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.