internet to find devices and objects to waste our money on.  And that can't be trivialised - I'm sure I used to spend about three and a half hours a week looking for things to not spend money on, now I spend an average of half an hour a day deleting emails pitching such devices.

I'm not going to spend a whole blog listing all the trivial items I'm currently being urged to throw my money away on - you've got your own inbox to wade through once you've finished reading this.  I know this is just a diversion until you get down to the real work of the day, clearing out your inbox, double deleting, just to be sure.  But I'm going to pick on one product, unfairly in all probability, but it is so jaw droppingly trivial and abundantly over-priced I just had to mention it.  Plus, it works on iOS and Android, so that's inclusive.  I can waste everybody's time here, not just one camp over the other.

It's called the Jawbone UP, it's a wristband, costs only £99.99 and it comes in three colours - that's right, none of your Henry Ford nonsense.  But black is one of the colours, so at least we can pretend.  Oh, and it costs only £99.99 in case you missed that bit.

What does it do, apart from band our wrists? I hear you ask.  Actually, as I write this way before I post it, I actually can't.  That would be the voices in my head, or at least the headphones strapped to it as I listen to Xbox music.  I'm finding out how over-rated Mud were in retrospect, but at least I'm not paying for the pleasure.  Anyway, although I can't actually hear you ask the question, you've been good enough to hang on this long - ah Tiger Feet, perhaps I was being a bit premature after all.  And it's still free.

Well the headline is that you can track your sleep, exercise and diet while measuring your progress.  Now you'll have to wait to find out if that means you can exercise while tracking your sleep or one of the many other permutations that strapline offers for a little while.  Until the next paragraph (or chapter if this is a Dan Brown novel). That's right, that's right, that's right, that's neat, etc - getting bored with Mud again.

Hang on, I'm not finished with options.  Stuff the colour quagmire, there's three sizes, too.  That makes nine permutations just with colour and size, plus all those mind games the strapline left us with.  What else does it do?

It will help you to instantly keep an eye on health and fitness.  No delay, instant.  Not sure if it means both or if we have to choose.  More permutations. And only help mind, it's only a friggin' (£99.99) wristband!

You can use the wristband App (iOS AND Android, remember) to monitor your sleep, activities and eating habits.  Now we're getting somewhere, even if I'm not sure how much more monitoring my sleep needs - I start at night and finish in the morning.  Monitoring my eating habits sounds a stretch for any wristband and I'm not sure I want anyone to know what my activities involve.

You can set yourself fitness targets, keep to them and chart them accurately.  This is going to be a close run thing between the wristband and the tradition of using pencil and paper, but I'll persevere.  Pencil and paper might win, mainly because the stationery cupboard in work doesn't stock Jawbone UPs - yet.

You can find out about food by searching the in-depth ingredient database.  Cake - fattening, but ultimately satisfying.  Salad - boring but not too fattening.  Or there's the internet, you know, the same medium the email used?  Just mentioning.  Is there anything else this thing can do?  Is there anything else left in life not mentioned already?

You can discover patterns in your sleep and how that can affect how you feel.  Stripes are probably what make you feel you have direction, circles - well just hope they aren't too big so you can get back to stripes.  Why not trigonomic shapes?  I'd love to know why I keep on dreaming of tetrahedrons.

But there must be a reason why you'd want to spend only £99.99 on a wristband, in any of three colours and sizes - there's a handy instructional guide on how to measure your wrist, by the way - and it is revealed in the last but one bulletpoint - ah bullets, I'm starting to feel the need for one now. The Jawdropping UP is not intrusive in any way, not even in a 'I'm on your wrist and you can't wear a watch now way' it seems - but it will match any outfit.  Hang on, if that's true, why do we need three colours?  £299.97 for one of each is probably the only sensible way forward.  Unless you want the size options as well - I've run out of fingers, does it have a calculator on it?

Finally they have very limited stock (in bold, no less) and availability, which surely amounts to the same thing?  Maybe they only bought one of each, which would render the statement automatically true even if they didn't sell any at all.  Which I'm sure they will.

So get yourself on the internet now, sign up for Groupon and all the other sites dedicated to selling you stuff you don't want.  While you're on there, pick up a copy of Mud's greatest hits - it's short and cheap - or sign up for Xbox music.  If you don't mind the intrusive adverts, it's free.

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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Android Needs To Watch Out

Wearable computers are all the rage, it would seem, and Apple's intention to build an iWatch is well mooted.  There's been a lot of rumours floating around and it's thought that they will have something on the shelves before the end of the year.  But they won't be the first.

In fact there are a few wearable computer watches on sale right now and another has just been announced.  It's the Androidy watch, designed in the UK and ready to pre-order right now.  It works on Android - hence the name, I guess - and appears to be a full featured device.  It is a phone - I'm not sure how practical it is talking into your wrist and then putting your hand to your ear, I guess some protocols are needed there although it also features Bluetooth.  So a headset could be paired up I guess.

It will run anything that can be obtained on the Android Store, which means you can use it for pretty much anything you want, and the screen shots I've seen so far show it using the sat nav app.  But the screen is only 2 inches in size so you'll be squinting quite hard to read your eBook and following your route might have to rely on the spoken instructions.

But the real insight to me are the promotional photos showing smart looking young men and women wearing the watch.  They're all very well turned out - James Bond wouldn't look out of place in the adverts - and of course, being paid models, they all look very happy.

However the watch, diminutive that it is in terms of Android phones, is actually quite intrusively bulky.  The watch itself runs in landscape format across your wrist, with the bulk of the width leaning across the top part of your hand.  I think anyone doing anything remotely normal such as leaning on their hand or simply moving their wrist will find it constrained by the watch.

This is the challenge for Apple and anyone else looking at making a wearable computer for the wrist.  No matter how functional it is, it is likely to interfere with wrist movement and become quite uncomfortable. So while a few will wear the watch to make a statement, most normal people will identify that it's much easier to use a tablet computer. Or an Android phone - who would have thought?

However Samsung announced a range of curved, bendable LCD screens this week.  These screens are just about to start production and are intended to provide more robust, crack resistant tablet screen - oh I hope Google and Asus are listening - but I reckon that the material is a natural for devices such as the iWatch. A device that wraps around the wrist like an amulet is likely to have amore usable screen and be less difficult to wear.

I wish the makers of the Androidy watch all the best, but hope that Apple and other manufacturers look at the bendy screens as the way around the obvious problems.

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Friday, 21 June 2013

Who Wants To Live Forever?

Immortality is a topic that hardly ever comes up in polite conversation, mainly because even in households accommodating Sci Fi authors it's generally considered nonsense.  Of course we can all have a stab at leaving something behind that will mean we're remembered for generations to come, but outside of the odd Roman Emperor or founder of a religion, most humans fade into well deserved obscurity fairly quickly.

But there's a world of difference between being remembered for ever, or even for a time, and living forever.  That's a stretch of the imagination that most of us don't consider as likely.  However, a guy named Ray Kurzweil, thinks immortality is on the cards and pretty soon.  Ray is Google's engineering director and he believes that technology is advancing at a rate fast enough to allow us, the human race, to reach a tipping point where it is adding years faster than nature is taking them away.

There's no doubt that in the developed world humans are tending to live longer.  For example, I never met any of my grandparents, with the last to die doing so several years before I arrived.  From recollection their lifespans averaged just 60 years of age.  More importantly, they were pretty typical of their generation, as were my parents, with my mother passing in her early Seventies and my dad in his early Eighties, again typical of their peers. So in a generation the life expectancy in my family has increased by maybe eight to twelve years on average, although as sample sizes go it is a little small.

My generation is expected to survive into its Eighties pretty much as a norm and reaching the age of 100 or more is hardly a news item these days.  However one side effect of us living longer is that diseases such as cancer is deemed to be on the up, with a report the other day stating that 60% of us will suffer from it in our lifetimes, with half of those dying from it.  The report was warning us all that the increase in survivability means we will have to care for more and more oldies suffering from elements of cancer at home for extended periods, putting new strains on families.  Other side effects of living longer is that we all have an increased opportunity to experience Alzheimer's and other diseases that rob us of our mental faculties.  Suddenly living longer doesn't sound so great.

But Ray's contention is that in fifteen years technology will hit a tipping point, with cures and means to overcome these serious illnesses discovered.  He says that in 20 years life expectancies will go into 'high gear' thanks to scientific progress.  Of course, Ray works for the company that is struggling to keep its Nexus 7s going for more than nine months, so maybe there's a way to go with this technology.

However living forever, or even to 100, is only really desirable if your body and brain allows you to enjoy the experience.  I don't care how long you can extend my life, if it just increases the amount of time I end up dribbling down my shirt while chair bound in an old folks home then I'm not really gagging for it.  Or even if I can enjoy longer dotage years, tapping away at my aging RT writing blogs into the sunset and books for a few, if I can't afford to eat or heat my home because there's no real pension left and nobody wants to employ a  110 year old man for peanuts, then count me out.

Evolution being such a slow process to, well, evolve I'm expecting that the normal reproduction rates to continue for a little while after Ray has extended the lifespan of the population.  That might produce the odd problem going forward.

Now of course, if I can live a longer and useful life and the same can be extended to my descendants then I'm not going to look that gift horse in the mouth.  But I can't help wondering if we should be aiming to give everyone on the planet the opportunity to achieve the same life expectancy that those of us in the first world now routinely enjoy and expect?  Perhaps if we didn't resort to carnage on the battlefield or acts of terror in our cities, if children could have enough to eat to live until they are past their childhood, wouldn't that be great?  Of course another view is that we are heading for a population crunch on the planet, so how will that reconcile with some - I doubt Ray is talking about a universal extension to immortality for everyone - living forever?

Ray is 65 and apparently pops around 250 supplements a day and half a dozen intravenous therapies weekly in his quest to stay in good shape.  If I was popping 250 tablets a day I'd be hoping for some scientific intervention to alleviate the boredom of swallowing so many.  And I'd be really concerned about the risk of choking on one or two occasionally, so I don't think I'll take that route. 

By the time we reach Ray's predicted 20 years I'll be well into my Seventies, so might be able to report on the tipping point.  If it hasn't arrived I'll be looking at the last leg of my journey on Earth, but if Ray is right and the tipping point has been reached then at least it'll make a follow up blog post to write.  I may even have got my Nexus 7 up and running by then, so that's two blog posts scheduled.  I'll set up a diary reminder on my SkyDrive Outlook calendar right now, because unless Ray's really right I'll have forgotten my name, let alone his prediction, by then.  Look out for the post - I'll call it 'Who Wants To Live Forever - part 2'.

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Thursday, 20 June 2013

Enough to Make Me Screen

I reported a little while back about the unfortunate discovery I made when on holiday in the Lake District.  After a day out walking on a relatively mild trek - honest there are some easy bimbles up there - I took my Nexus 7 out of my side pocket to find the screen cracked from arsehole to breakfast time, as a wise man once said.

The front screen image looked fine, apart from the cracks criss-crossing it.  That and the stubborn refusal to let me enter the four digit PIN to unlock it.  I took it home and while I fumed for a few days I was rewarded with the constant sounds of emails and updates popping in and of calendar diary date alerts ringing, at least until the battery ran down.

I looked up the website of the company that had sold us the Nexus, PC World, where I found the number to ring regarding warranty issues.  After ten minutes of automated choices that never actually seemed to address what I was looking for I ended up on the selection that related to Asus products.  Luckily for me I knew the Nexus was an Asus product, because I'd still be making selections now if I'd been waiting for the automated voice to suggest Google.

So I made the selection and was advised, in level automated tones, that Asus warranty claims were handled by Asus themselves.  An eleventeen digit phone number blasted out and I found myself listening to the dial tone.  Now the Asus number isn't a free phone number and although it counts as a local rate number on a landline, it costs an undisclosed amount per minute on a mobile.  Probably not a huge amount, but it doesn't half feel like being held to ransom.  Oh, and their office hours are more reasonable than mine so I had to stack early to get home in time to call them.

The young man I spoke with was very helpful.  He listened to my tale and didn't even snigger, let alone accuse me of lying. We went through a pointless exercise while I tried to identify a number he insisted I had to be able to read before I could register a claim.  Apparently it's written on a transparent sticker on the reverse near the speakers and the letters are only marginally less transparent than the sticker itself, as well as being infinitesimally tiny.  Anyway, we agreed that was  something I could do later using a scanning electron microscope - I'm sure I saw one in the shed the other day when I was tidying up - so we got down to basics.

Here's how it works. First I register with Asus on their website - that's why I need that number - then they arrange for someone to pick the Nexus up, hopefully at a time more accessible than their helpline opening hours.  The Nexus is sent to an independent repairer who decides whether the repair is a warranty item or, in their opinion, user inflicted damage.  If they decide it's a warranty repair then they'll do it, but if they decide it's my fault then I have two choices - first to pay for a repair, cost unknown but expected to be in the region of £150, about the price of a new Nexus.  Alternatively I can have the Nexus back, unrepaired and £50 lighter for the privilege.

So I've been back to PC World and after a flurry of emails got to speak to a human who didn't sound too interested in my tale to be fair.  Anyway, probably in an attempt to get me off the line he told me to take the Nexus to my local PC World store to access the 'Knowhow' technicians to have the device evaluated.  If they agreed it was a warranty repair then they'd phone a number and maybe start a ball or two rolling.  So this evening I popped into the local store and found two men behind the counter, an older guy serving a customer and a young man.  To be fair to the young man, he listened to my tale without interrupting, but then made a point of stating that they weren't technicians and he'd have to send the Nexus off to Asus for a determination anyway. Knowhow? Know nothing, more like.

Anyway the older guy had overheard enough and he popped over to help his colleague out.  Seemingly they've had loads of these - shouldn't that be telling somebody something? - and he said that every one they sent to Asus came back unrepaired with a £50 bill attached.  His advice - walk away.

So I've been trawling the internet for replacement screens, and guess what, it's a minefield.  First off, you can buy the LCD screen (which may not be damaged on my Nexus) or the digitiser, the transparent device that sits on top of the LCD screen and works out what your grubby fingers are mauling at.  That's probably what's gone south on my machine, in my opinion.  Or you can buy both in one unit.

Before you even start bidding on eBay for any of these - and by the way, there's a heck of a lot of Nexus 7s with cracked screens for sale on there for spares or repair - take yourself off to YouTube.  There's a number of videos on there showing you how to replace your screen and you might be a little surprised to find that it's not the most straightforward of jobs.  There's at least one very detailed video on there - it's been viewed almost 100,000 times for goodness sake - that shows you in very fine detail how to do this task, including each and every Philips screw removal - and there are quite a lot of those.  The bottom line is that you go in through the back, and no, that isn't euphemism.  it's like a plastic surgeon doing your nose job from the rear of your skull, but there you go.

Anyway I watched this very detailed video - nine minutes to get to the screen assembly - and then it started reassembly without showing how to separate the digitiser from the LCD screen, which was a shame as I'd just found a digitiser for sale for about £22 including P&P from Hong Kong.  So I did a bit more digging and it seems that although you can buy the LCD and digitiser separately, they are fused together on the Nexus.  As is the front cover, although there are various reports that the cover can be removed by judicious heating with a hair dryer. Or a hammer and chisel, you takes your choice.

So, there's a bit more to this than meets the eye and just buying relatively inexpensive components may not result in a working Nexus, but will probably just result in you being even more out of pocket.  I'm going to fix this device, of that I'm sure, but I'm going to have to dig around a fair bit further .  I'll keep you all posted, but it's on the back burner until the price of spares drops or the UK performs an economic miracle.  So don't hold your breath - it's bad enough being held responsible for self cracking screens.

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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Facing Up To The Charges

Keeping your phone charged is a daily problem.  Most phones these days will survive a full day of normal usage - checking Facebook, Twitter, reading emails, even sending texts.  Throw in a few decent phone calls, though, and you may struggle to read your eBook on the train home.  It's the same with tablet computers too, but without the phone calls.  They're just too darned useful for watching films and Skyping, I guess.

There's been a few attempts to address the problem, most noticeably through better batteries and by making the devices more efficient in use.  That makes a lot of sense, but despite the best endeavours they still seems to fail some of us some of the time.

And of course the remote charging idea is floating around out there.  I've written about this before and although I believe it's coming I'm still a little sceptical that it will prove to be a major benefit.  For example in our house we leave the RT, an iPad and a HTC phone charging on the breakfast bar overnight.  It works, the cables are tidy thanks to an enlightened electrician who persuaded me to fork out for twice as many sockets than I thought I'd ever need when he rewired our kitchen.  Now, to move to contactless charging would require me buying a contactless charger large enough for all of these devices, assuming that we replaced them with models that supported contactless charging and they all used the same system - because just like in the bad old VHS/Betamax tradition there are competing versions being produced.  So at home I'm unlikely to use contactless charging and the big push is to mount these charging devices into the table tops of overpriced coffee emporiums so I can sip a latte while staring at my inert mobile remotely charging in front of me. 

Don't take this the wrong way Starbucks, but I'd rather you left me to sort my own charging problems out and reduced your prices instead.  And paid your taxes.

However a French startup, SunPartner Group, has taken a different look at the problem.  They've worked out that although many of us insist on popping our mobile phones in our pockets for much of the day, we actually pull them out more often than we might like to admit - you know, double checking for those missed calls that we didn't get, sneaking a look at our Facebook timeline, posting the odd informative tweet - just been to the loo, again - and sending the occasional text or fifty.  And unless you're a contortionist you probably hold the mobile face up with the screen facing you. 

They've come up with a way to embed solar charging panels in the front screen of the phones.  It's a tricky process that involves stripes of sensors alternating with clear screen.  The stripes are very thin and it seems the clear gaps, while helping with the day job of reading your phone screen, help to focus the light anyway.  Obviously you can't expect to get all those solar panels in front of you without some light transmission loss and currently it stands at 82% transparency, which doesn't sound too bad.  The aim is to achieve 90% which means you may need to boost the screen light levels by a fraction, hopefully not enough to negate the extra charge gained through this process.  The cost of the screen is expected to add less than $2.50 to each phone.

If it works then I expect it might be adaptable to tablet screens as well - let's face it, they could benefit from a little extra charge while on the go.  And maybe they'll provide a bit more anti cracking resilience to the blighters. 

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Google's Loony Idea

Internet access is fast becoming a measure of civilisation.  When the broadband goes down in our house - and recently that's been more often than I'm happy with - the howls of anguish are matched with references to living in a third world country.  Probably a tad unreasonable given we're usually without broadband for maybe two minutes.

The reality is that the internet is more than a medium to send and receive emails while searching the web for some information, it controls our TV programming recording, keeps us connected on social media and allows us to work from home.  Every year we dig ourselves deeper into dependency with the internet and buy gadgets that require access to function.  A lack of internet access stymies our whole way of life, or so it would seem.  When I book a holiday at home or abroad I check on the internet access for the location - does the accommodation have WiFi?  Is there a local cafĂ© linked to the net?  It skews my purchasing decisions and I suspect that will become the norm pretty soon if it isn't already.  In fact I struggle to understand why hotels , B&Bs and cottages for rent fail to provide internet access as many of these fail to get my custom.  I'm sure others make the same purchasing decision too.

But some parts of the planet have very little realistic hope of internet access.  Not only does this mean I'm less likely to visit, which shouldn't represent that much of a disappointment for them, but it means that locals are disadvantaged compared to the rest of us.  OK, not being able to engage in Facebook or Twitter shouldn't be the end of the world, especially as the day job may be more around making sure you get enough to eat and clean water to drink, but even in developed countries there are many areas that internet access isn't currently possible.  Love it or loathe it, the internet is a great leveller for mankind, as long as it is available to all.  Whether we want to spread our love of democracy, or maybe literacy, internet access can make or break progress.

Google think the answer may be to launch balloons into the stratosphere, floating at twelve miles above the Earth's surface, over regions that currently struggle to receive internet access.  To put that distance into perspective, it equates to twice the operating height of commercial airliners, so shouldn't put them at any risk.  Google have worked out a system that ensures the balloons keep in position utilising clever controls and grabbing energy from the sun.  It certainly sounds feasible.

To prove the concept they have launched thirty such experimental balloons, each fifteen metres in diameter, over New Zealand, a country that is both well developed and sparsely populated.  They've named the project as Project Loon which I suspect may not mean the same as it could in the UK.  Outside of the main population centres in New Zealand running cables is an onerous and expensive task that would make internet access disproportionately expensive.  Trials ongoing should reveal whether the balloon technology, expected to produce 3G-like capability, is workable.  What the study hasn't suggested yet is how the system is likely to be funded.  Because the other issue with these remote parts of the world that are struggling to access the internet is money.  Or perhaps, more importantly, the lack of it.  Possibly not the biggest challenge in New Zealand, but in the middle of a third world country no end of WiFi providing balloons may be of no use unless the locals can access the service for free.

Google are stressing that this is an experiment and if anyone can afford to ring the planet with fifteen metre diameter balloons then Google can, at least as long as they're avoiding paying any taxes. I'm not convinced it is the answer, but I'm happy to be proven wrong.  One area that it may prove to be capable of earning its stripes, though, is in disaster struck areas  Regardless of the indigenous internet capability of the affected area before an disaster strikes, emergency aid workers often benefit from establishing a coherent communication network for the duration of the emergency.  Now I can see that working for the balloons, although the sticky matter of payment may prove to be something that governments have to address.

Internet access for all has to be a universal aim and it's possible that Google are on the right track to ensure it's achieved.  Or maybe their idea is all hot air spouted by a madman howling at the moon.  Only time will tell.

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Monday, 17 June 2013

Microsoft Gets Its Chequebook Out

Apple kicked the App market off when it launched the iPhone.  I think it must have been an interesting day when Steve Jobs walked into the boardroom to make his pitch.  What do you mean, you want to allow independent developers to produce apps for the new device?  You'll be letting anyone make docks, next.

Apple were right to let developers have their head.  Some have made a literal fortune out of the app market, and good luck to them.  Of course Apple knew what they were doing - all the apps had to be sold through the iTunes store and they took a skim off the top.  Millions upon millions of skims later and Apple are a cash rich company.  And those third party docks that meant we had a fantastic choice at next to no risk to Apple - I'm guessing there was a licensing fee involved too.  Talk about win-win.

Now everyone has to compete with Apple for the app market.  The savvy app companies develop their apps for all the successful platforms out there, which means Apple of course plus Android, naturally.  Somewhere out there is also Research In Motion's Blackberry devices, but they are hardly leading the way and developers could be forgiven for not prioritising them.

Microsoft are a little late to the party as well.  Windows 8 is still relatively young, although a few months makes a lot of difference in this modern age.  With the advent of viable smart screen PCs to take advantage of the new OS Microsoft are desperate to start to match Apple in the app market.  It's a tall order, with Apple claiming around 900,000 apps on the iTunes store.  Of course many of them won't have sold many units at all, a bit like eBook titles I guess, while others will have been a runaway success.  To be fair, Microsoft reckon that they have 48 of the top 50 apps in the charts in their store.  But looking at the app store on Windows 8 leaves me a little cold - I'm a hard consumer to please in the games market for example because I'm not too bothered about high resolution multi player games and to be honest all I want is some logic games that don't insult my limited intelligence while I'm waiting for the dentist to call me in.  I haven't found a decent Soduko to match the average fare for free in the Android market yet and Everett Kaser has obstinately said that he has no intention of developing a new version of Sherlock for 'another operating system' until it proves to be viable.

But they want more than that, which is reasonable given they want Windows 8 to be a success, especially in the critical smart phone market.  The mobile market is key to Microsoft's strategy because they are banking on us wanting to take advantage of the functionality in Windows 8 that lets us move seamlessly from mobile phone to PC to Xbox, that is we can start watching a film on one of those devices and pick it up where we left off on any of the other two. They're making grudging progress in the PC market which isn't unexpected - while many of us may choose to run Linux at home, corporately Microsoft is still king.

So the call has gone out to developers that the chequebook is open and Microsoft is prepared to pay up to $100,000 for apps that will run on Windows 8.  It sounds aggressive and as always it will be the small print that will decide if it's worth diverting developer work towards Windows 8, but I'm fairly confident that many operations will be sitting up and taking notice.  It's unclear on how the proportion of $100k is allocated, but definitely worth asking the question, I would suggest. If I was running a development house I'd still prioritise iOS and Android, but I'd have my patent pending Slide Rule app (what do you mean - what's a slide rule?  Don't you use log tables anymore?) running to see if the numbers stack up with the Microsoft offer.  Let's face it, they might not be the richest company in the world anymore, but being third or fourth is still pretty good.  Their credit's good for me.

If you know any app developers, let them know Microsoft are looking for apps and they're in a paying mood.  Maybe I'll develop that Slide Rule app for Windows 8 myself. It can't be any worse than the standard calculator app and might appeal to engineers of, ahem, a certain age.

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Sunday, 16 June 2013

iTunes Races Ahead

There's a lot of competition for your music spends these days.  Apple started it with iTunes, but there's plenty of others wanting a slice of the action.  Google are hustling their Google Play, Amazon want to sell us music and Microsoft, through its Xbox Music is making a pitch, though it's far from pitch perfect.  It's a tough market to break into.

For example I've been playing around with Xbox Music for the last month, seeing as it comes pre-loaded on the Microsoft RT as an app.  It seems pretty comprehensive in its range of music, although that is difficult to gauge without being able to compare lists.  You only know what you know, and I've only looked for what I've wanted to find.  I guess evaluating music streaming services puts Donald Rumsfeld's statement 'there are things we know we don't know, and things we don't know that we don't know' into sharp relief, and seems more relevant somehow.

There are gaps, though.  There are some artists I have a lot of material of in my collection, and some of the albums I'd like to see on Xbox music seem to be missing.  But right now I'm having a ball looking up artists and albums from my youth that I've only got on vinyl - as I write this I'm listening to a group called 'The Undisputed Truth' that got hi-jacked by one of the most under-rated talents ever to come out of Motown, Norman Whitfield.  Norman was a writer and producer, who produced some of Motown's most adventurous music, most notably with The Temptations, but it was through groups like the Undisputed Truth that he found he was able to extend his creative talents.  Thanks to Xbox music I'm catching up on their discography.

It's far from perfect, though.  Sometimes it only plays one or two tracks even though I've told it to play the album.  That gets a little frustrating.  In addition there does appear to be track skipping, as if the streamed recording is from a dodgy CD.  Of course, because I'm only using the free version I have to put up with the occasional advert, which is usually ten or so seconds plugging an obscure new artist.  Additionally they stop streaming every so often, just to remind me that there is a paid service I could use. I have to accept, grudgingly, that is the price cheapskates like myself have to consider sometimes.

But the leader of the streaming pack has to be iTunes.  They've just announced that they are currently adding about half a million new iTunes accounts a day and that they are on track to have added over 100 million new accounts this year by year end.  It's the volume of accounts that give Apple the revenue they seem to love.  It seems that each iTunes account, and there are over 500 million of them now, generate about $3.20 a month for each account, on average.  Clearly some households buy more music than mine does.  It's probably Bruce Willis skewing the figures.  It seems that he's not suing Apple, by the way.  It's not in dispute that he's unhappy that his extensive iTunes collection reverts to Apple when he dies, but he's not taking the legal route to sort it out with them.  Having seen how he sorts out organisations that piss him off in the Die Hard series I'm really keen to see the next step in this long running dispute.

Anyway, some analysts think the revenue per account is cause for concern because it's about half the revenue each account generated back in 2009.  Back then there was a paltry 100 million accounts - hell, I wouldn't get out of bed for numbers like that, let alone write a daily blog.  Get your counting fingers out and you'll soon realise that 500 million times $3.20 is a not unreasonable $1,600,000,000 a month, whereas $6.40 times 100 million is about 2.5 times less.  I had to double check the numbers because it seems a mind boggling amount even for Apple, but of course they only skim a profit off that and pay the owners of the music the bulk. However if those numbers do represent the state of the download music industry then it's clearly healthier than it cracks on to be.

It's difficult to imagine Google, Amazon or Microsoft, and all three are major players in the industry, making any serious inroads into iTunes anytime soon.  None of those have built up an infrastructure that challenges iTunes' ecosystem.  Microsoft might be on the right track - giving the music away initially to rope you in.  Their paid for service, at less than £90 a year which seems to allow you to download albums to listen to off-line too, isn't too expensive either.  As long as they can stop the tracks skipping and improve the range of albums available, then I might consider paying for a subscription.

In the meantime, I think Apple can breathe easy.

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Saturday, 15 June 2013

Android Used On Digital Mirrorless Cameras

We've all got used to carrying around pretty good cameras day and night.  Most of us have a decent camera in our smart phone and plenty of us have access to one in our tablet computers.  Despite this convenient flexibility, many of us also cart a compact digital camera around. 

It makes sense, really.  For one, the cameras on phones, while much better than those available just a year or more ago, pale into insignificance against some of the compacts that can be picked up for a trivial amount these days.  Plus they offer a lot more flexibility, hard coded into the camera and many have physical zoom lenses (as opposed to digital zooms which rarely stand up to close scrutiny).

Also they mean that we don't have to choke up our phone's memory storage too quickly, leaving it available for ad hoc opportunistic photos when we're not carrying our compact camera.

However some of us want a bit more flexibility when we take photos - I'm one who likes to have the capability to control depth of field and to choose the best aperture for a photograph.  I also like to select the best focal length for the shot.  Not all the time, but there are some photos that a compact camera or a smartphone just won't do justice to.

My current go-to real camera rig is an Olympus Digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) that I've had for about four years.  Which means it's officially archaic, given the rate of change in technology these days.

For those who haven't been exposed to SLR cameras, let me digress.  These cameras are designed with a prism mounted above and just behind the lens.  The light enters the lens, gets focussed and then hits a mirror leaning at a 45 degree angle, directing the light into the prism.  90 degrees later the image is presented to the photographer's eye.  Because of this arrangement the photographer can see exactly what the electronic sensor will see when the shutter button is pushed.  Out of focus - turn the focus ring on the lens and watch the image snap sharp, too far away - push the lens to bring the image closer and larger.  Thanks to the magic of technology all of the technical information regarding shutter speed and aperture size are pushed to the same viewfinder the photographer is looking  through.

And the key flexibility of all of this is that the lens is interchangeable - that is, you can fit longer or shorter focal length lenses to give yourself maximum flexibility with the image.  Wide angle through to telephoto, no problem.  When the shutter release button is pushed the mirror lifts, obliterating the view momentarily and the shutter opens to expose the image to the sensor.  Then everything returns to normal, with the whole process taking a fraction of a second.

In the last couple of years camera companies have started to move away from the mirror/prism model, relying on a semi-transparent glass plate that both allows light to travel to the sensor once the shutter is opened and to the viewfinder, although this is far from ideal, because you're splitting the available light.  The upside is that you get rid of the moving mirror, one less mechanical thing to synchronise and go wrong.

But the ultimate way forward, right now at least, is the mirrorless system, where the sensor is continually exposed to the light through the lens and feeds that image to an electronic eyepiece.  Technically they could have done this years ago, but the electronic screens used in video cameras, for example, were pretty crude and us photographers like a bit of quality.  Today, those viewfinders are of a high enough quality so the mirror is lost and so is the prism, a weight saving.  Job done?

Not according to Samsung, which is about to launch a mirrorless camera with android built in.  It's not clear yet if the camera takes a mobile phone sim card, but even if it's just WiFi then it will be a boon.  First, you can download any amount of photo editing apps direct to the phone, so you're not just tied to the Samsung firmware.  But perhaps more importantly you can upload photos on the hoof - to your cloud storage for safety or to the local paper if it's a newsworthy snap.  Reuters may be on your email contact list with this camera.

It's a role reversal, having email on your camera instead of a camera on your smart phone, but one photographers are going to like.

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Friday, 14 June 2013

No Genetic Patents

It's official - you're unique and more importantly, your individual design cannot be patented.  Bad news for you if you intended selling your genome for research - after all, from where I'm sitting you are obviously a fabulous example of the human species.  Not too sure about that spot, but as that's only just appeared it shouldn't affect your marketability.

However if you're not in the market for selling off your genome then it's good news.

You see, there was this race about ten years ago, where private industry rushed headlong to map the human genome with the intention of patenting the results and then licensing them to pharmaceutical companies looking for cures for ailments.  For cures, read cash-cows.

Now it's easy to be cynical about the pharma industry - they are notorious for charging outrageous amounts of money for drugs that they developed years earlier.  But on the way to developing those drugs they usually spend an inordinate amount of time and energy in developing a raft of chemical combinations that have no ultimate benefit to the human race, and in many cases are likely to make us all less likely to survive if we take them than without.  The cost of that research has to be covered somewhere.  And the overheads on pharma research are huge - the documentation trail itself is enough to give you a headache.  They've got a drug or two for that complaint, by the way, but as they are all pretty much out of patent you can buy generic copies for coppers.

Anyway, there was a race and the other team was a consortium of international scientists that worked hard to map the human genome first, with the intention of gifting the human race its own genetic code for free.  They succeeded, which given the resources of the pharma industry is amazing.  However attempts have been made to patent chunks of the human genome and there's been a series of long running court cases to determine ownership of the human genome.  No less than the US Supreme Court believes we, humans that is, own our own genome.

I think you can still sell your own, if you like, but you'll probably have to map it first.  Me, I can sketch a route to the pub, but a full genome is likely to be unsuccessful in my hands, so I'll stick to selling eBooks instead.  It'll probably be just as successful as hawking my hand drawn map of my genome, but at least I've proof read them.

If you think the pharma industry taking your genome to the highest court to try and claim ownership of what is essentially you is outrageous, and many well might, then you may want to compare that to an alternative theory behind the Human Genome Project as chronicled in my second novel, The Journeymen.

It's quite possible that you might decide pure pharma greed is the true reason after reading the book.


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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Project: Evil - The Industrial Tribunal Meeting

No, you haven't walked into a time warp - this is a missing Project: Evil episode I found while rummaging in my hard drive and never actually made the book.  It's been a quiet day in the eBook/technology world if you discount the multiple announcements from Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Google.  But apart from all that, nothing, really.  Oh yeah, the governments are still reading our emails, something B L O'Feld would applaud.

So, a new episode that doesn't appear in the book - yet.  If you want to read more Project:Evil why not visit the book page or the dedicated Project: Evil website using the links below?

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'What the hell does this mean?' thundered O'Feld across the boardroom table.  Daw looked up resignedly.

'It's a summons to an industrial tribunal,' he said, leaning over and circling the heading in blood.  Brian wondered who's blood it was, but after a quick body check determined it wasn't anyone's he cared about.

'We get a lot of these, from employees we've let go,' added Daw.

'Really?' asked O'Feld.  He knew Daw often let employees go, but believed that the drop wasn't generally survivable.  Daw smiled, creating a chill throughout the room.  Miss Blowjob fiddled with the thermostat nervously, with good reason as most controls in O'Feld Industries were booby trapped.  And every male in the room were keen to see her boobies trapped.

'No, not really,' replied Daw.  'This is the first time an employee has made a complaint and survived.  Apparently it's also the first time the Department of Employment has decided to use the Witness Protection Programme,' he added.

'Don't we run a Protection Programme?' asked Brian.

'Not like this one,' answered Daw, before returning to O'Feld.  We'll have to defend this one in court, apparently.'  O'Feld shuddered.  The last time he'd been in court he'd been awarded three consecutive life sentences.

'What's the charge?' he asked.  Daw scrutinised the summons.

'Exposing a henchperson to unacceptable risk,' he read out.  O'Feld looked like he was going to explode.  Brian started to regret filling the sandwiches with C4.

'How the hell did we manage to do that?  I thought we classified all risk as acceptable,' he thundered.  'What did he do for us?' he added.

'He worked with Lurch, in the interrogation department. He was a technical assistant,' said Daw, reading from the henchperson's personnel file.

'What did he do?' asked Brian.  He saw Lurch as essentially a one man interrogation specialist.

'He stubbed cigarettes out on Lurch's customers,' answered Daw.

'Lurch doesn't smoke,' nodded Brian - it was starting to make sense.

'Neither did the henchperson who's taking us to court,' answered Daw, checking the summons again, adding, 'that's why he wants to sue us.  Apparently he got some awful chest disease from lighting cigarettes and keeping them going for Lurch.  He'd still be doing it now if it wasn't for the Lean process mapping we've been through recently.'  O'Feld looked interested, which was reassuring as O'Feld not looking interested usually resulted in an arbitrary death.

'So, we lost the assistant and Lurch lights his own cigarettes now?' asked O'Feld.  Daw shook his head.

'No, that would be unreasonable.  We've mapped out the whole interrogation process and realised that the customers weren't pulling their own weight.  Well, OK, they were if you count the ball and chain we routinely make them wear, but apart from that and spilling information and internal organs they tended to just sit around waiting to be tortured.  Lurch is a busy man and might have to leave them for some time, which isn't efficient,' he added.

'So?' asked O'Feld.  Daw looked at Brian, who rapidly opened the Lean Manufacturing handbook to the correct page.

'So we get them to keep the cigarettes going while Lurch is busy,' he said, adding,  'It cuts down on personnel, increases victim satisfaction and, generally, reduced costs as they used their own cigarettes.'  O'Feld looked pleased.

'So we've identified the problem and taken steps to change things?' he asked rhetorically, shooting the first person who failed to notice the subtlety and tried to answer the question.  Brian and Daw both nodded as the manager was dragged out of the boardroom.  'Bribe the henchperson and the judge, naturally. Or blackmail them if that's cheaper.  Rig the jury, that should sort the problem out,' O'Feld said, standing.

'Or we could just re-employ the henchperson.  Give him his job back, supply the cigarettes and let the lung disease take its toll,' suggested Brian, feeling pleased that he'd identified a solution that was virtually cost free.  O'Feld gave him a withering look.

'So, you're a HR specialist as well now, are you?' he asked, turning, slamming the door on the way out.

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