Monthly Archives: June 2013

Windows 8 Tablets in Queensland Schools

I’ve read two articles (Australian, ZDNet) today mentioning a rather large deal between the Queensland Education, Acer and presumably Microsoft around the deployment of Acer Iconia W701 tablets to students within schools. This news is of interest to me because although I now live in Victoria, I grew up in Queensland and actually worked for the Department of Education there as a teachers aide (focused on IT administration/network support).

This deployment is significant because I think it is fair to say that Apple has quite a bit of the mind share around deployment of hardware into the hands of kids. This deployment of Windows 8 onto convertible tablet devices shifts the deal significantly towards Microsoft’s offering.

After a quick search, I found this PDF file on the department’s web-site which outlines some setup instructions for students which lists the pre-installed software (predominantly desktop app focused). One of the interesting things that I picked up was that they have deployed “SCCM” or System Centre Configuration Manager. This is a piece of agent software that the department can use to manage the fleet of devices. In particular this could be used to push out native Windows 8 applications when the devices connect back to the education network.

I hope that the department is strongly considering the deployment of native Windows 8 applications which take advantage of the impressive hardware that they are deploying.

One of the obvious applications that needs to be constructed is a native application which acts as “folio” for homework where files can not only be saved, but also shared with the teacher for marking. In fact this could be integrated with the report card processes. Further, I think that major eBook vendors with existing native offerings should consider updating their software so that it can “connect” to an educational account where student textbooks can be distributed in electronic form. There are literally hundreds of awesome things that could be done here to help students.

At Readify I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on approaches for designing and building Windows 8 applications for use inside organisations. The same design principles for internal line-of-business applications applies to software that will be used by students and teachers. Personally I am excited by what kinds of applications we could bulid that target students, teachers and even parents which help the educational process not to mention the side effect of technical literacy.

Back when I was a teachers aide there was some concern that technology like this would be unevenly distributed, and whilst that is a concern I don’t think that should stop Australian schools pushing forward with technology deployments like this. The future of this country depends on the quality of our education system and the ability for these kids to participate in an advanced technology society with intelligent use of our natural resources. Right now Australia has the edge in that this technology is within reach, but if we don’t invest when we have the opportunity the only place we’ll go is backwards.

Hats off to the Department of Education in Queensland. I hope that this is the beginning of a sustained deployment of assisting technology to support our students and educators.

Touted Demise of Windows RT and Marketing Lessons for Microsoft

I read an article this morning on The Motley Fool about a consumer electronics trade show in  Taipei. The headline “Does This Mean Microsoft Windows RT is Dead?”.

I won’t comment on whether devices running the “RT Edition” of Windows 8 are going disappear based on the presence of new devices at a trade show. But the headline did stand out for me because it is an example of the confusion caused when you “borrow” a technical term and slap it onto the end of a product name.

In this specific case Windows RT actually means two things. First, to me as a developer Windows RT means Windows Runtime, an API layer inside introduced in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and is the basis for modern applications.

On the other hand, if you aren’t a developer and you are more focused on “products” and “devices”, the term Windows RT might identify a lower power device running a special build of Windows 8 which introduces some limitations for these lower powered machines.

The problem is when the journalists go around saying “Windows RT” is dead, IT managers who might not know about the lower level details of the Windows 8 platform might start to disregard the proposition that they might like to build a Windows 8 application that targets the Windows Runtime (Windows RT).

Confused? Yep, so are most folks and this is why MIcrosoft needs to be very careful about tacking the RT suffix on products like the Microsoft Surface RT and Office RT. They might accidentally build the impression that the underlying runtime itself is going away if indeed the industry is moving back towards an Intel centric architecture. I think Microsoft should drop the RT moniker all together on their OS, Office and devices (including partner devices) and come up with some other suffix. Leave WinRT to the developers.

Some might say it is unlikely that ARM processors running Windows will disappear, but the X86 and X64 architectures have proven incredibly resilient in the face of other architectures (ia64, ARM etc). One exception might be in the Windows Phone space where you really do have some heavy power conservation requirements and the expectations are considerably lower than that of a PC or a tablet device.

My gut feel is that Windows RT (the runtime, or the device class) aren’t going away any time soon, and it is certainly too premature to say that based on what you are seeing at this years trade shows. What is far more relevant is what we see announced at BUILD 2013 this year in terms of Windows and Windows Phone platform convergence.

The big question I have is will the rumoured “phablet” devices run a Windows Phone-like build of Windows RT, or a Windows-like build of Windows RT. Based on some of the projects I am seeing at the moment I am hoping that a phablet is running something derived from the current Windows 8 generation of platforms. The Windows Phone UX is great for small surface areas but I don’t think it will scale well up to a phablet size.

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Review

2013-01-04_Helix-3aLast week I picked up a new laptop to replace the two devices that I lugged around, one for mobility (a Samsung Series 7 Slate) and one for power (Lenovo ThinkPad X220T). Both devices had served me well but I wanted something that would give me the mobility of the Samsung with the power of the ThinkPad.

I was introduced to the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix by Justin Taylor. As soon as I looked at the pictures and the specs I knew that I had to have one, so I went out that afternoon and found a local supplier and spent the evening setting the device up as a developer workstation.

Key Features

There are three different models of Helix. The one that I picked up was the top of the line model which represents a reasonable power-user specification (without going into the gaming machine category).

  • Detachable Tablet Screen with Touch & Pen Capabilities
  • Detachable Keyboard with Integrated Battery & Replicated Ports
  • Intel Core i7 Processor
  • 8GB RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • 1080p IPS Display
  • Integrated NFC
  • WiFi with WiDi Support
  • Ericson 3G+ Wireless Modem
  • 2 x USB 3.0 ports
  • 1 x Mini DisplayPort
  • 1 x USB 2.0 100Mb/s Ethernet Adapter

Altogether quite a powerful little machine especially considering it is about the same size as my series 7 slate from Samsung.

Overall Comments

The really good thing about this device is that it doesn’t sacrifice power for mobility, whilst at the same time not sacrificing mobility for power. You can totally use this machine as a developer rig, and it is especially useful if you are building apps for Windows 8 because it has most of the bells and whistles you’ll want to test our various scenarios (such as NFC).

Build Quality

The build quality is typical Lenovo, more importantly it is typical ThinkPad. The exterior of the device sports a rubberized plastic finish which makes it easy to old but also a generally understated style which tells you that this thing doesn’t need to pretend that it is powerful.

When you pick up the device it has the characteristic ThinkPad weight but the screen when detached from the base has the same feel as any 11.6″ tablet. The joint where the screen attaches to the base is sturdy and it feels natural being used as a laptop on your, well lap. This is enhanced by the nearly perfect balance between the keyboard and the screen. The engineers must have figured out exactly how much weight needs to be in the keyboard to make this style of design work.

One strange design feature is the magnetic flap which hides the attachment mechanism in two cooling fans. It is an interesting idea but I wonder if future generations of the product will feature the same design.

When detaching the screen there is a simple push lever which can be used with one hand, with another hand used to lift the screen (or the same hand if you want to do it in two steps). Overall the screen release mechanism is probably the best I’ve seen.

Pen and Stylus

The keyboard feels like a ThinkPad keyboard. The spacing is quite natural and has good movement when typing. The keyboard membrane itself doesn’t move at all unlike some of the other cheaper laptops with this design style. I am disappointed with the pen, my X220T had a good sized stylus with two buttons and an eraser. The pen on the Helix feels too narrow and too short to use comfortably. If you are going to use this as a note taking tablet I would recommend getting a better stylus.

Connectivity

Connectivity features all work as advertised. I’ve even managed to confirm that WiDi works OK but I found it to be quite laggy at 1080p, but I am not sure if that was down to the receiving device on the Lenovo.

There are three areas where I felt the device could have been improved in the connectivity space. First, the Ericsson wireless modem doesn’t support 4G has deployed here in Australia by Telstra (and Optus as I understand it). This means that you can really only get slower 3G+ speeds.

The second area where I felt that connectivity could be improved is the USB LAN adapter. It would have been great if Lenovo could have figured out a way to integrate the adapter into the tablet itself. There isn’t much room to work with but it would have been appreciated. Whilst the USB LAN adapter works it is only a USB 2.0 device, and only rated for 100Mb/s.

Finally I felt that the keyboard base itself could have extended the number of ports available beyond just two USB 3.0 devices.

Final Thoughts

The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is exactly what a business-grade tablet-convertable ultrabook should be. It doesn’t sacrifice on power, and it provides the mobility required with a solid battery life (I haven’t really tested the 10 hour claims but as a developer I tend not to reach the theoretician limit that often anyway).

For most non-power users I suspect that the i5/4GB models would be more than adequate and save a little money since this is definitely not the cheapest device out there.

What surprised me is that I was able to find a device that gave me pretty much everything I wanted (putting the connectivity grumbles aside). The device I was going to go for was the Samsung ATIV SmartPC Pro but after getting my hands on one I felt that it feel short in a few areas.

Windows 8, Play To, DLNA and Media Futures

DLNA  When the initial builds of Windows 8 were released I was excited where Microsoft was going with in-app digital media support. Naturally Microsoft’s new UI framework included media components which allows developers to playback media directly within their applications. However what some people don’t realise is that in many cases that media can be output to a compatible DLNA media renderer (such as a TV in your lounge or office).

DLNA and Play To

Anyone who has purchased a Smart TV recently has probably heard of DLNA (probably as part of the sales pitch for the TV). DLNA stands for “Digital Living Network Alliance”, an entity representing the interests of companies producing various pieces of consumer technology.

In practical terms DLNA is responsible for the interoperability standards which allow your TV (for example) to talk across the network to your PC and play media, not necessarily the video/audio formats themselves but the communications protocol between the various actors on the network whether it be a media server, media renderer or a device being used by the end-user to control the whole experience.

Microsoft is a member of DLNA and have taken some significant steps to integrate support for the various standards into their products, and whilst this post is about Windows 8, DLNA has enjoyed various degrees of support since Windows XP. Within Windows 7 there is  a feature called “Play To” which allows the user to select a media file either locally or on the network and instruct a remote device to play that media thereby “playing to” a device.

Play To vs. AirPlay

airplayPlay To is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s popular AirPlay technology. I would argue that Play To is better in some respects because it builds on DLNA and enjoys broader support in consumer devices. However in true Apple style AirPlay has been elegantly implemented and is easy to get up and running if you have the right Apple hardware.

Aside: Screen Mirroring

widiOne feature that AirPlay has that Play To doesn’t attempt to address is screen mirroring, a technology that allows the user to push a view of their actual desktop for display on the TV in their office or lounge. On a PC you need to use Intel’s WiDi (Wireless Display) technology to achieve the same ends with significantly less ease of use.

WiDi requires some relatively modern hardware to work (such as an Ultrabook with all the included Intel goodies) and many TVs are now starting to support the technology. In fact my mother-in-law purchased a Samsung 55″ LED TV last weekend and I managed to get WiDi working (look ma, no wires!).

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a TV with WiDi support, companies like NETGEAR are starting to ship add-on components which connect to your TV to receive the WiDi signal and then push it over HDMI to your TV. I’m personally looking forward to getting my hands of a PTV-3000 when they finally become available here in Australia.

Incidentally this space is really heating up with various bodies such as Wi-Fi Alliance working on coming up with standard approaches to solve this problem (Miracast). Today even phones can easily drive media to the wide-screen TV in your lounge room.

Play To in Windows 8

When Windows 8 was released Microsoft integrated Play To support directly into WinRT so that applications themselves could push media to compatible DLNA devices. When playing a video inside an application simply swipe in from the right-hand side and select devices, followed by the device you would like to send your content to.

DevicesCharmWithPlayToTV

Didn’t work? There could be two reasons for that. The first is pretty simple to fix, Windows might not know about the device yet. Simply swipe in from the right, select settings, change your PC settings and go to devices. Add a new device and wait for your device to appear and select it (it might automatically install anyway).

The second problem is a little more difficult to solve. Unfortunately Microsoft added another layer of certification which effectively neutered support the feature unless you were lucky enough to have the specific device models blessed by Microsoft. One work around was that if you had an XBOX 360 you can use it with Play To in some circumstances but the experience was frustrated by the special treatment that XBOX 360 gets in the various built-in Windows 8 applications.

Working Around Certification

The truth is that a great many of the devices out there will work happily with the new media experience in native Windows 8 Store applications if only Windows 8 would let you try it. It turns out that there is a way to side-step the certification process but it isn’t for the feint hearted.

If you are willing to do a little bit of registry hacking this article shows you how to tell Windows 8 that your non-certified device is in fact OK to use. I can verify that this trick works and instantly your digital media world is looking brighter. Hat tip to fellow MVP Barb Bowman who has a great blog on the evolving digital media landscape.

Apps & Play To

Getting the TV to support Play To is only part of the problem. The next step is finding applications that support it. Fortunately if application developers just use the built-in media control getting Play To working is a walk in the park. After using the hack above I’ve noticed the following applications work just fine (note some of these are more for the Australian market).

  • SBS On Demand
  • TEN
  • Youtube Player
  • TrueLink+

DSC_0077

Limitations and Room for Improvement

Currently I see three major problems with Play To. The first is the ridiculous double certification requirements (DLNA then Microsoft). One of the reasons that people choose PC over Mac is that the software doesn’t get in the road of just trying something – consequences be damned. In my opinion the certification requirement should be removed, if Windows can see the DLNA media renderer then it should pop it up in the devices menu at the appropriate time. Fixing this issue could probably be done now via Windows Update.

The second problem I see is one of discovery. Even if you do have the correctly certified equipment Windows does nothing to promote the fact that it has this awesome digital media capability. I would like to see the device charms menu “hint” that there is something available for the user to do with the media currently playing on the screen (same goes with the sharing charm by the way). Maybe if the icons bobbed on the screen for a few moments from time to time. This could be one of several usability enhancements slated for Windows 8.1.

Finally a great deal of the legitimate content sources (such as XBOX Music in Windows 8) just flat out don’t work using Play To. I have an XBOX Music Pass subscription and I can’t play the content via Play To on my lounge TV (for example) because of digital media rights. Personally I believe that digital media rights manage is too much of a burden for the average consumer. The way it currently stands, a piece of pirated content is actually easier to use on your various media devices than licensed content. All it is doing is frustrating those who pay for the media.

Next Steps

Personally I would like to see many more content-specific applications available on Windows 8. Instead of a media application for a particular channel/station I would like to see a media application for my favourite TV show, that application would use the various features of Windows 8 (such as notifications) to allow me to keep up to date at home and on the go. With good Play To support within Windows 8 I could turn this personal viewing experience shared experience on the big screen in the living room. To make this work “show apps” would need to promote other shows based on observed viewer habits.

Stations like SBS and TEN are in the prime position to take advantage of this model because they already have content in a format that is consumable on Windows 8.

I think that over-the-air broadcast is almost dead. It might take longer to die here in Australia and other places outside the USA but it is definitely on the decline, but before the average household can turn off their PVR (who watches TV live these days) they need to be confident that they can get the content that they want when they want it. If that means catching up on your favourite reality TV show six weeks after it finished then so be it. The expectation that a station can prescribe based on a schedule when viewers are going to watch content is obsolete thinking and based on the limitations of a broadcast model.

Besides, on-demand viewing creates a great opportunity for dynamic insertion of advertising content based on the audience (a very desirable feature for advertisers).

I think a combination of “channel apps” and “show apps” makes sense along with a combination of advertising funded content creation (how it works now) and pay-per-view for archived content which is no longer marketable from an advertising perspective.

It is possible that none of this will come to pass. The media consumption space is moving so quickly now that companies like Microsoft (with XBOX One) and Samsung (with their devices and S-Recommendation) could end up usurping the place of traditional TV stations by going direct to content produces and providing a channel to market and a means to draw revenue from an advertising network. In fact that what Amazon Studios is cooking could really change the landscape of original content creation.