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24 August 2012

Duplication stuplication

Filed under: Accenture, Android, brain simulation, Connectivity, cryonics, death, futurist, Symbian — David Wood @ 12:04 am

I had a mixture of feelings when I looked at the display of the Agenda application on my Samsung Note smartphone:

On the face of things, I was going to be very busy at 09:00 that morning – I had five simultaneous meetings to attend!

But they were all the same meeting. And in fact I had already cancelled that meeting. Or, at least, I had tried to cancel that meeting. I had tried to cancel it several times.

The meeting in question – “TPR” – the Technology Planning Review that I chair from time to time inside Accenture Mobility – is a meeting I had organised, on a regularly repeating basis. This particular entry was set to repeat every four weeks. Some time earlier, I had decided that this meeting no longer needed to happen. From my Outlook Calendar on my laptop, I had pressed the button that, ordinarily, would have sent cancellation messages to all attendees. At first, things seemed to go well – the meeting disappeared from sight in my Outlook calendar.

However, a couple of hours later, I noticed it was still there, or had re-appeared. Without giving the matter much thought, I imagined I must have experienced some finger problem, and I repeated the cancellation process.

Some time later, I glanced at my engagements for that day on my smartphone – and my heart sank. The entry was shown no less than nine times, stacked on top of each other. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Woops.

(The screenshot above only shows the entry appearing five times. That’s because I deleted four of the occurrences before I had the presence of mind to record the image for posterity.)

To tell the truth, I also had a wry, knowing smile. It was a kind of “aha, this confirms that synchronising agendas can be hard” smile. “Thank goodness there are duplicate entry bugs on Android phones too!”

That uncharitable thought had its roots in many moments of personal embarrassment over the years, whenever I saw examples of duplicated entries on phones running Symbian OS. The software that synchronised agenda information across more than one device – for example, between a PC and a connected Symbian smartphone – got into a confused state on too many occasions. Symbian software had many strengths, but laser accuracy of agenda entry synchronisation was not one of them.

But in this case, there was no Symbian software involved. The bug – whatever it was – could not be blamed on any software (such as Symbian OS) for which I personally had any responsibility.

Nevertheless, I still felt bad. The meeting entry that I had created, and had broadcast to a wide number of my Accenture Mobility colleagues, was evidently misbehaving on their calendars. I had to answer several emails and instant messaging queries: Is this meeting happening or not?

Worse, the same problem applied to every one of the repeating entries in the series. Entries show up in the calendars of lots of my Accenture colleagues, once every four weeks, encouraging them to show up for a meeting that is no longer taking place.

Whether I tried to cancel all the entries in the series, or just an individual entry, the result was the same. Whether I cancelled them from my smartphone calendar or from Outlook on my laptop, the result was the same. Namely, the entry disappeared for a while, but re-appeared a few hours later.

Today I tried again. Looking ahead to the meeting slot planned for 30th August, I thought I would be smart, and deleted the entry, both from my smartphone calendar, and from Outlook on my laptop, within a few seconds of each other, just in case a defective synchronisation between the two devices was to blame. You guessed it: the result was the same. (Though this time it was about three hours before the entry re-appeared, and I was starting to think I had cracked it after all.

So what’s going on? I found a clue in an unexpected place – the email folder of Deleted Items in Microsoft Outlook. This showed an email that was unread, but which had somehow moved directly into the Deleted Items folder, without me seeing it.

The entry read as follows:

Microsoft Outlook on behalf of <one of the meeting participants>

One or more problems with this meeting were detected by Exchange 2010.

This meeting is missing from your calendar. You’re the meeting organizer and some attendees still have the meeting on their calendar.

And just as Outlook had silently moved this email into the Deleted Items folder, without drawing my attention to it, Outlook had also silently reinstated the meeting, in my calendar and (it seems) in everyone else’s calendar, without asking me whether or not that was a good idea. Too darned clever.

I still don’t know how to fix this problem. I half-suspect there’s been some kind of database corruption problem – perhaps caused by Microsoft Exchange being caught out by:

  • Very heavy usage from large numbers of employees (100s of 1000s) within one company
  • Changes in policy for how online meetings are defined and operated, in between when the meeting was first created, and when it was due to take place
  • The weird weather we’ve experienced in London this summer
  • Some other who-knows-what strange environmental race conditions.

However, I hear of tales of other colleagues experiencing similar issues with repeating entries they’ve created, which provides more evidence of a concrete software defect, rather than a random act of the universe.

Other synchronisation problems

As I said, when I reflected on what was happening, I had a wry smile. Synchronisation of complex data between different replications is hard, when the data could be altered in more than one place at the same time.

Indeed, it’s sometimes a really hard problem for software to know when to merge apparent duplicates together, and when to leave them separated. I’m reminded of that fact whenever I do a search in the Contacts application on my Android phone. It often lists multiple entries corresponding to a single person. Some of these entries show pictures, but others don’t. At first, I wasn’t sure why there were multiple entries. But closer inspection showed that some details came from my Google mail archives, some from my collection of LinkedIn connections, some from my set of Facebook Friends, and so on. Should the smartphone simply automatically merge all these instances together? Not necessarily. It’s sometimes not clear whether the entries refer to the same person, or to two people with similar names.

If that’s a comparatively simple example, let me finish with an example that takes things further afield. It’s not about the duplication and potential re-integration of agenda entries. Nor is it about the duplication and potential re-integration of pieces of contacts info. It’s about the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.

Yes: the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.

That’s a topic that came up in a presentation in the World Future 2012 conference I attended in Toronto at the end of July.

The talk was given by John M. Smart, founder and president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. The conference brochure described the talk as follows:

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever”

About 57 million unique and precious human beings die every year, or 155,000 people every day. The memories and identities in their brains are permanently lost at present, but may not be in the near future.

Chemical brain preservation is a technique that many scientists believe may inexpensively preserve our memories and identity when we die, eventually for less than $10,000 per person in the developed world, and less than $3,000 per person in the developing world. Preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, in contract storage, or even in private homes. Our organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation (brainpreservation.org), is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity of mammalian brains, where neuroscientists believe our memories and identities reside, can be perfectly preserved using these low-cost chemical techniques.

There is growing evidence that chemically preserved brains can be “read” in the future, like a computer hard drive, so that memories, and even the complete identities of the preserved individuals can be restored, using low-cost automated techniques. Amazingly, given the accelerating rate of technological advance, a person whose brain is preserved in 2020 might “return” to the world, most likely in a computer form, as early as 2060, while their loved ones and some of their friends are still alive…

Note: this idea is different from cryonics. Cryonics also involves attempted brain preservation, at an ultra-low temperature, but with a view to re-animating the brain some time in the future, once medical science has advanced enough to repair whatever damage brought the person to the point of death. (Anyone serious about finding out more about cryonics might be interested in attending the forthcoming Alcor-40 conference, in October; this conference marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the most famous cryonics organisation.)

In contrast, the Brain Preservation Foundation talks about reading the contents of a brain (in the future), and copying that information into a computer, where the person can be re-started. The process of reading the info from the brain is very likely to destroy the brain itself.

There are several very large questions here:

  • Could the data of a brain be read with sufficient level of detail, and recreated in another substrate?
  • Once recreated, could that copy of the brain be coaxed into consciousness?
  • Even if that brain would appear to remember all my experiences, and assert that it is me, would it be any less of a preservation of me than in the case of cryonics itself (assuming that cryonics re-animation could work)?
  • Given a choice between the two means of potential resurrection, which should people choose?

The first two of these questions are scientific, whereas the latter two appear to veer into metaphysics. But for what it’s worth, I would choose the cryonics option.

My concern about the whole program of “brain copying” is triggered when I wonder:

  • What happens if multiple copies of a mind are created? After all, once one copy exists in software, it’s probably just as easy to create many copies.
  • If these copies all get re-animated, are they all the same person?
  • Imagine how one of these copies would feel if told “We’re going to switch you off now, since you are only a redundant back-up; don’t worry, the other copies will be you too”

During the discussion in the meeting in Toronto, John Smart talked about the option to re-integrate different copies of a single mind, resulting in a whole that is somehow better than each individual copy. It sounds an attractive idea in principle. But when I consider the practical difficulties in re-integrating duplicated agenda entries, a wry, uneasy smile comes to my lips. Re-integrating complex minds will be a zillion times more complicated. That project could be the most interesting software development project ever.

30 June 2012

My reasonably smooth upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich

Filed under: Android, change, compatibility, Google, Samsung, WordPress — David Wood @ 9:42 pm

I’ve been looking forwards to the new experiences that would be unlocked by installing “Ice Cream Sandwich” (Android 4.0) in my Samsung Galaxy Note, in place of the Gingerbread (Android 2.3) it originally contained. But I’ve been delaying the upgrade.

I’m a big fan of new technology, but my experience teaches me that upgrades often bring disruption as well as progress. Upgrades of complex software systems often unintentionally break functionality, due to unexpected incompatibilities with the old platform. And even when functionality is improved, it can take some time for users to learn a new interface: old habits have to be unlearned, and new “intuitions” acquired. That’s why I’m sometimes a technology laggard, as well as a technology enthusiast.

But today is the day. The new platform is mature, and is no longer “bleeding edge”. It’s been on the market for a few months. Several of my Accenture work colleagues have already upgraded the Galaxy Notes they use, without reporting any issues. And some of the applications I now want to test (applications developed by work colleagues) rely on functionality that is present only in the newer platform – such as improved Bluetooth. So this morning I resolved: let’s do it today.

In summary: the experience was smooth, although not without glitch. So far, I am pleased with the outcome, although I’ve experienced surprises along the way.

The first surprise was that I had to go looking for the upgrade. I had expected I would automatically be notified that a new version was ready. After all, a similar system works fine, to automatically notify me of the availability of new versions of the apps I’ve installed. And – see the following screenshot – my phone had the setting “auto update: check for updates automatically” enabled.

However, my experience was that I had to explicitly press the button “Check for updates”.

That button helpfully recommended me to ensure that I was on a wifi network. Good point.

The update would happen in two stages:

  1. First, the new version of the software would be downloaded – all 349.38MB of it
  2. Second, the new software would be installed, in place of the old.

The download system estimated that it would take 16 minutes to download the new version. It told me I could keep on using the device in the meantime, with the download proceeding in background. Having kicked off the download, and watched the first 10% of it complete fine, I switched tasks and started browsing. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

As the download proceeded, I read some tweets, and followed links in tweets to Internet pages. One link took me into someone’s Google Plus page, and another link from their took me to yet another page. (By this stage, the download was about 60% complete – I was keeping an eye on it via a notification icon in the top bar of the screen.) I then tried pressing the Back button to undo the stack of links. But as sometimes happens, Back didn’t work cleanly. It took me “back” from one page to the same page, with a minor shiggle in between. This kind of thing sometimes happens when a link includes a redirection.

This is where personal habit took over. In such cases, I have fallen into the habit of hammering the Back key several times quickly in succession. And that seemed to work – I ended up back in the Twitter application. But a few minutes later, I realised that the upgrade notifier icon had disappeared. And the download was nowhere to be found. I think that one of the Back buttons must have ended up going to the download window, cancelling it. Woops.

No problem, I thought, I’ll restart the download. It will presumably continue from where it had been interrupted. But alas, no, it started at the beginning again.

The second time, I resisted the temptation to multi-task, and let the download complete in splendid isolation. Around 20 minutes later, the download was complete. I thought to myself, Now for the more interesting part…

Before completing the installation, I ensured the mains power lead was plugged in, to avoid any complications of a battery failure half-way through rewriting the operating system part of the phone. At all costs, I did not want to end up with a “bricked” device (a device that cannot restart, and has as much life as a brick).

The upgrade proceeded. The screen changed several times during the process. At one stage, a progress indicator seemed to become stuck at around 80% complete for ages – so that I wondered if the system had crashed – before finally slowly inching forwards again.

Once the phone restarted, it run through yet more steps of the upgrade. It told me it was “Optimising application 1 of 82” … “Optimising application 82 of 82”. Then it said it was “Upgrading Contacts database” and “Upgrading Agenda database”. Clearly a lot was happening behind the scenes.

Finally it showed the familiar SIM unlock screen. Except that it wasn’t exactly the same SIM unlock screen as before – there were small but noticeable changes in the layout. Likewise with the device unlock: the ‘OK’ button is now in a different position from before. My fingers will need to learn a slightly different physical sequence, to unlock the device.

A bigger surprise was that all my customisations to the seven different home screens were lost – they had all been reset to defaults. It’s no big deal – I can gradually change the screens back to what I personally find convenient. And a good clean out is probably not a bad idea.

There are lots of pleasant surprises too. For example, there’s a handy new “Restart” addition to the dialog that is shown when the power switch is held down:

Here’s another example of an unexpected change: I found by trial and error that screenshots are now stored in a different directory on the phone – \phone\pictures\screenshots rather than \phone\screencapture – and are (it seems) stored in a different way: they’re not written to disk until some indeterminate time after the screen capture has finished.

That change caught me out twice over: first, because I could not find the screenshots (as copied into this blogpost) in the place I was accustomed to finding them, and second, because the files I tried to upload into WordPress were zero bytes in size. (WordPress helpfully advised me to “upload something more substantial”.)

In case this sounds like a litany of complaints, let me hasten to clarify that I find the entire process highly impressive. A huge quantity of software has been transferred wirelessly onto my phone, including countless changes from before. It’s a technology miracle.

What’s more, I didn’t pay anything for this upgrade. It’s a free technology miracle.

But I am glad I waited until the weekend before embarking on this upgrade, rather than trying to squeeze it into the middle of a busy work schedule. Significant change deserves significant time.

29 April 2012

My brief skirmish with Android malware

Filed under: Android, deception, malware, security — David Wood @ 2:19 pm

The smartphone security issue is going to run and run. There’s an escalating arms race, between would-be breakers of security and would-be defenders. The race involves both technology engineering and social engineering.

There is a lot at stake:

  • The numbers of users of smartphones continues to rise
  • The amount of sensitive data carried by a typical user on their smartphone (or accessible via credentials on their smartphone) continues to rise
  • Users increasingly become accustomed to the idea of downloading and installing applications on their mobile devices
  • Larger numbers of people turn their minds to crafting ways to persuade users to install apps against their better interest – apps that surreptitiously siphon off data and/or payments

In that context, I offer the following cautionary tale.

This afternoon, I unexpectedly ran into an example of this security arm race. I was minding my own business, doing what lots of people are doing in the UK these days – checking the weather forecast.

My Samsung Galaxy Note, which runs Android, came with an AccuWeather widget pre-installed on the default homescreen:

Clicking on the widget brings up a larger screen, with more content:

Clicking the ‘More’ button opens a web-browser, positioned to a subpage of m.accuweather.com.  I browsed a few screens of different weather information, and then noticed an inviting message near the bottom of the screen:

  • Turbo Battery Boost – Android System Update

I was curious, and decided to see where that link would lead.  On first glance, it appeared to take me into the Android Marketplace:

The reviews looked positive. Nearly two million downloads, with average rating around 4.5 stars. As someone who finds I need to recharge the battery in my Android midway every day, I could see the attraction of the application.

As I was weighing up what to do next, another alert popped up on the screen:

By this stage, I was fairly sure that something fishy was going on. I felt sure that, if there really was a breakthrough in battery management software for Android, I would have heard about it via other means. But by now I was intrigued, so I decided to play along for a while, to see how the story unfolded.

Clicking ‘Next’ immediately started downloading the app:

which was immediately followed by more advice on what I should do next, including the instruction to configure Android to accept updates from outside the Android Market:

Sure enough, the notifications area now contained a downloaded APK file, temptingly labelled “tap to start”:

A risk-averse person would probably have stopped at that point, fearful of what damage the suspicious-looking APK might wreak on my phone. But I had enough confidence in the Android installation gateway to risk one more click:

That’s a heck of a lot of permissions, but it’s nothing unusual. Many of the other apps I’ve installed recently have requested what seemed like a similar range of permissions. The difference in this case was that I reasoned that I had little trust in the origin of this latest application.

Even though the initial ad had been served up on the website of a reputable company, AccuWeather, and implied some kind of endorsement from AccuWeather for this application, I doubted that any such careful endorsement had taken place. Probably the connection via the AccuWeather webpage and the ads shown in it is via some indirect broker.

Anyway, I typed “Android BatteryUpgrade” into a Google search bar, and quickly found various horror stories.

For example, from a PCWorld article by Tom Spring, “Sleazy Ads on Android Devices Push Bogus ‘Battery Upgrade’ Warnings“:

Sketchy ads promote battery-saver apps for Android, but security experts say the programs are really designed to steal your data–or your money

Scareware has gone mobile: Users of Android devices are starting to see sleazy ads warning that they need to upgrade their device’s battery. The supposed battery-saver apps that those ads prod you to download, however, could endanger your privacy or siphon money from your wallet–and generally they’ll do nothing to improve your gadget’s battery life…

“These ads cross a line,” says Andrew Brandt, director of threat research for Solera Networks. It’s one thing to market a worthless battery app, he says, but another to scare or trick people into installing a program they don’t need.

The ads are similar to scareware marketing tactics that have appeared on PCs: Such ads pop up on desktops or laptops, warning that your computer is infected and advising you to download a program to fix the problem. In many cases those rogue system utilities and antivirus products are merely disguises for software that spies on users.

Why use battery ads as a ploy? They tap into a common anxiety, Brandt says. Phone users aren’t yet concerned about viruses on their phones, but they are worried about their battery being sucked dry.

Brandt says that one Android battery app, called both Battery Doctor and Battery Upgrade, is particularly problematic: Not only does it not upgrade a battery or extend a charge, but when it’s installed and unlocked, it harvests the phone’s address book, the phone number, the user’s name and email address, and the phone’s unique identifying IMEI number. With a phone user’s name, IMEI, and wireless account information, an attacker could clone the phone and intercept calls and SMS messages, or siphon money from a user by initiating premium calls and SMS services. Once the battery app is installed the program sends the phone ads that appear in the drop down status bar of the phone at all times – whether the app is running or not. Lastly it periodically transmits changes to the user’s private information and phone-hardware details to its servers…

Now on the one hand, Android deserves praise for pointing out to the user (me, in this case) that the application was requesting lots of powerful capabilities. On the other hand, it’s likely that at least some users would just think, “click, click, yes I really do want to install this, click, click”, having been desensitised to the issue by having installed lots of other apps in seemingly similar ways in the past.

Buyer beware. Especially if the cost is zero – and if the origin of the application cannot be trusted.

Footnote: Now that I’m paying more attention, I can see lots of other “sleazy” (yes, that’s probably the right word) advertisements on AccuWeather’s mobile webpages.

9 April 2012

Six weeks without Symbian

Filed under: Accenture, Android, Apple, applications, Psion, Samsung, smartphones, Symbian, UIQ — David Wood @ 10:58 am

It’s only six weeks, but in some ways, it feels like six months. That’s how much time has passed since I’ve used a Symbian phone.

These six weeks separate me from nearly thirteen years of reliance on a long series of different Symbian phones. It was mid-1999 when prototype Ericsson R380 smartphones became stable enough for me to start using as my regular mobile phone. Since then, I’ve been carrying Symbian-powered smartphones with me at all times. That’s thirteen years of close interaction with various Symbian-powered devices from Nokia, Ericsson (subsequently Sony Ericsson), and Samsung – interspersed with shorter periods of using Symbian-powered devices from Panasonic, Siemens, Fujitsu, Sendo, Motorola, and LG.

On occasion over these years, I experimented with devices running other operating systems, but my current Symbian device was never far away, and remained my primary personal communication device. These non-Symbian devices always left me feeling underwhelmed – too much functionality was missing, or was served up in what seemed sub-optimal ways, compared to what I had learned to expect.

But ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, held 27th Feb to 1st Mar, I found three reasons to gain a greater degree of first-hand experience with Android:

  1. I would be meeting representatives of various companies who were conducting significant development projects using Android, and I wished to speak from “practical knowledge” rather than simply from “book knowledge”
  2. Some of my colleagues from Accenture had developed apps for Android devices, that I wanted to be able to demonstrate with confidence, based on my own recurring experience of these apps
  3. One particular Android device – the Samsung Galaxy Note – seemed to me to have the potential to define a disruptive new category of mobile usage, midway between normal smartphones and tablets, with its radically large (5.3″) screen, contained in a device still light enough and small enough to be easily portable in my shirt-top pocket.

I was initially wary about text entry on the Galaxy Note. My previous encounters with Android devices had always left me frustrated when trying to enter data, without the benefits of a QWERTY keyboard (as on my long-favourite Nokia E6 range of devices), or fluid hand-writing recognition (as on the Sony Ericsson P800/P900/P910).

But in the course of a single day, three separate people independently recommended me to look at the SwiftKey text entry add-on for Android. SwiftKey takes advantage of both context and personal history to predict what the user is likely to be typing into a given window on the device. See this BBC News interview and video for a good flavour of what SwiftKey provides. I installed it and have been using it non-stop ever since.

With each passing day, I continue to enjoy using the Galaxy Note, and to benefit from the wide ecosystem of companies who create applications for Android.

Here’s some of what I really like about the device:

  • The huge screen adds to the pleasure of browsing maps (including “street view”), web pages, and other graphic, video, or textual content
  • Time and again, there are Android apps available that tailor the mobile user experience more closely than web-browsing alone can achieve – see some examples on the adjacent screenshot
  • These apps are easy to find, easy to install, and (in general) easy to use
  • Integration with Google services (Mail, Maps, etc) is impressive
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the notification system, the ubiquitous “back” button, and the easy configurability of the device.

On the other hand, I’m still finding lots of niggles, in comparison with devices I’ve used previously:

  • It’s hard to be sure, but it seems likely to me that I get a working network connection on the device less often than on previous (e.g. Nokia) devices. This means for example that, when people try to ring me, it goes through to my voice mail more often than before, even though my phone appears (to my eyes) to be working. I’m finding that I reboot this device more often than previous devices, to re-establish a working network connection
  • I frequently press the “back” button by accident, losing my current context, for example when turning the phone from portrait to landscape; in those moments, I often silently bemoan the lack of a “forward” button
  • The device is not quite capable of one-handed use – that’s probably an inevitable consequence of having such a large screen
  • Although integration with Google services is excellent, integration with Outlook leaves more to be desired – particularly interaction with email notifications of calendar invites. For example, I haven’t found a way of accepting a “this meeting has been cancelled” notification (in a way that removes the entry from my calendar), nor of sending a short note explaining my reason for declining a given meeting invite, along with the decline notification, etc
  • I haven’t gone a single day without needing to recharge the device part-way through. This no doubt reflects my heavy use of the device. It may also reflect my continuing use of the standard Android web browser, whereas on Symbian devices I always quickly switched to using the Opera browser, with its much reduced data transfer protocols (and swifter screen refreshes)
  • Downloaded apps don’t always work as expected – perhaps reflecting the diversity of Android devices, something that developers often remark about, as a cause of extra difficulty in their work.

Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is that I keep on enjoying using the device despite all these niggles. I reason to myself that no device is perfect, and that several of the issues I’ve experienced are problems of success rather than problems of failure. And I continue to take pleasure out of interacting with the device.

This form factor will surely become more and more significant. Up till now, Android has made little market headway with larger tablets, as reported recently by PC World:

Corporations planning tablet purchases next quarter overwhelmingly voted for Apple’s iPad, a research firm said Tuesday [13th March]

Of the 1,000 business IT buyers surveyed last month by ChangeWave Research who said they would purchase tablets for their firms in the coming quarter, 84% named the iPad as an intended selection.

That number was more than ten times the nearest competitor and was a record for Apple.

However, Samsung’s success with the “phablet” form factor (5 million units sold in less than two months) has the potential to redraw the market landscape again. Just as the iPad has impacted people’s use of laptops (something I see every day in my own household), the Galaxy Note and other phablets have the potential to impact people’s use of iPads – and perhaps lots more besides.

Footnote 1: The Galaxy Note is designed for use by an “S Pen Stylus”, as well as by finger. I’ve still to explore the benefits of this Stylus.

Footnote 2: Although I no longer carry a Symbian smartphone with me, I’m still utterly reliant on my Psion Series 5mx PDA, which runs the EPOC Release 5 precursor to Symbian OS. I use it all the time as my primary Agenda, To-do list, and repository of numerous personal word documents and spreadsheets. It also wakens me up every morning.

Footnote 3: If I put on some rosy-eyed glasses, I can see the Samsung Galaxy Note as the fulfilment of the design vision behind the original “UIQ” device family reference design (DFRD) from the early days at Symbian. UIQ was initially targeted (1997-1999, when it was still called “Quartz”) at devices having broadly the same size as today’s Galaxy Note. The idea received lots of ridicule – “who’s going to buy a device as big as that?” – so UIQ morphed into “slim UIQ” that instead targeted devices like the Sony Ericsson P800 mentioned above. Like many a great design vision, UIQ can perhaps be described as “years ahead of its time”.

15 August 2010

Co-existing with Android

Filed under: Android, Nokia — David Wood @ 9:51 pm

For some time, I’ve wanted to learn more about Android.

Not just theory, or second hand knowledge.  I wanted my own, direct, practical knowledge – obtained by using an Android device “in anger” (as the saying goes).

Playing with a device for a few minutes – for example, at a trade show – fails to convey many of the real-world strengths and weaknesses of that device.  But it’s the real-world strengths and weaknesses that I want to experience.

It’s important for me for work reasonsAccenture Embedded Mobility Services are involved in a stream of different Android projects.  (Among other things, I want to be able to install and use various experimental Android apps that some of my colleagues have been writing.)

It’s also important for me for personal productivity reasons.  If an Android phone turns out to be a smarter phone than any I’ve been using so far, I want to know about it – so I can use it more often, and become a smarter person as a result.

But there are sooo many Android devices.  Carphone Warehouse had a large selection to choose between.  For a while, I struggled to decide which one to pick.

In the end, I chose a Nexus One.  That’s because it is the device most likely to be quickly updated to whatever the latest version of Android is.  (Other Android phones include customisation layers from device manufacturers, which seem to need to be re-done – and painstakingly re-tested – whenever there’s a new Android version.  Unsurprisingly, that introduces a delay.)

For help with a Nexus One, I owe a big debt of gratitude to Kenton Price of Little Fluffy Toys Ltd.  I first met Kenton at a recent meeting of the London GTUG (Google Technology Users Group), where we both listened to Google’s Wesley Chun give an upbeat, interesting talk about Google App Engine.  Later that evening, we got talking.  A few days afterwards, Little Fluffy Toys became famous, on account of widespread publicity for their very timely London Cycle Hire Widget.  Kenton & I exchanged a few more emails, and the outcome was that we met in a coffee shop next to the Accenture building in Old Bailey.  Kenton kindly leant me a Nexus One for a few weeks, for me to find out how I get on with it.  Just as important, Kenton quickly showed me a whole raft of fascinating things that the device could do.

But then I got cold feet.  Did I really want to stop using the Nokia E72, which has been my “third brain” for the best part of a year? My fingers have learned all kinds of quick, useful methods for me to get the best out of this device.  (Many of these methods are descendents of usage patterns from even earlier devices in the same general family, including the E71 and the E61i.)  I also heard from many people that the battery life on the Nexus One was poor.  What’s more, during the very first proper phone call I did with this phone, the person at the other end told me several times “you’re breaking up – I can’t hear you”.  (Of course, a sample size of one proves nothing.)

It was the transfer of all my “phonebook contacts” from the E72, to be merged (apparently) with my email contacts on the Nexus One, that gave me even more reason to hesitate.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of potential restructuring of my personal data.

So I’ve compromised.  I already have two SIMs.  One lives in my E72, and the other usually sits inside my laptop.  Well, I’ve taken the SIM from the laptop and put it into the Nexus One.  For the time being, I’ll keep using the E72 for phone calls and text messages.  And probably for lots more too.  But I’ll use the Nexus One for lots of interesting experiments.  (Like showing friends and family members Google Goggles…).

I expect this usage pattern will change over the weeks ahead.  Let’s see how things evolve!

Earlier this evening, I used my E72 to take the following picture of the Nexus One perched next to my “second brain” – my Psion Series 5mx.  Hmm, that Nexus One battery indicator does look worryingly low.  (Maybe I should turn down the screen brightness…)

10 February 2010

The mobile multitasking advantage

Filed under: Android, applications, architecture, iPhone, multitasking, Psion, universities — David Wood @ 11:48 am

How important is it for a mobile device to support background multitasking?

Specifically, how important is it that users can install, onto the device, applications which will continue to run well in background whilst the user is simultaneously using the device for another purpose?

Humans are multitasking creatures.  We get involved in many activities simultaneously: listening to music, browsing the web, holding conversations, taking notes, staying on the alert for interruptions… – so shouldn’t our mobile devices support this model of working?

One argument is that this feature is not important.  That’s because the Apple iPhone fails to offer it, and the sales of the iPhone don’t seem to have suffered as a result.  The applications built into the iPhone continue to operate in background, but downloaded apps don’t.  iPhone apps continue to sell well.  Conclusion: mobile multitasking has little importance in the real world.  Right?

But that’s a weak argument.  Customer sentiment can change.  If users start talking about use cases which the iPhone fails to support – and which other smartphones support well – then public perception of the fitness of the iPhone system software could suffer a significant downturn.  (“iPhone apps – they’re so 2009…”)

How about Android?  That offers background multitasking.  But does it do it well?

My former colleague Brendan Donegan has been putting an Android phone to serious use, and has noticed some problems in how it works.  He has reported his findings in a series of tweets:

I say, with all honesty that Android’s multitasking is a huge travesty. Doesn’t even deserve to be called that

Poor prioritisation of tasks. Exemplar use-case – Spotify [music playing app] + camera

Spotify will jitter and the photo will be taken out of sync with flash, giving a whited out image

Symbian of course handles the same use case flawlessly

Android really is just not up to doing more than one ‘intensive’ task at a time

Even the [built-in] Android music player skips when taking a photo

(Brendan has some positive remarks about his Android phone too, by the way.)

Mark Wilcox suggests a diagnosis:

sounds like the non-real-time, high interrupt latency on Linux is causing some problems in multimedia use cases

Personally, I find this discussion fascinating – on both an architecture level and a usability level.  I see a whole series of questions that need answers:

  1. Are these results applicable just to one Android phone, or are they intrinsic to the whole platform?
  2. Could these problems be fixed by fairly simple software modifications, or are they more deeply rooted?
  3. How do other mobile platforms handle similar use cases?  What about feature phone platforms?
  4. How important is the use case of playing music in background, while taking a photograph?  Are there other use cases that could come to be seen as more significant?

Perhaps this is a good topic for a university research project.  Any takers?

(Related to this, it would be interesting to know more about the background processing abilities of modern feature phones.  For example, it used to be the case that some feature phones would discard the contents of partially written text messages if there was an incoming voice call.  Has anyone looked into this recently?)

Regardless of the merits of these particular use cases, I am convinced that software responsiveness is important.  If the software system is tied up attending to task A when I want it to do task B, I’m frustrated.  I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling.

My 1990’s Psion PDA typically runs more than a dozen apps in parallel (several word processors, spreadsheeets, databases, plus an individual agenda, tube map app, calculator, and so on) and switches instantly between them.  That sets my baseline expectation.

Here’s another mobile use case that’s on my mind a lot these days.  It applies, not to a PDA or mobile phone, but to my laptop.  It’s not (I think) a device problem, but a wider system problem, involving network connectivity:

  • I frequently find myself in mobile situations where I’m browsing websites on my laptop (for example, on the train), and the pages take ages to load;
  • The signal indicator on the built-in wireless modem app says there’s a strong signal, but for some reason, wireless traffic is squeezed;
  • I sit watching empty tabs on my Firefox browser, waiting and waiting and waiting for content to appear;
  • In frustration, I’ll often open another tab, and try to visit the BBC website – to rule out the possibility that the server for the other web pages(s) has gone down – but that gives me another blank page;
  • Eventually, things recover, but in the meantime, I’ve been left twiddling my thumbs.

When I switch to a WiFi connection instead of a cellular connection, things are usually better – though I’ve had the same bitter experience with some WiFi hotspots too (for example, in some Starbucks coffee shops).

So what should the highest priority be for system architects to optimise?  Responsiveness comes high on my own wishlist.  I recognise that this will often require changes in several parts of the software system.

23 June 2008

Fragmentation is easy, integration is hard

Filed under: Android, fragmentation, integration — David Wood @ 2:13 pm

The Wall Street Journal reports today that “Google’s Mobile-Handset Plans Are Slowed“. The Inquirer picks up the story and adds a few choice morsels of its own: “Depressing news as Google’s Android delayed“:

However, life’s little crises just kept getting the Android down and now apparently some mobile network operators like Sprint Nextel, have abandoned any attempt to get an Android on the market until 2009. This is purportedly because the majority of Google’s attention and resources have been going to Sprint’s competitor T-Mobile USA, who still hope to have an Android mobile out by the end of Q4. We have it on good authority (from un-named sources of course) that Sprint actually asked Google “Do you want me to sit in the corner and rust, or just fall apart where I’m standing?”…

Director of mobile platforms at Google, Andy Rubin, gloomily noted that trying to develop software while the company’s irritating partners kept pushing for new features, was a time-consuming task. “This is where the pain happens”, he sighed.

I recognise this pain. It’s something that has occurred many times during Symbian’s history. That’s why I’ve emphasised a dilemma facing Android: Fragmentation is easy, but integration is hard. Coping with multiple forceful customers at the same time, while your codebase is still immature, is a really tough challenge. Glitzy demos of v2 features don’t help matters: they drive up interest that needs to be deflated, as you have to explain to customers that, no, these features aren’t ready to include in the software package for their next phones, despite looking brilliant on YouTube. Instead, the focus needs to go on the hard, hard task of integration.

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