Monday, February 28, 2011

RIP, Jane Russell

Jane RussellOn 28.February 2011 one of the last great Hollywood icons died: Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell. I knew her films already as a child, and I especially liked the movie "The Paleface" with Bob Hope, where she plays a woman who once in a while hits him on the head with a pan. For me as an 8 year old, this film - especially the hitting on the head - has shaped my image of women for many years.

In 2003 I once had the pleasure to meet her personally, at an afternoon event at the TCM store in Los Angeles, where Robert Osborne hosted an afternoon with her as a special guest. We chatted about movies and classic movie channels. Also about Germany, where some of her ancestors were from. A very friendly woman, and a great actress.

She will be greatly missed by every fan of the Classic Hollywood. Rest in peace, Jane.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Windows Phone 7 - a second look

For a few weeks I had now the HTC HD7 with Windows Phone 7, the new mobile OS by Microsoft. In my first brief note about the initial user experience, I noted many shortcomings, both compared with the previous version of Windows Mobile 6.5 and with the current other smartphones competition. So what remains of this negative first impression after a few weeks of use?

The overall resume of these first few weeks using Windows Phone 7 is that the update is urgently needed. This version of Windows Phone fall short on so many expectations. These are often quite little things, but sometimes also major issues. It makes you think if the engineers/developers have ever tested their product in a real life situation. Probably not.

Here are some of these issues:

- After making a phone call, any respectable phone shows the call duration. Not so Windows Phone 7. No display about the length of the call, neither in the call history.
- When a text message is received, many phones show a button to make a call to this number. Not so Windows Phone 7. The only option it to reply. No "call this number", no "store to contacts". This is absolutely inadequate. One clicks onto the sender, then one can make a call or store the number in the address book.
- the phone does only display battery status and signal strength on the start screen when switching on the phone. Afterwards only the clock is displayed in the top right corner. There would be space for a heading info line, but it is just plain empty. Would be very useful to have this info, especially when doing longer online sessions.
- the tap on the display sometimes does not work, especially when it is on a text link with small fonts. One almost needs to use a stylus to click the link then, as it would not react to the pressure of a finger. Has probably a technical reason: because the overall "click strength" is taken from the absolute number of active pixels being pressed; and since a small text has only few active pixels, this number is small. Would be better to have a relative measure. But this is just a speculation...
- the finger sliding is often interpreted as a side swipe instead of a vertical swipe, and then the page changes. This has been reported by many other people in a variety of apps. It could have several reasons: a driver problem of the display, a bug in the gesture API of Windows Phone 7, or an incorrect use of this API for detecting swipe direction by the app developers.
- Why is the battery strength only shown graphically and not as a numeric percentage?
- The Marketplace search returns too many wrong things. When I search for an app by a name, for example "Twitter" in the apps category, a lot of songs and albums also appear with the name "Twitter" in their name... this should be filtered.
- Many apps offered for Windows Phone 7 are inferior to their counterparts on other smart phones. This can have several reasons: Windows Phone 7 is new, so many apps are just in their first version, with updates (hopefully) to come. Or the Windows Phone 7 market is so small (3%?) compared to iPhone or Android, that the developers neglect it and put not much effort in. There are a few notable exceptions though.
- There is no synchronising of data/files with such files on a PC. When connecting the phone by cable to a computer, there is not much that can be done. I was hoping that I could drag some files over, or have some files automatically synced as it was great on the old Windows Mobile OS where Office files (for Excel, Word) could be automatically be stored, edited, and synchronised on both devices. This capability has now been lost and can only be sort of emulated via a much more complicated method through cloud computing. The Zune software synchronises music and video, but that I use almost never.
- No copy-and-paste. This makes it very difficult to edit Excel files, modify entries in the contacts list, etc. I cannot believe why it is so difficult to implement this feature? Also the first iPhone generation did not have this...
- The title headings of pages in apps use a very stylish, elegant, large font, but these titles stretch over several pages, therefore cannot be read fully on one page. This is especially annoying when the app only has one page, because the rest of the heading is just cut off. Here a bit more "function over form" would have been better.

There is something positive to be said about Windows Phone 7: it looks quite nice. The big tiles are more attractive than the icons/buttons of other phones, easier to touch. The also can show live content, although most apps still stick with a static image.

There is good potential: if all these little bugs/annoyances that I mentioned above are being fixed, and if there would be more options for users to create additional pages instead of just having one title page and one app page, then this may actually take off. Installing and updating apps works as smooth as with the iPhone.

So, Microsoft engineers, keep working and please produce an update soon (and without "bricking" it...) !

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


The first semester in this academic year has been concluded in January. My major work had been in the the Mobile Wireless Comms (MWC) MSc module: I have experimented with SCORM-compliant Sharable Content Objects (SCO), integrated in our Learning Management System (LMS) XSTREAM and accessible remotely through a web interface. SCORM enables such SCOs to provide feedback about the learning progress of the student, by having small assignments in the SCO which automatically are being fed back into the LMS. In principle this works fine, but there are a few issues:
- the connection between the SCO and the LMS times out, and then some error messages appear at the user's end. This is quite annoying, and it also may interrupt the data flow: sometimes the results from the SCORM quizzes were not reported back correctly to the LMS.
- new versions of an existing SCO will create a new column in XSTREAM gradebook. This makes the handling of the overall marking quite cumbersome, as all different versions of the SCO grades will have to be considered.
- in principle it is possible to have several questions/quizzes within one SCO. But this proves somewhat more prone to failures in reporting back the quiz results, which leads to missing and wrong grade entries on XSTREAM.

Overall, the concept of having these interactive learning objects in the form of SCOs was quite popular with students: they were engaging very well, and the assignments were designed in such a way that students could try out examples. At the core was here some additional JavaScript code, which allowed these SCOs to give each student a different set of problems to solve: the basic formulas and equations were the same, but the individual numbers and parameters were different for each student. This allowed the student to repeatedly try a particular problem, everytime with a different set of numbers.

The downside of using this SCORM-based approach is that it is very time-consuming for the teacher: the preparation of these SCORM-compatible SCOs takes longer than the traditional lecture/tutorial preparations, and fixing the technical issues regarding the incorrect grade feedback added an additional hassle. As a consequence, I am now preparing a set of "good practise" recommendations on how to best use SCORM in this context of XSTREAM.

Also, I will present this work at the CAL 2011 conference in Manchester, April 13-15.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Windows Phone HTC HD 7 - First Impression

Two weeks ago, right after the arrival at Manchester Airport and while waiting in the baggage claim area, my mobile phone stopped working: the touch screen was no longer operable. I noticed one spec on the screen at one location, as if the layers of the touch screen surface have collapsed at that point. While the screen still showed data and the buttons of the phone worked fine, the touch screen no longer responded to any touch.

Fortunately a few days later my contract allowed me to get a free upgrade. Which phone should I get? I am already using an Apple iPhone for project-related work, so I would look for other alternatives. Android looked good, but in order to get the HTC Desire HD I would have to switch to Three, and I would prefer to remain with O2. O2 only offers the lower-end version HTC Desire as an Android phone. Since around 1998 I had quite good experiences with Windows CE devices: first the PDAs, then PDA phones. I liked the backward compatibility and the ability to edit Word and Excel docs on the mobile device, so also my most recent phone had been a Windows Mobile (6.1). Since October the new Windows Mobile Phone 7 devices were out - breaking completely the backward compatibility and actually offering less functionality (I wonder why it is so hard to implement copy/cut-and-paste; Apple had the same initial problem). There is still one phone out there with Windows Mobile 6.5.3, which still offered the old well-proven functions, such as synchronising with Outlook (even without Exchange) and backward compatibility, so I could run some of the software that I still was using (for example CodeWallet was a very nice utility for storing passwords; they are working on an iPhone app). But then I got lured by the latest Windows Phone: the HTC HD7.

The upgrade was free, and so I got my phone on last Friday. And here are some first experiences:

The overall look of the interface is very slick. Nice fonts, although the overall stylishness and coolness sometimes leads to text being shown too large and going beyond the screen.

There appear not many customisable settings, especially in comparison with the iPhone. There is only one main screen with those tiles (which can be arranged and configured), then there is one other screen which sorts all "application" icons in an alphabetical column. I have not yet found out if one can actually define more screens, which I would prefer.

Similar to the Apple Appstore one can also here directly download apps. The selection appears much smaller than for the iPhone; also the prices for many apps are somewhat high; but there are also free apps. These apps appear somewhat of a lesser quality as the ones for the iPhone: for example the Twitter app for Windows Mobile does only support one account, whereas the same app for iPhone supports multiple accounts - although both apps come directly from Twitter. Similarly the Facebook app, which works fine, but seems to have only few configurable options on the Windows Phone side. It also shows less information on Windows Phone, for example you cannot even see which people are behind a "like".

In some other cases there is stylishness over function: for example on the "people" tile, the faces of contacts pop up in a random manner. While this looks interesting, it has no meaning at all, as these face popups appear only to be random. It would have been great if these would be linked to actual activity online, for example when a contact post something on Facebook, or when an email arrives. But the faces fade in and out even when there is no network; when I see those faces and then check for the actual activity of that person, there is no correlation whatsoever to the tile display and the actual activity.

One positive thing: all contacts are now accessible under one tile, providing one access point for contacts from Outlook (Exchange), Facebook, and all other email accounts. This is really useful.

On the other hand, there is no common joint inbox, as it is on the iPhone: instead each email account has its own tile on the main screen.

One big advantage of the old Windows Mobile phones had been the capability of synchronising data and files with a PC, although the synchronisation suffered from terrible programming of ActiveSync, which often resulted in duplicate items and updating of the wrong file. The new Windows Phone has replaced this by using the Zune software. First one has to download a 120 MB big file for the Zune installation, then one has to wait for another 30 minutes until all the updates for this have been downloaded and installed, then Zune is ready. Supposedly the synchronisation of the Windows Phone with the PC would work from there. But I had connected the phone per USB to the computer already before I installed the software, assuming (hoping) that there would be some kind of self-installing driver there, as it is with many USB devices. Unfortunately that was a wrong hope - the device did not install itself, and when I tried then to use Zune for installing the drivers, the phone did not show up there in the "device" settings. That had worked better with the iPhone on the Apple Mac... no surprise about this.

So it appears to be a big problem that I had connected the phone to the PC before I had installed Zune... fortunately I found the solution in a forum, and I was finally able to have the HD7 installed as a "portable device". But then it did still did not show up in Zune... until I realised that I had to click an "ok" somewhere in order to move on. Strange GUI...

Unfortunately this Zune software only synchronises media files, but no other files such as Excel, Word etc. There is some mention on synchronising "One Note" files, but I will have to explore this further.

The camera takes excellent sharp pictures, and the 4.3" display (800x480) is very nice: bright and crisp.

Overall the experience with this phone so far is mixed. I still am looking for a proper way of getting the synchronisation going. On the website, it says I can sync notes from my phone by tapping on "Office>All>Sync". But that does not exist... instead there is mention of a "Sharepoint", which I found out costs something... so it looks pretty bad, and I may not be able to get my car petrol statistics or the list of all my flights (all in Excel files) over to this mobile phone, which really is a pity.

A year ago Microsoft had about 7% market share of smart phones. This has now dropped to 3%... and if they do not soon provide an update to their new Windows Phone OS with all the features one would expect (cut-and-paste, synchronisation of Office files with PC), then soon there will be the well deserved end of their attempts in the mobile market. Windows Phone does have potential - the look-and-feel is good, but it needs more substance.