In 2013 Software got cloudier. Smartphones got bigger. Pixels on just about everything got smaller. New Zealand’s mobile data networks got faster and service providers began selling fibre broadband.

While you couldn’t call 2013 a vintage year, technology lurched forward.

Admittedly, I didn’t see everything that appeared in 2013. Some encounters were fleeting. There were devices I only saw at press functions in fancy hotels. I briefly saw smartphones or tablets in the hour or so warm up before recording the New Zealand Tech Podcast.

Here are the products that impressed me:

Laptops

Computer sales plunged as people turned to smartphones, tablets and devices straddling all the gaps between the three. Mid-year I raced out to buy Apple’s 2013 13 inch MacBook Air within days of reading its specification.

Why? I was in the market for a new, lightweight laptop.

Although the 2013 MacBook Air is slower than the earlier version, its performance is more than ample for any task I want to throw at it. What captured my heart and my wallet was the 12 hour battery. I’ve noticed I no longer get that much from my Air even though it’s only five months old – I still regularly get 10 hours between charges. That’s still impressive. Nothing else comes close.

Acer’s C720 Chromebook caught my eye. The idea behind the Chromebook is solid enough, I would have loved to see what HP did with the format, but those models never made it to New Zealand. And the Google ChromeBook pixel also seems worth investigating.

Between laptops and tablets

Microsoft’s Surface 2 is exactly what you’d expect to find if you ask a PC company to build a tablet. It’s closer to a touch screen laptop than to Apple’s iPad.

Stick a Type Cover 2 on this baby and its a great value vessel for running Office apps while on the move. If I didn’t buy the Air, this would have been on my shopping list. I suspect it would struggle handling web design on the Surface 2, but it’s brilliant for day-to-day writing. Any moment now someone will quibble that the Surface 2 is a tablet, well it is, but…

A far better tablet

The iPad Air is by far the best tablet I’ve ever seen. Presumably the best tablet ever made. It’s lighter than earlier iPads and more comfortable to hold than any rival. The retina display is beautiful and all the necessary power to drive the thing is there. The lower weight and ten hours battery life make even more portable than earlier iPads.

Many people are excited about the iPad Mini with Retina. It’s basically the same as the Air with a smaller screen, making it lighter and more portable again. I prefer the larger size, both are impressive.

Best pricey phones

For me two phones stood out in 2013. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 packs a ridiculously high resolution camera – with 41 megapixels. You can take incredibly detailed images and crop them to taste. For a journalist it’s a great tool.

Despite some critics saying we’ve now gone past “peak Apple” the company managed to deliver three great products in 2013. The third was the iPhone 5S which adds a spruced-up camera with two flashes to take better photos and the neat Touch-ID sensor which quickly unlocks the phone.

Other smartphones

I  regret not spending more time with the HTC One – I only held it for a few minutes. It has a beautiful design and 4.7 inch screen. The camera has fewer megapixels than other smartphones, but this is countered by clever oversampling technology to capture good pictures in poor light.

The other Android phone I’d like to have seen more of was the Google Nexus 5I’ve not  had a great Android experience in the past, but the Nexus 5 promises a purer Android experience than elsewhere – that’s something that might overcome the annoyances.

Although I spent time with the Samsung S4, I found the phone didn’t live to expectations. It’s a nice enough phone – an advanced Android that comes packed with a bewildering array of software and features. On the other hand, there are few stand-outs in the 4S deal. It certainly has nothing like the Lumia 1020’s camera or the iPhone 5S Touch ID.

Nokia Lumia 625
Nokia Lumia 625

Cheaper phones

PR and marketing people often whinge if journalists use honest words like cheap to describe phones that cost less money. Still one nice less expensive phone that crossed my desk in 2013 was the Nokia Lumia 625Is a sturdy, well-specced 4G phone for less than $500. I recommend it if you don’t want to spend lots on a mobile device.

For three weeks I spent seven days working exclusively in one company’s technology. Seven days working with nothing but Apple, then seven days with Microsoft. I had a few days rest before starting on seven days with nothing but Google software and services.

Why bother?

The idea come to me when I was working on my MacBook Air, writing stories in Microsoft Word, sending emails using Gmail and answering my Windows Phone.

And that’s only scratching the surface. I was flitting between calendars, notepads, contact books and so on.

Continually jumping between different companies’ technology and ecosystems feels inefficient.

It means learning three ways of doing things. Each has its own quirks.

There are clear gaps between the three. In the past there were problems converting document formats or issues with misinterpreted characters when cutting and pasting text onto web pages.

Productive, possible, practical?

My first thought was to see if sticking with just one company improves productivity. This quickly turned to wondering if sticking to a single technology was possible and practical.

The only way to know for sure is to dive in and test the idea by immersing myself in each for a week at a time.

Hardware, software, services

Now that Apple, Microsoft and Google all have their own branded hardware – it made sense to use these products where possible.

For my Apple week that meant an iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air. I started my Microsoft week with Windows on my MacBook, a Surface 2 tablet and Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8. It quickly became obvious I didn’t need to use Windows on the laptop to get the best experience.

When the Google week rolled around I knew a tablet wouldn’t be essential. So I used a Sony Xperia Z1 Android phone and the Acer C720 ChromeBook.

Adjustment problems

A week isn’t long enough to get the full benefits of sticking with a single technology – that’s assuming there are benefits.

Apart from anything else, it takes days for the brain to adjust. For example, running Windows on the MacBook means using the control key where you’d use the command key under OS X. I had similar keyboard unfamiliarity problems with the Chromebook.

Other than that, I had little difficulty switching between user interfaces and tools. I’m familiar with all three.

Make that three sets of technology but six operating systems, OS X and iOS are not identical, nor are Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8. ChromeOS and Android are even further apart.

Overall experience

I’ll write more about the specific differences and nuances of the ecosystems later. While I found some are better at certain jobs and work better than others in some circumstances, it was clear that sticking entirely within a single technology is possible.

It may be possible, but it isn’t always the best option. And it isn’t for everyone.

Staying within one or other world certainly makes life simpler. It’s also cheaper – you don’t need to buy essentially similar apps for more than one OS.

Roam if you want to

On the other hand, applying this logic too strictly – religiously staying with only Apple, Microsoft or Google, is too restricting.

My experiment suggests it may be wise to pick a primary technology and then stray outside when needs must.

Of course, you probably knew this already. Although it’s more or less what most people do anyway, it’s nice to have evidence proving this strategy makes sense.

A week of Google-only working with an Android phone and a ChromeBook tests personal cloud computing.

Chromebooks are all about cloud. While they have local storage, ChromeBooks store most documents in Google Drive. Likewise, they don’t store mail messages locally but in Google’s Gmail service — in the cloud.

Mainstream cloud

Cloud computing is no longer strange or exotic. Many of us have used it for a decade. Longer if you consider Hotmail to be cloud.

My Gmail account started in 2004. Not long after I began using Google Docs.

Today I have active cloud accounts on Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox and iCloud. All my work is stored in at least two cloud accounts as well as on A hard drive. There’s little chance of  losing everything at once.

ChromeBook extends cloud

There is nothing unusual about the cloud. With Windows, iOS or OS X, cloud is optional. Chrome OS has baked-in cloud. Google designed the operating system around the cloud.

Using a ChromeBook means moving from being a cloud visitor to being a cloud resident. It’s not a big jump.

Most of the time you don’t notice much difference from everyday computing. That changes if you have a poor internet connection or suddenly become untethered from the net. Even then, you can configure ChromeBook to run Google Docs, Gmail and other apps offline.

Cloud safest

Like all cloud computing, if anything goes wrong on one device, being able to pick up from where you left off on another device is powerful and reassuring.

Sure things now work this way with Apple and Microsoft technology – but they are relative newcomers to this style of computing. Google’s software on the other hand was born in the cloud.

Rough edges

Chrome OS has rough edges.

Two of these rough edges are almost too difficult to live with.

First; the local file manager. Most of the time you don’t need it. But if you want to edit a photo before loading it to a web site, you   download a local copy to work with. The file manager is crude and difficult to deal with. Once the storage starts to fill with files, finding an individual file is a challenge.

Much the same happens once you’ve downloaded more than a handful of Chrome OS apps. Often it is not easy to find the one you want.

During a week with the ChromeBook I used many tabs but never had more than one window open.

Android has improved

If Chrome OS isn’t polished, hope is Android-shaped. The last time I worked with an Android device, less than a year ago, it still had the same unfinished feel I found in Chrome OS.

At the time Android was clearly a generation behind iOS or Windows Phone. Since then it has sharpened up. The Sony Xperia Z1 I used during my Google technology week uses Android 4.2, there have been two upgrades since and Android is now on 4.4.

While Android 4.2 on the Xperia Z1 is still a less complete experience that iOS 7 or Windows Phone 8, the gap has closed considerably. In particular, there’s now tighter integration between Android and Google’s apps – and, by extension, with Google’s cloud services.

If you own an Android phone and commit to Google’s technology – it doesn’t have to be an exclusive relationship – you’ll find plenty to like and lots to make you productive.

Google-only verdict

When I started the Google-only week, I knew I’d get my work done. Yet, I worried there might be a productivity hit, or that I would bump against frustrations. There has been less of that than I expected.

Apple, Google and Amazon all run app stores where customers can find and buy software to run on phones and tablets.

You often hear store owners talk about the number of apps they have as if that’s the most important thing to worry about.

It isn’t. What’s more important is whether an app store has the right apps.

Andreas Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Consulting makes this point in his survey of app store maturity.

Bragging about the total number of apps the way app store providers sometimes do is pointless. Amazon “only” has 85 000 apps it seems, yet it could be the very best app store on the planet—if they were the right apps.

The proud claims about the number of apps available we get from Apple and Google have only one primary function: to show developers and users that their platform is thriving, to make sure they go on developing for it, and, if possible, to give it priority over the competition.

Pfeiffer’s survey concludes app stores still have a long way to go, but that Apple is miles in front of Amazon and Google.

App store maturity

 

You can buy an Acer C720 for under $400 if you shop around. It’s one of the cheapest computers on sale in New Zealand – if not the cheapest. It costs much less than you’d pay for even the cheapest Windows 8 laptop and about 25 percent of Apple’s most basic MacBook.

That low price means a few limitations. On the outside the C720 looks a little plain vanilla. It’s grey and made of plastic, not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. This is clearly a straightforward workhorse computer, not a fashion accessory.

Despite the utilitarianism, or maybe because if it, I rather like the C720. It’s well built – like a Russian tank. And it comes with all the right modern ports including HDMI and USB 3.0. Heck it almost cost me the price of the C720 to add USB 3.0 ports to my old desktop warhorse.

Play it loud

The speakers are loud and not especially high fidelity. I found this out the hardware when accidentally navigating to a site with an autoplay ad and deafening my household at 7am.

While the chiclet-style keyboard is no match for my MacBook Air, it’s usable. I have some trouble with my touch typing and I’m not as fast as normal, but it’s a step-up from the Touch Cover 2 you can add to a Surface tablet.

I have a minor niggle about the control key being in the wrong spot – I keep hitting alt by mistake – but that’s not a major problem.

Although the Trackpad works, it’s a little erratic, but you can do two finger scrolling. I’m spoilt by the MacBook Air’s trackpad, but frankly the Acer C720 does a better job than most Windows laptops.

For me the Acer C720’s weakest spot is the display. You can’t reasonably expect much when you’re paying under $400 for laptop. And you don’t get that much. The screen measures 11.6 inches and resolution is 1388 by 768. It’s perfectly readable.

C720 surprisingly good overall

There’s a Celeron processor, 4GB of Ram and a 16GB SSD – all more than enough to keep everything ticking over nicely. It’s not fast, but the lightweight software overhead and Google’s cloud doing the heavy lifting means it doesn’t need to be. I’ve been using the C720 solidly for nearly two hours and the battery is a 84 percent. I suspect the measure is non-linear, but it looks like I can get a day’s work out of this baby on a single charge.

On the whole I’m staggered by how much computer Acer has shovelled into the $400 C720. It’s plain and utilitarian yet functional. If the Soviet Union was still in business and made personal computers, this is what it could have come up with on a good day. It makes you wonder how much of the value and cost of other computers goes into supporting heavy duty operating systems.

Last week Rockstar Bidco, a group of phone makers including Apple and Microsoft, filed a suit against Google and Android phone makers for infringing five of its patents.

The patents were acquired from the wreckage of Nortel for US$4.5 billion after a bidding war. Google lost that auction. The winning consortium includes Apple and Microsoft as well as BlackBerry, Ericsson and Sony.

Now, as expected, the patents are being used against Google and its Android partners. The defendants are Samsung, LG Electronics, HTC, Huawei, Asustek, Pantech and ZTE Corp – pretty much everybody who is anybody in the Android world.

Rockstar patents certainly not worthless

Because Google also bid billions for the same patents, it’s going to find it difficult to argue they are worthless.

All Things D has the main news story and a copy of the litigation document.

Yes it’s a mess.  And yes, it shows there’s something rotten with the entire patent system. As John Gruber at Daring Fireball points out, don’t feel sorry for Google. It is just as bad.

So what?

What does the patent action mean in practical terms for phone users like you and I?

Rockstar’s action hangs on five patents that revolve around matching search terms with advertising and user data. In other words, serving personalised advertising. This is central to Google’s business model. Apple, Microsoft and their partners are attacking the core of Android.

Should the Rockstar consortium win, Google will probably have to pay damages. Phone makers may have to halt sales – at least temporarily. It’s possible a settlement will include changes to Android. This could, in turn, mean forced upgrades and even some loss of functionality. Maybe even breaking some apps. All of this will be a short-term disruption.

It could also mean paying licence fees to Rockstar. This will undermine Google’s free-OS-and-apps-in-return-for-advertising business model. It will almost certainly make Android a more expensive option for phone makers. Google may just make advertisers pay more to target Android users.

There’s little chance Google and it’s partners will take this lying down. There could be protracted litigation. If they have any means to retaliate, you can rest assured they’ll be firing their weapons in the coming days. One possibility is less Google support for non-Android operating systems.

Journalists love RSS feeds because it means they can keep a close watch on important news sources. Twitter, Google+ and Facebook are in no way comparable.

Attempting to close off any information pipeline is bad, even given the excuse that fewer people use the service.

There’s another reason closing Google Reader was bad. Possibly even evil. Remember, Google is the company that used to claim it would “do no evil”.

RSS is an open standard. Anyone can use it. Anyone can build software tools around it. You don’t need to have an account with any all-embracing online service. You don’t need to send metadata on what you are reading to some big data project.

Google once championed openness. Many people in technology still view the company through rose-tinted spectacles and think it still does. That’s just no longer the case.

The big online companies, Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo are all busy trying to recreate the walled gardens they all sneered at when AOL ran things that way. Closing Reader may not kill RSS – indeed it triggered a mini-revival – but one-by-one the online giants are constructing fences and putting more pressure on openness.

Google Glass
Put these on to the let the world know what a nerd you are

Let’s start by getting one misconception out-of-the-way. Google Glass is not a new idea.

Wearable computers have been around for as long as I’ve written about technology. I started on Practical Computing in 1981. During my first months on that magazine I interviewed someone – sorry I forget their name – who told me we would all soon be wearing computers as we went about our daily lives.

It didn’t happen.

Packing a computing into a tiny package has always been on the cards since voice recognition got to the point where a keyboard is no longer essential for input. After all that’s what happened with smartphones before their makers decided bigger screens were better than squinting at matchbox sized images.

Head-mounted displays aren’t new either. I remember clumsy heavy ones in the mid-1990s when the technology world was hyperventilating over virtual reality. Hundreds of companies have patents on that idea.

Google has done a good job of hyping Glass. There have been plenty of headlines. I’m sure many people reading this will want to buy the product when it goes on sale here.

Without seeing one, I can’t tell you if Google Glass is any good.  Mixed reports are coming from testers in the US. And let’s face it, the enthusiasts hand-picked by Google to try the technology are hardly unbiased.

What I can tell you is that wearing Glass in public will immediately identify the user as a hopeless nerd. It is the 2013 equivalent of clipping a cellphone pouch to your belt. In an earlier era the same type of person carried coloured pens in a pocket protector.

Sure, many nerds will happily wear that badge with pride. For everyone else it will be a stigma. You might as well tattoo 666 on your forehead.

It gets worse. Because Glass records video, it will annoy other people. That’s putting it mildly. You might be lucky to wear them in public and not get punched. Although anyone punching from the front might be readily identified when the video is played back.

So will Glass succeed? I can’t see it taking off in today’s format. Early reports say the product is buggy, there are no obvious killer applications and the first models were for US$1500 – that’s a lot for a toy, no matter how futuristic.

Perhaps half the world will be walking around wearing Glass and looking like complete prats a few years from now. Come back and tell me I was wrong.

Google Calendar

Google Calendar has a ‘quick add’ feature that allows you to enter diary items in plain English – or at least plain pidgin English.

It shows when you click the red ‘create’ button. There’s an example:

Dinner with Michael 7 p.m. tomorrow

You can also type a message like:

Coffee 11am Thursday, Marvin

All good. Or good that is until this Tuesday morning May 1. I typed:

Coffee 11am Monday, Fred

Google Calendar added the item, but instead of scheduling the coffee date for next Monday, which is, like, you know, the obvious thing to do. It scheduled it for Monday April 29, that’s two days ago.

Why would a calendar’s quick add feature schedule something in the past? Does this make sense to anyone other than Google?