Preliminary thoughts on Windows 8

I bought a new laptop a few months ago, which means I had the opportunity to upgrade to Windows 8 for only £14.99. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a new OS that didn’t come bundled with a computer so this is a bit unusual for me.

I’ve been quite the fan of the Metro style interface since I got my first Windows Phone – the HTC Trophy – so I was quite keen to see how it worked on the desktop/laptop. Looks-wise, it’s nice. However, implementation-wise it’s a bit clumsy. Kudos to them for trying new things though – it’s leaps and bounds from the safe route they normally take.

MODx

I’ve had to use MODx for a few projects at work recently. I’ve not found it to be a great experience to be honest (I did tweet about wanting to stab my eyeballs out at one point).

While working with Drupal does have drawbacks (e.g. when you don’t know what you’re looking for exactly you can waste so much time trying to find the right modules etc.), on the whole I’ve found that it’s flexible enough to allow you to do whatever you want (the drawback being that it will give you enough rope to hang yourself).

I have no doubt it is a nice CMS for lightweight sites where there aren’t many admin users. It can be up and running and integrated far quicker than some of the alternatives.

However, it has some fairly big drawbacks when it comes to clients wanting to add value to their existing set-up –

  • Development UX – stuff is literally all over the place.  Chunks, snippets, template variables…  Argh!  Separation of these things for clarity is necessary for large, complex sites – but when it’s a simple site with simple templates it is completely counter-productive.  Also, how do you edit say… the WYSIWYG editor’s module options from within the CMS?  At times it feels like certain aspects of development set-up are deliberately obfuscated.
  • Upgrade path – Being unable to upgrade directly from Evolution to Revolution is a pain in the butt.
  • Permissions minefield – it was bad enough in Evolution, but in Revolution it is utterly ridiculous how many steps there are to setting up group admin permissions for resources.  It’s insane.  Resource groups, access policies, roles – it’s incredibly difficult to get your head around (see this massive tome at Bob’s Guides for reference)
  • Workflow – there just isn’t one.  Clients love workflows.
  • Source control is a nightmare when all your code is stored inside the database not in files.

Clearly this is pushing MODx to the limits of what it can do, and in these circumstances it is often better to advise the client of these drawbacks and encourage them to use another option. However, we all know that sometimes these things can’t be helped and in this situation the items listed above are fairly common features and really shouldn’t be this difficult.

Windows Phone 7

Having gone to a TechMeetUp way back at the start of September 2010, I signed up for one of the related events – Developing for Windows Phone 7 last year. This was a presentation given by Gergely Orosz at the Microsoft Edinburgh premises. Having done my MSc dissertation project in .net I was interested in seeing just how developing for Windows Phone 7 would work. Also, I must admit, I was partly drawn by the suggestion that there would be a pre-release developer device on hand to play with (ooh shiny!).

First off, I didn’t even know Microsoft HAD offices in Edinburgh! It turns out it’s in the old Waverley Gate building alongside NHS and Amazon that nearly burnt down a few years ago. Of course, it’s been completely gutted inside and it’s just the outer shell that’s got the old feel. I was instructed to take the lift to the 5th floor – and let’s just say, if the lifts in this building were set up as some kind of Google-style psychological testing facility, I failed completely! Lifts are evil to begin with but when they say ‘Going up’ and then proceed to do nothing there’s something mildly worrying. After standing around politely thinking ‘Just go already’, then 30 seconds of bashing the buttons, I noticed there was ANOTHER control panel on another wall. DUHHHHHH!

My inability to work lifts aside, I’d seen the Metro interface in some preview photos but it looked really nice – so nice, in fact, that I bought a second-hand Trophy from ebay earlier on this year.  The only thing I really missed were a few apps and the ability to send MMS (something I never thought I’d say).

Design-wise – it looks great, everything is pretty polished. A lot of thought has gone into the UI – not just to differentiate it from previous Windows phones but to stand out from the smart phone crowd. The way the user can select a colour to apply throughout and which is also available to app developers means that everything – including non-microsoft apps can have a consistent ‘look and feel’. As an Android user, this is appealing – god knows there are some ghastly-looking apps for Android. It is shiny enough to potentially win over some iPhone users (I admit this is quite far-fetched) and certainly has a great chance of coaxing the undecided back towards Microsoft.

Development-wise – the tools are awesome. There’s no escaping that. Microsoft have provided a barrage of tools – including libraries, Visual Studio express edition, Expression Blend 4, and tons of documentation. Apps are basically written in c# or XNA. This means that anyone with experience of writing Silverlight, asp.net websites or applications, or even XBox Arcade titles should be able to dip their toes in with little or no trouble. The app store has potential to grow vastly.

Games-wise – As previously mentioned, games can be written in XNA – this means that there is the potential for porting Arcade titles to the phone. Xbox Live support is built in to the OS, so while I’ve never been a big mobile gamer, I am enticed by the fact that I can collect gamerpoints on the go.

The mango update has added some nice touches – the ‘me’ tile for those who miss push notifications, MMS capability, better email integration, customisable ringtones etc.  Overall, I think it’s a great OS.

I wouldn’t go back to Android unless they changed it drastically and fixed the fragmentation with vendors (and iPhone is not an option).  I think Google are awesome but I’m rapidly losing faith in their ability to push out products.  Even if Google fixed those issues, the design, the smoothness, the consistency of the apps (they’re gorgeous compared to Android apps), the fact there is no push notification (yes, this is a selling point for me) make WP7 exactly right for me at the moment.  I’ll be interested to see where it goes with the new range of handsets coming out soon.

PS3 hard drive upgrade

Hard drives hate me. I can look at them the wrong way and they’ll develop faults. I once bought a 120Gb IDE HD from PC World, brought it home formatted it and discovered it would only allow me to use 70ish Gb.  That same year I think I went through about 3 hard drives (at least one of which was DOA).  I am super-careful so my power seems to lie somewhere in my ability to pick the product with the highest failure rate.

So when it came to upgrading my 40Gb PS3 hard drive, I thought ‘Well, everything I read says it’s easy and everyone seems to be using the same hard drives for it’ and it was approaching the stage where I’d need to start deleting things before I could install new games.  I love my PS3, so I was quite nervous despite the supposed ease of the process.

I followed this guide from Gamespot (yes, of course, I could have followed the actual Sony guide but I object to official instructions unless I’m really stuck, deal with it), the enclosure being different was a bit of a shock but getting the old hard drive out was easy.  I needed two screwdrivers (both had the same head on them but it’s best not to ask questions with these things) to get those damn screws out.  Everything went fine (the cat lurking around showing great interest in the hard drives was the most worrying part)….until I restarted it and then the whole plan veered off the beaten track a bit.

GameSpot PS3 upgrade instructions

According to the guides I should turn it back on and be asked if I wanted to format and restore the drive.  I sat with my eyes closed praying it’d work fine and I hadn’t bought yet another dud.  Nope.  It couldn’t find something on my backup drive.  I was told it needed to search for the latest firmware before it could do anything.  Great.  After the initial ‘Nooooooooooooooo!’ (think Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith), there was much grumbling.

A few minutes on Google brought me this which escalated my grumbling up to swearing but at least it put my mind to rest.  Ah, the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone in your technological issues.  I had to resort to downloading it via pc, saving to a USB flash drive in folders named ‘PS3/UPDATE’, plug it in, then I was allowed to the next stage: format the drive, fill in the wifi details, restore from the backup…hey presto.

Thumbs up

The whole process was actually super-easy but man, a tiny little hiccup can really add a little spice to it – especially when all you’ve seen is comments from people saying ‘Great guide, it was so easy’ etc. on a guide that doesn’t explain your issue at all.  (And especially if you have my expectations of failure.)

Anyhoo, my PS3 now has room enough to swing a cat storage-wise so I’m off to download a ton of demos and Guitar Hero tracks.

Google Wave

I was sent an invite to Google Wave the other day (thanks Thomas).  I had been resisting asking for an invite because I really dislike this method of publicity and closed Betas for something that is so well publicised (there’s something to be said for hype but once that initial buzz is over you’re just being sadistic and pissing people off) but, of course, I wasn’t going to say no when offered the chance to give it a go.

Wave Interface

Initially I felt totally disorientated.  I happened to be online at the same time as a friend so we embarked on a giant IM-style ‘wave’ of discovery and button-bashing – inserting images and videos left, right and centre.

I then decided it was high time I read the documentation Google had provided me with.  I found it decidedly lacking. For such innovative people, Google’s implementation of help documentation and general explanations is pretty terrible.  I found the same thing with Google Maps when I was using the API – one page would say one thing and then on another page the example would use an entirely different (often depreciated) version of the code.

This wouldn’t ordinarily be such a big issue, but because of the restricted method of release, lots of new users have little or no guidance from their own contacts and, as a direct result, literally every single public wave devolves into a discussion of Google Wave itself and how to use it within a few posts. Clearly, this doesn’t help improve the chances of attracting return users.

Wave in Education

So, while there are hundreds of fascinating possibile uses, it is nigh on impossible to find any that are actually implemented well within the swathes of people blabbering about how Wave actually works (and almost everyone is guilty of it).  Of course, this will presumably change once everyone finds their feet, but it is quite fascinating to note just how many waves there are on the same topics – a public search for ‘education’ will reveal a huge amount of results.  Why these people setting up new public waves on the same topic as everyone else don’t just join forces is a complete mystery to me.

Google Wave itself grows quite dull very quickly unless you find guidance. I found The Complete guide to Google Wave almost indispensible. Thereafter, some of the third party development plug ins are incredibly promising – games, chat modules, sound recorders etc. All of this is a mile away from email functionality.

In terms of innovation, Google deserve a gold star – Wave is an entirely new way to interact online and does have an incredible amount of potential.  However, in terms of progress – having watched the full hour-long preview at Google I/O in May, it doesn’t seem like they have done a whole host of much to it since then. Judge for yourselves:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_UyVmITiYQ&hl=en_GB&fs=1&]

Will e-readers really take off in the UK?

Amazon’s Kindle has been realesed in the UK and Europe (finally).  Hurrah!  Whilst I am eager to get my grubby paws on one (to have a play about), I am also skeptical about how it will all pan out. I’m not convinced that e-books will be all that successful here in the UK.  Yet.

Amazon's Kindle

I may be biased – I am an English graduate after all, and I vividly remember the discussions we had about the sacrilige of folding a page or breaking the spine of a book (although there seemed to be two distinct camps of anal-retentives there).  It strikes me that we have a deep-seated reverence for printed books in the UK – although, it can be argued that this is decreasing with each new generation – and the culture of buying second-hand (often pot-luck) books seems to be thriving amongs the old and the ‘hip’ (an odd mix).  This would all but disappear if printed books were to become a thing of the past.

There are other issues: how would our cherished libraries work if the books were only released in digital format? Never mind the fact that you’re paying for something which has zero resell value (one of my main gripes with digital products).  These issues aside, anyone who knows me probably knows that I am pretty indecisive a lot of the time. I know quite a few people who are the same. Maybe it’s just that we’re all so easy-going that we’re quite willing to concede to other people’s suggestions, or maybe it’s just that we’re sheep and will only do what we’re told.  If that’s the case, then we’re a marketing department’s wet dream.

With that in mind, I’d point out one issue that has stood in the way of digital print taking off so far: marketing.  As far as I can tell, the only people who even know what a Sony Reader or a Cool-er actually is are high-end business people or gadget fiends.

No wonder they haven’t taken off.  Someone is doing something wrong!  It seems to me that Sony and Cool-er (the two top sellers in the UK – given that competition is low) haven’t put much effort into their marketing.

Sure, the Sony Reader is advertised in Waterstones and various big highstreet book shops, but they didn’t have the same hype surrounding their release – the BBC news did a segment on the Kindle as if the Sony hadn’t been available here for 2 years or so.  Thus far the Kindle’s rivals have only attempted to crack a very specialised market – they haven’t succeeded in made ebooks look cool, easy to use, or indespensible. Thus far they’ve only managed to say, ‘Look, this is a shiny new gadget that can carry lots of books inside it.‘ Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone who will routinely carry around more than one novel at a time. Thus, pointing out that it can hold x amount of books seems rather daft to me.

Another issue is pricing.  The device itself is slightly expensive, but reasonable, I feel.  However, there is categorically no way I’d pay over the hardback price for an e-book (today, one look on the Borders web site shows the new Dan Brown novel at £15.19 in e-book, and £12.91 in hardback formats).  Correct me if I’m wrong but…there’s no printing, or raw materials involved, they should be cheaper than a hardback.  I am totally against paying nearly full price (which seems to be what Amazon etc. are expecting us to do too) for something that I can’t then sell on or give to someone else if it’s utter drivel.

It is distinctly possible that if Amazon starts a large advertising campaign (and actually makes a decent selling-point with it), they might just be able to pinch the top spot from Sony in the UK despite Sony’s head-start. But, as it stands, I think the digital book marketplace in the UK needs to make some substantial changes in order to make any real difference to consumer’s buying habits, and if anyone is going to do that it might just be Amazon with the Kindle.

I’m still not convinced that sitting around in a coffee shop peering at a chunk of white plastic will ever make anyone look cool or particularly interesting though.

Microsoft’s Windows 7 ‘Party’ instructions

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cX4t5-YpHQ&hl=en&fs=1&]

OK, the acting is terrible, the ‘characters’ are ridiculous, and the script is almost painful to listen to, but this is not an advert asking people to host a party (as many people seem to have taken it) – it’s an info-mercial for the people who signed up to get a free pre-release copy of Windows 7 in return for hosting a party and uploading their photos.

Since it therefore does not have the same aim as an advert and thus was not destined for the same audience, they obviously weren’t designed to have the same marketing impact. Admittedly, they really should have thought that it would be picked up.

Apple ad

One thing I’d like to point out is that Microsoft have at least attempted to represent the different aspects of society. Compare that with the famous Apple ads (which are an entirely separate blog post in themselves): Justin Long (a frigging movie star – no matter how geeky he may appear) is compared with an old bloke with glasses.

Also, I was dragged to queue (in the rain) for the chance to be one of the first to buy a copy of OS X Leopard on release day (sorry, Bryan, you’re not living this down), where people were rewarded with free t-shirts handed out by clapping, fixed-smiling staff holding balloons and faking ‘excitement’. Precisely how is Microsoft’s latest venture any less ridiculous? Queuing to buy an operating system?

I think Microsoft are making a mistake in trying to compete with Apple in this department – I know plenty of Windows users, but not a single one of them would be willing to queue for a new operating system (unlike the Mac users I know). OK, the offer of a free copy is enough to lure some people into hosting a Windows 7 party but I really think they should refrain from this form of publicity campaign in the future – Windows really does not attract the same kind of religious fanaticism and frankly, it’s better that way!

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