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Building Windows 8

By Steve Ives, Posted on August 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm

As Microsoft’s new Build Windows conference draws ever closer the rumor mill about what the focus of the conference will be is gathering momentum. This is due in no small part to the fact that with the conference only two weeks away there is still no published agenda. But that doesn’t seem to have deterred people from attending, I would estimate that there are generally over 10,000 delegates at these events, and this conference has been sold out since early August!

That being said it’s not too hard to figure out from the name of the conference that the focus will be on the next version of the Windows operating system, which Microsoft have “code named” Windows 8! What might be a surprise to a lot of people however is the scale of the change that is on the way next year, because from all available information it’s looking like the default Windows 8 experience will be VERY different from anything that Windows users have experienced in the past.

This suspicion was confirmed recently when Microsoft posted a video entitled “Building Windows 8 – Video 1” on one of their development team blogs. The video was also uploaded to YouTube, and I’ve embedded it in this post … take a look:

As you can see the default Windows 8 experience is very different, and is sure to bring some new challenges for developers who want to deploy applications that take advantage of the new capabilities of the platform. From Microsoft’s demonstration it is clear that traditional Windows applications will continue to be supported, so there is no need to panic, but as software developers we all need to be thinking about how a change of this magnitude could affect our businesses.

For some time now Microsoft has touted WPF and Silverlight as the flagship technologies of choice for building UI’s for .NET applications. But with Windows 8 is all that about to change? The video makes it clear that the primary UI technologies used to build Windows 8 applications are HTML5 and JavaScript, neither of which have a particularly strong toolset presence in Visual Studio 2010. So for many of the developers at the Build Windows conference the main question will be “what’s new in Visual Studio 2012 and .NET Framework 4.5 that will help me build applications for Windows 8?”.

Clearly Microsoft believe that mobile and tablet devices are going to become far more predominant in the future, and are actively planning for this by merging the various operating systems that are used on the various types of computing platforms. And of course they are not alone in this endeavor as Apple’s recent release of OS X Lion also somewhat takes this approach, although not quite to such a radical degree.

Of course there is another group of people who also have a bunch of work to do, and that’s the hardware vendors. If Windows 8 is to be successful one would assume that the default for personal computer and laptop screens will need to change to be predominantly touch-enabled devices. While it is clearly stated in the video that the new UI will work just fine with a mouse and a keyboard, I for one am very skeptical about how WELL it will work in that mode! And of course the availability of the hardware is only a part of the story … we must also consider how long it will take companies to replace existing hardware with new touch-sensitive devices.

Now don’t get me wrong … I’m not suggesting for one minute that there will be a big rush to do so, and I’m absolutely suggesting that a major change of this type could take many years … but for some of us, with certain types of applications, in certain market places, adopting these new capabilities could offer significant rewards.

By the way, I’m not a betting man but I’d lay good money on the fact that there will be a setting to disable the new Windows 8 UI in favor of reverting to Windows 7’s Aero UI, and I’d also be comfortable predicting that many corporations will be doing just that. So again, don’t panic! While the new UI may make for a fabulous demo, and may be a fantastic way of interacting with photos and videos, and browsing the web, will it really provide a suitable platform for presenting business software to commercial users? Actually, in some cases the answer will be a resounding YES … but in other cases the more traditional approach to presenting applications will continue to be far more appropriate.

Of course in order for Synergy developers to be ready for Windows 8, Synergex must be ready first. I will be attending the Build Windows conference, as will three of my colleagues from the Synergy Development team. We’ll do our best to keep you informed about what we learn.

By the way, if you’re interested in keeping track of what’s going on with Windows 8 then a good place to start is Microsoft Development’s Building Windows 8 BLOG. The blog has some interesting articles, and already has several more videos discussing these new features.


“Applemania” and iPhone 4

By Steve Ives, Posted on July 1, 2010 at 1:22 pm

So I finally did what I said I would never do … I set out from home, in the wee hours of the morning, to stand in line for hours in order to buy something!  The venue? … my local AT&T store. The event? … the first in store availability of iPhone 4. In my lifetime I have never done this before, but I figured … what the heck! I grabbed my iPad for a little entertainment while in line and headed out around 3am.

I stopped off at the 24 hour Starbucks drive through on the way there and stocked up with a large black coffee and a sandwich, and by 3.15am I had staked my place in line. I was surprised that there were only around 20 people ahead of me in line, I was expecting more. Apparently the first guy in the line had been there since 7pm the previous evening … a full twelve hours before the store was due to open at 7am!

So how was the wait? Actually it was kind of fun. There were all kinds of people in line, from technology geeks like me, to teens with too much money on their hands, to families, and even a few retired seniors. Everyone was chatting away, and the time passed pretty quickly. It was a beautiful night out, not too cold, not too hot, and before we knew it the sun was rising at 5.30am. By this time the line had grown considerably longer, and by the time the store opened at 7 had probably grown to two or three hundred people! I remember thinking to myself that if the same thing was being repeated at every AT&T store in the country then there were a LOT of people standing in line.

Opening hour arrived and within a few minutes I was walking out of the store with my new phone and heading off for a day in the office.

So … was the new iPhone worth the wait? … ABSOLUTELY! I’ve been using an iPhone 3G for quite a while now and I was already in love with the thing. I’d skipped the whole 3GS iteration of the device, so the differences between my old phone and my new one was … staggering!

The new Retina display, with a resolution of 960 x 640 (vs. the 480 x 320 of earlier models) means that there are four times the number of pixels packed into the same amount of screen real estate. This translates to a screen which looks fabulous, and photos and videos which look considerably better.

Speaking of photos and videos, the upgrade to a 5MP camera and the addition of an LED flash finally make it possible to take reasonably good pictures and videos with an iPhone. There is also a new camera on the front of the phone; it is a much lower resolution (only VGA in fact) but actually that's perfect if you want to take a quick photo, or record a short video and then email it out to someone (especially if you on the new 200MB data plan … but more about that later).

The iPhone 4, like the iPad, uses Apples new proprietary A4 (computer on a chip) silicone, and I must say, the performance gain does seem to be considerable, even compared to the more recent 3GS models. Another benefit of this is that, despite the fact that the new device is smaller than pervious iPhones, there is more room inside for a bigger battery! This is great news, because battery endurance has never been one of iPhones strong points to date.

Of course one of the coolest new features is FaceTime … video calling between iPhone 4 users. I haven’t had a chance to try this out yet, but I’m looking forward to doing so soon. Apparently FaceTime only works over Wi-Fi networks, which is probably a good thing both from a performance point of view, and also potentially a cost point of view … which bring be to the subject of data plans.

In the past, in the US at least with AT&T, all iPhone users had to cough up $30/month for their data plan, and in return were able to use an unlimited amount of data. This was great because it meant that you could happily use your shiny iPhone to the full extent of its considerable capabilities and not have to worry about how much bandwidth you were actually consuming. But now … things have changed!

New iPhone customers now have a choice of two data plans. There is a $15/month plan which allows for 200MB of data transfer, or a $25 plan providing 2GB. AT&T claim that the 200MB plan will cover the data requirements of 65% of all iPhone users, which may or may not be true. Even if you opt for the more expensive 2GB plan you still have a cap, and may need to be careful. Personally I don’t think I’d be very happy on the 200MB plan, mainly because of things outside my control, like email attachments, which iPhone users don’t really have any control of.

I have been trying to find out what happens when you reach your monthly limit, but so far without success. One AT&T employee told me that on reaching your data limit the account will simply be changed for another “block” of data, without any requirement for the user to “opt in”. Another AT&T employee told me essentially the opposite; that network access would be suspended until the user opts in to purchase more data (similar to the way the iPad works). What I do know is that as you draw close to your limit you should receive free text messages (three I believe, at various stages) warning you of the issue. All I can suggest right now is … watch out for those text messages!

For existing iPhone customers, the good news is that your existing unlimited plan will be “grandfathered in” at the same rate that you currently pay, so we can all continue to consume as much bandwidth as we like and not worry too much about it!

Apple seems to have done a pretty nice job with the implementation of the recently introduced iOS 4. The platform finally has multi-tasking capabilities, which some may not immediately appreciate the benefit of, but it just makes the whole user experience so much more streamlined.  Also the new folders feature makes it easy to organize your apps logically without having to flip through endless screens of icons. Pair the advances in the operating system with the significant advances in the hardware of the new device and the overall impact is really quite significant.

Overall, I think Apple did a good job with the iPhone 4, but there are a couple of things I don't like. The main one is … well, with its "squared off" edges … the new device just doesn't feel as good in your hand as the older models. Also, no doubt you'll have heard all the hype about lost signal strength if the device is held in a certain way … well, I must say that it seems like there could be something too that. Unfortunately, when using the device for anything other than making a call, I reckon that most people hold the phone in a way that causes the problem! Of course Apple has offered two solutions to the problem … 1) don't hold the device that way … and 2) purchase a case!

But on balance I think the upgrade was worth it. There are so many cool new things about iPhone 4 but I’m not going to go into more detail here … there are hundreds of other blogs going into minute detail about all the features, and if you want to find out more a good place to start is http://www.apple.com/iphone/features.


Windows Live SkyDrive

By Steve Ives, Posted on June 28, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Have you ever wished there was an easy way to view and edit your documents on different computers, in different locations, in fact … from anywhere, and without having to carry USB thumb drives, or log in to a VPN. Well there is, and it’s free.

For some time now Microsoft have offered a free service called Office Live Workspace, (http://workspace.officelive.com) which went part of the way to solving the problem. Office Live Workspace essentially provides 5GB of free on-line storage, and a web-based portal, which allows you to upload, manage and view your files. It’s primarily designed to deal with Microsoft Office files, although other files can be stored there also.

Office Live Workspace worked pretty well, but it did have some restrictions, which meant that the experience was somewhat less than optimal. For example, when viewing a document it would be converted to an HTML representation of the actual document and displayed in the browser. You do have the option to edit the document of course, but doing so required you to have a recent copy of Microsoft Office installed on the computer that you were using. This is probably fine if you are using your own system, but was likely a problem if you were using a public computer in a hotel or an airline lounge.

On the positive side, if you did happen to be working on a system with a recent copy of Microsoft Office, and had the Windows Live Workspace extensions installed, it was possible to interact with your on-line storage directly from within the Office applications, similar to the way that you work with files on a SharePoint server, and this worked really well.

So, using Office Live Workspace from within Microsoft Office was a good experience, and at least you could get to, view and download your files from any Internet browser.

There is also another interesting product called Windows Live Sync, which kind of approaches the problem from another angle. Sync allows you to synchronize the files in one or more shared folders with one or more other computers. If you add a file on one computer it is replicated, pretty much instantly, to the other computers that “subscribe” to the shared folder. This is a very different approach, because although your documents clearly flow over the network (securely of course), they don’t get stored on network servers. So this is a great solution if you want to be able to edit a document at home, and have it magically appear in a folder at work so you can work on it the next day. But there is no access to the files via a web browser on some other computer.

Enter Windows Live SkyDrive (http://windowslive.com/online/skydrive), which seems to combine the concepts of both Office Live Workspace and also Windows Live Sync … and then adds even more.

SkyDrive is a free service providing 25GB of on-line storage. Like Office Live Workspace it has a web-based UI, which allows files to be uploaded, viewed, downloaded, etc. It is also possible, of course, to edit your files directly using your local Microsoft Office applications. So far so good … so what’s different?

Well, perhaps the main different is that as well as allowing documents to be viewed in your web browser, SkyDrive also integrates Microsoft’s new Office Web applications. So, not only can you edit your Word Documents, Excel Spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations locally, you can also do so directly in the web browser! You can even create new Office documents directly on the server in the same way.

Of course the new Office Web applications are somewhat cut-down versions of their desktop counterparts, in fact they only have a fraction of the capabilities of the full products, but never the less they are very usable, and allow you to do most of routine editing tasks that you likely need to for day to day work on your documents. Remember, this is all for free – pretty cool!

But there’s more … SkyDrive also provides Sync capabilities also. Not for the full 25BG of on-line storage, but there is also a 2GB “bucket” that you can use to setup synchronization of documents between computers … the difference is that the documents are also available on the SkyDrive. So now you can edit your documents locally at home, or at work … on your own computers, but still have access to them via a web interface when away from your own systems. Unfortunately the Office Web apps can’t be used on these synchronized files (hopefully that will change at some point), but you do have access to them from any browser.

By default everything that you upload or Sync through any of these products can only be accessed via your own Windows Live login … but you can setup shares and give others access to all or part of your storage too. And there is specific support for creating shared on-line photo albums too.

Oh, I almost forgot, if like me you use a combination of Windows and Mac computers then all of these products work just great on Mac too. In fact, personally I think the Office Live Workspace experience is actually better on the Mac than the PC! I have just finished testing SkyDrive on the Mac too, including Sync, and it works wonderfully well.

SkyDrive is currently a beta service, but is in the process of transitioning to full production use about now. I’ve been playing with it for a little while now, and it seems to work extremely well. Check it out.


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