Friday, 31 December 2010

Three easy predictions for 2011

   ...All of which will look delightfully na├»ve by late December 2011.

(1) People will consider Microsoft Windows Phones worth having
    Windows-toting mobile phones have never been cool, have they. Everyone's got at least one friend who's got one, but they're always the friend that has to enthuse a little too much about their mobile because it doesn't quite deliver. I remember being quite excited about one friend's XDA, before finding just how clunky it was compared to the ageing Nokia running Symbian I had at the time. A high end smartphone has to be *really* clunky to make the Symbian interface from circa 2005 seem slick and easy to use.
    Windows Phone 7 has changed all that in my view. Sure it's no iPhone, but the interface doesn't make you want to smash the phone in frustration and unlike some earlier Windows Phone offerings it delivers what you expect of it. But that's not the key feature that I think will make Windows Phone 7 cool in 2011.
    The first Windows Mobile phone I ever saw was owned by a friend who is a .net developer. He was excitedly showing his desktop .net  app of the moment running on his phone. It was pretty useless with a tiny screen, but it ran. Because as a Microsoft device it came bundled with the .net runtime, and as a .net developer his skills were instantly transferrable to his phone.
    And there is the reason I think Windows Phone 7  phones will become cool. Apps, and its tight integration of .net. Decent hardware paired with a lot of marketing and a good app store, these phones will sell. And since there is a huge developer community of .net developers who do not need to learn any new skills to create Windows Phone 7 apps, I think that Microsoft will not face the same challenges that Symbian or Bada face to attract developers in 2011, and the resulting high quality apps will make Windows Phones worth having. Not even Microsoft could screw up such an opportunity, could they?

(2) Companies and the media will wake up to the idea that not just the iPhone can run apps
    Am I the only person who is sick of seeing companies, newspapers and others proudly touting their new mobile capabilities with an iPhone app? My prediction for 2011: a chill wind will blow through the marketing departments of the land as they realise that all the cash they spent on that shiny new app isn't going to make them a penny from all the millions of owners of Android and other smartphones who can't run iPhone apps.
    Whether this means that they will start offering a range of apps for different platforms or simply move their app content to in-browser online delivery I wouldn't dare to predict. I'd expect the latter though. Shame it's a little early for W3C Widgets.

(3)Tablet computers will become cheap enough to be given away free
    If you are unfortunate enough to have handled one of the cheap and nasty Android tablets that have appeared in the last few months, you'll know just how nasty they are. Horrible user interfaces on resistive screens, too-slow processors, not enough memory and too-short battery lives. At around about £100, they are a huge disappointment and waste of money.
    But how would you view them if they sold for £50? Too much? How about £25? Or how about free? Imagine, you are a large home-delivery or mail-order business, perhaps a supermarket. You have millions of customers and you want them to be able to access your service with the minimum fuss wherever they are. If only they could just pick up a tablent while they are slumped in front of the telly, go straight to your site and spend their money.
    If you are a nationwide supermarket chain, you have the buying power to pick up cheap and nasty Android tablets from China in shipments of millions for relative pennies per unit. And if by giving away a tablet to each customer you guarantee yourself a massive sales increase, then a free tablet for all becomes a no-brainer.
    I don't know who will be first to do it. Tesco perhaps, to their phone or broadband subscribers. But I'd be surprised if 2011 didn't see at least one free branded tablet in the living rooms of the UK.

    So there you go. I've set myself up for a fall this time next year, but I think these three really do have a chance of happening in 2011. Only sitting out the year can tell me the really interesting stuff I missed.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Worthless by degree

    In the wake of the recent student protests over tuition fees, I have heard more than one conversation recently on the subject of students, their resources and the courses they are taking at university. Most of these conversations have passed me by, there was little point in my participating as the scale of the ensuing argument would be out of proportion to the scale of the points I might make.
    One friend of mine annoyed me enough to pull out my keyboard though, with the assertion that "worthwhile" courses like science and engineering should be fully funded while "worthless" degrees such as art history or media studies should receive no funding. The speaker expected my agreement, as my degree is in electronic engineering, and was quite surprised when I rather vehemently expressed opposition.
    You might expect that I'd be about to say that all degrees are worthwhile, and that art historians and media students deserve support as much as electronic engineers. And I won't disappoint you there, after all my sister is an art historian who spends a lot of her time ensuring that media studies students have at least one course they have to put in some serious work at to pass.
    But what you might not expect is that I would attack the notion that an engineering degree is a worthwhile degree that should be viewed as more important for funding than any other. My experience of having an engineering degree is that once outside the walls of the university it really hasn't been of much use to me directly other than as a bit of paper, the teaching was designed to breed engineering PhD students rather than equip us for life in industry and everything I have done for a living since has either been learned on the job or based upon something I learned outside university. Yes, my whole career as a web developer started with Microsoft ASP back in the 1990s, which being a BASIC scripting language was a skill I built on something I learned as a spotty kid long before I reached university.
    "But the country needs engineers!" I hear you say. And I'd have to agree with you there. Though I think the meaning most people would ascribe to that sentence is rather different to the meaning I would ascribe to it.
    To me, the country needs engineers rather than simply people with engineering degrees at all costs. In other words, the country needs as its engineers people who are born to engineering as a vocation, a gift even. It's never been viewed as something particularly special but it should be, I doubt I'll hear many middle-class parents enthusing about their offspring's aptitude for Meccano or coding in the same way they would if their little Tarquin turned out to be a musical prodigy. And just as there are born engineers, so are there born art historians and even born media students who would be utterly wasted on an engineering course.
    If we have created a world in which tertiary education is near-mandatory and a degree certificate is required to embark on careers for which a school certificate would have been required for our grandparents' generation (and yes, I count my career among those), it seems to me crazy to force people into degree courses purely for ideological reasons that they are never going to find any value from and which will have little bearing on their eventual careers.
    Far better to have degree courses on which places are earned by merit and whose subjects depend on the aptitude of the student. Oh wait, wasn't that what we had twenty years ago?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


   This morning I stumbled on a site that made me think a little. It's a site promoting an ebook by the parents of a child with a strabismus, detailing their child's treatment. I left the following comment.
I have to admit to reading this site with mixed emotions. I’m a 40 year old British person with a significant strabismus, something I’ve had since birth. I don’t have hardware 3D vision and never will have, my eyes are like separate cameras meaning I can switch between two views of the world.
This has never been a problem for me, it has only very ocasionally been a problem for others. It has never held me back in life, education or the workplace. So I can never be a fighter pilot, but does that matter?
I understand why you were horrified by it in your son but speaking personally I am very glad my parents did not put me through the pain and risk of surgery when I was too young to understand what was going on. I’ve always seen it as very much a part of me and have no desire to seek any treatment for it as an adult.
So those are the effects of strabismus on someone who’s lived it. If one of my kids is born with it I’ll leave it until they are old enough to understand before I ask them if they want surgery.
    It's probably a bit off-message for them so it may not pass their moderation, but I felt it needed to be said. I understand the pain of a parent whose child doesn't meet their idea of perfection, but as one of those imperfect children I squint and I'm proud!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Report from OpenMIC9

     So I spent yesterday at the Jam Factory in the company of about fifty geeks talking about everything mobile at Open Mobile Innovation Camp 9. These type of events are a good place to meet others of like mind and learn about emerging trends and technologies in a particular field. Sometimes the geek level is higher than others and at times one can be left behind by people far further ahead of the wave than oneself, but thankfully yesterday was very accessible and I came away with far more information than I went in with.
    As is often the case at such events, the morning's schedule was filled with talks from selected luminaries of mobile development and the afternoon to "barcamp" sessions - geeks talking shop.
    Google's Reto Meier couldn't make it due to the snow, so we had a talk on the future of mobile technology from IBM research's Dale Lane, a talk on the comemrce and marketing of the mobile app space from Everything Everywhere's Mark Watts-Jones, a talk on upcoming W3C mobile standards including my interest of the day, W3C widgets from Vodafone's internet evangelist Dan Appelquist and a demo of mobile app technologies from Calvium's Tom Melamed.
     In the afternoon's melee I ended up caught up in a weighty discussion on identifying your mobile users and their device capabilities - important to us if we ever want to get the best experience over to our visitors - and then an examination of the evolving nature of a smartphone. Interesting, if rather geeky stuff.
    All in all a worthwhile day. I came away knowing more about widgets which was my objective for the day. I'd like to think in a year's time when I'm waving a phone with a dictionary widget on it at anyone who'll listen, that the marketplace will be just about ready for them and we'll thus steal a march on all our competitors who've rushed headlong into the app stores.
   I can hope, can't I.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Google locks me out, then apologises

    This morning I was probing some of the more obscure sites linking to the Oxford Dictionaries Online web site by running a Google link: query. I was paging through the results ten at a time. Very monotonous and repetitive.
    Suddenly, this happened.
    It seems I was mistaken for an automated search engine scraper, probably because I was making regular queries without clicking on any results. There's a first time for everything I guess, and I've just uncovered a Google feature. A quick clear of recent cookies, and I was back on my way.
    It's a long time since I used software to retrieve results from Google. Probably back when they still offered a SOAP API.