Best of breed or single platform?

Throughout the 1990’s there was an ongoing battle between the geoscientists and IT departments of oil companies: Best of breed or single platform? The options were simple; did you choose the best tool for each job in the geoscience workflow or did you choose all applications from a single vendor so that communication between the disciplines became simpler. The argument often divided along the lines of the IT department wanted the single solution because it meant lower support costs, the geoscientists wanted the latest toy to play with. Sorry, best tool for the job.

Well, it seems to me that the question is being played out again, this time across the consumer technology space. The amount of money and effort that the major players are putting in to get you to buy your hardware, apps,and services from the same source is vast. So if you buy an iPhone, you will buy an iPad and all your apps, bought from the iTunes store will be available on both devices. If you (possibly foolishly) buy a Windows Phone, then the pressure to buy a Microsoft Surface just increased  and the same with an Android phone and accompanying tablet getting all the applications from GooglePlay or Amazon.

But this is ignoring the question of what is the single best device for what you want to use each of them for? The current PC Pro A-list devices show that the best phone is an HTC One and the best tablet is an iPad. What cost the inter connectivity? I can’t comment on that exact cross breed conundrum, but I am currently experimenting with it: As previously documented I went down the Windows Phone route. Yes, I do feel burned by the decision to not offer an upgrade path from WindowsPhone 7 to WP8,but at least I had entered the whole situation with my eyes open to the risks. So, when I decided that I did actually want to have a content consumption device I faced the decision; stick with the Microsoft ecosystem and by a Surface tablet (or AN Other Windows RT device) or go and find the best tablet out there. Guess what, I chose the path less well trod. And even less well trod than that, after a bit of Bat research and knowing what use I primarily wanted to put it to (watching movies and the like whilst on a train) I picked a Google Nexus 10.

Is it nicer than an iPad? From a pure hardware perspective, yes it probably is. Is the app store as good? Honestly, no it isn’t. Apps that allow you to download content on an iPad only allow streaming on the Android device. How about the price of not having seamless integration? I’m just not the right person to ask about that. I’ve enjoyed playing with a new toy, I mean best tool for the job. But would I recommend this approach to my wife, mum or children? No- honestly, stick with the iPhone, iPod, iPad. You may have paid more for it, but it will just work.

The evolution of the technology we use

Five years ago I wrote that I divided the technology solutions I used into three categories:

  1. Permanent presences, which was (and still is for most of us) a smart phone
  2. Mobile solution, which was the lightest, most portable, fully functional laptop that I could find
  3. Base station (which I said at the time was a desktop)

Well in the intervening years things have changed. The smart phones have got a lot smarter, though mainly in how easy it is to do something. There is not a lot that I can do now on an iPhone or the like that I couldn’t do on my Nokia from back then, but it’s a lot easier now (and the screen is a lot bigger). And with ease of use comes the desire to actually use all the functionality-so watching films or TV on a phone is not that painful now. And this is resulting in a trend in the technology world that I am not convinced by. OK there have been lots of trends that I have been skeptical of, but this time I may actually be flying with the crowd and not against it. The trend in phones is  for bigger and bigger screens. Now, at this point you have to remember my classification of a phone it’s my ‘permanent presence’- it’s the thing I always have with me. Which means that I need to be able to put it in my pocket. 4 inches fits comfortably (stop sniggering at the back) but much bigger and it’s getting a pain to keep it with me all the time.

So why do we need bigger screens? Watching movies, browsing the web, playing games are the things that most commonly are mentioned. All of which fit into a new (4th) category that I now propose:

4. Content consumption

By this I mean the very things that Steve Jobs saw when he released the iPad. I admit that I was skeptical about the iPad thinking that it was nothing more than a blown up iPod. And in a way I was right and wrong; there is nothing (OK, very little) that you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPod touch,  but it is just that bit nicer to watch a film or browse the web on a bigger screen. I mean if it weren’t, why would we all be buying 50″ TV screens?

So now I find myself with a tablet, a smart phone and a honking big base station. I have managed to move away from the mobile solution, but as I am finding as I type this blog entry on a touch type screen, although the content consumption device can be used for content creation, it really isn’t as nice. So I’ll still leave the mobile solution in there. Maybe the extra split is unnecessary, but it seems to fit for now

What phone do you drive?

My wife asked me a question last night- for a change it wasn’t “Have you locked the front door?” but she was puzzling why anyone would buy an iPhone. Functionally you can get a phone that does almost everything that an iPhone does, but for considerably less.

I was stumped until I posed her a question: “Why would anyone buy a Mercedes?”. And so I sat back rather pleased with myself at coming up with a simple to understand analogy to the iPhone question. I thought about this a little more and realised that I had actually hit upon something- an iPhone really is quite like a Mercedes- it does exactly the same job as a Ford or a Toyota, but it just does it with a little more style, a little more comfort and just the merest hint of a statement.

Which then got me to thinking, if an iPhone is a Mercedes what about the other major players in the phone market? Let’s stick to the ecosystems for now, which limits us to Blackberry, Windows Phone, Android and Apple’s iOS. So if an iPhone is a Mercedes, what does that make an Android phone? I think it’s a GM because the underlying brand is diluted by all the different flavours of the phone makers; just as an Opel is subtly different from a Vauxhall which is different again from a Chevrolet and so on, so is Android just a little bit different if you buy a Samsung, an HTC or whatever else.

So how about Blackberry? All about the business, driven slightly differently? It’s got to be BMW. Business focus? Check. Driven differently (rear wheel drive as opposed to physical keyboard)? Check. We are making progress.

Which brings me to my current phone OS of choice; Windows Phone. What car maker is a Windows Phone? I think it’s probably an Alfa Romeo. No, stick with me on this, think about it: An Alfa looks gorgeous, so does Windows Phone. There aren’t as many dealers and spares are a bit harder to come by, which is pretty much what it’s like getting apps for a Windows Phone. It’s also a bit quirky and you stand out from the crowd (whether you want to or not). Which is just the way with a Windows Phone.

So there it is, a short, sweet analysis of what phone you drive. Here’s to the ones who think differently. And here’s to those of us who have a Windows Phone and BMW 3 series- just how confused are we!

What price privacy?

My last post was written on a Windows Phone and I was wondering what it was going to be like to use and whether or not I’d be able to blog more frequently. Well, I’m still not blessed with vast amounts of free time, but I’ve got time for this one.

There has been quite a lot of coverage over the last week because Google has changed its privacy policy so that your personal information can be shared across all its services. I am not quite sure why people have been so shocked by this- after all even though Picasa, Google Earth and the rest were acquired separately, they are now part of a single company. So why shouldn’t Google be allowed to share the information? As an analogy, if a supermarket chain buys a string of convenience stores and re-brands them; you, as the consumer, benefit from lower prices and a consistent choice of product ranges; they in turn are able to capture your loyalty card profile in all their stores. So why should it be any different for a company that sells information about you?

Well, to me at least, that last point is the critical aspect. How much information do we want other people to know about us? And how much do we want to be involved with the decision? There are good arguments for an organisation that wants to sell advertising space to know a bit about me- after all I am a forty something year old male, so advertisements for female hygiene products are going to be a waste of time, space and bandwidth for all concerned. So it can easily be acknowledged that a little targeting is a good thing. But where should it stop?

Google used to provide a page where you could see what it knew about you- for example it had worked out that I am male, aged between 35 and 45 and interested in technology, mobile phones and a few other things. Google knew that my wife is female, about the same age as me and interested in celebrity gossip. This had all been worked out from our web history. I found this interesting and told a few people about it- not surprisingly it was pretty much spot on for everyone. And although this information had been collected without my explicit knowledge, I could at least see what Google had worked out about me.

And now Google has created a single overall privacy policy and is conducting a charm offensive like no other to convince you and I that we should trust them with our personal information. And to aid in this there is a new Ad Preference Manager where we can explicitly block certain advertisers. This is largely a good thing. I have a mantra that I use in my professional life “explicit by statement, not implicit by omission”- this means that if you are building a system that is going to deliver this functionality but not that, then you should state somewhere that “we will NOT be doing that” instead of just leaving it out. Google are adopting this approach through two methods:

  1. You can explicitly state what interests you have
  2. You can control who you do not wish to see advertising to you (up to a limit of 500 advertisers at least).

However, what one hand gives, the other takes away: it does not appear possible any more to see what Google knows about you. So have they deleted the existing profile? I think not. My best guess is that the old inferred profile will be combined with the new explicit interests and you will hopefully finish up with even more accurately targeted adverts. The question is, do you want this?

The start of this post stated that I had been using a Windows Phone, with an operating system written by Microsoft. Now Microsoft have a huge number of detractors, but as far as I know, they don’t particularly care who I am. They care whether my copy of Windows is Genuine and whether I am using the latest version of Office. But they don’t care about me. Unlike Google. My test of the Windows Phone concluded with the decision that the OS is really nice, the app support is significantly weaker than either iOS (from Apple) or Android (from Google) and the overall price probably somewhere between the two. So you are faced with an interesting choice: it can be argued that Android is the ‘best’ mobile phone subsystem at the moment, but you have to give away your privacy. With a Windows Phone you pay more, get less functionality but keep yourself to yourself. And with Apple you pay even more, you may or may not keep your information private and join the mass of fan-boys.

So what to do? How much more am I willing to pay to keep my information private? And how much functionality am I prepared to forgo for the same aim? And what about you?

The 3rd ecosystem

My blogging frequency has dropped massively in the last three years and there are two very good reasons (and their mother) that explain it. With recent advances in technology there is a chance that I’ll be able to start blogging again- and this post is the first one to test that theory.
It seems to me that there are 4 major mobile ecosystems at the moment: Apple, Google, Microsoft and Blackberry. Apple and the fan-boy army of iPhone slaves have been setting the pace for 4 yeasts or so. Google and the nearly open-source Android is now the biggest smartphone OS (at least by volume) and Blackberry was dominant in the push e-mail, business world until everyone else worked out how to do it. And bringing up the rear was (and is) Microsoft.
To compound matters for the boys from Redmond they have aligned themselves with a bunch of Finns who haven’t made a decent smart phone since before the very first iPhone came along. So who in their right mind would start using a Nokia Windows phone? Well, right now, that would be me. I admit that a major reason for this is that Nokia are offering a 40 day trial and if you don’t like the phone you get 100% of your money back. So, as long as you remember when the return deadline is, this is a risk free trial.
But given the history, why would you even bother? Well, the press keeps giving Windows Phone and the latest Nokia phone really good reviews. And although you may not agree with much of the tech press you do have to accept that they go test a wide range of phones, so they may know a little bit about what they are speaking about. So given the press reviews and the risk-free nature of the trial, I figured I had nothing to lose.

So, how is it going? Much as it pains me to admit it, the phone is really rather good. Certainly better than an Android phone I had 6 months ago and probably better than the iOS device I had a year ago. Sure there are missing apps (Skype where are you?) but for most things that you actually want to do with a smart phone, it just works. And works bloody well.
Will I keep the phone? I’m undecided- Google has massively improved its privacy policies and it does offer a better suite of functionality. But I kind of like this phone. The next 3 weeks are going to be interesting 🙂

Ranting and Privacy

The advent of web sites such as Facebook and Twitter has given people a place to let off steam: A large attraction of Facebook and the sole purpose of Twitter is to publish what you are doing or how you are feeling right now. This is great for friends (real or on-line) to feel as though they are involved in your life, laugh with you at the amusing things that happen and possibly even provide comfort and support should things not be going well.
The only downside to this concept is that the very immediacy of the publishing and the public nature of the internet means that thoughts and words that should, at best, be muttered under your breath or even locked and trapped in the dark recesses of your mind find their way out, into the public  domain and in the best traditions of Pandora’s box, once opened there is no recalling the tweet or status update.
A recent lawsuit highlights the possible consequences of such utterings and there have been numerous cases of people being fired for updating their  Facebook status with ‘God, I am bored. This job sucks. My boss is a complete to$$er’ or something similar.
Now obviously I am aware that only ‘friends’ can see your status on Facebook and you can protect your tweets on Twitter. So you could argue that anyone dumb enough to post something that could conceivably be libellous or even just offensive gets everything they deserve, but other recent events mean that even if you are careful, the privacy police may be after you.
If you apply to work for the city council in Bozeman, Montana you are now required, at the interview stage, to provide the interviewer with your username and password to all the social network sites that you are a member of. This means that your future employer will be able to see your thoughts and actions that were previously only known to your friends.
Alternatively, if you are at school, you may be required (not requested, required) to provide your username and password if members of staff believe you have posted something that may be offensive.
Both of these situations worry me. A lot. Yes, we should have right to privacy. Yes, you are pretty dumb if you post something on Facebook that could offend (even if it is nothing more than ‘Sarah, the Cheerleader has a big fat butt’) but the very purpose of these sites is that you are able to post to your circle of friends and should be unafraid of the
I recently had a really crappy day at work. I wanted to post something to this effect, but I was concerned that, somehow, this would become public and my bad day would get far worse. So I didn’t post, I showed the best stiff upper lip I could and got through the day. But I wish I could have vented a little. It could have helped. Maybe

Do you have the time?

When I was at school I had a conversation with my physics teacher, Mrs Price, that truly was a butterfly effect moment. As a result of that coversation I finished up studying geophysics. At the time it was somewhat of a niche subject (come to think of it, it probably still is) but I genuinely found it fascinating (and I still do). The BBC has produced a couple of series recently that had me reaching for my text books again only to realise that I need to sit back and enjoy the Wonders of first the Solar System and then the Universe. As a quick aside, the series titles do beg the question; Where do you go next? You know, after you’ve done the Solar System and the Universe. Is there a multi-verse? Are we alone? What if it all means something? Or even worse, what if it all means nothing? (Or should that be the other way around?). Either which way, the two series demonstrate many of the things that the BBC does best and Brian Cox makes a pretty decent presenter, given that his day job is a Professor of astrophysics at Manchester University and he used to be in a (moderately successful) rock band. Oh and apparently he’s quite good looking too. Yup, he’s the kid we all used to know at school who was just too good at everything. If he didn’t come across as being such a nice chap you could really grow to dislike him.

But back to what I learnt at university: The single biggest concept that you need to get your head around in geophysics is “time”. Geology exists over such a long time that it makes your head hurt and no amount of analogy of compressing the lifetime of the earth into a single day makes it any easier. And in a somewhat related fashion, the 2nd biggest concept to get your head around in the bit of geophysics that I finished up studying is “space”. Which does mean that according to Einsteins’s theory of general relativity actually there is only 1 concept because of that mind-bending concept of space-time, but that’s a subject for another day.

 We, on this small, blue dot spend our days busily doing things and sometimes we fail to notice the passing of time. Sure, on a geological scale we are just a blip but that shouldn’t stop us noticing the changes going on all around us. I am fortunate that I have 2 sons and 2 daughters who seem to change each and every time you turn around to look at them. And every now and then we need to take the time to stop and realise the things that are precious to us and saviour them.

I was browsing back through some old photographs of my kids (thanks to digital photography that’s a lot simpler than it used to be) and it too my breath away to see the changes in them. Of course, we know that they grow, but if you are lucky enough to see your children every day then you probably get totally consumed with the minutae of the day to day routine. But we shouldn’t. We should find time. It’s worth it, I promise you.

A new empire

Here’s a number of odd things; first up, this is the first post in over two years- let’s see if we can start to generate regular posts and increase readership.

Secondly, I am suffering a bit from single source syndrome. A few years ago we all hated Microsoft- you pretty much had to use their Operating System (in which ever flavour of Windows you wanted); most people were stuck with some form of Office (or even worse, Works) and sitting on top of the heap was Internet Explorer.

Then Firefox came along, OpenOffice made a decent stab at things and you could even get adventurous and try your hand with a ‘consumer’ version of Linux. I have used these alternatives, frequently with a conscientious effort to avoid the Microsoft solution and along the way I came to some conclusions

You can Linux if and only if you never want to try anything beyond basic browsing, possibly some e-mail and the occasional letter that you are going to print out. That is of course, unless you are a total geek and want to get right under the hood. So, Linux appeals to the very top and very bottom of the tech knowledge scale

OpenOffice does apppeal to a wider audience- most people can get it to work. In fact, to many people it looks just like MS Office used to look. Which is kind of the problem. Love Microsoft of loathe them, every now and then one of their usabilty innovations actually works. My feelings on the ribbon are documented but over the last couple of years (and in particular with the advent of Office 2010 and the ability to modify the ribbon) I’ve come to accept the change. What I can’t deny is that non-techy users do seem to like the ribbon approach and it does look more modern than the traditional install of OpenOffice.

Firefox managed to plough the most successful furrow: Now not only do you have Firefox, you have Chrome and if you want to feel like a Mac fan-boy, you can even install Safari. All work well as browsers- in many cases actually better than Internet Explorer and so you can now feel a nice heterogenity. You are not beholden to a single vendor for your complete IT solution. But why is this important? Why should you care? After all there are many, many people who buy everything from Apple. OK, yes we do make fun of these people. But if it works for them, why was there the backlash against Microsoft all those years ago? And why should we maintain a hybrid solution?

The best analogy I can come up with is financial planning and investing. The ‘best’ strategy is to spread your portfolio across a number of sectors, with different investment funds etc. So it is with computers- less so for the fact of making money and more keeping the vendor honest.

Which is why I am currently having such a problem. The world has changed since I last thought about the IT solutions we use, not least of which is the power available in the ‘permanent presence’ category. We are bombarded with advertising to buy the latest iPhone, Blackberry, Android or even a Windows Mobile smartphone. Not so much on the Nokia front, but that’s the subject of a whole other rant.

I honestly can’t justify the cost of an iPhone, Windows Mobile is still immature (I’ll wait til Nokia kicking out some handsets to reserve judgement on that platform), Blackberry costs too much to implement as a (very) small business and Android seems to have all the momentum. Which is why I now find myself with a very sexy little HTC Desire S sat beside my on my desk. It seems to do all the things you need of a phone i.e. make and receive calls and text messages. And it does the smart things too: It plays music, takes photos, allows you to watch videos and keep the world updated with what you are doing right now (even if it is still beyond me as to why you would want to let anyone know what you are doing- though I will be updating that thought process in a little bit).

OK, it is all a little bit more complicated to do all these things than it is on an iPhone, but with a bit of gentle persuasion you can get it to work. The problem is that I feel as though I’ve swapped one empire (Microsoft) for another one (Google). And here’s the thing- Google may profess to doing the right thing, but there’s a number of areas of the phone that really bug me:

  1. Why does the MarketPlace need to submit data in the background? No, if I want to buy something, I go to shop. I don’t want you working what I might need in the backgroun
  2. Don’t link my Facebook account with my phone book and my LinkedIn account. They are separate for a reason; I don’t want my boss to know that when he calls I have replaced his real name (Alan) with my nickname for him (Dylan) because he reminds me of a character on the Magic Roundabout
  3. Oh and if you do link me in, you should make it just as easy to unlink the accounts after, not a some obscure submenu of a security setting.
  4. Why do I need to use some many applications from Google just to listen to a podcast offline?
  5. Don’t put adverts for songs in my music player. As with the MarketPlace issue, if I want to browse for a song on Amazon’s MP3 store, I’ll go there. Don’t suggest new music when I am listening to my old music

There’s more in terms of frustrations and maybe I’ll rant about them later. But what really concerns me is the level of information that Google is receiving about me- and much of it ‘in the background’ or put another way ‘when I am not looking’. I have a  straightforward request, you want me to you send me stuff, tell me and make sure I know exactly what it being sent, possibly each and every time. You want to worm your way into my social, financial and other preferences: SOD OFF!

Upgrade, what upgrade?

One of the benefits of being a frequent flyer is that occasionally, just out the of the goodness of their heart, an airline may decide to upgrade you from the cheap seat in the back of the plane to a much larger, much more comfortable and far better fed seat at the front of the plane.

On journeys that cross an ocean this truly is a treat, and the only danger is that you get so used to the superior service that the prospect of travelling in the back fills you with fear and dread.

On intra-continental journeys the upgrade is frequently less impressive; in Europe the expensive ‘business class’ seats are actually the same width as the cheap seats at the back. Also, the extra legroom for business class is typically available through the first 7 or 8 rows rather than just those defined as premium. On the other hand, the food is normally good and the service is far, far improved from that typically received by the cattle in the back.

A few weeks ago I was given an upgrade on my regular, early morning flight to the Netherlands. Though, upon reflection, before embarking on this particular rant, I should perhaps explain my routine on this particular flight that takes of at 6am:

  1. Drive into the airport car park between 5:05 and 5:15am (depending on how enthusiastic I have been about getting out of bed- let’s face it, I can hardly blame traffic congestion at that time of the morning)
  2. Walk to the terminal and pick up the ‘Priority’ sticker on my Boarding Pass (there are privileges to being a frequent flyer- and one of them is swooshing through the security checkpoint and incurring the wrath and looks of daggers of the waiting tourists as they line up for hours on end)
  3. Grab a muffin and OJ from the business lounge and wander along to the aeroplane so that I am boarded by 5:50
  4. Install my butt in a none-too-comfortable seat and stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me; place Bose QC2 Noise Cancelling headphones over my ears, pull a sleep mask over my eyes and, if the plan has worked, fall asleep right around the time the Flight Attendant is showing us the way to exit the aeroplane should there be an emergency
  5. Ideally, I will then wake up as we pull up to the gate in Amsterdam, approximately 100 minutes and 1 somewhat fitful but thoroughly needed nap later.

This system seems to work fairly well for all concerned, so why would there be an issue if I was given an upgrade? Well, the upgrade consisted of

a)No food
b)A ‘bulkhead’ seat

Given my previously stated plan to sleep through the entire flight, the lack of food would not be a problem (it would be on a long haul flight, but the increase in seat size would probably make up for that). No, my issue is with the whole concept of the fact that a bulkhead seat is somehow better than a non-bulkhead seat. The reason I choose to sit where I do is so that I can extend my legs under the seat in front. Now I am not the tallest guy on the planet, far from it, but years of various sporting abuses has left me with a knee that doesn’t take kindly to being cramped and bent for too long. Having a seat in front means I can extend my legs out fully, the result of which is that I am able to walk off the plane at the other end rather than limp. Obviously, the person at the check in desk was unaware of why I choose to sit where I do, but when I looked at my ‘upgrade’ and rejected the change of seat I threw the whole system into chaos.

According to the airline, not having any food and not having any leg room must be better than my previous seat because now I was in ‘Business Class’. I tried to politely explain that I didn’t want the seat that they had assigned me, I wanted the seat that I had chosen for myself, but this was not possible, instead, I had to take it up with the cabin crew.

Fortunately, as is often the way, the people actually in the firing line (the cabin crew) quickly resolved the issue and I was able to sit in seat that would not cause me pain. But it still begs the question: Why have airlines invested in all the technology to allow on-line check-ins and self selection of exactly the seat you want only to then totally override your choice? Then if you do decide not to accept the change why is it such a major hassle? And finally, and most crucially, why do they think that a service that too most casual observers would appear inferior is an ‘upgrade’ simply because you are sitting in a different section of the plane?

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much- after all, at least I am assigned a seat and may be offered food (even if I choose to sleep right through it all)

Nonsense Poems

In the realms of posts about silly things, this is a good one. Poetry is and has been a noble art for many years- dating back to the Greeks and Romans, all the way through Middle English and the epics of Milton, stopping to pause on the sonnets of Shakespeare before landing up with Roger McGough, Pam Ayres and Jon Hegley. Much of this has been magnificent literature- though I must admit that although I tried to read Paradise Lost I gave up after a couple of books and just read the summaries presented at the start of each book. I am still able to quote from some works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (much to the embaressment of my children) but as the first sentence said, this is about silly poetry.

There are many examples of funny poems: Roger McGough has the ability to touch your heart or make you laugh. Pam Ayres is well known for her touching and wry view on much of life and there are many others. In fact the BBC is declaring May 2009 to be Poetry month; I guess we’ll see how successful it is. But I just want to quote from a little poem by William Hughes Mearns. Because it amuses me, in its nonsense and strange view.

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there

He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away

Sometimes I feel as though my life consists of meeting people who aren’t there, but that’s OK. The poem reminds me that others feel the same way too