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“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.


Preparing for Windows Phone 7

By Steve Ives, Posted on June 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm

By Steve Ives, Senior Consultant, Synergex Professional Services Group

Windows Phone 7

Later this year, probably, Microsoft are releasing a new version of their phone operating system, and it’s going to be a BIG change for developers who have created applications for the earlier Windows Mobile operating systems. The new O/S is called “Windows Phone 7”, and although under the covers it’s really still Windows CE, on the surface things will look VERY different.

Perhaps the largest single change will be the user interface of Windows Phone 7 devices, which will be entirely driven by Microsoft Silverlight. That’s potentially great news for existing Silverlight or WPF developers, but will of course mean a total re-write of the UI for developers with existing applications which were essentially based on a subset of Windows Forms.

Using Silverlight will mean that we can expect some dazzling UI from applications, and indeed the O/S and the standard applications provided with it already look pretty cool, but there will definitely be a learning curve for anyone who has not developed Silverlight applications before.

Part of the good news is that the basic tools that you need to develop Windows Phone 7 applications are free. You can download Visual Studio Express Phone Edition and have pretty much what you need to develop applications. At the time of writing though, these tools are in a “pre-beta” form, and as such you can probably expect some issues, and need to update the tools pretty regularly.

There is, in my humble opinion at least, also some bad news, not least of which is that Microsoft seem to have turned the Windows Phone platform into, essentially, another iPhone! While developers can use free development tools (or full versions of Visual Studio) to create their applications (just like with the iPhone) they will have to sign up for a $99 annual “Windows Phone Developer “subscription in order to have the ability to deploy their application to their physical phone for testing (just like with the iPhone).

It will no longer be possible to deploy applications via “CAB file” installations, in fact for anything other than developer testing, the ONLY way to get an application onto a Windows 7 Phone will be via the Microsoft “Windows Phone Marketplace” (just like with the iPhone). When a developer publishes an application to the marketplace they can chose whether the application is free, or is to be charged for. With iPhone development developers can submit an unlimited number of free applications, and many do. With Windows Phone 7, developers can only submit five free applications, and after that there will be a charge to submit further free applications. If an application is submitted for sale, Microsoft will take a 30% cut of any proceeds (just like with the iPhone).

Applications submitted for inclusion in the marketplace will be subject to “testing and approval” by Microsoft (just like iPhone apps), and apps may be rejected if they don’t meet the guidelines set by Microsoft (just like with iPhone apps). This inevitably means that some types of applications won’t be allowed. For example, with the iPhone it is not possible (in the US at least) to use “tethering” to enable you to plug your iPhone into your laptop in order to access the Internet via the cell phone network, and I would imagine we’re now going to see similar restrictions on Windows 7 Phone applications.

iPhone applications execute in a very strictly defined sandbox, and while this does afford a lot of protection for the platform (because, for example, one application can in no way interact with the data of another application), it can also seriously limit what applications can do. For example, on the iPhone it is not possible to save an email attachment (say a PDF file) and subsequently open that PDF file in another application, Acrobat Reader for example. While I understand the protections offered by the sandbox approach, as a user of the device I feel that it restricts too far what I can do with the device. The Windows Phone 7 platform is essentially exactly the same.

Other restrictions in the Windows Phone 7 platform that developers will have to come to terms with are:

  • No access to TCP/IP sockets
  • No access to Bluetooth communication
  • No access to USB connections to a host computer
  • No Windows Forms UI’s
  • No SQL Express access
  • No ability to execute native code via pinvoke (except device drivers, which must be approved by Microsoft)
  • No customization of O/S features (e.g. no alternate phone dialers)

One thing that strikes me as kind of strange is that, apparently, the web browser on Windows Phone 7 will not support Flash, and apparently will not support Silverlight either! The flash thing is kind of expected, both Apple and Microsoft seem to do everything they can to keep Flash of THEIR devices, but not supporting Silverlight (on an O/S where the entire UI is Silverlight) was a surprise … at first. Then I realized that if the browser supported Silverlight there would be a way for developers to circumvent all of the application approval and marketplace restrictions that I talked about earlier!

Another surprise was that, like all versions of the iPhone until iOS 4.0, Windows Phone 7 devices will only execute a single user application at a time. This is one of the main things that iPhone users have complained about through the versions, and Apple just learned the lesson, but it seems that Microsoft have decided not to. For developers this means that it is imperative that applications save their data and state frequently, because the application could be terminated (with notification and the ability to clean up of course) at any time.

One thing is for sure … Microsoft seem to be betting the company on “The Cloud”, and Windows Phone 7 falls straight into this larger scale objective. The vision is that this new device will be a gateway to The Cloud in the palm of your hand. It is expected that many applications may execute directly from The Cloud (rather than being installed locally on the device) and that the device will have the ability to store (and synchronize) data in The Cloud. Apparently these features will be included for free, with a limited (not announced) amount of on-line storage, and presumably fee-based options for increasing the amount of storage available. Of course using things in The Cloud is all well and good, until youfind yourself in a "roaming" situation, paying $20/MB, or more!

On the bright side, Windows Phone 7 devices will be available from a number of different manufacturers, so there will be choice and competition in the marketplace. Windows Phone 7 devices will (in the US at least) be available from a number of cell phone carriers, unlike Apples exclusive deal with AT&T.

While there is no doubt that Windows Phone 7 promises to be a seriously cool new device, and I have no doubt will sell in larger numbers than any of the predecessor Windows Mobile devices ever did, it remains to be seen whether it will have what it takes to be a serious competitor to the mighty iPhone. I can’t help wishing that Microsoft had done at least some things a little bit differently.


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