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Windows Phone 8: Show Me Your Live Tiles (Part 2)

The first part of my review had the focus set on the great software Microsoft has created for mobile, so in this second half my attention is on the hardware that arrived at my front door. My choice of handset is a bright, loud, solid, neon yellow Nokia Lumia 920. First impression is “come pick me up and touch my shiny screen”. At least most people I show it to, or see it on my desk, get that message loud and clear. Initial reaction from friends and colleagues is that it is a solidly built device. So why don’t we start with the physical forms of the phone. I won’t bore you with dimensions and other detailed technical specifications. Rather I will focus on the attributes that are the result of the factual data.

You can’t deny the yellow on my phone. When I ordered it I thought it would be more of a mustardy type yellow, but oh no. It is a loud, safety vest, almost toxic looking yellow. I like it. You can’t help but look at. The phone itself feels very durable, solid and well-built once you have it in your hand. Compared to other smartphones it does pack a whole lot of technology and most of it is best in class, so the slightly increased weight is to be expected. I have read some reviews that hammer the phone mainly based on the weight. In my experience you notice it the first dozen times you pick it up, then it becomes negligible.

Camera

The camera is awesome. That is my official technical verdict of the 8.7 megapixel Carl Zeiss lens with optical image stabilisation. Awesome.

Melbourne Big Wheel

Santa and his helper

(Yep, that is me and Santa).

Whatever witchcraft Nokia has packed into the camera, it works. The colours are vibrant and natural, the focus is sharp and the video now comes in HD. I take a lot of photos, but generally not with my phone. I lug around a Nikon DSLR, plus accessories, the size of Luxembourg, whenever I go somewhere where there is a potentially good photo opportunity. Now, I am not going to suggest that the Nokia camera comes up better than my trusty old Nikon, but I do think that it is on par with most compact digital cameras and better than a lot. This means I will use the Nokia as a “I’m just going on a short outing” camera, and keep the Nikon for longer trips, once off events etc. Yes, the camera on the Nikon really is that good.

Most phone cameras can take a decent still picture in sunlight or daytime, but night time or actions shots always come out looking like you were jumping on a trampoline and covering the lens in Vaseline. The Nokia has optical image stabilisation which means you can shake the camera and it still comes out sharp.  Night time uses more magic and fairy dust to set the ISO (light sensitivity) and remove the usual grainy look from your happy snaps.

The video function is equally impressive. Way less shaking than your normal YouTube style handheld videos, and it is just as vibrant and sharp (in HD too).

Oh, I almost forgot about the different lenses that you can download, use and abuse. When using the camera, different apps hook into the camera and you can choose a different lens, which means that app take over the camera. Allow me to demonstrate. You use the impressive Translator app from Microsoft to translate text on a page using the camera. Now you can launch the camera, then switch to the Translator lens, which will take you directly to the right spot in the app. It is a shortcut to the functionality within the app that uses the camera. Kind of neat, and does provide more deep integration between apps, which is what Windows Phone is all about.

Various Lenses

Sound

I listen to music from my phone all the time. On the train, working on projects, writing this post and even practising my river dance routines. I have invested in a decent pair of earphones from AudioFly and the Lumia 920 gives good output through the wires. I can fiddle with the equaliser settings and switch Dolby stereo sound on and off.

Equalizer Dolby Sounds Settings

The built in speakers are okay, but they are still teeny weeny and you can only expect so much from speakers made for the people of Whoville.

Battery

A bit of a boring subject, but just briefly: Bigger battery (2000 mAh) + bigger HD screen (4.5”) + more things to chew power = still not great battery performance. Oh, and you can’t remove it. So there.

Connectivity

It seems the good folks at Nokia made a checklist of every single mode of connectivity you can possible put in a phone. Short of having a mini Hadron Collider, this device has it all. Wifi in the b,g and n flavours, Bluetooth, NFC, Wireless charging using the QI standard, compatibility with 14 different network frequencies (2G, 2.5G, 3G, 4G) as well as the new Dual Core Snap Dragon processor. Not to mention the most sophisticated camera seen yet (yeah, I kind of like the camera).

But enough about all the delicious, crunchy hardware making up the Lumia 920. Let’s have a look at the software side of things. Nokia has produced a rather impressive suite of software for the Lumia range, in an aim to make their WP8 offering more attractive.

Nokia Maps

The Bing Maps app has been replaced by Nokia Maps, which to a large extent are better than the standard maps. The maps are very fluent and does provide useful information about local businesses, even though it is in no way up to par with Google’s localisation. However, the maps are very useful and seem 100 times more useful than Apples failed attempt at a mapping application (Apple does not acknowledge that Echuca in Victoria exists for example).

Nokia Maps

Nokia Drive

Nokia Drive is the Turn-By-Turn navigation. It does one thing, and one thing very well. It is a fully fledged GPS navigation app, which even has TTS (Text To Speech), which works. My car navigation TTS for some reason can’t pronounce “road”. It comes out as “rod” in this over the top American accent. You would have thought that is one word a GPS should get right, but I digress.

The application is free and comes with downloadable maps from all over the world. So not only can you always have up to date maps, but they are also stored offline, so you can always use your GPS (given it has any battery left, see above).

Nokia Music

Every single platform seems to have their own flavour of iTunes now. There are so many offerings out there you would be excused for not really caring. So what is different? iTunes has music purchases of every song on the planet almost, Xbox music has a monthly subscription, Google Music lets you upload your own catalogue of music to the Cloud and many many more.

Nokia Music is in essence free listening. It comes with radio mixes, which lets you listen to everything from @alexjmackey’s favourite Genesis and Spandau Ballet to the current hits of local and international artists. Now, you can’t choose the exact songs to listen to, but you can select genres from Country and Western to Death Metal. And if there is a particular song or album you like, you have the option to buy it.

Nokia Music

Because all the music is streamed in the mixes, Nokia has been so kind as to let you download up to four mixes to your phone.

Now, all that is good, but you could ask why Nokia has even bothered to make their own music service? It is a massive undertaking and there are so many services out there as mentioned above.

And I have to mention that Nokia Music is quite buggy. The application decides to stop randomly, it has restarted my phone twice from crashing and even bricked my phone once to the point of a reset (hold down power button and volume down for about 10 seconds).

Nokia City Lens

I first saw this idea in a French research project using Google information on an iPhone. The name of the project eludes me, but the idea of holding up your phone and it presenting an overlay of nearby attractions based on GPS coordinates and compass was mind blowing.

Well, Nokia City Lens is just that. Choose from eight different categories of places nearby, and the app will tell you what is nearby in this category. It works quite well, but the compass seems to be a bit off sometimes. And Dental Surgery came up under “Fun”. Not sure if that is a particular Finnish version of “Fun”. To be honest I haven’t looked up “Fun” in the Finnish dictionary.

Nokia City Lens

Tapping any of the icons on the screen (which move about a bit due to calibration issues I am assuming), will take you to the location in Nokia Maps and you can get directions. Very impressive app, but to be honest, I am not sure how much I will use it.

Conclusion

I can only hope Microsoft gets traction with this latest iteration of their mobile platform. I truly believe it is a more user friendly and efficient platform than the competition. Taking the whole ecosystem into account with Surface devices, Windows 8 and Xbox, it all just works together. Traditionally Microsoft marketing has been very fragmented and seemingly random, so hopefully this time around it is more successful. As I said in Part 1, I have shown WP7 to two friends deciding on a new handset, and both chose it over iOS, Android and *cough* Blackberry. Not because I told them to or persuaded them, but because they tried them all and chose the best one.

I haven’t touched on other handsets, but all the new WP8 devices are amazing. I had a very hard time choosing, but the outstanding camera and the gorgeous screen on the Nokia made it for me. If you want choice and personalisation in handset and user experience, but without having to be a geek (like me), it is the superior platform. If you don’t want to be a sheep and follow the flock for no other reason than following them, try out a Windows Phone.

I am not looking back.

 


Windows Phone 8: Show Me Your Live Tiles (Part 1)

Finally! My new Windows Phone 8 phone has arrived. And first things first: it’s yellow. I mean really yellow. Granted I did order it in yellow, but this is smack-in-your-face-safety-vest-neon-super-yellow. I don’t mind actually. As you may have guessed it is the Nokia Lumia 920, and in this geek review I will touch on the handset as well as the new operating system. The first part of the review will wind its way around, through, over and between some of the new bits in the operating system. Part 2 will fondle, caress and make out with the new superstar from Nokia.

My Partner’s 7-year old boy loves Kid’s Corner, as it makes him feel it is his part of the phone. Pretty good trade-off for not sending your boss fart emails.

I have been a user of the Windows Phone eco system for the past two years and a bit, and in that light I will go over some of the improvement over the past system, that you might not be aware of or have noticed. As was the case with the release of WP7.5 (Mango) in September 2011, WP8 includes a swath of improvements to an already feature rich and mature operating system. Some features are very noticeable, such as the new start screen, and others are buried deep in the belly of the beast, and will probably not be noticed directly. I won’t touch on all the new features and changes, as I do want to do other things for the next week. Instead I will emphasise the areas I feel are important and makes the platform stand out.

When Microsoft announced and indeed launched the new Phone software, the focus was (understandably) on the immediate visual changes and improvements. So that is where I will start.

Start Screen

This is without comparison the most reviewed and featured part of the new Windows Phone operating system. It is the face of the new Microsoft Phone attack and the new start screen has been improved and made more “you” (customizable). The first iteration had live tiles showing your latest updates and content at a glance, but all you could do was to move the tiles around. There were some built in apps, like Calendar and Pictures, that were the size of two normal tiles, but that format was not available to third party apps. All that have changed, so app developers now have three formats to choose from.

Start Screen

The screen feels more alive, more personal and more usable. I especially like the smallest tiles for apps that don’t have text content to show on the tile. Something like Phone, Messages, Facebook and Email accounts only update the tile with a number. The small form factor is perfect for that. Other apps really shine from the large landscape tile, and make my Weather Channel app look very impressive. Once developers get their head around the tile sizes, they will become extremely useful and lets the user customise their phone until eternity.

Performance Improvements

A large part of the work on WP8 has gone into the support for all the new shiny hardware. There is now support for multicore processors, high definition screens, a brand new IE10 browser, memory expansions and much more. All of this performance shenanigans means that Windows Phone 8 is even more smooth and slick to use than Windows Phone 7 devices. All transitions, input screens, app loads and interaction in general is extremely responsive and there is no lag that I can find anywhere. It is like everything just works!

Apps load faster, due to the beefed up hardware, and some Apps now exhibit a much better resume behaviour than before. For example, the Facebook app now resumes to the screen you were on, instead of reloading the whole app. Apps stay in memory much much longer, so you don’t have to reload apps every 20 minutes. This means you can now switch between “My Little Pony” and “Rainbow and Butterflies” apps to your heart’s content, just like @alexmackey would do.

Another improvement I have noticed is that the keyboard is vastly improved on two fronts. For one the “Fat Finger” prediction seems more accurate in guessing which word you meant when you typed in “tebieq”. In fact it seems easier to hit the right letters on the keyboard. This might have something to do with the larger screen and the greater pixel density. However, much more exciting is the new predictive typing. In WP7 the keyboard would predict what word you were typing based on character placement and letter sequence, hence it could predict that when you wrote “Wed” you meant “Wednesday”. Not too difficult to implement, and all smartphone platforms has this feature. Now there is predictive sentences, which means WP8 will predict the next word before you have even typed it. For example I can type “I am going to be late” with only eight keystrokes. I haven’t been able to confirm it yet, but the type ahead feature supposedly learn from your typing as well. So it learns which words you put together, so over time it will be much more accurate and useful.

Predictive Text 1 Predictive Text 2 Predictive Text 3

Speaking of the keyboard, Microsoft still haven’t sorted out a feature I loved on my iPhone, being multiple keyboard languages. On my iPhone back in the day, I could switch from English to Danish dictionary with one button click. That meant my text messages in Danish would have the correct spell checking. Still on WP8 I now either switch the language of the phone (not ideal and time consuming) or I teach the phone Danish. Every time a little squiggly red line come up I tap the word and add it to the dictionary. I feel a bit like a primary school teacher teaching the same naughty kid again and again.

Update: Last night I discovered you can download keyboards in a large number of languages, including Danish. Go to Settings -> Keyboard and you can add any of them. They are now available whenever the keyboard is visible, using a little button on the actual keyboard. Woohoo, another awesome addition and I was blaming the wrong kid again.

HD capability

Finally! Hooray, we now have beautiful high definition goodness on the screen. WP8 supports 720×1280 and 768×1280 pixels. On a 4.5 inch display that would mean somewhere in the vicinity of 332dpi. Ha, take that Apple retina display with your puny 326ppi. In other words, Microsoft is finally supporting industry standard screen resolutions.

It means you can record video in 720HD format, but more on the camera in Part 2.

Kid’s Corner

The most surprising, yet simple and useful, feature is Kid’s Corner. Swipe left on the lock screen and a second lock screen (if enabled) is shown.

Kids Corner Lock Screen Kids Corner Home Screen

This is the section where your kid can have their own section on their phone. This means no more access to your phone, no more sending emails to the Buddhist Society saying you want to join, and no more buying of magic unicorns on eBay while you weren’t paying attention. Your offspring can now have their own section they can customise with colours, resize icons and set their own lock screen image and text. As the owner of the phone (and by now probably several unicorns and pictures of cats wearing little Halloween costumes) you decide which apps are in the Kid’s Corner. My Partner’s 7-year old boy loves it, as it makes him feel it is his part of the phone. Pretty good trade-off for not sending your boss fart emails.

Internet Explorer

The browsing experience in WP8 still consists of only Internet Explorer (IE). We are now up to version 10, same as on Windows 8, and the engines behind both the mobile and the desktop browsers are the same. That means you get a faster, more standards compliant browsing experience, but I am still not convinced Microsoft has addressed all of the issues from previous versions. Granted, the browser is much quicker and there are some very nice features, such as customising the toolbar at the bottom and improved JavaScript rendering speed and HTML5 compliance.

 IE 10

I would like to see what Mozilla or Google could bring to the platform as well. If anything it would push Microsoft to improve IE to stay on top.

Enterprise Apps

The direction that Apple, Microsoft and to a lesser extent Google has taken with third party development, means that programs are certified by the corporation and published through the single channel. Back in the days of Wild West programming, every man and his dog (or duck even) could publish a program and sell and deploy it, on a platform like Windows Mobile. No problem. What that lead to, was a mess of different user interfaces, broken programs, general discontent and frustration. It did work occasionally, but there were a lot of problems. To fix this, the big corporations, starting with Apple, took control and dictated how applications and programs (or “apps”) were to look, feel and smell. Not only did the quality of apps improve, but it also proved to be a very generous income stream.

If you are in the development space, especially consulting, you might see a problem with this approach. Stores for purchasing apps are public. You publish one app, you can restrict by market or region, but essentially your grandma will have access to the new Magic Polar Bear Recognition app you made. Or even worse, an intranet application for a large corporation. There was no way to create private apps for a closed audience.

Apples approach was an Enterprise App Store, which allows companies to limit their attached handsets to a particular set of apps, be those public or not.

Microsoft is now introducing the Company Hub application which is similar to side loading apps in Windows 8, and without much of the hassle that was needed to accomplish the same in WP7. A Company Hub can be managed by the IT department in a company and allows full control and integration with Office and management via remote management features. If this is successfully implemented, it might just get Microsoft back in the door for mobility, with a lot of major corporations.

About time

A couple of little things have been annoying me by their pure absence. But lo and behold you can now take screenshots. Yes @sbarski, you can take a picture of your favourite cake recipe on the screen and email it, post it to Facebook or send it via MMS to your fan club. Press the Home button at the same time as the power button and Bob is your uncle (or you can get a picture of him at least).

I have also been trying to figure out why there was no pinching action on the camera when operating it. It seemed like such a natural thing to do, but Windows Phone was not having a bar of it. Until now.

 Go Go Go

I love Windows Phone. Everyone around me will tell you I am a Microsoftee and I have seen several of my friends switch to Windows Phone and never look back. In my mind it is by far the best mobile platform when it comes to usability, personalisation, development experience and looks. There is nothing else like it.

My hope is that Microsoft Marketing can create a campaign that does the phone justice. A large problem I think is that retailers are not educated in showing off the devices, so people naturally gravitates to what their friends have. When it comes down to it, the general public don’t have an interest in which company creates their mobile experience. They buy the phone the guy next to them has. Unless someone can show them the different platforms and pros and cons of each, they aren’t going to change their ways.


A shift in approach from Apple?

These are exciting times indeed. Over the last year or two we have seen the largest shift in personal computing since Apple introduced the Mac in 1984 and Microsoft introduced Windows for the PC in 1985. It was these product innovations that started the era of modern computing as we know it today. These products filled a need and solved an inherent problem with computing at the time. How do we put computers into the hands of the average person with no computer knowledge? Although the approach from the two companies were somewhat different (Microsoft evolved their existing product MS-DOS for hardware manufacturers, and Apple designed and sold a complete hardware and software package), they both essentially targeted the same end user. Believe it or not, the companies actually worked together on a number of software applications and licensed features to each other. The rest is more well-known history and both companies’ successes are well documented and both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are names the average person is familiar with.

Now we are seeing the biggest shift in personal computing since those days. It started with the launch of the iPhone in June 2007. This single device redefined the way we use and think of mobile phones. The introduction of the HTC Dream running Android in 2008 and the Windows Phone 7 devices in October 2010 further fuelled the shift in devices from stationary to mobile. Computing was in some extend made available on the move. Mobile data usage has steadily more than doubled every year since 2007 and in 2011 there was an almost threefold increase. And the growth is across all markets and show no sign of slowing down. The top 20% of mobile data users now consume almost 1 GB per month. Read the whole Cisco report when you have a spare 3 hours.

Now, I am sure you didn’t come along for his ride for a history lesson, so I will move on to the main focus of this article. Tablets. They are a form factor that has been very hard to nail. Microsoft introduced the first fully fledged tablet computers over a decade ago in 2000. Safe to say they never took off, being cumbersome and not designed for handheld computing. It wasn’t until Apple’s iPad was introduced in April of 2010 that the general consumer opened their eyes for the tablet devices. You can argue that consumers didn’t necessarily need the device, but it looked beautiful and Apple has always been perfect in their marketing strategy. A large range of Android powered tablets have followed and now Microsoft have finally launched their Surface device. Apple has sold over 100 million iPads and still control the majority of the market. But things are heating up to win the mobile consumer. And then Apple introduced the iPad mini.

Here is a somewhat controversial statement: Is Apple turning into a follower rather than a leader? I know you think I am going bonkers, but stay with me. When Steve Jobs was leading the world’s largest tech company, the focus was 100% on innovation, design and pushing the boundaries. Now that Jobs sadly has gone to the iCloud and Tim Cook has taken over, there seems to be a shift in direction. With the latest product launch of the mini iPad, Apple is no longer leading the industry, but playing catch up with competitors. There is already a large range of mid-sized tablet devices on the market, and it is questionable what the mini version of the popular iPad brings to the market. Granted the iPad mini is in fact 7.9 inches of screen real estate, but it is still in the same segment.

The first 7 inch devices bearing the Android flag came to market in early 2010, with Samsung leading the way. Apple’s iPad put the tablet on the consumer’s mind, but other companies succeeded in the small tablet space. So why is Apple bringing out a mini iPad now? It does seem like it is a move to not lose market share and to fill a gap in their product line, and that is absolutely fine. But it is not innovate and ground breaking.

Speaking of mid-sized tablets, Microsoft is now rumoured to be developing a 7 inch tablet as well, based around their new Surface device. According to several media sources it will be an Xbox gaming tablet and will be focused primarily on gaming. At least that is a different take on the tablet space, and I am keen to see what they come up with.

And while we are at the topic, let us now forget Amazon. The online retailing behemoth launched their own tablet, the Kindle Fire, with some success. As of 31 August 2012 they have sold an estimated 5 million device only in North America, which equates to about 22% market share. The device is priced very aggressively and Amazon intends to drive business to their website via the device.

This space is only going to get more and more interesting and competitive as the desktop PC experience seems to be shifting to mobile and handheld. Apple is the unequalled market leader at the moment, but many other players like Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung are looking to steal some of that business. Microsoft has just launched their Surface tablet device, and Amazon is coming out with the Kindle Fire HD. And as always when the big players get it right, the market will be flooded with cheap budget copies. I am very excited in this shift in personal computing, and as a software developer (geek actually) this presents a whole new range of opportunities. And as an end user of the products this development can only be a good thing. Cheaper devices with more and more functionality.


Windows Phone 8 – Near Field Communication and Why You Should Care

Yesterday Nokia and Microsoft announced the next generation Lumia phones. That in itself is exciting for a geek like me, and there are a range of new features which could entice even the most sceptical consumer mind. The new PureView technology leaves most cameras behind and the wireless charger is just an awesome party trick (look mum, no hands!).

The most interesting feature revealed, if you look at future uses and applications was the implementation of the Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. NFC has been around since 2004 in an organised format, when some big players including Nokia and Sony set up the NFC Forum to advance the use of the technology. So what is NFC?

According to the official NFC Forum

Near Field Communication (NFC) technology makes life easier and more convenient for consumers around the world by making it simpler to make transactions, exchange digital content, and connect electronic devices with a touch.

It is in essence a short range wireless signal that allows a simple touch with the device to transfer data. By short range we’re talking about something like 1.5cm, or half an inch. Not much at all. So why is this so cool? Because of the very short range of the signal, as well as part of the protocol, it is inherently secure. All it requires from the user to use it, is a simple touch with the device. And this touch enables a data transfer to happen instantly.

If you are still sceptical, let me exemplify it for you, so there is no doubt left. Here are 6 areas I can think of off the top of my head.

1. Payments

Google has already introduced their Wallet technology and Microsoft is now launching the technology as part of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Imagine if you could store your credit card data, your loyalty card data, or even coupons and special discounts applicable only to a select group of people. Mastercard and Visa are already members of NFC Forum, and NFC enabled phones could use the infrastructure already built for the current tap-and-go technologies PayPass and PayWave. Because of the short range and inherent security of the technology, this would be a great match.

For retailers and marketing agencies, this is a major step forward too. They can suddenly see when certain consumers have purchased a particular item, and can accordingly target them. German digital coupon company Coupies is one of the first companies to embrace the technology and taking it to the consumer.

2. Public Transport

I live in Melbourne in Australia. Over the last few years, the state government has introduced the infamous Myki system as a replacement for the ageing public transport payment system. So far it has costed the Victorian tax payer around $AUD 1.5B (yes, that is billions!) and the costs just keep on coming. That means a ticketing system for a single city has now cost about as much as the latest Mars rover. It just doesn’t make sense. If NFC technology had been used instead of the proprietary Myki card, commuters could have used a number of devices including their mobile phone as a payment option, and they wouldn’t have had to “Stop-Hold” (and often change reader) to go through the payment gate.

3. Health Care

Doctors and nurses could scan tags on beds with information about treatment, medication and much more. This would allow a full history of which medical professional has seen to the patient and what treatment they have given them.

Another application could be to help physically disabled people to ring their friends, by touching a picture of them with their phone, as developed and researched by University of Ljubljana all the way back in 2009.

4. Device Pairing

Imagine taking a photo with your mobile phone, and then to print it out, all you have to do is touch the printer with your phone. Or pairing Bluetooth devices with a single touch. Touching two devices together could enable file transfers or team gaming. No more driver hell of finding the right driver, then downloading and installing it manually.

5. Social Media

A German company called FriendTicker developed a system of physical tags in locations, where the user could touch a tag to check in. Or you can touch to devices together to say that you are at Jimmy’s Pub with this particular person. This could allow instant product promotions to consumers by sending them coupons, product offers and promotional material for a particular location.

6. Information Retrieval/Implicit Search

NFC tags could be placed in all sorts of locations. In a museum to allow visitors to touch and bring up information on a particular piece. On consumer items to build up an in-store wish list. Or how about on your suit case to work as your virtual travel agent. That is exactly what tag-a-bag won the 2012 NFC Best Innovative Solution for.

The NFC technology has a real potential to change our lives in so many small and not-so-small ways. And the fact that Nokia is now putting the technology in their latest devices indicates there will be a real push for the technology in the future. But until the technology has been made more “sexy” it will be a while before mainstream consumers, and not just us geeks, picks up on the infinite possibilities it provides. Watch this space is all I can say. Big things are about to happen.


How to Create Your Own Custom URL Shortener Service Using YOURLS

I am expecting you might have noticed the short URLs that are being used more and more frequently on Twitter, Facebook, Google and many more places. They look something like this http://goo.gl/maps/lPr5V  and are a way of limiting the size of your website links. There are a handful that are widely used, such as bit.ly, t.co and goo.gl.

I needed to use URL shorteners to tweet my blog posts, and it occurred to me that it would awesome if I could use my own domain klint.co. It is short, descriptive and I own it (as much as you can own a non-physical conceptual digital asset). Furthermore, I want to drive traffic to my site anyway, so why give that traffic to a third party?

I did some initial googling and binging to come up with the tool/library YOURLS. It is a very basic implementation using a database, redirect and some smarts to generate a short unique URL that maps to a normal URL.

And what is even better is that there is a complete WordPress plugin designed to allow you to combine your Twitter account with YOURLS. So far so good.

To set it all up follow these steps:

  1. Download and install YOURLS
  2. Follow the setup instructions
  3. If you are using WordPress install the YOURLS: WordPress to Twitterplugin.
    1. To configure it follow these steps (see what I did there?)
    2. If you have trouble authenticating your Twitter account with the plugin, try and disable all your Twitter related plugins. I had a conflict with one.
    3. You should be able to post to Twitter directly from your posts now.

In addition you can now log into the YOURLS admin panel, which lives at http://yourdomain/YOURLSdir/admin. From here you can create bookmarks to quickly create short URLs for whatever site you are on. This is handy for creating links on the fly which can be used on other sites, to then redirect traffic through your domain.

YOURLS also has the ability to act as an API, so other applications can interact with it and implicitly create short URLs for your domain. You set up a signature token in the YOURLS admin section and use that to authorize 3rd party applications to use YOURLS on your domain. If you are using the Chrome browser, the extension Template can make use of your custom URL shortener.

YOURLS is a great tool, and it is relatively easy to set up and integrate into your various sites, applications and tools. Have you used it? Any problems/caveats? Let me know in the comments below.


Windows Phone SDK on Windows 8

If you are a Windows Phone Developer combined with adequate amounts of geek, you will most likely have upgraded your work machine to Windows 8. All is good initially until you open your latests and greatest solution in Visual Studio 2010 and hit F5.

You get either this


or this


or maybe even both

The solution is to install the SDK version 7.1.1, which is now available from Microsoft. It takes a while to install, so be patient. But in the end you see the sweet nectar of emulation running on your shiny Win8.

via [windowsteamblog]


Greedy Windows 8 – How to Limit the Live Tiles Data Usage

I recently upgraded/installed/changed my primary laptop to run on Windows 8. As a matter of fact I couldn’t wait any longer than the day after the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version was released. I did a reasonable backup of files, photos, squirrels and projects before embarking on the path to greater computing (right?). I guess I am the kind of user that you hear about upgrading too early and too often. But I am a geek and that is what I do. And apparently I ramble on a bit too…

What I kind of forgot is that these tiles are live. They update. They show you the latest cool stuff

The reason I am writing this is something I discovered over the last week or so. There are many cool new shiny things in Windows 8, which I won’t touch on in this particular article. But one that I will, is the new start screen. It is by far the most dominant (and shiny….oh so shiny…) feature in the new OS. In fact it is so dominant it sneaks up on you all the time. Are you a windows Key+type searcher? Me too. Hit the win key, and up comes a world of changing tiles and colours (oh so shiny…).

What I kind of forgot is that these tiles are live. They update. They show you the latest cool stuff, the up to minute news and stock prices (who actually uses the stock app on a regular basis?). This in turn means they are constantly pulling data from some online service. All that is excellent and really cool, because you are being completely taken in by all the action. However, as I found out the hard way, these spinning, updating live tiles suck a lot of data. If you are on a landbound phone line and have a seemingly infinite data allowance, you will probably never notice. If you are tethering or using another mobile data connection, chances are you will.

In one week I racked up just over 2 GB of data usage. I didn’t watch any videos, download large files or update my apps or pc. I didn’t change my pattern at all. Normally 1.5 GB will last me a month with some to spare.

So opening my mobile provider account service I found this

Follow by this second near fatal experience

Plan exceeded (yikes!)

 

That is a lot of bits and bytes.

So what can you do to prevent this you ask? It is actually very simple and there are a couple of options.

  1. Turn off the live tiles that you don’t need. Right-click on the tile in question and click “turn live tile off” in the menu at the bottom of the screen.Live Tile Menu
  2. Limit the data usage for all live tiles.
    Open the Charms menu either with the shortcut Windows key+C, or by moving your mouse cursor to the upper or lower corner of the right screen. Select Settings from the list of options and select the tiles link at the top on the next screen. That will open this menu

    If you don’t see the bottom part of the menu, you need to select your connection as metered. Open the network connections, right click on the one you want to limit and choose “Set as metered connection”.

This also has the benefit of not stealing your internet connection, so it will be faster for your real use. And you won’t have a heart attack when you get your mobile bill.

via [ghacks.net]


An Event Organiser’s Checklist

Over the past three years I have been part of the organising crew behind the DDD Melbourne conferences. Together with my friends Alex and Mahesh we have put together the conferences from scratch and I thought I would share some of the points, thoughts and concepts we struggled with and overcame (mostly).

Although the event was a community event and the format was focused around the community, I won’t go into the structure of the event. The following points of advice are general and can be applied to any event format.

Venue

To me this is the most important point to get right. Once you have settled on putting on the event, you need to lock down the venue sooner rather than later. The venue is the heart of the event and most other points can be managed closer to the date of the event. You don’t want to be stuck with the wrong venue, nor having to suddenly move the whole event. Keep the following points in mind when looking for an event (in no particular order).

When you get a sponsor on board you get an association with that brand and their values.

  • Rooms: Based on your event format look for rooms to hold the talks, workshops, keynote, tea breaks, lunch and so on.
    Have an idea beforehand of number of seats needed in each room and make sure you can accommodate 10-20% extra. You never know if you might need the extra space.
  • Location: Make the venue easy to get to. Ideally the venue is close to multiple forms of public transport (trains, trams, busses, metro, kangaroos etc)
  • Price: Depending on the format of your event, try and get the venue for free or as cheap as possible.

Sponsors

Any event is in need of cash. Sponsors can provide that. But sponsors give you more than just money or prizes. When you get a sponsor on board you get an association with that brand and their values. It is important to choose sponsors well, and not just bring anyone in that gives you something for your event.

If you are putting on a technology conference, get sponsors in that space; sponsors that provide extra value to your event.

Make sure you have something to sell. Sponsors want to know what they get for their investment. Don’t be fooled; they only give you money or prizes because they see a return on their investment. Add their logo to your handouts, website, name tags, prizes, slide templates etc.

Set up different sponsorship levels (Standard, Silver, Gold, and Platinum etc.).  This will allow more sponsors to come on board and you can upsell their interest in the event. For example

  • Platinum: Logo on all material including name tags, slides, emails etc. Allowed to set up a booth in the common area of the event. Access to emails for participants (that have opted in to do so). Cash donations of X amount.
  • Gold: Logo on some material. Allowed to set up a booth in the common area of the event. Cash donation of Y amount.
  • Silver: Logo on name tags only. Cash donation of Z amount.
  • Standard: Prize giveaways only.

Presenters

You don’t have an event if there is no content. Engage speakers and presenters as early as possible. The content and those who present it is mainly what will sell tickets to your event.

Set up guidelines for the speakers and be in regular contact, so they don’t forget or are left to their own. Explain the format of the sessions, what you expect them to do, what they can’t do. At the last DDD event we had a presenter that we didn’t know or had heard about before. Nothing wrong with that. But they gave a too short presentation and it ended up being a sales pitch, which was one of the points we specifically had asked not to. Had we qualified the speaker and their motive beforehand we might have spared our attendees this experience.

If you pay your presenters make sure that it is all in writing and there are no surprises.

Chances are one or more will back out for whatever reason. Have backups ready at a moment’s notice.

Giveaways

Everybody likes something for free. Door prizes, spontaneous giveaways, exit-survey prizes etc. are all extra motivators to keep your audience engaged. Prizes don’t have to be expensive, large or unique. They do have to add value though. At one DDD event we had stickers from a sponsor. Only problem was that the sticky bit was on the back of the bit you peel off the sticker. In other words a very nice non-stick sticker. Safe to say not many people grabbed any of those.

Make something out of the giveaways too. Make sure as many people as possible see you give out stuff and put focus on it. After all you are giving away lots of stuff for nothing.

Catering

Hungry and thirsty attendees are a dangerous prospect. They are more noisy, less attentive, distracted and hard to manage. Make sure you have plenty of food and drinks for the event. I would not recommend relying on people to bring their own, as most wont. Which means they have to leave the venue, get back late, complains etc.

Outsource what you can (order pizza, sandwiches etc for lunch) and buy in bulk what you can’t.

Have Fun and Network

You are the main person for your event. Use it. Make sure you talk to presenters, sponsors and get your name out there. After all, the more you know the easier it is to get them on board again.

Have fun with it. Set yourself goals in terms of how many attendees you want and how many sponsors. If you are positive and believe in your event, you will get more just like you. After all, why are you doing it, if you don’t enjoy it?


Top 7 Things For A Startup IT Consultancy

In the not so distant past I decided to start up my own business. The idea was to earn a bit of extra cash by taking on small projects. A relatively simple way of helping out people who are somewhat dehydrated when it comes to IT skills. Oh boy have I learned. Over the past months I have considerably reconsidered my take on being a sole trader. Thus follows my take on the top 7 things to consider when starting your own IT consultancy.

Aim at setting up maintenance contracts, monthly subscription fees or any other form of recurring income.

  1. Find residual income
    For me the main reason was to build a business that would generate more income the longer I was working it and the more clients I had dealt with. The only way that can happen is through residual income. Finishing a project for a lump sum is nice in that 30 minutes after you get paid. But then you realise that you now have to find another contract. You are simply trading time for money. It is essentially still a job; only difference is that you are your boss. Aim at setting up maintenance contracts, monthly subscription fees or any other form of recurring income. Create once, sell multiple times.
  2. Double the analysis more than halves project time
    Because you are only yourself, you need to be incredibly time efficient. Something I do really poorly. I have more than once jumped straight into a project, where the path was very clear in my head. But poor analysis of client requirements sunk the timeline for the project, as the client thought you meant round, when in fact you said square. Find out what the most important feature or part of the project is in the client’s eyes and go from there.
  3. Understand what the client wants
    An oldie but a goodie. Have you ever asked a tradesman to carry a job, only to find out he understood it completely differently? It is no different in IT. Because you are the expert, the client will talk about concepts and ideas, which are clear in their head, but poorly communicated. You need to come down to their level and speak their language to get in their head and extract the idea in terms that can be put down on paper. I once had a prospect come to me with “I have a Nail & Beauty salon, I’m thinking of having a website.” That was it. Now go and design and code the site. Impossible.
  4. Learn to say “no”
    The most overused word by business people that don’t have a technical background is “just”. Can you just move that up there. Can you just make those pictures smaller. Can you just…. As soon as you open the door to accepting their comments of “just”, you are heading for a loss. A loss of time, loss of scope, loss of profit, loss of sanity. If you have any doubt, re-read point 2 above. Get to the core requirement as early as possible, and stick to it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the client will back down when you say no. You are the expert, you know what is possible. Say no now, but open the door for more work post completion of the project.
  5. Only take on projects of interest
    I took on a project where the client wanted a web server set up as part of the project. I am a developer, not a sys admin. I can probably set up web servers for my own use, but professionally is another thing. I like developing software and exploring new technology. I really have very little interest in servers and infrastructure. I ended up getting a friend to do it and the project took much longer than necessary. The client was unhappy and I was unhappy.
  6. Communicate
    If you don’t regularly communicate with your client about wins and losses, they don’t feel warm and fuzzy. Reassurance from you as the expert, that you are on top of things is paramount. If something breaks and delays the project, tell them. Honesty goes a lot further than silence. I always tell things as they are. If something goes the wrong way, analyse, figure out a solution then tell the client. Let them know that you are on top of it.
  7. Have fun
    Sound like a cliché, but it is true. If you don’t enjoy what you do, then everyone around you will feel miserable too. I will argue that you can’t be successful in your own business if you don’t enjoy the work and the challenges. Sure, there are obstacles, but it feels great to power through them. If you don’t have the passion, don’t bother.

Windows Phone Clawing Back

I have been using Windows Phone as my primary mobile OS since it came out in October 2010. I had an iPhone, which I was very happy with, but the lack of innovation and the extremely strict rules imposed on the device I own made me consider my options, once my contract was up for renewal. I have probably always been a bit of a Windows Fanboy, but the first iPhone available Down Under (got mine in 2008) was by far the best device on the market at the time. The Windows Mobile offering (which incidentally preceded my iPhone) was clunky, ugly and designed by developers.

When WP7 came out in Australia the iPhone penetration was close to 50% for all mobile web traffic and that was only due to Android. No one really cared about WP7. Except me.

To me it was a lime green car, a platter of raw marinated fish, a … Allow me to explain.

I would argue that most of the “popular” consumer items have the sheep effect. If it is shiny and the guy next to you have one and tells you how great it is, you must have one too. Surely it must improve your life exponentially and you can get all the benefits that everybody else gets, combined. This shininess is a major part of anything being successful, as well as a well-oiled marketing machine. Most of the people I ask why they have an iPhone, will say something like “It is the best”, “I can check my email” or “I can listen to music and download apps”. Most bought it because it is “what you do”. This is what I call the sheep effect. Just look at the long lines outside Apple stores when a new product is launched. None have held the device or even seen it, yet they still part with a large wad of cash buying an unseen and untested item. Hats off to Apple.

And this is where I like the lime green car. Most people buying a car will get a silver, black or white car. Mainly because of resell value, but also to not stand out too much. They want the safe choice that everybody else has. In my world the grey, silver or black car is the iPhone. Not terribly exciting, but shiny and has some nice buttons. Oh, and everybody else has one.

I want the lime green car. The option that is against the stream, against the norm. I want to consider all choices, and then choose the option that best does what I need.

And all this leads me to an article I recently came across. For some reason people are now starting to port the Metro UI from Windows Phone to iOS. Seems odd that someone will try and force a conceptually completely different paradigm onto the iOS platform, but all I can surmise is that there must be a market for it. Perhaps it is a case of “because I can”.

I am generally not a fan of making something fit into a mould that was never meant for it in the first place, and this is the same. If you want Metro UI, get a Windows Phone. Or even Windows 8 very soon.


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