Smartphone Makers: Stop the bloatware!
By Alex KIDMAN
Smartphones are handheld computers in all but name, but there's one huge gulf between buying an actual handheld computer and buying a smartphone, and that's the freedom to do exactly what you want with it. This isn't in relation to whether Android or iOS (the current 1/2 placeholders, depending on your choice of metric and market location) are either more "open" than each other; it's to do with what they lock down on your system from day one with bloatware that, frankly, very few users either want or need. Buy a laptop and you can do what you like, even within the supplied operating system, but buy a smartphone, on or often off contract, and it's lugging around apps that you may never touch at all, with no easy redress.
It's long been feasible to remove the bloatware from a laptop with tools such as PC Decrapifier, or manually if you prefer a more nuanced approach, but this simply isn't possible on Android or iPhone platforms without a fair amount of mucking about. Yes, you can install custom roms or launchers on Android, or jailbreak iOS to get what you want, but those solutions introduce even more problems.
When I reviewed the Galaxy Note II recently, I noted that one thing that drove me up the wall was not being able to modify the home buttons on the desktop; they're locked in place with no method for shifting them around, even though this is Android, on Australian builds of the Note II -- and, I've since been told, plenty of other Samsung handsets -- you simply can't alter those icons.
Why that is remains a mystery, but on the Note II, my solution was a custom launcher that let me do what I actually wanted to. A win-win situation? Not quite; by dropping Samsung's own launch solution, it also meant that the automatic sensing of the S-Pen didn't work properly, so I lost the automatic switch to S-Pen app types when removing the stylus. Like many Australianised Android phones, there was also a smattering of carrier-specific apps pre-installed. I've nothing specific against carrier apps; they can often be the best way to point out value you might not otherwise know about in terms of quota-free utilities, but is it too much to ask that they be optional?
It's no better on the Apple side of the fence, either. Of the many millions of customers who have purchased an iPhone, how many actually needed a dedicated Stocks app? I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it would be less than fifty per cent, but there the stocks app sits, unable (on a non-jailbroken iPhone) to be shifted except perhaps to a special folder of Apps that I never look at. The dedicated weather app is there too, but that's simply because it's awful; I can at least see the functionality, but choose another app for that purpose.
Smartphones have limited storage capabilities as it is -- is it too much to ask that we have full control over what those apps actually are?
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Top 50,000 Gadgets Of 2012
By Alex KIDMAN
2012 is winding to a slow close, which means it's time to wheel out that venerable classic, the end-of-year best-of list!
Except that I'm not going to do that, for a couple of reasons. Any list like that is undeniably subjective. There's nothing wrong with that per se; indeed, I'm often frustrated by the calls for "objectivity" that follow any review that the reader (or in this case, objector) didn't like. It's the easiest and laziest attack vector on any review, and ignores the fact that any review -- any review at all -- will carry a degree of subjectivity. People don't seem to complain that way about movie reviews; they accept that critics have their own tastes, preferences and viewpoints. But I'm badly digressing.
The fact is, you could indeed do a list of the top 50,000 gadgets, and while that top ten would be the most fervently read, I'm willing to bet that somebody would argue with the placements of 47,987 and 47,988. The Internet is like that. So instead, I thought I'd pick out just three things that I thought were either transformative or disruptive in mobile technology in 2012. They're in no particular order, just before anyone gets their proboscis out of joint*.
(but before I start; I very deliberately didn't include any of the mobile operating systems. Why? Because they're mostly mature products; iOS and Android really only tinkered around the edges, Windows Phone relaunched, but hasn't yet changed the market to speak of (although I did consider Windows 8 itself for a while), and RIM held off on BB10 until 2013, so it was out of contention)
Google Nexus 7
Why the Nexus 7 over so many other tablets? Because of the disruptive potential of Google (and ASUS') little pocket rocket. Prior to the Nexus 7, there were plenty of technically worthwhile Android tablets on the Australian scene, but they were always hampered by comparison to the iPad alternative; the pricing was the same, but the iPad ecosystem was more robust, with many Android apps still lacking full tablet features. That made an Android tablet the less attractive proposition. Then the Nexus 7 launched; an inexpensive, high-powered device that puts Android on the front foot, and buys it time to improve its tablet standing. The iPad's still ahead in the tablet game, but the lead is shrinking fast.
4G takes hold
Admittedly, 4G is still in its relative infancy here in Australia; we've only got two networks, and one of them doesn't have that much of a footprint outside selected capital cities. Equally, the larger network did indeed launch in 2011. Still, 2012 has been the year where we've seen 4G across all the major platforms (sorry, Blackberry users -- line to hate me is on the left), at prices that make it rather compelling. The 4G story in 2013 is going to be even more interesting, with the digital dividend auction making 700Mhz LTE a reality, Optus moving into LTE-A in Canberra and Vodafone doing… whatever it's going to do. At the same time, 3G -- a technology that at one point was transformative -- has become so commonplace that it's now on sale at bargain basement prices. 4G's a heavy enabling technology, just as 3G was before it; with 4G it becomes far more feasible to live a nearly -- or entirely -- mobile online life.
In a world where most users are more concerned about whether their mobile platform of choice will let them fling birds at pigs -- and they pretty much all will -- Eben Upton's vision of a cheap hacking computer became a reality in 2012. Sure, the Raspberry Pi didn't exactly ship fast, and there have been plenty of similar style small form factor cheap board computers since then; you've really got your choices cut out for you in terms of Pi-style devices to hack on. But the Pi's a solid reminder that for every skeumorphic design idea, touch sensitive panel and cloud-backed up selfie, there needs to be some background coding. Somebody's got to do the coding, and there's always going to need to be new coders and fresh ideas -- and they've got to start somewhere.
Did I miss any obvious contenders? Let me know below!
*Although if you really must, go for it. I wouldn't be sticking my snout in a side of beef, but if it makes you happy…
Original Image: linksfraktion
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Why does Bluetooth still have such a social stigma?
By Alex KIDMAN
I can remember when I first laid eyes on some Bluetooth connected equipment -- this would have been twelve or so years ago. To put it politely, I wasn't impressed; early Bluetooth -- like many early technologies -- promised an awful lot and delivered an awful lot less.
What was even more painful than the early technology was the general reaction to Bluetooth headsets, which carried the same kind of social stigma as having a mobile phone in the 1980s. Sure, it may have been a sign of success, but it was also widely viewed as being a sign of being a self-obsessed plonker.
We've come a long way in terms of Bluetooth since then; while it's not a flawless technology (but then again, no wireless technology is ever likely to be), modern Bluetooth headsets have come along in leaps and bounds. They're lighter, they work better, and they sound better.
I've recently been testing out the excellent Plantronics Voyager Legend (you can see what it looks like in my very own ear here), and it's quickly become my go-to headset for in-car use.
Why in-car use? Partly because it's very convenient, but mostly because it's a really easy way to stay legal on the road if my phone rings. Phone calls while driving are distracting, and I'm often terrified by the number of drivers I still see doing the ridiculous cradle-to-the-ear motion that indicates they're concentrating more heavily on their call than on that oncoming truck. It's dangerous, it's illegal, and even if you don't particularly believe that (and I do think you're a fool), it's also rather expensive, what with the fines.
And the hospital time, but you probably don't figure on that.
The thing is, though, that while the technology has improved, the general perception of Bluetooth headsets hasn't shifted a jot. They're still seen in a negative light, a device for the self-obsessed.
That strikes me as weird, given the rise of the smartphone. What's more self-obsessed -- having an earpiece on that most of the time lies idle, allowing you to freely converse with people and interact with the world around you, or having your head resolutely stuck in a screen while you walk into lamp posts?
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Australia's Tech Journalists are indeed "incredibly uninformed" on the NBN
By Alex KIDMAN
It's become a repeated habit of shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to claim that the reporting on the NBN by Australia's technology media is apparently woeful and missing the point entirely. He's written extensively over on his own blog on the subject, making repeated note of efforts overseas in ways to point out flaws in the NBN's planning and execution, while always repeating the mantra that the opposition's broadband plans would deliver faster, cheaper, better… and so on.
Turnbull's assertions have essentially boiled down to the idea that the Australian technology media are all "cheerleaders" for the NBN, tending to simply ape the Labor party line that there's nothing wrong with the NBN. I don't think that's entirely true in any great respect; there's certainly efforts in most publications to hold NBN Co to account when it stuffs up, and when it misses its own targets, it's hardly ignored.
What annoys me about this kind of debate though, is that it's just simple, stupid politics. Turnbull has the job of attacking the NBN, and he's got all the information he needs at his fingertips; as a government project the relevant details of NBN Co's work are a matter of public record. Want to find out when it's rolling out? You can do so. Want numbers to show it's not passing its targets? They're available.
NBN Co is required to report on its progress, good or bad, and Turnbull's spin is, not suprisingly, to point out where it fails. Apparently, not aping his line -- which to me often seems at odds with party leader Tony Abbott's more technophobic utterances about burning the NBN to the ground in favour of funding roads, not to mention the wireless-is-the-future-lunacy of conservative pundits such as Alan Jones -- is failing to take into account all the facts.
There's a critical problem with that kind of line, though, and it's one that I seriously wish Malcolm Turnbull would personally overcome. He's cast himself -- somewhat successfully -- as something of an "elder statesman" type figure in politics, drawing in some plaudits for seeking simpler, less "political" government, but what he's doing here is a classic opposition political ploy. Why? Because we simply don't know enough about the Coalition policy when it comes to broadband to make any kind of even half-hearted analysis, and that's quite deliberate.
Yes, certainly, Turnbull's said they're in favour of FTTN as a technology, and he's happy to point out where it's been deployed overseas -- although he does have the habit of ignoring where it's been deployed but FTTH is now sought. Equally, it seems to me as though he ignores the question not of how it works overseas, but of how it'll work here in Australia.
There's been the suggestion that FTTN may indeed be more expensive -- but without futher plan details it's impossible to give a fair and decent comparison. In that aspect, yes, Australia's technology journalists are indeed woefully under-informed on the future of broadband under a Coalition government.
It'd be lovely to think that Turnbull might actually answer this call and release the policy so it could be properly assessed, but that's not likely to happen. It's politics much more than actual benefit at play; he's got the position where he can nitpick and pull apart the NBN's rollout -- and I'm certainly happy to say that there are areas where he has a point -- while simply nebulously "promising" a better alternative.
Call me cynical, but I could even see a scenario where if he was to assume the communications ministry (assuming a change of government), then the NBN plans would be reassessed and put in place; it may not matter at that point if they're either cheaper or faster, because he could point backwards at right now, where the NBN rollout is behind schedule, and state that the original plans would have been "slower" anyway. Or that there were factors that couldn't be considered prior to taking government, and as such, broadband rollout was slower regardless.
It's a political win-win for him and his position (and precisely what always happens with political debates; the incumbent government isn't above this sort of thing when in opposition either) -- but I do think that it's a loss for a better understanding of what the true alternatives actually are. We're all under-informed in this respect, and we're all losers as a result.
Image: JD Hancock
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Apple, Google, Microsoft: When will you stop lying to your customers?
By Alex KIDMAN
Why that particular track, I hear you ask? Mainly because I'm an afficionado of 80s pop tracks, but also because, as 2012 winds to a close, I'm struck by the realisation that, while we've seen some impressive portable gadgets in 2012, we've also seen more than the usual quantity of lies, deceptions, broken promises and duds than ever before. It never fails to astound me that people will declare themselves a "fan" of a particular company to the bitter end, even when those companies are, ultimately, all about the mighty dollar, and will do some pretty ruthless things to get it. In other words, we're constantly let down by technology companies -- and some of us applaud them for doing it!
I mean, it all starts out quite nicely; the new shiny gadgets will, according to the hype, run 2000% faster than the previous model, with better screens, more battery life and improved capabilities for flinging otters into the sun. But the reality? It all too often just doesn't match up to what's promised, especially if you've got a yard full of otters to dispose of.
Just to draw a few names out of a hat, here's a sprinkling of this year's portable disappointments and fibs:
Apple: Maps was going to be a glorious new beginning, wasn't it? Vector based maps with gorgeous fly-bys, spoken navigation and an easy way to get from A to B. What we got was… a way to get from A to Q, and Q might not actually exist at all. Apple's pretty insistent that Maps is "getting better", but if you'll forgive the obvious Python reference, it does feel rather as though it's protesting as it's being put on the cart…
Equally, there's the iPad Mini. Look, I do think it's a reasonable bit of kit, but having spent so much time pooh-poohing smaller tablets, to turn around and say that they might be quite a good idea is pretty breathtaking in its gall. It really is.
Microsoft: Windows Phone is the platform that can, albeit quite a bit more slowly than the competition if you're an existing customer. In order to sell more than one Lumia 900, Microsoft promised Windows Phone 7.8, with many of the visual "features" of Windows Phone 8, even if it didn't have the actual underlying code base. Instead, what we've got is… silence. Nobody seems to know when or if Windows Phone 7.8 will eventuate, and more cynical minds (yep, that would include me) might draw the conclusion that it's either not going to happen at all, or it's being delayed so that the gap between the old Phone 7 and new Phone 8 devices is as wide as possible; if people bought Windows Phone 7 devices because they looked like Phone 8, that might be bad for the bottom line.
On the tablet front, too, the fact that Microsoft gets rather evasive on the subject of the Surface RT speaks volumes. It doesn't quite have 32GB available on the 32GB model -- it's not even close -- but that's not disclosed in any kind of obvious fashion, because, again, that might be bad for the bottom line. Even the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 are rather blurred, and when asked about it -- repeatedly -- at the local Windows 8 launch, all the journalists (myself included) got were canned and useless replies.
Still, in terms of updates, Microsoft's got nothing on…
Google and its OEM partners: It's the perpetual cry of the Android faithful, and seemingly a beating that they keep coming back for; getting the latest version of Android onto portable devices. It's both stupidly complicated -- if Apple can strong-arm the telcos into worldwide releases, why can't a company with the resources of Google? -- and all too prone to manufacturer claims that later prove to be entirely worthless.
What makes it more irritating is that quite some time back -- May 2011 to be precise -- Google and its OEM partners were all swearing blind that Android users would get at least 18 months of upgrade support, "pending hardware support". Weasel words at their finest there -- there have been plenty of orphaned devices since then. Certainly, those of a hacking bent can root and modify their Android hardware to run more up to date software versions, and to an extent it's nice that this is feasible -- but it shouldn't be the only way, and certainly not one that forces customers into voiding warranties!
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