Smarterphones

SAM_0227

Sony Smart Tags

It has been a dream for decades of having computers that communicate with each other seamlessly, that can access all your data anywhere and could even be used to communicate.  Now, of course, it’s not a dream, we are living in that shiny, space-age, future… just without the flying cars and moonbases and spandex for everyone – pretty certain I can live without the last one though.

The smartphone is becoming the hub of that new age and they’re becoming smarter at an incredible rate.  My phone for example is location-aware, when it detects my car stereo’s bluetooth receiver I’ve told it to increase the screen brightness and it automatically launches the remote control app so I have full swiping and voice control of my tunes rather than having to look away from the road.  It could also switch on the GPS, launch the sat-nav or whatever else.  It can be set to run the music app when I plug in headphones, automatically adjusting the volume, turning notifications off, changing screen brightness etc, then changing it all back when I unplug them again.

There are apps which can unlock your phone’s lockscreen and set it up for home use as soon as it detects your WiFi, or if it knows you’re home based on GPS, Google Now (and equivalents) can even work out where home and work are.  I’m surprised the thing doesn’t say “ahh, home at last, how about a cup of tea.”  One day it will, and through the Internet of Things it’ll instruct the kettle to switch on too no doubt.

Another technology I was mistrustful of when it’s main use (in tech) was for contactless credit cards is NFC (Near Field Communication) but since buying an NFC equipped bluetooth adaptor for my old home hi-fi and a set of NFC tags to go with the phone I’m a convert to that too.  Once programmed the same app on the phone that detects the car’s bluetooth detects a quick tap of the back of the phone against a specific tag and changes settings or runs an app as required.  I have one that I can tap before leaving the house which activates the mobile data, once home I can tap it again to switch it off – which means I’m not disturbed by emails about sales and “recommendations” from retailers in the middle of the night (I switch the WiFi off at night too).

Apple’s iBeacon technology is allowing retailers to know you’re in store and can provide relevant information to your phone, which has inevitably created some privacy concerns but such is the way with new technology like this.  As I’ve mentioned before apps such as Siri and Google Now tailor the information they give to you based on where you are, pre-emptively giving you travel info for your journey home or tomorrow’s weather.

All this location and context aware gadgetry isn’t just about clever tricks any more, it’s becoming genuinely useful and convenient, giving us devices that adapt to the situation they are in rather than being set up manually at every change.  I used to say that computers aren’t clever enough to know what you want them to do, now though, it looks like they’re getting there.

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When Is Bigger Better?

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (Photo credit: Janitors)

Chocolate bars?  Sorry.  I’m referring to phones at the moment.  Anyone who answered anatomically – no comment, but you know who you are.

In the last few years smartphone makers have been simultaneously racing to make the thinnest phone whilst also ensuring their screens are bigger than everyone elses – bigger numbers sell it seems.  For years Apple played no part in this, with Steve Jobs apparently saying that bigger screens were impractical, until they then made a bigger screened phone and suddenly it was an obvious thing to do because it is the perfect fit for your thumb’s range of movement.  Right.  What they haven’t done (yet) is make a 6″ screen phone, what many tech bloggers mockingly referred to (when Samsung unveiled the Note) as a Phablet.

How they laughed.  Until millions of people went out and bought them.  25.2 million shipped in the Asia-Pacific region during the second quarter of the year, according to IDC.  Samsung still has around 50% of the market tied up in Notes.  The larger screen smartphone trend was really started by the Dell Streak but the Galaxy Note really made the form popular, especially with its s-Pen stylus which gave back touchscreen devices truly precise pen-like use even though, again according to Steve Jobs they were an outdated way to control a device.  People like to doodle and make handwritten notes though and this is easier with a pen, as it properly drawing something, annotating a plan etc…

One reason that larger phones are catching on is that they’re not really that big, the screen size has increased but the surrounding bezel has reduced almost to the point of non-existence so, combined with thinner chassis the phone doesn’t feel too bulky – though despite the idea that we’ll evolve different shaped thumbs due to texting is a massive misunderstanding of evolution our trousers may evolve bigger pockets.  Or sales of jackets and cloaks with poachers’ pockets may increase.  A particular user group for big-screen phones is apparently people with impaired eyesight as the larger on-screen keys are easier to read and type on.  Lastly the availability of high-speed mobile internet and the fact that smartphones can connect to wi-fi internet whenever possible makes them popular for watching films and tv or gaming on the move, though personally I wouldn’t want to watch a film on anything less than my 7″ tablet.

Some have aired concern that as manufacturers battle to have the biggest screen size consumers will be forced to accept bigger phones in order to get higher specs elsewhere in the device and this could be a problem, as this Gizmodo UK article points out they should also release smaller versions too and it seems that this is happening with smaller but not spec-crippled phones beginning to trickle out from companies like HTC and Sony.

One considerable downside is the size of the phone when you actually make a phone call, I know, it’s crazy but some people still do that.  I’ve not tried it but I’ve read that after so many years of phones becoming so tiny and inconspicuous that you’d sometimes appear to be talking to yourself it feels odd to have something the general size and shape of a thin paperback novel stuck against your head whilst talking to it.  This is the difference between today’s big phones and the eighties bricks – back then you wanted people to see your expensive mobile and didn’t care how big it was.  To this end phone makers have come full-circle and are developing tiny satellite handsets which look eerily like late-nineties GSM phones, with buttons and everything, connected via bluetooth for the purposes of making voice calls via the smartphone lurking in your pocket or bag.  It’s only a matter of time before we get these add-on handsets made to look like classic Nokias or Motorolas, I suppose, with the current retro obsession in other areas of technology.

Taking all this to its (il)logical conclusion in the future perhaps the smartphone will become a hub, connected to your smartwatch for notifications, your Google Glass style eyepiece for even speedier updates and navigation, and your peripheral handset for talking.  At which point we’ve gone from carrying many devices doing various jobs to many devices doing various jobs but connected together.

Hanging On

iPhone Original/3G/4/5

iPhone Original/3G/4/5 (Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano)

As I write this many, many, many Apple devotees will be glued to their laptop screens, sorry, MacBook screens or iPads relishing the latest “one more thing” revealed by Tim Cook*.  I’ve not gone out of my way to have a look at the new iPhone(s) or whatever, I’m neither an Apple fan or an Apple hater though I’m not a fan of some of their actions surrounding patents though that’s something for another time.

What I’m thinking about is the trend of getting a new gadget every year.

Moore’s Law is an observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit tends to double every two years or so, this is usually misquoted as computing power doubles every eighteen-months.  There was a period recently when phone manufacturers seemed to be releasing new phones every month, though in truth they often catered for different markets and budgets, now though every major phone or tablet is refreshed every year, it’s like Christmas – literally, for the manufacturers, in June, August, September.

Computers are less obvious because there is still a steady stream of new models with slightly different cases, tweaked internals, new chipsets.  The common factor is that often the jump in actual power between last year and this isn’t that great, and usually the main difference in phones has been screen size and resolution.

Still though some people feel the need to buy again and often the reason they give is that the new one is so much faster than the old one.  Sometimes I’m sure this is true – as new software and features make an old phone, tablet or pc seem slow, if you’re trying to watch an HD video on an older phone for example but sometimes it can simply be that over time the device starts to feel slow.  When you first got it it was blindingly fast, menus appeared instantaneously and web pages were super-quick to load.  Now though you’re waiting forever.  What’s changed?

Ok, sometimes new software has features that cause an old laptop to chug, some websites (Flickr is a personal annoyance) have redesigned in such a way that you need quite nifty hardware to get a smooth experience, and of course you might only be able to watch a video in SD.  Much of the time though nothing has changed except your perception, you get used to the menu appearing, your memory of the previous computer fades into the mists of time and you don’t have anything to compare your current computer to but…

…the shiny new one at work, or in PC World.  The difference is miniscule, the slow website might still be slow on your new PC but confirmation bias will tell you it’s still faster.

My laptop is from 2008 and with the exception of a couple of websites (do I need to mention Flickr again) it’s still fast enough for everything I do, even my new copy of Photoshop Elements.  My Nexus 7 is less than a year old and has been superseded by a new N7 with an even higher resolution screen – I won’t be “upgrading” because I don’t really need to watch films in even more sparkly high-res on a small screen than before.  My phone is similarly a year old and still feels nippy and crisp, it still does everything I need it to do and I don’t feel the shame of having “last year’s phone” that drives many people to upgrade.  I know that one day my laptop will either completely die or the web will get too much for it to cope with, then I’ll upgrade,  Sometimes it seems that the only upgrade people need is to their need to define themselves by their possessions or their patience, though it does seem that that’s something lacking everywhere these days.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, there will no doubt be lengthy queues outside Apple stores soon.

* – yes, I know “One More Thing” was Steve’s thing, not Tim’s.

Windows 8 – A Tale of Love and Hate

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam inn...

Accessori Hardware mouse tastiere e webcam innovative per Microsoft Windows 8 presentazione milanese press day esclusiva – 25 (Photo credit: Michele Ficara Manganelli)

Most people will by now be aware at least of Microsoft’s latest platform for playing Angry Birds on – Windows 8 – but some may not be aware of the controversy it caused.

It was a radical change in how people operated windows and this annoyed many who were familiar with the Windows 95 to Windows 7 era as gone were the familiar start button and desktop in favour of the flat, unadorned, information-heavy tiled interface. The comments weren’t simply of dislike, many they were downright venomous – from the likes of “Microsoft are idiots” to “Microsoft have killed the PC” and worse.

It’s pleasantly colourful, not garish like the Windows XP “Fisher Price” look of ten years ago.  The thing is that many of these complaints seem more about resistance to change than anything, the Start Menu alone for example – that had been made slightly redundant in Windows 7 by the ability to dock apps to the taskbar, a lot of people ran apps by hitting the Start button on the keyboard and typing the name of the app – this is how Windows 8’s start screen works by default, the only thing that’s changed is, in effect, the size of the menu which is now a screen full of information.

I remember the last time Microsoft radically changed how Windows worked – Windows 95.  The same arguments came out, “how can this Start menu replace Program Manager, how will you find programs”, “look at how much screen space the “taskbar” takes up”, “why do you press Start to shut down the computer, that’s stupid” and so on.  Ironically the new Start Screen reminds me of the old Windows 3.1 way of working more.

The flat tiled interface reflects how computers are being more familiar and how they’re used, thanks to the modern web’s design users no longer need the reassurance of buttons that look like real objects simply an area of a different colour or a label to indicate an action.  Yes Microsoft is designing to appeal to consumers but these days it has to, more computer users than ever are home users and Apple have been doing the same simplification to target the same market for years.  The difference is that whereas Apple tries to lock down parts of its operating systems so that non-technical users can’t do anything to affect the “user experience” i.e. make the product look slow or faulty, Microsoft and Google still allow tweaking if that’s your thing.

We’re seeing similar arguments about the new Xbox which is being turned into a media hub for the home rather than just a games console, there are complaints about its appearance and so on.  Many of the complainers in both cases simply don’t like the idea that the PC and the Xbox are no longer theirs, the domain of the gamers and the techies, no longer mysterious to consumers.  There’s a side issue to this feeling of ownership over an area of technology – the sometime horrific online treatment of women who play games by male gamers who think it’s not a “girl thing”, but that’s for another article.

The reasons for this change were to embrace emerging technology and ways of using it, tablets are more convenient for casual computer users so Windows needs to encompass that, though they have been trying to accomplish this for a long time without the hardware being up to the challenge.  Secondly they wanted to present a consistent look and feel across all devices so users only have to learn once, and can use the same apps on all devices and share information across them all too, once more applications start using the new interface it will become ever more familiar and usable.  Lastly the idea of the live tiles is down to this “information age” where people want all their appointments, reminders, Facebook and Twitter updates and so on up front and ready for them.  Immediacy is the key these days and Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 priorities this information while still doing so in an attractive way.

Unfortunately for the doomsayers Windows 8 has sold well, it has recieved much acclaim, people do like it because it feels like an appliance, like their phone and not like a computer as such, it reduces the fear of “pressing something and deleting everything” in inexperienced users, it’s easier to use – though admittedly you still need to learn how to use it, like anything else to a degree.

Personally I don’t need all this information in my face as soon as I switch on my PC, tablet or phone so I don’t need Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 but if my PC came with it then I’d happily use it – and yes I have tried it and I do like it.  My PC, phone and tablet all have minimal interfaces, Windows 7, Android 4, this was why I chose the Sony phone because the default homescreen is relatively scarce with just a few icons and a clock, same with the Nexus 7.  It suits the way I work with my technology but that doesn’t suit everybody.  With Windows 8 Microsoft took a brave decision to give consumers something that would suit them but didn’t suit everyone either but at least it has listened to those complaints and is tweaking it in an update due in the next couple of months to give those who don’t need or want the live tiles more control, and a start menu of sorts.

Change is inevitable for progress, sometimes it’s difficult but one day you look back to what came before and think “how did we ever make do with that?”

It Just Works

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth...

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phrase “it just works” is one of Apple’s key marketing ideas and it encompasses the concept that users should be able to pick up an iPhone, iPad and use it, without any instructions and if they want to connect it to their Macbook, their Airplay speakers or to another iDevice then that will all Just Work too.  They achieve this by having a limited range of products and by using mostly proprietary standards – like Airplay – and because of these two things the technology doesn’t have to deal with the massive variations of hardware encountered by other devices; one Apple device knows what another one is called and how it talks, so to speak, already.

The thing is this illusion, that this is as a result of their products being better designed, is a half-truth – competing technologies only tend to require a couple of clicks to work together, like getting my Sony phone to play music via my bluetooth headset adaptor or hi-fi adaptor – all I need to do is press a button on the adaptor and select the output source on the phone, or my tablet, or laptop even.  The thing is that there is an increasing expectation that you shouldn’t need to do anything yourself to make it work, even if it is just pressing a button.

To this ends we see products like a set of £1200 speakers which, instead of connecting via bluetooth, require a dongle to be plugged into the bottom of your phone or tablet like some kind of digital limpet, making your device more cumbersome but meaning that all you have to do is plug it in.  A case of making it easy taking precedence over the handling of the technology.  And then there’s another side to all this – the ecosystem.  Apple in particular make all these add-ons, or licence the technology to other companies to make docks etc, that all work seamlessly together but the same limitation to Apple hardware that makes it possible for it to all work together means it’d be awfully expensive to switch brands later.

The situation in the Android/PC camp though is improving though.  Near Field Communication (NFC) tech is allowing speakers and more that connect using bluetooth via a simple tap of the phone on the top of the peripheral, the proximity allowing the two devices to know that they’re compatible and meant to be together, like silicon blind-date, if you like.  I have a smart BluRay player that has a companion Android app that automatically found and connected to the player via the WiFi network and on a similar vein modern WiFi routers can even connect to devices automatically using Wireless Protected Setup – although the latter still needs some user input, after all it’s not practical to carry your desktop PC and tap it on the router.  Another example is the WiFi printer that only requires a single button press to connect to your PC the first time it’s installed.

The dream of smart appliances all talking to each other via wireless networks is starting to come true but for it to be truly universal manufacturers need to use open standards and as users we need to accept that sometimes we’ll need to read the manual, or on-screen instructions, and push some buttons to help them along.

Material Love

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (righ...

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (right). Adapted from original source, to scramble screenshot of non-free software. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My phone’s outer shell is made from plastic and a piece of thin glass.  My car’s made of metal.  If the car was made of carbon fibre it would be seen as premium and special, yet the new Samsung Galaxy S4 has been criticised for being made of plastic, because it’s not metal like the iPhone 5.

It’s not the first time the tech industry has had a metal fetish, in the seventies and eighties everything “premium” had to have a brushed aluminium fascia, then we went through the period where clear coloured plastic was fashionable, a fad caused in a large part by Apple again with the original iMac and its guts-and-all on show design approach.  Sleek black plastic in exotic moulded shapes was the future.  For a while.

Today it doesn’t matter how good quality the plastic, or more accurately in expensive phones, polycarbonate is the legions of gadget blog and mag writers and commenters will whinge that it feels cheap compared to the metal iPhone or new HTC One purely because it isn’t metal.  The idea that metal is premium comes from the sense that it’s more resilient, like high-end granite kitchen worktops, and that it takes more effort, more craftsmanship to make, hewn from blocks of aluminium by bespectacled artisans.  A CNC milling machine in reality is a little less romantic and premium.

The strange thing is that the metal phones are more prone to the screen cracking, easier to scratch and more likely to be permanently dented when dropped.  But despite this and despite the fact that the plastics in even my sub-£100 phone feel solid and quality as far as I’m concerned metal is the thing to have.  But it’s all image, until the iPhone gained a metal body no-one cared about it, there were plastic phones that felt sturdy and plastic phones that felt like they were made out of microwave meal cartons and the iPhone 3G was one of the former (for better signal strength).  In fact many old phones had metal backplates that many people probably didn’t even think about.  It’s also marketing, use a different material for the case, tell people its revolutionary and so much cooler and better and people will snap it up.

The next big thing?  I’ve heard it’s going to be ceramic phones*, you know shiny, glossy, tough enamelled ceramics.  It’ll be the thing to have.   “Aluminium?  The same stuff they make Coke cans out of?  So cheap feeling, so cold, look at my new phone, it’s ceramic.”

(* – I may have imagined this.)

Cheeky Marketing

apples

apples (Photo credit: msr)

My parents will tell you that when I was little, as in younger not shorter, I watched the adverts on TV more than the programmes.  back then there were many amusing and memorable ads, these days though too many try to be clever or ironic but fail to be funny – notable exceptions being the current Fosters “Good Call” campaign and Three’s Dancing Pony.  Some of the pseudo-science can be hilarious if you’re of a scientific persuasion but that’s for another post on another day.

One recent advert immediately caught my eye and made me laugh, then had me wondering whether they’d get away with it.  No, I thought, their lawyers must have checked it.  It’ll be fine.  The ad in question is, of course, the Somersby Cider parody of the excitement that surrounds the product launches of a certain fruitily named purveyor of shiny gadgetry.  I was impressed with the creativity and just how many gadget puns they managed “single core, dual core” and the “less apps, more apples” tagline.  The fact that it’s cider just added to the enjoyment of it.

But it’s not just Carlsberg who have been a tad cheeky recently, in the days preceding Samsung’s Galaxy S4 launch LG placed an ad for their Nexus 4 on their Times Square billboard above Samsung’s “be ready 4 the next Galaxy”  which read “ready 4 you now”.  Cunning.

Then on the launch day while journalists were waiting to enter the venue and feeling rather chilly in the midst of the New York winter HTC thoughtfully laid on complimentary hot chocolate.  So yet more tasty marketing.

It’s good to see that in our times of vicious patent lawsuits and arguments over who invented rectangles with rounded corners companies can indulge in some light-hearted competition.

Be Careful What You Search For

Watching

Watching (Photo credit: Laddir)

You are being watched.  No, calm down, I didn’t mean in the real world, sit back down and stop looking behind your sofa.

For many years people have simultaneously worried about how their browsing habits were being tracked and perhaps used to monitor their activities while marvelled at how Amazon suggests new products for them based on their previous choices  – online data collection really is a double-edged sword.  In the UK we have a law where websites have to visibly inform you about browser cookie use and give you either a choice or instructions on how to enable them or otherwise.

The data collected by browsers is not always sent to advertisers, much is used today to improve services, make useful suggestions for stuff to buy, places to visit, people to friend on Facebook etc.  The data collected when you’re logged into Google’s many and varied services, for example, can be used by their Google Now service to provide real-time information relevant to you.  I was impressed when without being told my Nexus 7 knew where I worked and how long it would take to get there, giving me weather and travel information too.  My first reaction was “how did it know?”  I don’t take it to work, has it been talking to my phone?  Well, in a way, it used my contacts information, I think, I hope.  These computerised personal assistants like Google Now and Apple’s Siri are a wonder of our time, intelligently finding, collating and presenting information in truly intuitive ways, I’m still impressed whenever I ask my Nexus 7 what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow.

But the other day I discovered something about Google Now that could, in the right, or wrong circumstances be interesting or awkward.  I searched for Cromwell Weir on Google Maps on my laptop and later that evening noticed that my Nexus 7 was giving me, like the helpful little soul it is, travel information to Cromwell.  Later still I searched for a shop in Lincoln and again it was there saying “are you wanting to go there now?  I can show you where to go.”

Which is all very helpful until you’re searching for a hotel for a surprise weekend away for you and your other half on your PC while your tablet, in the hands of your beloved in the room next door is happily giving the game away.

So if you don’t want Google, or for that matter Siri if Apple’s assistant has similar abilities blabbing about your plans remember to log out before browsing.

Adventures With a Chinese Android

It all started eighteen months ago…

Cheap, small, curvaceous but not as slender as more expensive models my droid arrived late and wasn’t quite what I’d ordered…

Chinese Android

Chinese Android (image credit: Andy Vickers)

The picture showed a proper USB port, this didn’t have one but never mind.

I’d been contemplating a tablet computer for a while but wasn’t sure I’d get much use from one so I didn’t want to splash out on a Samsung or Asus I might regret getting.  I could see the advantage of a handheld, touchscreen computer for web browsing, picture and video viewing, quick email or Facebook viewing and so on especially since Apple and Google had managed to make operating systems that suited the way people would use them, i.e. with fingers, and because unlike previous tablets they ran smartphone software not desktop software they could be smaller and lighter.

My MID Epad looked like a shrunken iPad and even came in a very nice, Apple-esque box with a magnetic closure and it was packed with technology that iPad owners would snigger at; old-fashioned resistive touchscreen, an old processor, little memory, low-res screen, plastic back – PLASTIC!  Short battery life.  Not being a perfectionist and being careful financially with such experiments I accepted that what I had wasn’t cutting edge, so far from cutting edge in fact that you could butter bread with it.  Anyway, it was quick enough to play videos, the screen responded well enough to flick through ebooks.  I could even play Angry Birds.

The first problem was that these tablets come with Android but are not approved by Google so can’t access many of the apps in the Play Store, the default Google apps such as the contacts app won’t synchronise properly and often you don’t get updates.  For some these are not problems, if all you want is to browse and get email and read ebooks.  Gizmodo UK recently proclaimed that chinese tablets were all “crappy” and that Google was having to keep Android open to support this flow of effluent but it depends on how you define crappy, what you find acceptable and whether you’re looking at your £65 tablet from the point of view of a well paid tech journalist, someone who just wants to look at the odd web page or a blogger on the minimum wage.

It niggled me admittedly but again I lived with it and was able to get round the issues in a way that isn’t possible with out of the box Apple devices – I put apps on manually, sideloaded them, having downloaded them from app sites.  Most were old versions and again they wouldn’t get updates.  Playing videos from the computer required some research on how to make the software access a shared network drive, though as usual the net provided excellent step-by-step guides, though if anyone mentions the word Samba near me I may cry.  Ok, so it didn’t “just work” as certain fruity products are supposed to do but as a bit of a geek it was interesting.  The hair I pulled out has grown back.

It was a challenging device all in all – it had to be charged after a couple of hours use so I had to make an adaptor lead so I didn’t have to sit two feet away from where the power supply plugged in and so I could have a right-angle plug into the device.  Sometimes the internet browsing was painfully slow.  I loved reading books on it, even using it in a tent in the middle of the Lake District until the battery died again, though using it outside in sunlight was out of the question – one-nil to Kindle and paper.  Being non-approved some of the apps I wanted I just couldn’t have, and the dream of sharing data across computer, phone and tablet would have to wait a while.

The more I used it though the more I saw that the arguments of those people on gadget blogs who complained that tablets were too simplistic, that you “can’t code on them”, and so on were wrong.  The tablet is the perfect consumption device, I can lounge on the sofa and read the news, read a book, browse a website, check mail, listen to music or watch video streamed from my computer, I even have apps filled with tasty recipes which I haven’t yet got round to cooking.  I can share things I’m interested in there and then, add to my read it later.

Now, of course, this is well known and Kindle Fires, Nexus 7s and iPad Minis have been this years big Christmas gift – my mum got a Kindle Fire for her birthday last week because it was the perfect computer for her; so simple to use, just point and tap to read, browse the net or get more books or games.  I now have an Sony Xperia Android smartphone and a Nexus 7 tablet myself, both have newer versions of the software, I can listen to music via bluetooth from either and do even more than with my Chinese Droid, my emails, contacts, to do lists, notebooks, reading lists and bookmarks are automatically synced and available wherever I want them, all from small, thin light devices.

I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and similar, seeing those little pads of information and thinking how great it would be to have all that in your hand.  And it is.  Amazing.

Keep Calm and Carry British Tech

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device?  Where were the creators of that based?  Silicone Valley?  Shenzhen?

More than likely they were based in the UK.

Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science…  in the world.

Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents.  Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.

Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM.  Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs.  We had no idea.

Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires…  You get the idea.

The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies.  In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology.  However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands.  As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.

Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.

[Also BBC News]