Category Archives: Power Geeking

iPhone: The First 72 Hours

20151215_205529857_iOS (1024x768)As I wrote in September, after more than a decade as a Windows Mobile/Windows Phone user, most recently for the past two years with a Lumia 1020, I decided to make the switch to an iPhone. I got an iPhone 6s at the end of last week and have spent a few days getting accustomed to it. Here are my initial impressions:

iPhone Pros

  1. The availability and quality of the apps. It’s like discovering an oasis after wandering through a desert.
  2. The phone is thin and light and feels nice in my hand.
  3. The phone feels much faster and more responsive than my previous phone. I don’t know how much of this is the Apple vs. Nokia/Microsoft platforms, how much is that the new one is part of a two-years-newer generation of devices, and how much is software crud that built up on the old phone, but whatever the reasons, the difference is noticeable.
  4. Ditto the above for battery life.
  5. Touch ID.
  6. Siri. It’s very convenient to be able to summon her hands-free. I don’t know yet if she’s significantly smarter than Cortana, but in my initial use she’s been at least as good if not better.

iPhone Cons

  1. No ability to pin tiles to the home screen for deep links to things within apps: People, OneNote notebooks, etc.
  2. Siri doesn’t automatically offer to read incoming text messages to me when the phone is connected to Bluetooth.
  3. Swype reliability. On Windows Phone 8.1 the equivalent functionality (called “shape writing“) is built in. I don’t mind paying the extra dollar for Swype, but frequently I find that the Swype keyboard has been turned off and I have to manually press a couple of buttons to re-enable it.
  4. I’m dependent on the Groove Music app to play my OneDrive-based music collection, and my use of it on the phone has surfaced a couple of serious problems:
    1. The app frequently cuts out mid-song and starts replaying the song from the beginning. Sometimes multiple times. I don’t know why this is happening but it makes the experience almost unusable.
    2. When playing music on the car’s audio system via Bluetooth, the name of the artist isn’t displayed. The album and song name are both displayed, so I’m not sure why this is failing. I’ve seen this with two different cars, neither of which has this problem with the Xbox Music app on Windows Phone 8.1 or with other music apps on the iPhone.
  5. The default podcast app isn’t that great. I’m trying Overcast and it seems to be better.
  6. No separate button to launch the camera app and take pictures.
  7. Porting existing custom ringtones to the iPhone is a bit of a hassle.
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All About The Apps (Not the OS): Saying Farewell to Windows Phone

Audiovox SMT5600 (2004), Samsung Blackjack (2007), HTC HD2 (2010), Samsung Focus (2011), Nokia Lumia 920 (2012), Nokia Lumia 1020 (2014), Apple iPhone 6s (?)

In which I simultaneously field responses of the forms, “Et tu, Brute?” and “What took you so long?”

TL;DR – I’m tired of waiting for the apps I want to come to Windows Phone. My next phone will be my first iPhone.

I like my Windows Phone. I like the hardware. I like its multitasking support. I like its tight integration with services that I use every day, notably OneDrive — photo auto-upload and OneNote in particular — and Zune Xbox Groove Music. I really like its customizable home screen layout and the live tiles. And I still believe in Microsoft’s ability to out-innovate the competition in client software. But when it comes time to replace my current phone, I plan to get my first iPhone.

I’ve been using Windows Phones (and Windows Mobile phones before that) since I got my first smartphone over a decade ago. [The above image represents my personal smartphone history.] For most of that time, my need to test devices that interacted with the Microsoft services I was helping to build, as well as my innate loyalty as a Microsoft employee, made the choice to buy the best available Windows smartphone an easy one. There were some painful moments — the HTC HD2 with Windows Mobile 6.5  was a dud from day one — but mostly I was sufficiently pleased with the devices and the platform that I did not have iPhone envy.

So what has changed? To paraphrase Meghan Trainor, it’s all about the apps. Increasingly the apps I want to use are not available for Windows Phone or are inferior. I’m tired of feeling like a second-class citizen, app-wise.

To determine how personally significant this problem is, I’ve been compiling what I call the “App Pain List.” I’m constantly learning of apps that are available for iOS and Android but not for Windows Phone; they don’t automatically go on this list. I add an app only when I find myself thinking, “I would download this app to my phone right now if there were a version in the Windows Store.”

The App Pain List contains the following categories:

  • Apps that used to exist on WP but have been decommissioned. Ex: The app that let me deposit paper checks in my bank account.
  • Apps available on WP but not at parity with iOS/Android versions. Ex: Waze, Instagram.
  • Apps I would use regularly. Ex: TiVo, various video service apps, various bank and credit card companies’ apps.
  • Apps associated with a product or service that I’d like to use. Ex: Ring, Sonos, CarPlay, Snapchat.
  • Apps I would use occasionally. Ex: KCLS, KUOW, NHLSouthwest Airlines, various magazines.

For all of the apps that I’ve put on the App Pain List, there’s only one so far that I’ve been able to remove: NPR One. If can be generous and add Fitbit and Uber, as both of these came along for Windows Phone after I started using the associated products but before I starting officially keeping the list.

What’s sad is that the virtuous circle of “apps drive (platform) usage, usage drives apps” has been known to Microsoft since its earliest days in the OS business. Even in its prime, no application developer thought MS-DOS was the most technically advanced operating system or the easiest one to build apps for. Developers built apps for MS-DOS because it was the OS that had the highest adoption. And in turn the volume of apps made it an increasingly popular choice for users. I don’t believe that that Microsoft ever forgot this; they just fumbled the transition to mobile as the high volume app platform. (Blah blah Innovator’s Dilemma blah blah.)

My friends who have built smartphone apps consistently tell me that iOS users — as purchasers of premium products — are the most engaged and lucrative consumers of their apps. Android users are less so, but their sheer numbers make the platform a worthwhile investment. Windows Phone users, especially in the U.S., are barely visible.

I’d been patient with Windows Phone for a while because I’d been hoping that the momentum would shift when Windows 10 becomes available on smartphones. But my understanding of the current plan — providing developers a toolkit that will make it easy for them to rebuild Android apps as Windows 10 apps — doesn’t inspire confidence. Even in the best case, if producing a such a Windows app were a simple as a one-button rebuild, they’d still have to separately test it, publish it on the store, and support it. That’s a lot of effort for an additional 2-3% of the market; if I were an app developer, I’d rather put that effort into improving the version of the app that the other 95+% of my customers use. If you include the potential installed base of Windows 10 PCs and tablets, the numbers look better, but it remains to be seen whether app developers will consider those devices a compelling target.

Ironically, Microsoft’s recent embrace of iOS and Android as targets for its mobile apps makes the move to an iPhone easier, since I won’t have to sacrifice the Microsoft apps and services that I use today on my Windows Phone.

I remind myself, guiltily, that this is a reversible decision. Windows will continue to be my desktop and tablet OS of choice. I can buy an iPhone 6s and if Windows 10 causes a sea change of app availability, I can switch back in a year or two. But I won’t be holding my breath.

What I Want In My Next Mobile Phone

I’ve had my current mobile phone (a Samsung Blackjack) for nearly three years, and while it has served me reasonably well, I’m overdue for an upgrade.

Here are some of the things I want in my next phone that would improve upon my current experience:

  1. Not taking two or more minutes from the time I turn the phone on until it’s actually useful.
  2. Not freezing on startup (occasionally more than once per day), requiring me to remove the battery and restart.
  3. Not being unable to connect to the network after startup (also occasionally more than once per day and usually associated with a stuck ATU_NITZ and/or clocknot process), requiring me to turn the phone off and turn it on again.
  4. A battery that lasts long enough that I’m not always carrying around a spare battery.
  5. The ability to be charged via its USB connection even if the battery is completely drained.
  6. A Bluetooth stack that is compatible with Microsoft Voice Command.
  7. A web browser whose default home page is accessible.
  8. A web browser that can view rich web pages reasonably well.
  9. A higher quality camera.
  10. Built-in GPS.

Learning to Love TiVo

After years of resisting, I finally broke down and bought a TiVo.

I started with ReplayTV in late 2000 and added Windows Media Center in 2006.  Early on I preferred ReplayTV to TiVo because, as my friend Paul put it, “TiVo makes it easier to find what you want to watch but ReplayTV makes it easier to watch it once you’ve found it.”  Moving to Windows Media Center was about being able to have a DVR solution where a noisy fan wasn’t running 24×7 in a room where people sleep (a mistake I made briefly with an early Comcast HD DVR) plus other advanced features like music and photo sharing.  I much preferred the feature set of Windows Media Center; unfortunately, I experienced repeated flaky behavior, probably due in part to running it on my main desktop PC.

What ultimately forced the issue was Comcast’s plan to stop transmitting their Expanded Basic lineup (including CNN, ESPN, MSNBC, Cartoon Network, and Comedy Central) in analog signals, thus requiring a digital adapter to view these channels.  Their solution for legacy DVRs – use IR blasters and pray – didn’t seem satisfactory.

Short of cancelling Comcast service and moving to a different provider – not a better option at the moment – I was left with the choice of getting a new DVR that supported digital cable natively.  I could buy a new Digital Cable Ready Media Center PC or get a TiVo HD.  I explored the former option but found that the major PC manufacturers have made it extremely difficult to find such models on their web sites, and buying a Media Center with two digital tuners is significantly more expensive than TiVo even considering the cost of TiVo service.

There were two issues with getting a TiVo:  The aforementioned noise concern and the fact that doing multi-room streaming requires multiple TiVo boxes (vs. Media Center Extenders).  The latter issue concerned me in theory, but in practice my DVR use has effectively been limited to a single TV for the past year, even with DVRs on two different TVs.  For the noise issue, I would just have to try it and see.  So I did.

After an initial hiccough with getting the CableCard working, requiring a Comcast service call to replace what turned out to be a defective card, I now have dual-tuner digital HD service on the TiVo.  Incidentally, all of the Comcast personnel with whom I dealt where highly service-oriented and helpful, which makes me slightly less angry at the company for making me go to considerable time and expense to replace DVRs that were working perfectly fine in order to preserve features that I’ve had for years.

So what are my initial impressions of TiVo after years using the competition?  The initial setup menus were very easy and nicely done; clearly they have invested a lot of effort here.  The TiVo remote control is fine but I don’t know what the big fuss is about.  Overall, the TiVo user interface seems frozen in time, a circa 2004 UI; the Windows Media Center UI is far better, even on Vista, and I hear that Windows 7 is an even bigger improvement.  Most significantly, the TiVo is pretty quiet, so noise is not an issue; I hope that this will not change as the unit ages.

I was not expecting to like the automatic suggestions feature, but it has turned out to be handy; through it I learned that Top Gear (and BBC America in general) is now available to me.  I appreciate that TiVo supports streaming for Netflix customers and I find the YouTube support interesting and clever.  I am pretty unhappy with TiVo’s support for recurring programs, however, most notably The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Even though I told TiVo to record only first-run programs, it insists on recording each of the four daily occurrences that Comedy Central broadcasts.  The suggested workaround is to set a manual recurring program for 11 PM nightly, but TiVo doesn’t give me the option to record only Monday through Thursday (The Daily Show is not broadcast on Friday) so I get a spurious recording every Friday for it (and The Colbert Report as well)I suppose I could set up four recurring weekly programs for each of Monday through Thursday, but why the hassle for something that TiVo’s competitors have always handled better?

My medium-term plan is still to return to Windows Media Center, but now I’m going to wait to see if they integrate it with Windows Home Server, which will enable me to have one dedicated, high-storage, high-availability server at home.  In the meantime TiVo appears to fit the bill nicely, though I wouldn’t mind a software upgrade that modernizes the UI and fixes the recurring program issues.  I’m still looking forward to the day when everything I want to watch is available via IP streaming and I can drop my separate cable TV subscription; I suspect Comcast will work hard to prevent this from happening.

Why Bloggers Shouldn’t Write Books

I recently read two non-fiction books that read like extended blogs and have somewhat crankily come to the conclusion that bloggers shouldn’t write books.

The problem isn’t with the authors themselves; it’s with using the writing style of a blog in a book-length piece.  Most blogs are written in a casual, informal style (with plenty of attempts at cute, parenthetical asides) that work well when consumed in small amounts but become cloying and tiresome in a longer work.  I suspect that the author can get away with it when the book is a collection of independent essays anchored on a common theme, but as part of a single narrative it makes me want to stop and scream “Enough already!”  I’m tempted to blame the editors for not being sufficiently ruthless in looking at each word and deciding if it adds to the book’s thesis.

The first book – Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt – is a well-researched and interesting book that is undermined by its turgid style.  The second book – Do you matter? by Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery – is simply dreadful, and in so many ways that I feel compelled to catalog them as you might repeatedly brush your teeth in an attempt to remove a bad taste from your mouth.

With “Do You Matter?”, some of the trouble is simply bad editing, the most glaring example being misspelling John Sculley’s name inside the book when his name is correctly spelled in the blurb he provides on the book’s back cover.  And this in the book’s second printing!  There are also numerous examples of the type of parenthetical excess I describe above, and a repeated lack of understanding of the proper use of “capitalization” and Quotation Marks.

But even if you can get past the poor editing, there is so much more that is wrong.

You would not be mistaken in viewing the book as an extended advertisement for Apple; the book refers to the company so much as its icon (no pun intended) that by the end of the book even the authors are apologizing for it.  And they undermine their case for making design an intrinsic part of the corporate culture at Apple by stressing how important Steve Jobs’ role is in the design process there, causing you to question whether Apple’s success in this area could (or can) be sustained without this one individual at the top of the organization.

When discussing design, the book focuses on high-end brands; not just Apple, but BMW and W Hotels, and criticizes Wal-Mart, but doesn’t acknowledge its choice of brands that rely on exclusivity as part of their appeal.  There are logical flaws as well:  In holding BMW up as a design leader because the company pays attention to the sound its cars’ doors make when they close, it neglects to mention the critical drubbing the company has received for the design of its iDrive controller.

The book takes the risk of presenting anecdotes in second person, e.g. in describing the ownership experience of a Lexus RX 400h.  Writing stories in the second person is risky because the writer needs to connect quickly with the readers so that the readers buy into the premise and allow the writer to plant thoughts in their heads.  When done well, it is devastatingly effective, but here it simply feels manipulative, that one of the authors has had a bad experience and wants to force the readers to see it through his own eyes.  Had the anecdotes been presented in the first person, as in “here’s something that happened to me/us that illustrates this point,” or in the third person, as in “let me tell you about John Smith’s experience”, the readers could have accepted the premise gradually instead of being told how to think.

The only quantifiable data the book presents to support its case is the companies’ market capitalization, which seems like a dubious way to measure a company’s success in design.  It does mention various awards that products and companies have won, but doesn’t provide any way to determine if those awards are recognized as meaningful within their respective industries.

Ultimately the biggest failure of the book is that its central premise – emblazoned on the cover as “How great design will make people love your company” – is undermined by the contents of the book.  Because the book’s real (and excellent) point is that the way to make people love your company and succeed as a result is to create a customer-focused corporate culture.  Great design is an important part of doing this but is far from the only part.

All Hail the Red Ring of Death!

After nearly two mostly uneventful years, our Xbox 360 appears to have succumbed to the red ring of death.  Fortunately we still have our ReplayTV to function as a backup DVR, but our ability to rock has been curtailed. 

We’ll see how long it takes to get it fixed.  I will say that the self-service repair request web site was pretty easy to use, which is encouraging.

The Road to HD: QAM to the rescue?

About a year ago I predicted that I’d have an HDTV system in 2007 and specifically that I’d watch Super Bowl XLII in high-def.  I didn’t quite make it, but I am finally getting close.

For most people this would be as simple as buying a high-def television and plugging in a cable TV feed via coax.  But for me it is not, and not only because I need to agonize for months about which specific TV to buy.  The key is that I’ve become dependent on DVR functionality, and forced to choose between DVR and SD or non-DVR and HD, I opt without hesitation for the former.  Not only that, but I want a DVR head unit that isn’t noisy when it’s not in use (most have a hard disk fan that runs 24×7).  I also have a strong preference for a server-based recording system (as opposed to each unit recording separately) and don’t want to deal with a satellite dish-based system.

With all of these constraints, the plan worked out roughly as follows:

  1. Start with a Windows Media Center PC and an Xbox 360 (to serve as the Media Center Extender).
  2. Upgrade the home network equipment to Windows Vista-compatible hardware.
  3. Upgrade the Media Center PC to Vista Ultimate.
  4. Install a Vista-compatible OCUR HD tuner card in the Media Center PC.
  5. Get a CableCARD for the tuner from my cable provider.
  6. Buy an HDTV and connect it to the Xbox 360.

As is turns out, the big flaw in this plan is that, even though I had deliberately bought a Vista-ready PC in late 2006 to prepare for this, OCUR is supported only on PCs that are "Windows Vista Digital Cable compatible".  This designation requires special rights-management support on the motherboard, so I’d have to buy a fairly expensive PC to support this, even though I have a nearly new PC bought expressly for this purpose.  On principle alone I don’t want to do this.

Another factor is that I’m now running Windows Home Server on my old home computer and have been very satisfied by it.  I’ve also had occasional annoyances with my Media Center PC, most of which revolve around the need to restart my computer while a program is recording or being watched.  Put these two together and conclude that I want to have one server computer that runs 24×7, has loads of disk space and the network bandwidth to serve up its content, and almost never needs to be restarted due to application issues.  So barring unforeseen circumstances I’d rather wait until there’s a Home Server product that can also record and share TV programs and then invest in one new computer to do both.

So for now I need a plan B.  That plan is now based on a product called HDHomeRun, which will enable me to record unencrypted HD broadcasts (QAM) on my Media Center PC.  The new plan is:

  1. Start with a Windows Media Center PC and an Xbox 360 (to serve as the Media Center Extender).
  2. Upgrade the home network equipment to Windows Vista-compatible hardware.
  3. Upgrade the Media Center PC to Vista Ultimate.
  4. Buy an HDTV with a QAM tuner and confirm that my cable provider transmits unencrypted HD signals for at least the local TV channels.
  5. Buy and install an HDHomeRun.

Step 1 was completed in 2006. Step 2 was completed last summer.  Step 4 was completed last weekend.  I’ve been putting off step 3 for months but may get a chance to do it this weekend.  I don’t have a specific schedule for step 5 but it’s a safe bet it will happen before next football season starts.