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November 28, 2012

Windows 8 - Will it Succeed?

Forrester suggests that Windows 8 has had limited sale and organizations aren't yet inclined to move to Windows 8. The expected push seemingly will come from consumers via BYOD options. [Update] Microsoft reports a sale of 40 million licenses since its retail launch last month.

What is your take? Do you think it would have been good had Microsoft kept the modern UI restricted to Windows Surface (tablet) and the current desktop UI as is for desktops and laptops?

Having both on the same machine doesn't really gives any advantage as they can't run the same applications. The applications that run on the new modern UI are built on WinRT and won't run on regular desktop. To me this seems like having two independent entities on the same device. They don't really talk to each other even for data sharing, but I can have them on the same device. The Forrester results showing higher BYOD adoption indicates towards this. At work people would use the desktop view and at home would use the modern UI to access their personal apps and data. The number and types of applications is limited as of today and will probably take another couple of months before the store catches up with more applications.

Another approach Microsoft could have taken would be the one they had adopted for .NET. When .NET platform was launched, it also brought in a new programming paradigm, but it didn't necessarily bring a new user experience. The kernel capable of loading PE file format executable got modified to support launching the .net MSIL based applications and as an end user I got seamless experience. The look and feel did evolve with things like WPF and Silverlight coming up, but I was still on desktop, interacting with all applications on my desktop in the same way and not really having to switch mental context. With WinRT could Microsoft have taken similar approach? The apps could have just launched in full screen without the title bar.

But then mobiles and tablets demand a different experience, which is more touch savvy and has menu options floating in when required instead of taking up space on the screen always. Also the apps had to be capable of running on ARM, as that's the predominant chip on tablet and smart phones. The .NET MSIL based model worked perfectly here where I could build on my regular Intel desktop using VS and then JIT compile the code on the ARM chip at time of actual app execution.

Old habits die hard and I have written earlier also that inspite of using Windows 8 for a while now (since its beta days), I still occasionally hit the Windows key and expect the menu to come up. In a way the menu does comes up, but in form of tiles on entire screen (does it reminds some of you old timers of Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, which had icons on desktop?).

I think that having kept the user experience different across desktop and tablets would have helped people accept Windows 8 lot faster. At the same time I also strongly believe Microsoft has a good potential to address the Enterprise space. They have good integration of Office productivity applications on Windows 8 Surface (tablets) and Windows Phone and the desktop has anyway been their home ground. Domain connectivity for these devices should also work fine with Microsoft AD as the backend that many organizations use. While an application may not necessarily work across all these form factors, but effort to make it work across would be less given that base would be Microsoft OS on platforms and Phone with its version 8 has better compatibility with Windows 8. With the diminishing control of Blackberry in enterprises, and Apply iPads on the rise, Microsoft still can make the most of it to provide a more seamless experience.

What are you views?

November 27, 2012

Experiencing Windows Phone

With 17+ years of experience on Microsoft Technologies, with my current work focus on Kinect, PixelSense, Windows 8 and Phone 8, with having access to Kinect and Windows 8, but using an Android smart phone instead of Windows Phone isn't something that is appreciated. With Phone 8 now in market, I have been thinking of replacing my phone and my wife was happy enough to take my earlier android phone for herself.

However I could also just not go and buy a new Phone 8 device, so thought of first playing around with one for few days to figure out how it felt. Since we got a new Phone 8 device in our Lab, I had the earlier HTC Phone 7.5 device available for experimentation. Here are some of the things I felt about using the Phone 7.5 device over few weeks.

1. Configuring Windows Live ID. Since the phone was earlier in our Lab, we had configured our Lab's ID on it. Now to personalize this, I wanted to replace that ID with mine. Surprisingly the default ID that is created at the start of configuration of the phone, cannot be deleted. All other IDs added later can be. For changing the default ID, one has to "restore factory settings". However this isn't something unique to Windows phone. On my android phone which I passed over to my wife, we had to do the same. My view is that factory restore is a bit too harsh as it ends up deleting all the personal data on the phone. While phones are lot more personalized these days given that we configure our social networking sites and even business apps using our credentials, still I feel that factory reset should only be an optional way and not the only way.

2. Having configured my live ID and other IDs like gmail, facebook and twitter, the people live tile started bustling with activity, something we hadn't been able to experience in our lab device. If need be, I can pin a person directly on the start screen as a tile, but the tile seemed to only display the name and profile picture. While having the person as a tile does helps in calling the person quickly, it seems to do little beyond that for now.

3. The immediate advantage was seeing the count of new messages on the live tile without having to log into the application, something that I had to do on my android phone. Surprisingly however the facebook and twitter apps that I downloaded, don't seem to provide live tiles. Twitter probably is fine, as there are tons tweets and every time I login there is something new, but for facebook it would have made sense to show notification alerts on live tile. The simley icon on message tile which turns into a wink when there is a message seems weird to me. A different icon would have been better.

4. The start screen with the live tiles definitely looks good, but is restricted and wastes space today, something that I know is already fixed in phone 8 (and will get addressed once the 7.8 update is available for this current device). Incidentally the timeline for the update isn't very clear, though the latest news is sometime later this month.

5. On the HTC Phone 7 that I have, I can at max see about 8 application tiles and for anything beyond that i need to scroll. If I get past into the screen where apps are listed in a vertical list, I see about 10 apps. This improves significantly with Phone 8 because it allows 1/4 tile size also unlike just 1/2 in Phone 7. On my android phone, I could typically see 20 apps at same time due to the grid like layout. Navigating hence was much faster, something that phone 8 will also now offer. Phone 8 still retains the linear list, which in my view is not a good experience, unless is complimented with easy navigation on the side by say using alphabets to quickly jump to app names starting with that alphabet.

6. Receiving phone calls on my android meant horizontal swipe on locked screen to either left or right based on if I wanted to accept or reject the call. It also allowed me to send SMS with a single gesture in case I could not take a call and wanted to inform the person calling me. In phone surprisingly receiving call is a two-step process. It first asks me to slide to unlock the phone and only then can I either answer or reject the call. This two click/touch process in my view is more cumbersome and should be fixed.

7. For desktop management of phone, Microsoft provides Zune which allows me to manage my phone's OS version and also keep the music, pictures and videos in sync with my desktop/laptop. Unlike iTunes however Microsoft has moved away from supporting phone's market place on Zune and instead people need to either work from their phone's market place access or visit the website. There is however a hack available to get the market place working from Zune again but it will work only as long as you don't update Zune itself.

8. I used the phone's interface to look at market place and must say my initial reaction was pretty disappointing. I liked the Google Play's interface much better. Windows Phone uses the panorama layout and allows me to view the market place for either apps or games. In the specific apps or games panorama items, it hardly shows 3 items at a time a limitation due to the current design. While I can possibly live with it, as this is a dynamic list and updates every time i log into the market place. The issue is that it doesn't pulls up the review rating on this screen itself. So I need to click and get into any of the listed apps to read more about it and see the rating also. Give the low penetration of phone devices, the # people having rated is also very low. In my various search results, i saw maximum people having rated in the range of 2000 to 3000 people.

I configured Facebook and Twitter apps and while offer most of the basic features, they still aren't as updated as the ones I was using on my Android phone. After social networking, games is the next most heavily used feature on my android phone and so I searched for similar apps on phone market place but was mostly disappointed. There is a serious shortage of apps and the few i do see, many of them are paid apps. Games that feature top on my kid's list are Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Temple Run, Shoot the Bubble, Unicorn Dash and Moto racing.

Apart from games I have also earlier used applications like that of my bank to manage my bank and credit card accounts. Here again I did not get the specific applications for Windows phone. Instead I have to use the mobile banking websites of these banks.

I did find and install Kindle, but it kept crashing after i registered and restarted the app. Fortunately an update was deployed the very next day and the app is now working. I can now atleast have access to the Kindle books that I currently have purchased and have on my account.

Another app I loved on my android and am missing now is Onavo that helps me track the 3G data usage and keep it in control.
 
9. Next I looked at hotmail/gmail experience. Mails use the pivot control, which provides access to mails in different views. So I can see all my mails or only unread emails and with some other classification as well. This is fine, but I think "unread" emails should have been the default view rather than "all". Initially did not find the ability to multi-select emails and take action on home screen itself. I needed to enable select from the app bar that then shows the check boxes against each item and i can then multi-select and take action. Not a biggy, but in today's world where we get tons of emails not worth reading, ability to quickly multi-select and delete is required. Windows Phone does offers a way to just tap on the left of an individual message in the list assuming there is a checkbox there and a checkbox does appears with its state as selected. Needs a bit of learning to unravel some of such hidden features.

10. Phone usage is probably not complete today without having it play our preferred music. So the next item to explore was the music library. The music library including audio, video and podcasts is managed via Zune. The music app also uses panorama control for display. While I can access all my songs, videos and podcasts, which is obvious, i can also easily look at history i.e. recently played songs and quickly replay them or also easily look up the new content that i would have added. Apps like YouTube that allow me to access additional similar content can also be accessed directly via this app.

Audio listing has the standard combinations of viewing either as albums, songs, artists, playlists etc. The challenge with say the song view (and for that matter anything else on the phone) is the big font and hence less data display. There is today no way to alter the font used by these apps. The songs display in alphabetically sorted manner, which is fine, but if I want to jump to the say "m" in the list, I end up scrolling vertically a lot for it. The alphabet groups are displayed by single letters, which incidentally are clickable and bring up a grid of all alphabets, so I can now select "m" and jump to it directly. Once I realized this, I also figured out that the same worked for navigation of my contacts. This again required some hit and trial and training, but once done, made life easier.

The interesting part when playing music is that you can control basics like previous/next, play/pause etc. even when the screen gets locked. The basic controls are displayed on the locked screen and so I could do basic manipulations without having to unlock my phone.

11. This brings me to the lock screen itself. It shows the date and time along with network status, Wi-Fi status and battery status. It also shows # of messages, mails, missed calls. It also shows latest message as notification and the notification remains on unlocking which helps quickly read the message.

12. There is a "Me Tile" that allows me to view my updates in one place. It allows me to quickly post updates to multiple sites like windows live, linked in, twitter and facebook. This is interesting. The only issue is that usually many of us already have the sites linked, like I already have my twitter and facebook linked. So while the feature is good, I don't have much use of it. It shows me notifications from across sites along with details on which notification is from which site. This again is good and I find this very useful. I can easily reply also.

13. The phone has a hardware back button to navigate back. It helps go back to the previous screen/page within an application or to the previous application I was using. Mostly this works fine, but if you don't use this button for few hours or even a day and then use it, it can be a bit confusing when an earlier application starts up

Does this covers all the features of Windows Phone? No, it doesn't and that isn't the idea as well. The idea was to explore at a high level the key features that I interact with on my phone. My final verdict is that I liked some of the interactivity that Windows Phone provided, but am not fully satisfied. Lack of prominent apps is for now going to tilt me away from Windows Phone. Hope the app gap fills fast and I can get back onto this platform.

November 6, 2012

Getting Started with Phone 8

Microsoft had announced the much awaited Phone 8.0 SDK release and Phone launch during their recently concluded Build 2012 conference. You can get access to Phone 8.0 SDK here or if you have MSDN Subscription, then from here. Note that this SDK is 64 bits only, and runs on Windows 8, so you need to have Windows 8 to be able to develop for Phone 8.0 for now. The Phone 8.0 Emulator requires a SLAT PC and Hardware Virtualization enabled in the BIOS as well.

Like Phone 7, Phone 8 also needs a developer account. If you have one already go ahead and start to build your apps, if not, you can register here and if you hurry you can get a significant discount and will be able to register for just $8 for a year (offer valid till 7 Nov 2012 only).

I got my Nokia Lumia 820 developer device the other day. After first updating it with the latest OS, using NSU Pro, I went ahead to unlock the phone so that I could deploy my test applications on it. Using the Windows Phone Developer Registration Tool, I tried to unlock, but got the following error

"Please set the correct date and time on the phone, check the Internet connection and try again later." with ErrorCode = 0x64.

I checked and settings and found that I had set the time for auto-update. This I changed to manual and also realized that the date was wrongly set. I fixed these and tried to register again, but it failed again and gave the same error. Since I had already fixed the date and time issue, I wasn't sure of what to do next. I was wondering if I needed to install Zune to get this to work.

I revisited the Windows Phone Developer Center and looked at details of how to register the phone for development and the reason for failure was apparent by looking at the prerequisites. The article mentions three things as required for phone registration to work

     •A Microsoft account (formerly known as a Windows Live ID).
     •A valid and current Dev Center developer account.
     •A cellular or Wi-Fi data connection. A USB connection to the computer is not sufficient by itself.

I had the first two, but the third point was the issue. The developer phone from Nokia didn't had a SIM in it (incidentally it requires a micro SIM, so my existing SIM would not have worked anyway) which I could use to connect to say 3G network. So I found a working Wi-Fi hotspot that I could connect to and then re-tried the phone registration, and it worked this time like a charm.

So armed with an unlocked Phone 8 device, Windows 8, Visual Studio 2012 and Windows Phone 8 SDK, I was ready to build and test apps on Phone 8. Instead of writing afresh, I just picked up one of our Phone 7 application, opened in VS 2012, recompiled targeting Phone 8 and deployed on the device. There were no compilation issues and the application worked perfectly on Phone 8 (I must qualify that this was a simple text manipulation application). Interestingly I didn't need Zune anymore to deploy the applications on the device. VS 2012 managed to deployment on its own.

Let me now get onto exploring new features and capabilities of Phone 8.

November 5, 2012

Windows 8 App Store App Install Path

Are you an existing Windows 7 user and planning to migrate to Windows 8 or already migrated? There is one seemingly minor issue that you need to keep in mind. While it is seemingly minor, it can create a bit of problem in the long run.

When working on desktops or laptops most of us tend to create at least two partitions on the hard disk. Drive C, typically for OS and other software installation and drive D for our personal data. If drive C fills up or otherwise, we can usually selectively install applications on drive D as well. So in case of any issues with the setup, we can reformat just the drive C and not loose any personal data.

On our tablets and smart phones, we usually have options of using the Sim, the in built memory or the extended memory that we may install. This is typically a one time configuration and hence forth all market place installs happen on the selected memory device. The tendency here is typically to not use sim, but the memory device.

With Windows 8, since the focus has been to bring in tablets as well as a supported device, the App Store storyline has also gone the same way and there is currently no easy way to modify the path where the apps you download from the App Store are installed. By default they will land in drive C and all the app related data will also be in drive C only. So if you are upgrading your desktop or laptop, you would be no longer able to control the install path and end up taking up more and more space on drive C. While you can try to change the path, but it isn't officially supported as stated here.

Is it a big issue or not, is for you to decide. I, for one, will prefer more control on the install path at least when using Windows 8 on my desktop/laptop. On my tablet, I am fine with a memory device selection and let everything go there.

November 1, 2012

Windows Phone 8 Live Apps

Heard of old wine in new bottle? That's what the Phone 8 Live Apps are all about. While there is nothing new in this, there is still this new name to worry about. Microsoft keeps coming up with different jargon with every release and it just makes our lives all the more challenging.

Back with the launch of Phone 7, Microsoft had shown Live Tiles and it became the most talked about feature for Phone 7. Unfortunately, it remained as the most talked about feature and didn't influence the sales much. Later we saw that the reimagined Windows 8 also heavily used the same live tiles and look and feel and we start to use "Metro" as the new user experience paradigm. However the term metro landed in some trouble and since then we have been exposed to multiple new ways of addressing this new user experience - modern UI, windows 8 UI, Windows 8 Store Apps and now the Microsoft Design language.

Anyway, back to live apps. The concept is really simple, as also explained here. Any application that has a live tile, i.e. a tile that updates its content dynamically is called a live app. Given this explanation, it is hence obvious that Windows 8 also has live apps. Personally I don't see any significant benefit of this. I was happy knowing that I could build an application conforming to the new design language and it would either have a static tile or a live tile (based on needs). Now i have a live app that has a live tile.

So the alternative for static tile is a static app? But an app will not be static as it will have data that is updating. A static app is like HTML pages which are written and published once, but who works with static HTML pages these days? So finally we have a live app with live tile and just "an app" with static tile... phew! so much for the jargon.

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