Apple Down, Google Up, Microsoft Bounces Back

The world of tech and tech accessories has radically changed in the last few months, and from what I can tell, nobody noticed.  Here is my take on the “big picture” of phones, tablets, watches and whatever.

Apple really needs Steve Jobs back

Today is the 5th Anniversary of the iPad, the game changer device that has not only changed how we surf the web, but how we play games, watch TV, read books, and keep our lives organized. It was a groundbreaking device that is still making waves.

Fast forward to March 9, 2015 when Apple held another semi annual big presentation on what is “new” from Apple. It solidified my opinion of Apple I got from a similar event last October (when they finally got around to making a bigger iPhone): Apple is no longer on the cutting edge, they are riding in the wake.

What did they announce? An Apple Watch, a technology others have experimented with the last couple of years which only the nerdiest people think is cool.

A new MacBook which is pretty much the most overpriced device ever offered by Apple.  This is basically a “netbook” as it is not powerful enough to do much beyond what you can already do on any tablet.

In my honest opinion, Apple is now a full two years behind everybody else, and losing ground.

Google is now the industry leader

Android 5 released in November, is now the default OS for hand held devices. It is a major step up from 4.4 and it is an actual game changer.

Android 5 brings with it a suite of common “apps” that use the same interface and work together.  You might ask, “So what?”, but I think Android 5 marks the beginning of the end of the reign of “apps”.

It was never spoken, but we have all known that apps have basically consisted of web sites and flash games that we either pay for with money or ad spam (or both) just so that it will work on our phone. Except for a few games, most apps exist out of stupidity. Companies are now pushing customers to download their apps to make purchasing their stuff easier.

Only a handful of apps are useful, the majority of Apps basically just fill our devices limited memory with junk we once found funny or amusing.

The ones that are actually useful are the ones that provide us info we want or need, and the way they do that is through “push notification”.  That’s the first revelation of App demise.

The second revelation is this: Every app seems to want to have its own interface design, this is a problem as it means you have to learn how to get information you need from many different interfaces.  We forgot this lesson was learned a long time ago. The thing that made Macintosh computers successful back in the 80’s is that every program had the same interface.  Microsoft figured this out finally with the release of Windows in the early 90’s.

Google is now doing the same thing for Android.  The philosophy behind Android 5 seems to be a common interface among the built in apps, and these interface tools are being made available to app designers, too.

These two observations are gaining strength in the industry and will lead to the “End Of Apps As We Know Them”.  Goodbye pages and pages of apps, hello easy access to the info you are looking for. Android 5 is designed around that philosophy, and it’s a welcome change.

Microsoft is back behind the wheel

The only thing really holding back Microsoft right now is that Windows 10 isn’t ready, yet.  A common OS for phone, tablet, laptop and desktop is just too cool.

In a rush to jump into the mobile market, Microsoft’s recent history has been full of one boondoggle after another.  One of the biggest was Windows RT project, a broken version of windows for mobile processors.  Their first tablets Microsoft Surface and Surface 2 ran on RT, even though similar sized devices with full Windows 8, were already being released.  The heavily advertised but widely rejected Windows Phones could only run RT, and these poor selling tablets were an attempt to get developers to support the Windows app store.

This past month they released the Surface 3, the first in the non “pro” line that runs full Windows 8.1 and is powerful enough to run most windows software, except graphic heavy games.

The Surface 3 is about half the cost of the above mentioned MacBook, and its stats are comparatively the same.

If you are really looking to save money I recently tested a $77 Windows 8.1 tablet. How was it? Well about what you would expect from a $77 tablet. They spared every expense, including a battery that did not charge all the way, no sleep mode so you have to sign in every time to you turn it on, and buttons in the worse possible locations.  Bottom line, there are a lot of decent name brand tablets between $200-300 that are better deals.

Still, the mere fact that $77 tablets exist shows that Microsoft can be competitive with Apple and Android, and that’s the bigger picture. By the end of the year, inexpensive phones that run full Windows 10 should be available.

Windows 10 is going to be a game changer, a common OS that adapts itself depending on whether it is on a phone, tablet, or PC. The PC version of the interface is a lot more Windows 7 like than even 8.1 is, while the tablet version is more fat finger friendly to make it useable on small screens.  Microsoft’s free cloud storage will automatically move your profile and data to any device you sign in on.  This is a huge incentive to go all Windows on all devices.

After years of failure, Microsoft seems to be getting it right, but they have a lot of catching up to do in the market share department.

The “big picture”

Granted Apple and Google have similar services that move your data between devices, unfortunately most of us find ourselves with incompatible stuff spread between all 3 companies.  Hopefully soon I will find an easy way to see my PC contact list and iTunes library on my Samsung Galaxy.  In the mean time, if you can, pick a company and stick with them, it just makes everything easier.

The “big picture” is this: In the last 5 years since the ipad, we have seen Apple fall behind, Google surge ahead, and Microsoft bounce back. It is only a matter of time before it all gets homogenized, with all 3 companies offering the same goods and services delivered in the same way, the price of which will only get cheaper.

More Pro Tips for Windows 8.1 Tablets

My last post was about Windows 8.1 tablets and how they are generally better than iPads or Android based tablets.  Apparently I’m not the only one who recognized their utility, as these tablets are selling pretty well now. I thought I would post some pointers I learned playing with mine. I mentioned a few at the bottom of my last post, here are a few more.

The most annoying thing is that Windows 8.1 is not Windows 7.  The PC marketplace has been in the doldrums ever since 8 was released. Windows 7 is way ahead of 8 and 8.1 combined, and still growing as people continue to order new PCs with Windows 7 pre-installed instead of 8.

I thought about posting suggestions to Microsoft to “fix” 8.1 and make it more acceptable to PC users and the business community, like get rid of the “Live Tiles Start” menu completely, move live tile icons to the desktop without auto arranging them, allow folders in the “Apps” menu for better organization, and allow the apps menu to only take a fraction of the screen instead of the whole screen.  Also allow “live tile” software to be “windowed” so it can be run from the desktop if we want.  Microsoft probably has heard these suggestions before, and they are not coming anytime soon so no point to dwell on them.  I think it is only a matter of time before they actually happen.  Maybe in Windows 9?

Despite these annoying shortcomings, there are some useful features in 8.1 worth keeping especially with tablets.

Pro Tip #1: After playing with Windows 8.1 for 10 days, I have come to the conclusion that the “Live Tiles Start” screen is completely useless and only exists so that the marketing boneheads at Microsoft can market windows desktops, windows tablets, windows phones and XBox One as being the same and cross compatible (see above picture) which they are not.

If you have Windows 8, upgrade to 8.1, if you have 8.1, right click on the taskbar (on a tablet you “right click” by pressing and holding down for a couple of seconds) and click “Properties” then the “Navigation” tab, then check everything. You will never have to look at that stupid dumbass “Live Tiles” start screen ever again!

There, now we have eliminated the most annoying thing in Windows 8.1

Pro Tip #2: Learn Touch screen gestures.  There are two  types of programs in Windows 8.1, classic “Windows” software, and new “Live tiles” software.  The biggest difference between the two is that the latter programs run in full screen, and they are missing the “red X” close icon in the corner.  The Windows 8.1 desktop is actually a “live tile” program itself.

Live Tile designed programs can run in the background and instantly recalled to the foreground just the way you left them, just by pointing to the left side of the screen and sliding to the right.  You can also open up to four of them side by side.

The “Desktop” is one such app sidebar item. The “Live Tile” Internet Explorer 11 is another. With one flick of a finger I’m on a browser, with another flick I’m back to Desktop.  The “Live Tile” version of IE11 is, in my humble opinion, the greatest browser ever made. No tool bars, or link bars, or search bars, or favorites, just nothing but web page filling the whole screen.  If you need the IE bars, just touch the bottom of the page and slide up (or right click on your mouse), then slide back down. Left swipe brings back the desktop again, easy peasy.

There are four basic gestures and they all start by touching an edge and sliding towards the center.  As pointed out, left edge slide right will switch from program to program.  Variations on this gesture will put two programs side by side, or a list of programs running in the background.  The keyboard equivalent is “alt tab”.

The right edge slide left brings up what Microsoft calls the “Charms” menu. This is basically the stuff that used to be in the start menu, like “Programs”, “Settings”, “Run/Search”, etc.  The keyboard equivalent is pushing the windows key.

The bottom edge slide up brings up the options of the current program you are running. This varies from program to program.  The options of the “Live Tile” version of IE11 is where you can find the address/search bar, favorites, tabs, history, and status, thus eliminating the need for that stuff to clutter your browsing window which now takes up the entire screen.  That’s why I like it, completely clutter free browsing (not counting the ads). On a keyboard hold the windows key and press Z, or if you have a mouse, right click.

The top edge slide down is how you close a program. That is why there is no need for a “red X” any more.  The left slide right gesture is a very cool way to switch from program to program, but it is easy to end up with a lot of programs open that you have to flip through before you reach the program you wanted.  Top edge slide down is how you get rid of those extra programs.  Alt+F4 on the keyboard still works, too.

Pro Tip #3: Invest in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, or at least a stylus pen.  The biggest drawback of a windows 8.1 tablet is the small screen, with small lettering, and the need to occasionally select stuff with fat fingers.  While you can do an awful lot with fingers and the onscreen keyboard, “House cleaning chores” such as transferring selected files and organizing them into folders are a lot easier with a keyboard and mouse.

Note: A bluetooth keyboard is a bluetooth keyboard.  I have one designed for Android that  I also use on my PS3, my Apple TV, and now my Windows Tablet. Apple keyboards work too as they also use bluetooth.  A “Wireless” mouse is not the same as a Bluetooth mouse, the former will not work on a tablet as they require a special USB dongle, so be careful what you get.

There are other ways to deal with the smallness of stuff, like set your folders to default to “Extra large icons” whenever a new folder is opened.  I also have extra large icons set on the desktop screen too.  I wish the taskbar had an option for large icons.  Add that to the list of things Microsoft needs to do to improve Windows 8.1.

Why Microsoft Just Won The Tablet Wars!

tablet

I figured that headline would get your attention.  You are probably thinking, “Who in their right mind would think that Microsoft is ahead of Apple and the various Android tablets when the market data says the exact opposite?”  I can explain it in five words:

Windows 8.1 on a tablet!

Now some of you are probably wondering why is that such a big deal, Windows tablets have been around since 2010.  Well not really: Based on size, weight, and battery life, every so called “tablet” that ran Windows 7 or 8 — up to and including Surface Pro which came out last February have basically been laptops with touch screens.

To me, and most of the buying public, tablets are defined by the original iPad: 9.6″ x 7.5″ x 0.5″ (24cm x 19cm x 1.3cm) weighing 1.5 lbs (0.7kg).  It’s the defining upper limit size for portable and mobile devices.

Until recently, “laptops with touch screens”, had to exceed those dimensions because the Intel class processors needed to run them required a larger cases.  That changed with the recent introduction of the Intel Atom quad core processor.

Up until now all “tablets” (both iOS and Android) ran on ARM processors primarily designed for smart phones, which are getting faster and more powerful and approaching PC speeds, but real computers run on Windows or OSX (or Ubuntu) which are not compatible with ARM architecture.  To find out why, ask someone who has a degree in Computer Science, but the answer for now is “they just can’t, OK?”

I hold in my hands a Dell Venue 8 Pro, sized 8.5″ x 5.12″ x 0.35″ (21.6cm x 13cm x 9mm) weighing 0.87 lbs (0.4kg), and it runs Windows 8.1.  Slightly bigger than the iPad Mini (7.87″ x 5.3″ x 0.28 at 0.69 lbs) and costing the same as an iPad Mini on sale, it is a real tablet.  The first small Windows 8 tablet (Acer Iconia W3) was rushed out this summer to poor reviews, but the newest ones from Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo are getting better reviews.  Microsoft, Dell, Asus and Samsung have 10″ tablets comparable to the iPad, at about twice the price.

Why is this such a big deal?  Tablets have been around only since 2010, and have been huge sellers.  Up until now tablets have been upscaled smart phones, relying on “apps” designed for smart phones to supply the software to run on these tablets. Windows 8.1 tablets represents a new trend:  Downsized PCs that can run all PC software natively.  That is huge!  Microsoft agrees with my assessment, but the tech gurus still don’t seem too convinced.

Recently ZDNet ran lists of 10 advantages and 10 disadvantages of Windows 8.1 tablets.  The truth is there are a ton of advantages not listed, like file and printer sharing between your PC and your tablet.  That means easy wireless transfer of files from your PC to your tablet without any messy USB patch cords.  Meanwhile, on the disadvantage list, 3 of the 10 disadvantages are the same thing: the lack of a decent app store, and the other 7 are bogus.

App stores are controlled and censored by corporate know it alls.  I’d love to sell my visual novels on Google Play and Apple Apps, but they would reject them due to “adult material”.  I have a two year old Android tablet that will not run iTunes purchased videos because iTunes can only run on iPads.  Guess what? iTunes also runs on Windows!

The point is that if your tablet is a downsized PC, there is not much need for an app store because there is a huge uncensored library of software already available.  In fact I am predicting this is the beginning of the end of the whole “app store” model.

Apple’s response to the threat posed by “downsized PC” tablets was to release iOS7, a more robust OS that is still primarily designed for phone use.  I would be shocked if Apple did not already have a prototype of an iPad running OSX Mavericks sitting in their development lab right now.  I’ll even go out on a limb and predict just such a device will be released by Apple within a year.

It’s only a matter of time before smart phones themselves are running operating systems designed for work PCs as well.  Eventually these pocket sized PCs will be powerful enough that we do not even need a PC.  This tiny Dell that I have in my hand will connect wirelessly to bluetooth keyboards mouses and speaker systems, and monitors via Miracast.  Plug a USB hub to the micro USB slot and you can connect external hard drives and DVD drives.  Suddenly, I am running a complete desktop PC setup off of a tablet sized computer.

Can’t do that with an android or iOS tablet (well you can but there really isn’t a point to it.)  I said it before, tablets are good at retrieving content, but you need a PC to create content.  “Dummy” workstations that you plug your phone sized PC into will become the norm for your content creation needs, while the PC itself can go with you.

The difference between Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT are HUGE!!

On another matter.  Yes, I know I have said a lot of hateful things about Windows 8.  I still believe that Windows 7 is the superior OS on desktops and non-touchscreen laptops.  The touch screen friendly “start menu” happens to be great on a Windows 8.1 tablet, which is what it was designed for, but Microsoft should have made it optional.  My desktop remains Windows 7 and luckily the PC and the tablet get along well with each other.

I still have much hatred for Windows “RT”, just as much as Windows CE a few years earlier.  Windows 8.1 RT is not Windows 8.1, be very careful if you are in the market for one of these tablets.  “RT” is a version of windows developed to run on the above mentioned ARM processors, but cannot run Windows programs designed for Intel architecture.  Result: you are stuck using an “app store” to get software.  Microsoft itself seems to be the only company still supporting “RT” and I am guessing the Surface 2 will be the second and last tablet to use it, though it still may show up on future Windows phones.  The more expensive Surface 2 PRO does not use RT.  So if you are in the market “Pro” is good, “RT” is bad.

On The Negative Side…

The biggest problem with a sudden focus from “big phones” to “small PCs” with tablets is that the accessories and software market isn’t ready yet.  Most of the games and other programs for PC are written with keyboard and mouse setups.  Older games want you to keep the original disk in the drive while you play, and in case you didn’t notice, there are no drives on tablets.  The USB port on my tablet isn’t very useful except to recharge my tablet, so a USB connected DVD player is probably a waste of money. Newer games want you to have a hefty graphics card in them to play, which the tablet has generic “Intel graphics” which are better than I had expected, but no match for my PC’s Nvidia graphics.

That means if you want to play games on the tablet you are limited to games that don’t require DVD drives or hefty graphics, which limits your choices considerably.  In other words, tablets aren’t good for PC gaming.

And if you do try to play games or other PC based programs, you will probably want to invest in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to run programs designed for PCs.  I have been able to get Second Life to run and it is fairly smooth graphically, but the client isn’t designed for tablets, the on screen walk and turn icons are too tiny for finger touching, but once I turned on my Bluetooth Mouse it started working a lot better.

I tried playing Something’s In The Air on the tablet and made the mistake of running it in full screen mode. When it asked me to enter a name for my character, the pop-up keyboard would not pop-up. Bluetooth keyboard to the rescue this time, but I’m probably going to need to add a soft keyboard to the game to make it usable on tablets. (making an Android version is still on my to-do list)

There are a few games designed to be played on Windows Tablets available in the XBox store, and the previously mentioned Windows App Store but the pickings are currently slim.  I am still very happy that keyboard and mouse PC gaming is still very popular, and I hope it stays that way, but as Apple Apps and Google Play demonstrate, there is room for tablet based PC gaming too, but the big money is still on the “big phone” ARM based tablets, so that’s where all the tablet gaming development is going these days.  “Small PC” tablets are so very obviously the future of tablets, and it is only a matter of time the market will be addressed.

A few pro tips I have found:

Change the default settings on mp3 and mp4 files to play with Windows Media Player, or you will get spammed with ads whenever you play a song or video.
I manged to set up windows media player libraries using my NAS as a source, which is way better that installing PlugPlayer to access media on Android and iOS.
Install Java before installing iTunes, and it will work a lot better.
Set up shared folders on your PC and on your tablet for easy file swapping. If your wireless network is up to the challenge, you may not need to do this much, as the tablet can stream audio and video right off my PC without copying files over.

8.1: Microsoft Doubles Down on Stupid

A century ago the typewriter was invented, and because of a mechanical problem, the makers of the typewriter designed the keyboard to be hard for people to learn and use.  A few decades later, the Dvorak Keyboard was introduced. designed to be much easier to learn and use, and yet people were so used to the old “qwerty”,  has never gone out of style, because people are used to it.

Windows 8 was an attempt by Microsoft to change the way PC users use their PC.  According to them, touch screen, is the wave of the future, and everyone should embrace it.  While touch screens are a great way to ACCESS content on a TABLET.  Nothing can beat CREATING content on a PC like the keyboard and mouse, and everybody knows this!  Windows 8 has been by every definition, a failure because of this truth.

In trying to get people back on board, Microsoft announced Windows 8.1, the answer to everyone’s complaints about Windows 8.  “We are bringing back the Start Button!”, and everyone cheered.  Guess what: All the start button does is bring up the ugly start screen everybody hates.

I found this review of Windows 8.1 helpful, except two points that are incorrect.

After spending several hours with devices running Windows 8.1, it remains unclear to me whether a touch-based environment is what traditional Windows users want to accomplish the productive tasks for which they’ve come to rely on Windows.

It is not unclear, I can already tell you. a touch based environment is NOT what traditional Windows users want. It’s a Dvorak Keyboard: might be easier, but we are used to what we are used to.

The issue is that there are over a billion personal computers that use some version of Windows as it existed until last October, when Microsoft unveiled Windows 8. All those PCs are responsive to mice and keyboards, not the touch screens and other input methods like voice and gestures that represent the future of computing. Making it easier to cross that bridge is one of the goals of Windows 8.1, a preview version of which Microsoft released Wednesday.

Voice and gesture do not represent the future of computing!  They represent marketing gimmicks that everyone is already sick and tired of.  I have an xbox with kinect, I have tried using gestures to negotiate a screen.  It gets old fast. If it is going to take longer than a couple of clicks to negotiate a menu, I grab my controller and do it that way.  The best known voice interface is “Siri” on the iPhone.  It is mostly a joke.  It is kind of cool, but does anyone really use it except maybe in the car?  According to a recent study, you should not even use it in a car.

Voice, gestures and touch screens on PCs are only useful for gaming. For actual productivity, especially in a work environment, the keyboard and mouse is never going to change.  One hundred years of “qwerty” proves it.  We went from typewriter and paper to keyboard and screen fairly easy, because it was an easy transition and an improvement in how we do our work.  Voice, gestures, and touch screens will never be used in the work environment,  and Microsoft had better figure that out soon, or we will all be using OS X and Linux.

The Mis-Marketing of Windows 8

In case you have not heard, Windows 8 is coming out October 26th, just one week from now.  If you have not heard this before it is not surprising.  There is practically no buzz brewing about Windows 8.  The upgrade from Android 4.0 to 4.1 generated more excitement.  So did the upgrade to iOS 6, though most of that buzz was negative, so it is probably good that Windows 8 is not generating that kind of buzz.  Much to the chagrin of PC makers, and Microsoft stock holders, Windows 8 is going mostly unnoticed.

First let me say that this essay is not an anti-Windows 8 rant. The truth is, I have never tried it, and the people that I trust who have tried it says it is fine, and perfectly backwards compatible, runs everything Windows 7 did and even boots faster and launches most program faster.  There are good reasons to upgrade, and I may one day upgrade myself — someday — but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Why? Blame the marketing, that is what this essay is about. In fact, if I get any info incorrect in this essay, you can blame the marketing too. I’m giving my impressions based on info that I have been exposed to (what little of it there is), so I may have some things wrong.  So be it.

I have the advantage of not being a shill for Microsoft, or work for any tech publication or website that depends on Microsoft advertisements or free handouts.  Therefore I can tell the truth about what we the average tech savvy crowd really thinks of Windows 8.

Marketing problem #1: It’s ugly as fuck!

Those screens you see above are atrocious.  I’m just saying what everyone is thinking. Red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, and white: That’s all the colors you are willing to use?  Look at the opening screens for Android tablets, look at the screens for iPad with iOS. They are cool, they are slick, they look what we imagine the next generation of tech should look like.  Windows 8 look like someone barfed a lego set.  I am certain at some point in the future, someone will find a way to customize the 4 bit color graphics to look really cool too. As soon as they do, Microsoft should give them a job.

Marketing problem #2: It’s basically an overlay

As I understand it, Windows 8 has two user interfaces.  One is basically Windows 7 without a start button (actually if you click where the start button should be you will still get the start menu), the other is the barf lego screen which they are calling the start menu.  The first interface is designed to work with the traditional keyboard and mouse, the second is designed primarily to work with touch screen controls.  Easy access to everything no matter which way you choose to interface.  Sounds great, except that 98% of all PC users use the keyboard/mouse (or touchpad) combo.  I work in an office filled with computer users, and most of them sit further than arms length away from their monitor.  Reaching out to touch a screen when you have a perfectly good keyboard and mouse right there seems like a chore.  Some people swear it is faster and easier to touch your monitor, but they said the same thing about Dvorak keyboards, and after 50 years most everyone still uses QWERTY.

Sure the new Start Menu can be negotiated with keyboard and mouse, but because it was not designed that way it is clunky to use.  It sounds basically like an “overlay” program, like Microsoft Bob.

Marketing problem #3: The Touchscreen OS

Microsoft is trying to sell the vision that the future is touch screen. That may be true, but they are making it sound like you HAVE to convert. Obviously, you don’t have to, but they are not marketing Windows 8 as an improvement over Windows 7, they are marketing it as a touch screen OS.

I have a touchscreen tablet, two in fact.  Receiving info from these devices is fast and efficient.  Watching videos, reading books and magazines, playing touchscreen games, and for the most part surfing the web are fast and easy on tablets.

What is not fast and easy is whenever you have to pull up the on screen keyboard to enter info.  As simple and as easy as pulling up info is on a touch screen tablet, the exact opposite is true when it is time to enter in info.  Keyboard and mouse are so much better for those tasks there can be no question.

Marketing problem #4: The REAL Touchscreen OS = RT, not 8

At the same time Microsoft is launching Windows 8, they are also launching Windows RT, a hobbled step child of 8 designed to run on tablets instead of PCs. I keep reading many articles that are getting these two confused.  For some reason it seems Microsoft wants us to get these two confused, to equate RT and 8 in our heads for some reason, despite the fact that RT is generating a lot of bad press.  RT is a closed off OS, with no traditional Windows interface, only Start Menu.  If you want software for RT you have to buy it from the Microsoft store.  RT is basically Microsoft’s version of Android or iOS.

Unless I am mistaken, Windows 8 is basically Windows 7 with a new Start Menu, and a couple of other enhancements. You can still run traditional PC software, games, and utilities on Windows 8 computers. RT is a hobbled version that can’t do that stuff.  The fear is that the next Windows OS, will only follow the RT model and leave old PC programs that are not compatible with RT orphaned.

I am of the opinion that the exact opposite will be true.  I’m betting RT devices will sell poorly, the next CE or the next Zune.  The competition in the closed marketplace model is too well entrenched to ever establish a decent market share.

Bottom line is that I want the PC market to stay alive.  Just as gaming consoles can never replace PCs, neither can touch screen tablets.  Therefore, I want to be sure that Windows 8 is the next evolution destined to make the PC better, not a distraction to a dead end.  The marketing department at Microsoft is not giving me much to be sure about.