Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The beat goes on

Yesterday Apple revealed their long awaited entry into the streaming music field. They were able to do this quickly because of the acquisition of Beats last year, and the systems and intellectual property that came with that purchase. Considering that the music reveal was pretty much the only big news out of a pretty benign developer keynote, I'll take a few moments to talk about what I think about it.

Apple was perhaps the defining company in the music revolution of the past 20 years. With the introduction of the iPod that revolutionized portable music, to the creation of the iTunes store and the eventual death of DRM, Apple has been at the forefront of digital music. This leadership comes with high expectations to continue to lead, and so many people have long questioned Apple not getting into the streaming music business quicker.

For the past few years new companies have come forth to lead the change in the streaming music evolution. From Pandora and its ability to create unique stations for listening, to Spotify and it's vast collection of listen-on-demand music, streaming music has become the way that many people interact with digital music. In particular, Spotify is considered the market leader in this space, giving people access to a vast collection of 30 million songs. Needless to say, they were the biggest target that Apple needed to address yesterday.

What Apple revealed certainly addressed the direct competition from Spotify, but they also tried to revive a long dead product from before it's time. Quite a few years ago in 2010, Apple tried to create a music social network called Ping. It was nicely designed, and allowed for artists to connect to fans in new ways. But, it was pretty much a failure. It wasn't accessible to people outside of the iTunes app, and it lacked the support it needed with integration to other social networks, to really take off.

This time around, the landscape is different. Apple's Connect service will bring much of what Ping was supposed to be to the new Apple Music service. It is also targeted at indie artists as a way to connect with their users. Hopefully, Apple is smarter this time around and will create much deeper ways to integrate than simply through the Apple Music app.

That brings up a point that I found the most surprising of the day, the eventual launch of Apple Music on Android devices. Apple is finally learning from Google and Microsoft, that sometimes you need to be everywhere, even on your competitors devices. I think that the inclusion of a new Android app, as well as the Windows apps that will undoubtedly work on both desktop and phone, will help bring Apple Music a lot further than it could go just on Apple hardware.

I'm looking forward to where Apple takes its new music service. I've been an iTunes user for a long, long time, but I haven't committed to any particular streaming service. Perhaps when I get to play with Apple's new service it will change my mind.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The NEW Microsoft

Today Microsoft held their Build conference keynote. As with Apple and Google, developer conference keynotes have become a mainstay of announcements for the general public beyond developers. At first it seemed that Microsoft would be bucking that trend today as the first portions of their keynote were very, very developer centric.

However, a lot changed when they started talking about Windows 10. Microsoft is betting the future on building a platform that applications will build off of. Much like Apple and Google, they seem to be discovering that the real money isn't in the operating system itself, but in helping bring applications to consumers through validated app stores. In Microsoft's case it's also seeking to converge all of their platforms into a single unified platform. They once again reiterated today that Windows 10 will run on all of the devices that are out there, from phones to tablets to PC's to XBox game consoles. This means that applications can be written once, and then deployed with the appropriate user interface, depending on the form factor.

This was announced a while ago, but it was cool to see it in action today as well. The biggest news in my opinion though was how developers can bring apps to the Windows Store. The first was packaged web apps, similar to how Chome operates. The second was the traditional Win32 and .Net space, again not much surprise here. The third pathway however was recently rumored, and it didn't disappoint. Microsoft is going to support Android apps within Windows 10. There will be a small runtime embedded in the operating system that will allow Android apps to run on Windows Phones. This is a huge win for the lack of apps that are currently available for the Windows platform.

This was only the first of two surprises. The second was the announcement that Windows 10 will support Objective-C, the primary programming language of iOS, and that iOS apps will be able to be ported to Windows with very minimal changes. This is another big step at being a platform that is available everywhere.

What I find so fascinating about this is that Microsoft is positioning itself as the landing spot for anything you want to do with your technology. They're the first vendor to basically say the operating system wars are dead, and the new battlefield is providing platforms for applications. The real way to the hearts and minds of consumers today is providing technology services to meet them where they need to work. By aiming for an "any service in any place" model Microsoft is actually leading a new paradigm that others are now going to have to follow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Push it... push it real good...

The other day I got a chance to play with the new Apple force touch trackpad. This is a new design that Apple has put on their laptops for non-mechanized clicking on trackpad. When you press on the trackpad it senses the force that you're pressing with, and when you reach a certain level, you feel a 'click'. If you keep pressing, you feel a second 'click'. The unique thing is that these 'clicks' aren't physical in nature. The trackpad never moves at all, but the click that you feel is from haptic feedback. In essence, when you press with enough force, the trackpad clicks back at you. You feel the sensation of clicking, but it's simply the trackpad responding to your pressure.

I got to play with this for a while, since the Apple Store rep was talking with us about soccer, and after a short bit I was getting the hang of it. I feel that it would take quite a bit longer though to really feel comfortable with this new paradigm. I'm someone who has a hard time with trackpads in general, not really preferring them to a good old fashioned mouse. I've gotten more accustomed to them over the years, but still feel like I don't have quite the same measure of control. For example on the Lenovo that I use at work, the trackpad has the buttons mechanically built into the pad. What happens more often than not, is that I can't locate the right spot to get a right-click vs a left click. This might just be poor design on the part of Lenovo, but it's something that I never struggle with on a real mouse.

Now that I've played with the new trackpad I'm anxious to try the new Apple Mac Book. One of my favorite MacBooks that I've ever owned was the 12 inch model, so I can't wait to see how this new one feels.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Welcome do double digits Mr. Windows

This past week was big for Microsoft and it's future with Windows. Windows 10 was given star status at a press reveal, showing off all of the new features that will be coming in this highly anticipated update to many of our desktops. I watched the live blog of the event, and have been reading over a lot of the reviews of the new technology that Microsoft is looking to deploy.

My initial reaction is to be impressed. Much of what was wrong with Windows in the past seems to be a focal point for fixing in Windows 10. A few key things stood out to me as areas that I'm anxious to see more.

First, I have to applaud Microsoft for being willing to step back from a design decision (Metro) that didn't pan out they way that they wanted it to. They took what they learned from that experience and have incorporated it into the regular desktop experience in a way that is much more seamless and useful. In fact, Microsoft is ahead of the curve in how they are presenting a user interface experience that crosses form factors. The ability of a single operating system to work on multiple devices, and change it's UI as the device itself may change, is very innovative and remarkable. Tablets have been adapting their user experience based on size and orientation of the tablet screen, but very few operating systems have had to deal with the possibility of being a full desktop OS and a tablet OS while switching between the two seamlessly as the user alters how the device is configured.

Second, the fact that this same OS will work on so many devices is the panacea that many people thought Apple was opening up with the first iPhone. When the original iPhone was released, people were impressed that it was running some type of version of Mac OS X under the covers. However, the version of iOS never really allowed apps to cross the boundary of devices, and for all intents and purposes the two operating systems are wholly distinct and unique. From a developer perspective there are a lot of shared methodologies, but you still need to write multiple apps for Mac OS X and iOS. Windows is seeking to change that with Windows 10, but putting the same OS on every device, an app developer can create an app that crosses all different types of user experiences, as well as physical form factors. This could be a huge game changer... if Microsoft can convince app developers to sign on to their new paradigm.

Of course, I should mention the cool VR and augemented reality goggles that Microsoft was showing. Honestly, my only thought is that if it gets us one step closer to a Star Trek holo-deck, I'm all for it!

Perhaps the biggest reveal of the day, however, was Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, admitting that Microsoft can no longer exist simply as the operating system that you NEED to use. They want to change into being the operating system that you WANT to use, and eventually LOVE to use. This is a huge shift in how most people think of Microsoft and Windows. Most tech companies have learned from Apple over the past decade that technology isn't about convincing people that you have the fastest RAM or the most best graphics rendering engines. It's about selling people on the vision that you have for how people should interact with technology. People don't by what you do, they buy why you do it.

I'm very excited to see the new world that Windows 10 is trying to create. I've never been a huge Microsoft fan, but I feel like the Microsoft that was on display this week is a much more humble, yet confident company. One that is looking to the future and trying to create a technology world that all of us will want to be a part of.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The resurgence of U

For Christmas this past year, we decided to get a Wii U as our family gift. My wife and I have owned various Nintendo consoles for much of our life, and we thought that the newest entry to the franchise would be a nice fit for our family. The Wii U has been out for a while now and hasn't been the hottest selling console by a long shot, so the question could be asked, why would we buy a Wii U now? The answer is that Nintendo has really decided to focus on some amazing new games for 2014/2015 that are only available on the Wii U.

After the disappointing 2013 holiday season for Nintendo many questioned if the Wii U was a complete flop, and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Nintendo's console life. With only a few games of much interest, there wasn't much of a reason to buy a Wii U. Then in 2014 Nintendo started to revive it's most powerful asset, its catalog of great characters and games, launching new and exciting titles that got people interested in what Nintendo was doing again. In the middle of 2014 Mario Kart 8 arrived and has proved itself to be one of the best Mario Karts of the series. The gameplay is classic Mario Kart, with fun tracks and race dynamics, and now even adds online play. It was everything that old Gamecube and N64 fans knew and loved about Nintendo Games.

The titles continued to arrive through the Christmas season with a new Smash Bros. and great hybrid titles like Hyrule Warriors. Even the late 2013 release of Super Mario 3D World got some added attention with a spin-off game called Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Nintendo hasn't been shy about talking about 2015 as well, looking ahead at a new Zelda open world game and even more in the Mario franchise like Mario Maker Wii U.

All this is to talk about how Nintendo has found a way to become relevant again. One of the strengths of Nintendo, since the days of the NES, has been the quality of their games. This quality isn't found in incredible groundbreaking graphics, but in new ways to have 'fun'. There are dozens of game studios out there that are focusing on making the most realistic games, with incredible graphics and sound. Nintendo will always lose when it comes to that battle. Where Nintendo shines is in engaging the player, with a rich world, and creative interactions.

Over the past few weeks my wife, my youngest son, and I have embarked on the journey that is Super Mario 3D World. We've had an incredible amount of fun trying to tackle every level of that game, and we still aren't done. The gameplay is engaging and challenging to each of us, despite the generational difference. The characters are fun and silly, and the puzzles, although requiring skill, are not dependent on super high twitch capabilities.

I've also spent hours playing through Hyrule Warriors, a Zelda riff on Dynasty Warriors. This is an incredible hack-n-slash game that will never win any awards for amazing graphics, but it's soooo satisfying to perform a huge combo attack in the middle of 50 enemies and send them all flying to their doom. The adventure mode is also proving to have massive longevity, trying to get the best score you can in every level to unlock new challenges.

My youngest is also a 3DS fan and has been loving the new releases that Nintendo has been putting on that platform, like the new Pokemon game and Zelda titles. Nintendo is even re-platforming some of it's classic Zelda games for the 3DS as a way to experience them again in a new format. Plus, Nintendo has started to recognize the power of connected gaming, which was one of my major complaints about the Wii a few years ago. The Wii U shop is full of games to play (with more coming all the time), major titles are available to purchase digitally, and many titles are getting online capabilities. That's a major step in the right direction for Nintendo.

It seems that Nintendo has finally re-awakened to what made it great in the first place. Great games and amazing amounts of fun while playing, even with friends who aren't in the same room. Although we're not into the Amiibo figures, they have been selling like crazy and people love being able to interact with these classic characters in a new way. If Nintendo can continue this focus on making video game playing fun for the whole family, it will hopefully have success, despite not having the best and most flashiest graphics system out there.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

CES 2015 quick notes

One of the fun technology events every year is the Consumer Electronic Show. I've never had the opportunity to attend this in person, but maybe now that I have family in Vegas I should try and make it out some year. CES is a huge event that highlights some of the cool and crazy stuff that all the big consumer electronics companies are working on, and attempting to bring to market. Since I've been laid up sick for the past day and a half, I've been catching up on the news feeds of all the stuff that's currently coming out.

Although CES isn't strictly laptop and computer focused, computer companies still play a major role. This year, I'm seeing a lot of emphasis on thin and light computing devices. ASUS and Lenovo have both released some exceptionally light weight laptops, and hybrid tablets, that give the MacBook Air line a run for it's money. Additionally, HP is building off the success of it's Stream line of Chromebook competitors with an HP Stream Mini box.

Most of these devices rely on cloud services to operate, and unless you're going to try and set up your own cloud, like a friend of mine, you're probably already comfortable using most of these ecosystems. In the past couple weeks of using my Chromebook, I haven't even really noticed, or lamented, the lack of internal storage. That's what most of the big players right now want you to be comfortable with, because the other big concept that is all over CES this year is the Internet of Things. In general IoT is just a buzzword for devices that connect to the internet. The real panacea with all of these devices is getting them to talk to one another, a problem that some companies are working on, but are probably a few years from realizing.

Apart from all the cool gadgets that are being showcased, the one item in particular that caught my eye was an announcement from Dish Network. They are starting up a service at the end of the month called Sling TV. The idea is that for $20/month you get live streaming of TNT, TBS, CNN, Food Network, HGTV, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, the Disney Channel, ESPN, and ESPN2. It's all delivered over the internet, and is contract free. This is exactly the service I've been looking for, and you can bet that we're going to probably give this a try as soon as it comes out.

So there's a few thoughts on a couple things I've seen come out of CES this year. My RSS feed has been exploding so I'm sure I've missed a bunch of stuff, so maybe later today I'll dive into all the automobile announcements.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My week with a Google Chromebook

For the past year or so I've had moments of lamenting the fact that I no longer have a laptop to use as a personal computing device. Sure, I've got my huge brick of a Lenovo that my employer gives me, but if you can't guess, it's very heavy and unwieldy. To top it off, it's severely locked down because of all of the security requirements that we need to follow. So for the past half dozen or so years, I've had my desktop iMac as my primary computing device, and supplemented that with various tablets.

Initially, I had a 10 inch iPad that I bought a keyboard for, as a way to make it more usable when traveling. That worked for the most part, but I eventually decided to upgrade to an iPad Mini. I love the smaller form factor for reading, and use as a general media device. The past couple of trips that I've been on, I've been missing having any type of keyboard to type on for blogging, and other convenient aspects that come with a computer vs a laptop.

For the past couple months I've been looking at some options. At first I was trying to narrow down my choice between a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and an iPad Air (11 inch). I went back and forth between the two, considering if I would be willing to step away from the Apple ecosystem. As I was hemming and hawing, I also started to consider the financial decision. Was I ready to drop a grand on a portable computing device, that would still end up being a secondary device for me? That's when I decided to maybe look at the other end of the spectrum, the Chromebook vs the HP Stream 11.

Since this is supposed to be a Chromebook review, I won't go too deep into why I decided to get a Chromebook, but suffice it to say, that since most of my productivity ecosystem is in Google, it simply made more sense. As a secondary device, I really didn't need to think about running all the games and content creation tools, as I still had my iMac. I think that I would have become frustrated with the Stream 11, because I would have known that I could run higher end tools, since it's a Windows machine, but I couldn't run those tools because of the hardware limitations.

So one week ago today, I headed out to MicroCenter and picked up an ASUS C200MA 11 inch Chromebook. The process of selecting this particular model is a story unto itself, but in the interest of getting on with the review; TL;DR... it was in stock.

As luck would have it, I was leaving on Sunday for a short trip out of town. This would give me the perfect opportunity to try out the Chromebook in a setting where I was really wanting for a laptop again. I'm happy to report that the Chromebook met, and even exceeded, my expectations on the trip in just about every way. Even when I got home from the trip a few days later, I didn't bother turning on my iMac for many hours. I just kept using the Chromebook because it was ready and waiting all the time.

Let's start by talking about the hardware. The ASUS is an 11 inch device, powered by an Intel Celeron N2830. This is a Bay Trail-M platform chip, running at just over 2Ghz. This chip is designed for small devices such as a Chromebook, and it's ultra-low power consumption allows it to run incredible cool. The ASUS C200MA has no fans, and runs silently. This chip also allows for close to 11 hours of run-time on battery. A fact that I tested at the hotel when I accidentally turned off the power switch to the outlet where it was plugged in.

The screen is a standard 1366x768 screen, and nothing fancy. It gets the job done, and it's visibly not a high end screen like I'm used to on Macs. However, for what I need it suffices. Videos and pictures are crisp and colors are represented as best as you'd expect on a screen in this price range (somewhat dull and muted).

One area where I'm particularly pleased is the keyboard. The C200MA has a really nice, almost full-size, keyboard, with a feel that reminds me of an Apple keyboard. The keys have a nice amount of travel and feel firm when typing. The keyboard layout is clear and simple. Chrombooks do not need a Windows key or an Apple key, so in it's place you get nice large Ctrl and Alt keys. The only thing that is slightly confusing is how to turn on Caps Lock, since that key is missing and replaced with a Spotlight-style quick search key. I still need to search Google for an answer on that.

Overall, the hardware is satisfying. The body is plastic, but it doesn't feel cheap (like some of the other models I looked at). The ASUS comes with 16GB of internal memory, of which about 9GB is available after the OS. There are the standard single USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and a full size SD card slot. The only thing that I find myself wishing for, from a hardware perspective, is backlit keys.

So how do I like Chrome OS? For the most part I like it just fine. It's quick, simple, and does 90% of what I spend my time at a computer doing. All of the standard Google apps that I'm used to having on Mac and Windows are available and run the same as any other platform. I've also discovered more apps in the Chrome store to fill in a few gaps. Chrome OS also comes with a file system app to access the internal storage, and anything else you might plug in. It also comes with a calculator app, which is a relief since I realized very quickly that would be a huge pain to live without. The entire OS is very simple to use. You just log into the machine with your Google account, and you're good to go.

Overall, I'm very pleased with my choice on this laptop. I've used it quite a bit over the past seven days, writing multiple blog posts, including this one. I've even hooked it up to our TV to watch some web videos, and it performed as it should. It does what I need it to do, and does it well. It's quiet (silent really), lasts forever on battery, and has a great feel to it. I'm looking forward to the next seven days of using it, and beyond.