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Date: Friday, 19 Sep 2014 11:21

Very definitely consider this as just a Friday link of interest, but.... You can trust Andrew Orlowski to be controversial. Informed, but controversial. In this case, with the arrival of the iPhone 6 and typical Apple profit margins, he takes a sideways look at the economics of the smartphone industry and ends up concluding that Android is doomed in the mid and high tiers. Symbian is mentioned in passing, though there's no mention of Windows Phone, so I add that myself....(!)

From Andrew's piece:

Today's long overdue updates to Apple's iPhone line, which had been moribund for years, are going to squeeze some rival manufacturers to death. New iPhones at last means that Android, Google's smartphone middleware, will soon look attractive only for budget vendors selling into fast-growing emerging markets.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this. Why should you continue to make something at all if you lose money doing so?

The answer some big names will shortly come to is: "Sorry, we can't - we're bailing out." Because it's all about margins.

Back in 2008, Google made the consumer electronics industry an offer it couldn't refuse. We'll give you a operating-system platform that lets you make an almost-as-good-as-an-iPhone, so you can make profit margins almost-as-good-as-Apple's. Android was modern and it was "free", and manufacturers could tailor it. Neither Microsoft nor Symbian could compete, while RIM/BlackBerry milked its ancient platform for too long, until it too dropped out of contention.

He goes on to, slightly prematurely perhaps, predict the commoditised demise of the Android smartphone world, but it's a thought-provoking read.

Of course, the three companies concerned, Google (Android), Apple (iOS) and Microsoft (Windows), all have two things in common:

  • they're looking not just to immediate smartphone share/profit/acceptance, but to success in a wider ecosystem involving tablets and laptops too
  • they have deep, deep pockets and are unlikely to run out of cash anytime soon, meaning that smartphones and smartphone OSes can be something of a loss leader if needed

As a result, none of the three mobile operating systems (per se) are in imminent danger, though Andrew does make some good points about individual manufacturers. It really is tough to make money at the middle and high end of the market unless your name is Apple, which plays to very high end, luxury, high profit margin business.

Which all makes it especially interesting that Microsoft bought Nokia's Devices and Services business - yes, the best-selling Lumias were at the low end, but there were certainly high end models like the 1520, 1020 and even the new 930 which would have been tough to rely on for mass market profit, so an independent Nokia would have had to make some tough decisions about device line-up going forwards.

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Date: Monday, 15 Sep 2014 07:50

Reader Martin Roth has put up a neat little video showing what happened when his 2012 Nokia 808 PureView met the new Sony Xperia Z3 at IFA 2014.... Suffice it to say that Sony's made improvements - but the Z3's camera is still some way off matching the 808. See below....

Nicely done, and fair, too. You can see more of Martin's 808 work here, by the way.

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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 09:18

Trailed here at the start of the year, David Wood's huge 800 page book on the rise and fall of Symbian and the transition of its licensees to other platforms, against a background of massive change in the smartphone industry, has now been published, in electronic form. I've only skimmed through it so far, it'll take weeks to get through properly, but there's such detail that everyone will find plenty of interest. Symbian old-timers and enthusiasts, especially those with a development background, will gobble up the mass of detail about how the OS got started and how it evolved. While newcomers will pounce on the last part of the book and the background and reaction to February 11th 2011 (and Nokia's adoption of Windows Phone). 

Book coverFrom my earlier trailer:

David Wood is something of a legend in the Symbian world, having been one of the architects of Symbian's predecessors, Psion's SIBO and then EPOC/32 operating systems, and then being intimately involved with the OS throughout the 2000s. If anyone was going to 'write the book' on Symbian then David's the man. 

...Peppered with quotes, press release extracts, internal meeting slides, and so on, 'Smartphones and Beyond' isn't a light read, but for anyone who's genuinely interested in what went right and what went wrong inside this industry, David's book is well worth looking out for...

The book is now out in electronic form, at least, for the Kindle, here on the UK site and International (US) site

Some extracts, to get you hooked:

On the subject of first getting going with Nokia and launching Symbian:

My first visit to Finland to meet Nokia coincided with a period of particularly cold weather. It was the evening of Monday 27th January, 1997. Along with Juha Christensen and Mark Gretton, I flew to Helsinki, where Juha had a hired car waiting for a two hour drive north to Tampere. Juha and Mark had suffered an uncomfortable flight from Helsinki to Tampere a few weeks earlier, on account of buffeting from turbulent weather, and preferred on this occasion to drive. When we finally arrived in Tampere, it was well after midnight. As we briefly walked outside, my face burned with the bitter frost of the night-time air. The temperature shock was a visceral reminder that I was in a very different environment from the one I had experienced in my nine previous years in software development at Psion.

During the car journey, Juha’s mobile phone had rung. It was a call from one of his industry acquaintances. The caller asked Juha, knowingly, “So, what are you doing in Finland? I wonder who you’re meeting there, eh?” Apparently he had called Juha earlier, and he had received a message from the network telling him the call could not be completed. The network message had made it clear that it was a Finnish mobile network. Woops.

This question caused us some consternation. Our trip to Finland was meant to be ultra-secret. I even wrote into my Psion Agenda, “Trip to Egypt”, making a play on the fact that we used the word “Nile” as the codename for Nokia. No one should know that we were talking to Nokia.

Things were very different, seventeen months later, on 24th June 1998. On that day, Pekka Ala-Pietilä, President of Nokia Mobile Phones, stood on a stage in central London alongside David Potter and Colly Myers of Psion, to convey Nokia’s public support for Psion’s EPOC software. 

On the subject of reaction to Apple's iPhone in 2007:

What was less obvious, however, was that Apple was capable of learning a great deal from its experience with Rokr. It’s a mistake to conclude, just because a company has failed to achieve its market targets with v1 of a project, that it will inevitably fail in the same way with v2 and later releases. After all, Symbian had walked the same path: initial releases of Symbian OS were late and had reduced functionality, but the company put in place learnings from these experiences, and eventually built a very powerful software creation engine. In the same way, Apple converted its disappointments with Rokr into insight that helped it make such a success with the iPhone.

Second, the Symbian world underestimated the extent to which:

  • Third party telephony modules were now available, that could be integrated reasonably straightforwardly into new smartphones
  • Users would accept second-rate telephony experience (with e.g. a greater proportion of dropped calls, or poorer quality voice audio), on account of better experience with other aspects of the device
  • Voice calls had diminishing significance, overall, compared with the greater significance for users of messaging, video, and browsing
  • Consumers would adopt the unexpected usage model of carrying both a smartphone and a “dumb phone”, with the latter (often a lower spec Nokia phone) being used for voice calls.

Further, Symbian was wrong to group Apple together with companies like Dell and Acer that were primarily manufacturers of computers; Apple was not only a manufacturer, but also the creator of a rich operating system (Mac OS). Critically, Apple had the ability to create a version of their desktop software (Mac OS) which could be used in smartphones (iOS).

[There's more, including a dramatic comparative encounter with one of Symbian's founders now fallen in love with the iPhone and its specced up Safari web browser.]

On the subject of February 11th and the Nokia strategy change:

Nokia’s announcements of February 11th, 2011, were the subject of avid attention within a group of Accenture Mobility personnel. A small number of us, including several ex-Symbian employees, had gathered for the day in Accenture’s Cambridge office on the Business Park, off Milton Road, to watch a live webcast of the announcements.

We did not yet know it, but the date of “February 11th” would come to be regarded as the blackest day in the history of Symbian – analogous (though in a much smaller setting) to the pivotal transformation in American public consciousness inflicted by the dreadful horrors of aircraft terrorism on September 11th, 2001.

However, Nokia boldly believed they could duck this dismal tide of failed relationships. They had a much closer hotline into Microsoft. And, it seemed, they had the special benefits of a new mobile platform from Microsoft – one which had learned from all its Redmond precursors.

However, even a cursory examination reveals a set of important ways in which Windows Phone 7 was uncompetitive as compared to Symbian, for deployment in mainstream smartphones:

  • There was limited support for languages such as Chinese
  • Options for “operator customisation” were few and far between
  • Hardware requirements were higher, implying more expensive devices.

If MeeGo was “not ready for prime-time use”, nor was Windows Phone. If Symbian needed lots of repair work, so did Windows Phone. Nokia’s judgement was that the required enhancements would come quickly enough to Windows Phone. That judgement turned out to be naïve. Not for the first –or last – time, a company underestimated the amount of effort required to improve a major smartphone platform.

Terrific stuff.

And yes, I'm quoted a few times in the text. Ahem. David, your cheque is in the post....(!)

You can buy Smartphones and Beyond here at Amazon. There's also David's mini-site about the book here, with extra extracts and full table of contents.

PS. The also prolific Andrew Orlowski has penned a lengthy review of the above book - also good reading, if only as an overview!

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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 07:45

In fact, the full name of this handy gadget is the 'Pocketool Universal USB Mobile Phone Charging Cable', but this is in fact underselling it considerably, because it's not just for charging. The Pocketool also works fine for data/sync on every platform I tried it on - so all the wires are joined internally, not just the charging pins. Proporta might want to expand the description and title! Aimed at families in particular, the Pocketool has earned its way into my daily pocket widget collection.

The use case for the Pocketool is quite clear - as a dad (or mum) with kids, there will be a spread of devices around the family, from microUSB-equipped Windows Phones, Symbian and Android devices, 40-pin-equipped 'old' iPhones and iPads, plus newer Lightning-connector iPhones and iPads.

The one constant is that you'll have mains USB outlets in your home (most devices come with one these days) and 12V USB outlets in most cars these days. Plus any number of portable or emergency chargers from a myriad of companies (including Proporta's own Turbochargers, of course). The usual solution is to have a multitude of USB sync/charge cables, or to have one and then some fiddly (and easy to lose) adapters that fit over the business end. The Pocketool provides a 'solid' alternative, taking power (and data) from USB and dishing it out to any of its three flexible 'ends'.

The Pocketool is styled after a traditional Swiss Army Knife and looks the part, with one notable caveat:

Pocketool

The caveat is that this is a wholly plastic design - it's incredibly light. Part of me wishes that the 'Swiss Army' styling had extended to a metal chassis, but then the gadget would have been a lot heavier - and pricier. At less than £10, it has to be plastic.

Plus this trendy new flexible conduit material (first seen by me here in the ChargeKey) for the wired elements, that fold out like the blades of a knife:

Pocketool

What you see is very much what you get. USB to any of three outlets. Here's the Pocketool charging my Lumia 1020 from a Turbocharger 7000:

Pocketool

Note the little blue LED on the top/side of the Pocketool - this lights up whenever there's charging going on - it's a neat touch and something you don't get in a dumb cable:

Pocketool

The surprise for me, as hinted above, is that this isn't just a bare bones charging solution - I successfully used it to sync Symbian, Android and Windows Phones from Mac and PC to the mobiles, i.e. all the data pins and wires are hooked up properly too, inside the little flexible joints.

Yes, the Proporta Pocketool is plastic, but it's also very light and extremely worthy of a place in the pocket - and won't break the bank at under £10 either.

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Date: Monday, 25 Aug 2014 06:25

As part of a continuing series of features taking a good long look at the state of mobile, and aiming to be as brutally honest as possible, here I use my experience in the mobile industry to tackle the really tough 'what if' questions that have probably been in your brain for the last three or four years, as 'All About' readers. Hopefully my answers will provoke debate in Disqus below, too - why not get involved?

Elop on stage at an evening 'clarification' in 2011 trying to answer the blogosphere's questions

Elop on stage in a follow-on evening event at MWC 2011, explaining in more detail some of Nokia's strategy and answering some of the criticisms of the original keynote statements...

Understandably, a lot of the 'what if?' discussion will revolve around a single date in history, the (infamous?) February 2011 public turnaround of Nokia's Stephen Elop on stage with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, announcing Windows Phone as the way forward with Meego being cancelled and Symbian being wound down. The other date/news/link you perhaps need is the sale of Nokia's Devices division to Microsoft a couple of years later.

Right, on with the questions. And if you want to have your say, please see below. Also, please note that all opinions below are mine (Steve's) and don't necessarily reflect the views of other current or past contributors to AAS and AAWP.

________________________

What if Nokia had kept on with Symbian and Meego in 2011?

At the start of 2011, Nokia was on something of a roll, actually. The new Symbian^3 range of handsets, the N8, C7, E7 and C6-01 were all selling quite well, having been out for a few months. These were the first Symbian phones (from Nokia) with capacitive touchscreens and the user experience was a lot closer to what buyers were expecting after three or so years of Apple iPhone and then Android handsets. Could Nokia have succeeded by sticking with Symbian for the midrange and using its new next-gen Meego OS for top end devices?

Possibly. There were problems though, which even the most ardent Symbian and Meego fans will acknowledge.

Symbian logo

One of the graphics from days of Symbian's ill-fated move to open source - and then back again, wasting time and man power...

Firstly, Symbian's codebase, massively overhauled from the original non-touch S60 devices over the years and massively delayed by the whole 'take Symbian open source' fiasco, was a right mess. The OS itself was designed back in the days of GPRS and dial-up modems and almost everything had to be retrofitted over the next decade. The iPhone (and iOS) had been improving rapidly from its 'smartest feature phone' opening in 2007, and the hardware and components used in the iPhone and Android worlds were starting to get close to Nokia's prowess.

Competition was fierce and Symbian's legacy architecture was holding it back (plus the above mentioned delays). 2011 was the point, arguably, where Android and iOS started to match Symbian from a technical (OS) point of view. Yes, Symbian development could be continued, but there had already been so many false starts and unproductive blind alleys (Symbian Carla and Donna, anyone?) that the competition was sure to overtake in fairly short order.

Secondly, Nokia's Symbian development teams had become too large (thousands), too complex and fragmented - matching the OS itself, in a way. A fresh start was surely needed. Which brings me to...

Thirdly, Meego, a joint project with Intel, was progressing as a modern cloud-centric, swipe-driven, graphical OS, but was too immature to take on iOS and Android. Having used the Nokia N9 at length, I'd say that it was at least a year behind where it needed to be. [Of course, Windows Phone was no further along, but that had the integral backing of the mighty Microsoft rather than Meego's part time patronage from an ailing Nokia.]

Nokia N9

The radically styled Nokia N9 running Meego - the hardware got re-used for the Lumia 800, the swipe-based interface has been copied time and again by the likes of Blackberry OS 10, Jolla and even sometimes Android.... The N9 was somewhat stillborn and never really promoted. It needed to have been faster and higher resolution and more mature.

Cancelling Meego seemed harsh to fans of the OS, but it was too little, too late in the wider context. Nokia's mistake was not to wind Symbian up - that this had to happen at some point was obvious to all - but in announcing it so dramatically to the world before a successor was ready.

I've said many times privately that if I'd been a writer on Nokia's PR staff back in February 2011, I could have saved the company billions in stock value. All Elop had to say, on stage to the world, was "Windows Phone is the future, with Microsoft, but we're continuing with our new Symbian handsets until Windows Phone is ready".

As it is, there was a massive fall in sales of the fledgling Symbian^3 handsets through 2011, as networks understandably lost confidence in Nokia's commitment to the Symbian^3 handsets and stopped ordering, recommending and selling them. And a corresponding abandonment of Symbian as a viable platform/ecosystem, by developers and service providers, resulting in a situation by 2013 where compatibility with popular Internet-hosted services was already starting to drop away. Yes, we had Symbian Anna and Symbian Belle, but these were little more than UI polish at the end of the day.

Rafe's often said that Elop had to make the point about the switch dramatically and forcibly, in order to convince Microsoft that Nokia was serious about the new platform, but I'm not convinced. Elop was ex-Microsoft and had tight ties into his old company - there was no need to play public politics when his old friend Steve Ballmer was only a handshake away, on stage with him.

In short though, if Nokia had kept on with Symbian and Meego in 2011, it would ultimately have been doomed. The end of Symbian and Meego would have taken place later (maybe up to a couple of years at most), but the end was in sight. It's just the way it all panned out that rankles, both for Symbian/Meego fans and for (as it turned out, in the end) Nokia employees.

Elop and Ballmer

Was Stephen Elop a 'trojan horse' from Microsoft?

Ah yes, talking of Elop, above.... In a sense, of course he was (a trojan horse). Not explicitly, of course, but when Nokia's board hired Elop they knew full well that he was bringing close ties to Microsoft management with him, and the promise of hooking into Microsoft's fledgling new smartphone OS, backed by enormous financial reserves. Elop himself would always have had, in the back of his mind, the knowledge that exciting things were happening back in Redmond, and that if he didn't think Nokia's OSes were cutting it then he might be able to engineer a change. So, when Elop bounded up on stage at the end of Nokia World 2010, I was apprehensive, to say the least, speaking as a writer and editor for a Symbian-centric web site - what on earth was about to happen?

As it turned out, leaving aside the large and arguably unnecessary sales shortfall mentioned above, the change to Windows Phone went relatively quickly and smoothly, the production of the Lumia 800 just over six months later was impressive - even if the hardware did borrow hugely from the Meego-powered Nokia N9.

Has Windows Phone been a sales disaster all round?

Not really, I'd argue that it's a newer OS (2010) than iOS (2007) and Android (2008) and hasn't yet reached the peak of its potential (though with the availability of Windows Phone 8.1 and Lumia Cyan it just got a lot closer - we're now approaching the 'put up or shut up' phase for the OS). Moreover the smartphone market has been growing massively, largely on the strength of cheap Android handsets, the vast majority of which have little merit as works of engineering. Despite past examples like VHS vs Betamax video, quality should win out in the end, which is partly why Apple's iPhone sales have remained relatively stable despite the cheap Android onslaught.

Windows Phones have been selling at just less than 10 million per quarter, worldwide, but I fully expect this figure to be 15 million in Q3 and more in Q4, 2014. I know I'm biased, writing for AAWP, but in terms of numbers, the best of Windows Phone is still to come.

Would Microsoft have made such good progress with Windows Phone without Nokia's input?

No. Microsoft is large and slow - this has always been its way in other areas. Witness the slow growth and stagnation of Windows Mobile pre-2007. Windows Phone was a complete rewrite and had promise, but it took Nokia's hardware engineering prowess to create products based on Microsoft's OS that people actually wanted to buy. Through design, build quality, top components (screens, cameras, speakers).

In addition, Nokia's engineers (all used to what Symbian and Meego were capable of) had been pushing Microsoft very hard to try and get the rudiments of Windows Phone up to the level where they could say, hand on heart, that the new Lumias were an improvement on what had gone before. I firmly believe that Nokia's involvement with Windows Phone accelerated the OS to the point where it's now seen as 'a little late but catching up', as opposed to 'so late to the the smartphone party that it's irrelevant'. Niceties like Nokia Glance screen, all the imaging innovations and processing (seen in the existence of the Lumia 1020 below and its PureView successors), the HERE sat-nav suite, plus a lot more under the hood, have meant that Windows Phone is at least on the same lap as its competitors and, arguably, about to start catching up, in terms of sales and general ecosystem.

Lumia 1020 camera

What if Nokia had adopted Android as the way forward in 2011?

This question has been debated a lot over the last few years - somewhat fruitlessly, but it's still worth a mention here. On the positive side, it would have been quicker to develop Android handsets, since the OS was more mature, Android would have appealed more to Symbian users since there are a lot of similarities in terms of flexibility and multitasking, and - of course - Android was something of a sure success story. It's always good to back a winning horse.

On the negative side, Nokia was worried about Samsung and Chinese manufacturers swooping in to steal its lunch in the low and mid-range*. Would Nokia have stood out? I'm sure sales in the short term (2011-2015) would have been better, but as a decade-long strategy it seemed flawed. Elop's leaning was naturally towards his alma mater and the idea was that Windows Phone could be a long term (2015-2020) success story, tied into (the then upcoming) Windows 8 and Windows 9, into tablet ambitions and Xbox in the living room. Microsoft, it seemed, had the vision, the money to back it up, and Elop had all the right contacts to make the transition - and, eventually - the sale work. 

* We're only now just starting to see cheap Far East Windows Phones appear, by the way...

_______________________

The above notwithstanding, I do have a number of personal sadnesses - I'd have loved to have seen Nokia pour another year's worth of OS development behind Symbian to produce an 808 successor, with larger (4.5") and higher resolution qHD screen. I'd have loved to have seen what high end Nokia hardware running Android 4.x would look like. I'd have loved to have seen where Meego could have gone (again, larger screen, more horsepower).

Then there are the sadnesses of the Nokia layoffs and the sale of (most of) a once proud Finnish company. We're in a new era though, where everything happens at breakneck speed, yesterday's tech is old hat and sales of smartphones are measured in the billions. It's OK to look back and analyse (as here) with hindsight, but it's also time to look ahead - and as far as possible. 

Watch this space.

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Date: Wednesday, 20 Aug 2014 08:07

Emergency chargers have been getting both bigger and smaller in recent years, to cover every possible use case - but the bKey pushes the envelope again, with a tiny capacity in a tiny body - so small that it can fit on your keyring, in fact. OK, it's a fair cop, bKey is still a Kickstarter project, but it's already met its funding goal, so it's a safe bet for the end of the year.

bKey charger

The problem with most battery chargers is that they're a) bulky and b) need you to carry around a cable - and the bKey solves these, for true battery 'get me home' emergencies by being no bigger than a normal house key and also plugging into your smartphone directly. [True, the credit card-sized Pocket Power also matches these, but the use case is different, living in a wallet.]

bKey is 75mm in length and 6.55mm thick, it's claimed to be good for an additional 30 minutes of charging for your smartphone with an internal 230 mAh custom Li-Ion battery and can hold its charge for around 30 days, with 500+ battery cycles.

Here's the promo video: 

The Kickstarter campaign has already gone beyond the target of $25,000 with 17 days to go for people to back the project (starting at 20 Canadian dollars) and claim one of the first units produced. The target is to be able to package and ship the bKey by the end of this year.

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Date: Friday, 15 Aug 2014 09:31

Whatsapp, despite being a pretty core Symbian application for many people, hasn't been (consistently) in the Nokia Store for many months, so the freezing of the latter didn't cause it to skip a beat. For complicated reasons (my SIM keeps switching devices, essentially), I can't really use Whatsapp at all, but I did get notified by Vedhas Patkar about a new version, v2.11.600, detailed below.

Vedhas writes:

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I got a notification regarding a Whatsapp update earlier this week on my phone. This is the second (or maybe the third) update that Whatsapp for Symbian has received after Nokia announced that they won't be accepting any updates for Symbian apps in the Store. 

This new update brings with it the ability to archive chats, along with the usual bug-fixes that accompany every update. I am must admit that I am not aware about the exact changelogs, but who doesn't like an app update? 

ScreenScreen

The new version of the app can be downloaded from the official Whatsapp website, as will future versions, of course.

The supported Symbian UIs/platforms are the usual S60 3rd edition, S60 5th edition and Symbian^3, Anna and Belle.

I wonder which other Symbian applications you consider 'core' to your day to day life that should perhaps be kept updated outside the frozen Nokia Store and which perhaps aren't? Worth you dropping the developer a line and letting them know that a) you're still keen for updates, and b) the likes of AAS is still keen to give them publicity for such efforts?

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Date: Thursday, 14 Aug 2014 16:30

A change that may affect both AAS and AAWP readers still using software from Nokia Beta Labs - Microsoft has announced that this public beta system is moving home and is going to be taking up residence in the uservoice.com domain. Moreover, the old site, along with some older content, will be removed in less than a month, specifically on September 5th, so if there's a particular application download or link you wanted to archive then now's the time.

According to an official email coming from the old Beta Labs team:

Dear Nokia Beta Labs community members,

We’ve come a long way since our humble beginnings in 2007, in large part due to your enthusiasm and eager participation in our beta trials. Thank you for that! Now, please join us in preparing for the next chapter.

Beginning this month we will start hosting all new beta trials for Lumia apps at a new site, based on services provided by UserVoice. You can preview that site at http://lumiabetaapps.uservoice.com

That site will be the new home for beta trials for Lumia apps. There you will find info about ongoing trials, instructions to install beta apps, and notes about app features and known issues. And for each beta app there is a feedback forum where you can give feedback about the apps, vote on others’ feedback, and interact with the teams developing the apps...

...The Nokia Beta Labs site that is now available at http://betalabs.nokia.comwill be discontinued on September 5, 2014, and all links to thebetalabs.nokia.com domain will redirect to the new site. All content hosted at the Nokia Beta Labs site will no longer be available after the site is discontinued. However, many of the trials ongoing now at Nokia Beta Labs will continue at the new site and you will be able to continue giving feedback and interacting there. For example:

UserVoice

I suspect that the changes won't have much practical impact to AAS or AAWP readers:

  • AAS - users will already have installed or archived everything they might need from Beta Labs (and let's face it, nothing new for Symbian has arisen from Nokia for years), any existing content on the site is essentially hidden or accessible via Google now(!)
  • AAWP - users now have a pretty stable application set, with the ongoing release of Lumia Cyan and applications to match from Nokia for Windows Phone 8.1.

The uservoice.com domain has been used in the past (as the name suggests) for Microsoft to get feedback on applications which are being prototyped or developed actively, so the overall function of a 'Beta Labs' type setup remains.

Comments welcome - will this inconvenience you in any way?

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Date: Wednesday, 13 Aug 2014 07:24

File this under 'tech for the near future' and not of direct interest for current hardware, but I was interested to note that the USB Promoter Group has announced that it has finalized the design of the USB Type-C plug, a new type of (micro)USB plug that's designed to completely replace all current USB connectors. Think an Apple Lightning connector for the iPhone 5 and new iPads, the idea is the same - no more thinking or observation needed when plugging in - the connector will work 'either way up'. Type-C looks like being a winner, though a) a wide array of physical adapters will be needed in the transition period from current connectors and b) was there really no way to work with Apple or license Lightning technology so that we could finally have one standard?

USB Type-C cable and connectors

From the ArsTechnica write-up of the original PDF 'release':

According to the USB-IF's press release (PDF), the new connector is "similar in size" to current micro USB 2.0 Type-B connectors... It is designed to be "robust enough for laptops and tablets" and "slim enough for mobile phones." The openings for the connector measure roughly 8.4mm by 2.6mm.

As we've reported previously, cables and adapters for connecting Type-C devices into older Type-A and Type-B ports will be readily available—the prevalence of these older ports will make any industry-wide shift to USB Type-C an arduous, years-long process.

The new Type-C plug will be compatible with USB 3.1, a revised version of the spec that boosts theoretical transfer speeds from the 5Gbps of USB 3.0 to 10Gbps and that supports delivery of up to 100W of power using the USB Power Delivery spec...

...Finally, the USB Type-C connector has been designed to scale with the USB spec as it gets faster, so as we move beyond USB 3.1 it should be possible to make future cables physically compatible with one another, avoiding ugly solutions like the micro USB 3.0 Type-B connector.

Indeed. USB 3 (Type-B) was a monstrosity (only seen in the phone world on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Note 3 so far, thankfully) and from all accounts it seems that manufacturers are skipping Type-B completely, as a bad job, and moving straight to Type-C - we should start to see hardware with Type-C ports within a year, though as ArsTechnica notes, the 'shift' across the whole industry, and in peoples' homes and offices, will take many years, we're talking 2020 at least. 

PS. Presumably Apple was consulted before Type-C was envisioned and presumably there was either no agreement on licensing or the Apple system was considered too proprietary to be implemented by other manufacturers. Shame.

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Date: Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 08:18

You've got to love market research - at least, it beats guessing everything from personal experience(!) In this case, the folks at Kantar World Panel, asking new smartphone buyers about their experience and what they wanted from a device. Now, take a lot of the Apple/Samsung/Nokia data with a pinch of salt, because the study was in the USA, with its completely skewed heavy-contract-centric nature, but the general 'wants' and 'desires' of the public should be more generally applicable. Below, I reproduce the two main charts of interest from the PDF report.

You can download the PDF report yourself here. Here's what people look for (apparently) in terms of functionality in a smartphone:

Functionality

The biggest surprise is the preference expressed for 4G/LTE. Possibly reflecting the exact markets that the Kantar team did its research (in rural UK, for example, 4G wouldn't even be considered!) It's good to see the focus on the big four though - reliability, imaging, battery life and screen clarity and quality, all aspects most of us also prize. Even over processor speed, something which is rightly relegated here, since performance in most current smartphones is OS/UI-limited/dependent. 

The relatively poor showing for 'storage capacity' reflects the continuing trend towards streaming (rather than stored) media, though again I suspect that this would have been placed higher if the interviewees had been in a less connected area of the country.

In a companion chart, here's what people look for in terms of a smartphone's design (i.e. cosmetics, form):

Design

No surprise over the main factor - screen size dictates overall device size and is a very subjective/personal decision, of course. A bigger surprise, at least in this USA-centric survey, was that color (sic) was considered relatively unimportant. Interesting, given Nokia's focus on introducing wacky colours to its latter day Symbian devices and then Windows Phones. I'd agree, colour is perhaps least important to me too - I've learned to live with the bright yellow of my Lumia 1020 and white Nokia 808, but in each case they were simply colours I'd 'ended up with'!

Comments? Do you wildly disagree with any of Kantar's survey findings?

Author: "--"
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Date: Friday, 08 Aug 2014 15:33

A couple of weeks ago, the official Nokia Developer Blog announced some changes to its support for Series 40 and Nokia's ill-fated 'X' platform - but the eagle eyed people at Symbian Developers have put two and two together and have drawn a very likely conclusion for Symbian users too....

From the Symbian Developers article:

You might have heard that Nokia X and Nokia Asha basically got killed off by Microsoft recently, or were put in “maintenance mode”, if you want to use the correct term. The plan is to replace these kind of devices with low-cost Windows Phone-devices instead. Sadly, this also means that Nokia Store will get affected. The Nokia Developer Team recently announced that developers can still publish new content for Nokia X and Nokia Asha devices, but that it will come to an end after March 31, 2015.

It was also announced that content in Nokia Store no longer will be available to download after the end of 2015. Although only Nokia X and Nokia Asha was mentioned, Symbian-devices will also get affected, as they all share the same store for apps, games and themes.

Nokia X and Nokia Asha is the reason why Nokia Store kept running for so long, and without them, the store most likely would have closed earlier. It’s sad to know that all content might disappear after 2015, but at least it’s not happening in 2014.

I've said for a while that Symbian enthusiasts should make sure they're as independent as possible from what remains of the old Nokia - using custom firmware, using an alternative application store, using freeware downloads, and more. Of course, there's still some content that is 'locked' in the (frozen) Nokia Store, not least a few commercial applications that were never formally released outside the Store. Maybe some kind geek, in the comments, can explain the procedure for a keen Symbian fan to 'grab'/intercept the SISx file for an application that they have legally purchased?

Before the downloads cease altogether, that is!

Author: "--"
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Date: Friday, 08 Aug 2014 15:12

Back in February, I reported that Skype was being withdrawn from the Nokia Store 'for the last time', but that you could still sideload the Skype client and it would work 'for a while'. That 'while' seems to be drawing to a close, with some Skype users receiving the email quoted below. In summary, Skype for Symbian will stop working altogether 'within the next few weeks', however you managed to install it in the first place. Such service stoppages are perhaps expected, given the perilous state of 'Support' for the OS mid 2014.

Here's the email that was received from Skype support:

Skype apps for Symbian are permanently retiring

We've noticed that you are, or previously were, signed into Skype on a Symbian phone, and we're sorry to inform you that we are now permanently retiring all Skype apps for Symbian phones. As a result, within the next few weeks, you'll no longer be able to sign in and use Skype on any Symbian phone.

You can still stay in touch with friends and family using Skype on an Android device, Nokia Lumia phone or desktop computer. You can sign into them all using the same Skype account. The latest versions of Skype for all your devices are available at http://www.skype.com/download.

Hey, at least Skype didn't mention the iPhone!!

Any Symbian applications that access Internet-facing services should continue to expect the worst, of course, with zero support now from companies like Skype. While sad, given the installed base of older Symbian phones, in this case Skype was always a poor relation of the Android/iOS/WP versions, with no video calling support, so it's perhaps not a huge loss.

Still, another nail in the coffin for some people?

Skype in action

Author: "--"
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Date: Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 12:50

Look, I get it, there are plenty of Symbian enthusiasts here - I'm one of them. But every single time something breaks in terms of compatibility with a particular Internet service, we see the same comment from multiple people: "But Nokia promised us support until 2016!" That was indeed what was promised on stage at MWC 2011. But then you have to look at both what the word means and what's happened to the company itself since then. I'm not apologising for Nokia's multiple faux pas and for the current situation in 2014, but let's at least be realistic.

'Support until 2016'

First of all, what does a phone manufacturer mean by 'Support'? I'd venture, as a minimum:

  1. someone to pick up a phone when called, or respond in an online forum, to answer user questions
  2. hardware warranty, and repair facilities after that
  3. patches and fixes for OS and core application bugs and incompatibilities

Number 1 is still in place, at least, via Nokia Discussions, and number 2 is nominally still relevant, with a network of Care Points across the world, though the actual warranties will have run out now for just about every Symbian device, so we're only talking about repair facilities. However, in many cases, if spare parts are needed, they won't actually be available, since they're no longer made. It would be unrealistic to expect any company to keep a massive parts inventory for so many models years after their warranty ran out - but hey, you might still get lucky.

Number 3 is the controversial one, of course. The enthusiast's position is that bits are bits and bytes are bytes, and support was promised until 2016, so why can't this part, at least, be honoured?

Indeed. But honoured by whom? The original (massive) Symbian development teams at Nokia (and then Accenture) have been almost completely disbanded, the company itself officially abandoned all software development for the OS at some point in 2012, the application Store got frozen and the relevant part of Nokia itself was bought up, lock stock and barrel, by Microsoft over the last 12 months. So who exactly do users think is going to code such fixes and patches?

A good example is the recently discovered bug in QtWebKit, whereby changes on an OAuth web login screen were enough in Symbian Qt-based applications to crash the OS completely. It's a low level bug and probably fairly easy to fix - if there was anyone left with access to the code. And build tools. And update servers.

Elop and Ballmer strike an agreement

Symbian's death being signed and sealed. Elop has now moved jobs at least once and is back at Microsoft, where he started, now looking after Microsoft's device's division - otherwise known as er.... what was left of Nokia's handset division after the disastrous 2011/2013 period; Ballmer resigned this year - some point towards the Windows 8 fiasco as the main reason here. An infamous photograph?

When chatting to a Nokia staffer at the Lumia 1020 launch, I asked how morale was internally, what with Symbian being axed (a year before) etc. "Oh", the lady said, "Morale is great, anyone upset about the OS change left ages ago." Which is telling, really. Getting a patch or update out for any part of Symbian OS is now just about impossible, I'd say, there simply aren't any joined up resources left to accomplish such a thing.

Bit by bit, as the online world changes (APIs, OAuth, etc.), the greater the chance that more and more of Symbian's online 'hooks' will break. Some of these are down to the OS and can't be fixed anymore. Some are down to third party applications and may or may not be addressed, depending on the developer and whether they too have abandoned their Symbian developer toolchain/machine.

Status, mid-2014

Of course, all the standalone 'converged' functions that made Sumbian and its hardware great are still there and working as advertised - devices like the N8, 701 and 808 are still great phones - but in 2014 we live in a very different world and the chances are that most things you'll want to do involve the Internet to some degree. Even humble Gmail and Google PIM sync is now a pain unless you pay Nuevasync for the privilege.

In short, 'Support until 2016' was a laudable aim, but is only true in a rather tenuous fashion in 2014. And there's no one to shout at, since Microsoft won't be interested in the slightest. It's like buying a car from one manufacturer and then, two years after another company takes them over, complaining at the latter that the former had promised engine upgrades when you bought the vehicle. "Sorry, nothing to do with us, that was before our time" will come the reply.

What about custom firmware? Despite petitions for Nokia to release Symbian's last known source code, this never happened. Unsurprisingly, since a surprising amount of work is needed to clear 10 million lines of code for public release into a repository. Copyrighted modules, existing licenses, etc. It's a minefield. So CFW builders like the Delight team have to work from binaries, adding to the OS where they can, modding where they can, but ultimately just patching up an OS that's now fallen into disrepair. Still, it means that any Symbian enthusiasts can at least hobble along for the time being.

Update

Applying a post-flash update to Delight CFW on a Nokia 808 Symbian phone....

The future?

Perhaps the best approach for someone in love with their (e.g.) Nokia 808 or N8 is to think of the phone as a converged device circa 2008, i.e. telephony, superb photography, music playback and navigation, but only rudimentary online functions, and to use the Symbian device on conjunction with a small tablet powered by iOS or Android.

That approach has a lot of plus points, spoilt only by the patchy support for getting a tablet online using the Symbian device as a conduit, due to Wi-fi hotspot standards changing in recent years ('ad hoc' rather than 'infrastructure'). So you'd probably need at least a data SIM in the tablet, unless you'd be confident of external wi-fi when needed. There's no one easy answer.

What about moving away from Symbian? At least there's hardware in the mobile world that's roughly as capable and more modern. Samsung's Galaxy K Zoom is arguably a match for the Nokia 808 in a lot of ways and Android's flexibility and expansion mirror Symbian, while Nokia's Lumia 1020 is now dirt cheap (well under £300, SIM-free) and has the same 41MP sensor and oversampling, etc. And both options give you the Xenon flash. There IS life after Symbian, trust me. 

But please don't parrot the 'But Nokia promised us...' line anymore. Yes, you can be cross at Stephen Elop, at Microsoft, at Nokia's board, at Elop's predecessors, and all are to blame for Symbian's fall from grace. But, even if any of these were to hear your cries, there's almost nothing that can be done anymore. 

Sadly. Very sadly.

Delight fully in place!

Author: "--"
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Date: Tuesday, 29 Jul 2014 06:49

Another in Lumsing's excellent series of 'Power Banks', the 6000mAh model here is distinguished from its larger 10400mAh sister by being dramatically slimmer and almost all metal. As a result, the price-per-milliAmp-hour is higher, but I don't care - the 6000 is a "man's" charger - a veritable mobile power tool and yes, you can knock nails in with it. Probably.

Arriving in the same deluxe packaging as the 10400mAh version, the Lumsing 6000mAh Portable Power Bank feels like more of a premium product. Whereas the bigger, bulkier model had plastic styled to look like metal, here we actually have an aluminium shell that wraps around the body of the charger, the only exception being the status edge, which is shiny black plastic and has the 'on' check/power button and the traditional four status LEDs.

6000mAh Power Bank

On the top edge is microUSB input (i.e. for charging the Power Bank) and two standard USB outputs, one rated at 2.1A (for tablets) and one at 1A - though either work for most smartphones, of course, and both at 5V. A 0.5m elasticated microUSB cable is supplied in the box, though doubtless most users will already have their own favourite leads.

6000mAh Power Bank

Notably, there's no mains charger in the box - again, it's assumed that most people have multiple microUSB wall chargers (or similar) and, on the whole, I'm fine with this. Along with phone makers omitting headphones, this sort of reduction does have a practical impact on waste and duplication. Though the 1.5A input rating for the Power Bank does mean that you'll need a meaty charger if you want to recharge the accessory in the quoted 'not more than five hours'.

If five hours still sounds a long time, remember the capacity here. 6000mAh is well over twice what's in most 2014 smartphones. At any point the LEDs indicate what's going on - animating when filling the Power Bank and showing 25% increments when the button is pressed when static or discharging.

In terms of charging devices, this being the All About sites, the 6000mAh Power Bank recharged a Nokia 808 PureView from scratch and a Nokia Lumia 1020 from scratch, and had enough juice left over to take my big batteried Lumia 1520 from zero to over 60%. Which is quite impressive from an emergency charger that's itself no larger than a typical phone.

6000mAh Power Bank

There's no denying the 6000mAh Power Bank's style - the orange trim is a little quirky, but the mass of brushed black aluminium (there's also a silver version) is enough to firmly put the accessory in most people's 'want' lists. An emergency charger needs to look and feel like it's a mission critical tool and not an overblown child's toy - and this Power Bank most definitely feels, in the hand, like it belongs in a geek's toolkit.

Yes, the sheer value for money isn't quite as high as in its plastic predecessor, at £19 here in the UK, but it's still pretty darned excellent and I'd be particularly proud to take this from my pocket in any meeting or show in order to render assistance to a fellow smartphone owner in need.

Author: "--"
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Date: Friday, 25 Jul 2014 10:12

Sent in for review a couple of weeks ago was this new portable Bluetooth speaker, aimed at going with you on trips to provide quality music and podcasts. I was a little sceptical at the low price and plastic design, but in practice it connected to all my Symbian, Windows Phone and Android smartphones and sound quality was excellent. See below.

Essentially an artily sculpted plastic cube, with attractive 'EQ' style hole patterns on three sides to let the sound out, the Inateck BP1001B is very light and first impressions are that it'll be cheap and nasty - in fact, not so much.

Inateck Bluetooth speaker

The top is shiny plastic, presumably a design decision, though it does scratch and scuff far too easily. A matt finish here would have been a lot better. The only control buttons are on the back, in the shape of a rather clever volume toggle switch (i.e. nudge the setting up and down), which also presses in, doubling as play/pause for whatever media you're enjoying, plus it answers phone calls, handling them via the speaker itself and a built-in microphone. All very neat.

Inateck Bluetooth speaker

Also on the back are a standard microUSB port for charging (a cable is supplied) and an 'AUX' line-in, in case you want to hook this up via the (also supplied) 3.5mm cable rather than using the main Bluetooth system.

On the bottom are four effective rubber pads, to help stabilise the speaker and stop scratching on a shiny surface, plus a master on/off switch. The battery inside is 500mAh (despite being listed in the manual as '2000mAh', which should be enough for 'up to' 10 hours of listening (depending on volume used - I only got 5!)

Connecting up wirelessly is as easy as turning the Inateck unit on, whereupon a blue light flashes besides the charging port (the light doubles as a charging indicator) and the speaker could then be found by whichever phone I tested it with (in this case, the Nokia 808 PureView, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Nokia Lumia 1020, so running three different OS).

Rather charmingly, most operations (connections, power on, max volume reached, and more) were accompanied by R2D2-like bleeps and warbles. Considering the form factor, I did wonder about Inateck bringing out a Star Wars edition!

Power output is rated at '3Wx2', which is a little confusing - unless there are two speaker cones inside? Music playback was terrific, considering the £15 cost of the accessory - the BP1001B sounds as good as my £40 Sony Bluetooth speaker. Bass is present, despite the light, plastic build and treble is quite acceptable too. The manual quotes "90Hz-20kHz", which sounds about right, though ambitious on the high end. Moreover, volume was great - I had complaints from the other side of the house. And this from a speaker that's essentially a 6cm cube.

You can buy the Inateck BP1001B from Amazon here (or from your local Amazon online store for your country).

Author: "--"
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Date: Tuesday, 22 Jul 2014 12:55

The clue is probably in the generic term 'camera-centric', really. However much people in the tech world like their phone cameras, having just a little too much emphasis placed on imaging - enough to warrant a significant bump on the back - seems to be the death knell for a device long term. In part though, this is more down to the time needed for R&D, but the end result is (yet again) a device which seems destined to be sidelined a little....

A little history

We saw this in action for Nokia's N93 - the original 'transformer' Symbian phone that could look like a regular T9 clamshell or a consumer camcorder at will. It tested well amongst geeks and camera phone enthusiasts but made no mark whatsoever in the consumer marketplace of the time (2006). The best-selling N95 escaped the 'camera-centric' tag because it had so many other innovations, of course, the integrated GPS, the GPU, the high quality stereo speakers, and so on.

The we run forward to the Nokia N82, from 2007/2008, the first smartphone with a Xenon flash, very definitely a 'camera phone' first and foremost. And still a device with just about the brightest Xenon illumination in the world, even after 7 years. But, despite appearing in High Street shops, it didn't sell in huge numbers.

Repeat the process with the N86, the first High Street smartphone with an 8MP camera and still unique in having variable aperture, the first to use intelligent digital zoom when capturing video and to use a digital microphone. So many innovations, yet the N86 also failed to set the sales charts alight, this time in 2009.

Nokia N86 camera

Next in line, the aluminium-bodied N8, at the end of 2010, with 12MP and Xenon flash and a, for the time, huge sensor. Sales started off well, using the new GPU-accelerated Symbian^3 platform, but then Nokia's Stephen Elop (prematurely) shot Symbian down on stage at MWC 2011 as part of the demonstration of support for Microsoft and Windows Phone, and the N8 never recovered.

Finally, on the Symbian front, we had the all-conquering Nokia 808 PureView, the result of five years of R&D, learning lessons from all the devices above, offering what's still (by far) the largest camera sensor in any phone, with 41MP sensor into which users could 'zoom', digitally, without losing light or quality, and with hardware oversampling producing noiseless, pure images at lower resolution by default. Released in spring 2012, a full year after Symbian's execution, it's clear that the only reason this still made it to market was that so much work had already been done on the hardware and it would have been criminal to not at least shown it off to the world. At least, not without a Windows Phone version ready, something which was still a year away. As a result, in the world of 2012, with Symbian's 360p screens seeming blocky compared to WVGA and 720p and with Android really taking off at the high end, and with Symbian utterly frowned on within High Street shops, the Nokia 808 PureView remained something of a cult hit only.

Lumia 1020 and 808 PureView

If there's a common thread in all the above, it's the inescapable conclusion that it takes time to create a really good phone camera. The space, weight and power constraints place extreme pressures on designers and in each case, by the time the phone hit the market, the underlying hardware was nearing the end of its relevance in the wider smartphone world. For example, the N82 was a full year after the N95 which had essentially the same internals, the N86 was a device and form factor from a bygone age even when launched, the N8 was legendarily delayed by up to a year, the 808 was borne into a completely hostile future.

And the same pattern applies to the Nokia Lumia 1020, headlined above. With ostensibly almost identical specifications to the mass market Lumia 920, it lagged the latter by almost a year. So, when eventually available, the chipset and internals were already nearing end-of-life, in terms of use in new devices. Again, the delay was almost certainly down to getting the camera working satisfactorily - again 41MP, like the 808, but this time doing everything in the main processor and an extra GB of RAM. The 1020 was well received by camera phone enthusiasts, and remains a benchmark device, though its shot to shot times are looking a little prehistoric in a world of 2.5GHz processors and monster GPUs.

Specs and the future

What, then, does the future hold for the Lumia 1020? There's no doubting that it fared better, in terms of sales, than its Xenon-equipped, large-sensored 41MP ancestor, the Nokia 808, but with quite a few new software releases from Nokia/Microsoft explicitly saying that they're only for the Lumia 1520 and 930, worries are starting to creep in for 1020 fans.

Let's look at the hardware across the Nokia's (now Microsoft's) Windows Phone range:

Chipset Devices Specification
Snapdragon S4 Lumia 520, 521, 620, 720 Dual-core 1GHz Krait, Adreno 305, 512MB RAM
Snapdragon S4 Lumia 625 Dual-core 1.2GHz Krait 200, Adreno 305, LTE, 512MB RAM
Snapdragon 400 Lumia 630, 635 (etc) Quad-core 1.2 GHz Cortex-A7, Adreno 305, 512MB RAM
Snapdragon S4 Lumia 820, 920, 925, 928 Dual-core 1.5GHz Krait, Adreno 225, LTE, 1GB RAM
Snapdragon S4 Lumia 1020 Dual-core 1.5GHz Krait, Adreno 225, LTE, 2GB RAM
Snapdragon S4 Lumia 1320 Dual-core 1.7GHz Krait 300, Adreno 305, LTE, 1GB RAM
Snapdragon 800 Lumia 1520, 930 Quad-core 2.2GHz Krait 400, Adreno 330, LTE, 2GB RAM

The Lumia 1020 does stand out a little, amidst its peers, by having the extra Gigabyte of RAM, needed to handle the processing of the (up to) 38MP full resolution bitmaps internally, but the RAM will hopefully come in handy in helping ensure that the 1020 is less likely to be left behind when it comes time to update the Windows Phone platform again.

So far we're seeing no device left behind by Microsoft, thanks in part to Windows Phone's comparatively low hardware requirements - most of the work is in finishing code, adding functions  and fixing issues and compatibility, all without adding much to 'bloat'. As a result, even the lowest Lumia 520 is getting the full Windows Phone 8.1, though some of the higher end camera-related functions are starting to come with some hardware requirements. Historically this has been done according to RAM, though with 2GB on board the Lumia 1020 should be good in this regard for another year or two at least.

Processor and GPU speed are more of an issue, with the latest features in Nokia Camera/Storyteller being limited to just the Lumia 1520 and 930 - at least in theory. 'Living Images' worked pretty well under the original Nokia Camera Betas on the 1020, so maybe these can be worked in again, in an update?

Certainly Nokia seems to have standardised on a 'good enough' 20MP cut down version of the PureView technology. Which is fair enough - and results are good - but it doesn't stop the cameraphone geek in me wanting a third in the 41MP series. Is it just me?

OS updates

What of the core OS though - at what point will Microsoft start lopping off device compatibility? Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1, rumoured to roll out to developers for early testing later this month (July), for eventual release over the air to consumers in November/December, is supposed to be a fairly minor update (by comparison to 8.0 to 8.1) and should also be available for all devices. 

Windows Phone 8.1 Update 2 is scheduled to be available for testing around the end of 2014 and is likely to include new features to support new hardware, and I'd expect much of the lower end of the current Lumia range to get this update but not the full feature set. 

Whatever comes after that is pure conjecture (Google 'Threshold' if you want more on the rumours) and depends very much on Microsoft's ongoing plans to unify its platforms, but it's a fair bet that Windows Phone 8.2 (or Windows Phone 9, or whatever it ends up being called) will be optimised for the Snapdragon 800 and higher. Will the Lumia 1020 be updated for this release? My guess is 'no', but with the extra RAM, who knows? It might go down to the wire and depend on how many 1020-owning enthusiasts there are in early 2015 at Microsoft!

Of course, it's not all about the operating system and there are other ways for a classic smartphone to get sidelined. It happened to the Nokia 808 and it's happening now to the Lumia 1020. First, sales of the device stop - it becomes harder and harder to find one for sale - perhaps to replace a broken or stolen device? And accessories become harder to find - in the 1020's case there's the Qi charging back shell and Camera grip. If you have a 1020 and want either of these, then you've probably already put things off too long. [In the 808's case it was mainly the BV-4D battery, original replacements for this were/are like gold dust.]

Lumia 1020 in Camera Grip

So - the Lumia 1020 stands a chance of being updated for longer than its older sister devices, the 920 and 925 - but only a slender one. Having said that, the 1020 will, by the time WP9/Threshold/whatever hits, be two years old and will have enjoyed updates freely throughout that time, adding significant extra general functionality that certainly wasn't there when customer bought the device.

Classic of tech engineering

The Lumia 1020, like the 808 before it, still has unique selling points (in terms of photo quality, reframing/zooming flexibility and low light shots of people), and it seems that we still have at least another year of updates ahead. So celebrate the 1020 and don't give up on it. 

And don't you dare sell the Lumia 1020. Those who sold on the Nokia 808 PureView have bitterly regretted it - these devices are classic of modern tech engineering.

1020 and 808, all in white!!

Author: "--"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 12:50

Filed under 'link of interest', certainly, but big news for many ex-Nokians today, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced heavy job cuts, quoted below, plus threw out what seems the death knell for Nokia's still-born 'X' line of Android smartphones.

From the Microsoft missive from Satya:

The first step to building the right organization for our ambitions is to realign our workforce. With this in mind, we will begin to reduce the size of our overall workforce by up to 18,000 jobs in the next year. Of that total, our work toward synergies and strategic alignment on Nokia Devices and Services is expected to account for about 12,500 jobs, comprising both professional and factory workers. We are moving now to start reducing the first 13,000 positions, and the vast majority of employees whose jobs will be eliminated will be notified over the next six months. It’s important to note that while we are eliminating roles in some areas, we are adding roles in certain other strategic areas.

12,500 out of between 25,000 and 30,000 employees acquired with Nokia means that almost half the workforce acquired are being made redundant over the next 12 months, which must be a big blow to many ex-Nokians.

Such massive job cuts aren't unexpected, given the merging of two very large companies, with large areas of duplication, but it will still hurt those involved. Engineers and designers, those close to the technology, are likely to be safe.

Satya goes on in much the same vein:

Second, we are working to integrate the Nokia Devices and Services teams into Microsoft. We will realize the synergies to which we committed when we announced the acquisition last September. The first-party phone portfolio will align to Microsoft’s strategic direction. To win in the higher price tiers, we will focus on breakthrough innovation that expresses and enlivens Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences. In addition, we plan to shift select Nokia X product designs to become Lumia products running Windows. This builds on our success in the affordable smartphone space and aligns with our focus on Windows Universal Apps.

Several interesting turns of phrase in here:

  • 'breakthrough innovation' (in the higher price tiers) presumably refers to imaging and also to new UI concepts based on 3D interaction over the phone screen.
      
  • 'Nokia X product designs to become Lumia products running Windows' - many people had speculated (wildly) that Microsoft allowed the Nokia 'X' line of handsets to be launched because they (and Android) were the future and that Windows Phone would ultimately be canned. Instead, sensibly, the X line is being changed in upcoming devices to run Windows Phone, keeping Microsoft focussed on just one mobile/portable OS. 

The second bullet point above doesn't preclude that Android compatibility plays some part in Microsoft's and Windows Phone's future, of course. Informed observers have speculated that the next version of the OS (8.1 Update 1) may have an Android virtual machine built-in, in the style of Blackberry/Jolla, wherein selected Android applications can be added by a user.

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Date: Monday, 14 Jul 2014 06:59

I'm a sucker for power solutions on mobile. So when Michael Krikheli, pictured below, got in touch about his company's innovative new 'key ring charger', recently successful on Kickstarter (it completes in a couple of days time), I couldn't resist the chance to ply him with some questions. The only bad news is that retail gadgets are still a couple of months away, so you won't be using the Megalo Mini on your summer vacation.

MichaelSteve Litchfield (SL): In 100 words, what is Megalo Mini and What built-in cable types are in the design?

Michael Krikheli (MK): Megalo Mini is the smallest portable charger with 1400 mAh which has the charging cables built-in. It charges at a rate of 1 AMP and it could easily fit in a small pocket or on your key chain. It has a smooth rubber finish to it so it won't damage your phone when you're charging it in your pocket. On one end there is either* a Lightning cable for the iPhone 5 or a Micro USB cable for Andriod phones. On the other side there is USB cord for charging the Megalo Mini. The Megalo Mini will also simultaneously charge your smartphone and itself at the same time when connected to a power source. It uses a Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery and is good for 500 cycles.

* the Megalo Mini comes in two versions -- one with Lightning connector for iPhone 5, 5C, and 5S, and another with micro USB cable for Android, Windows, and Blackberry phones. When the Kickstarter campaign is over, we'll send out a survey to all backers where they'll be able to choose the color and the connector type for their Megalo Minis.

SL: Does the Megalo Mini have any competitors? Can you compare it to the Proporta Pocket Power, in terms of size and specs?

MK: There are many competitors in the portable charger market. Our main competitors are Mophie and Ankor. The Proporta charger is 680 mAh and the Megalo Mini is 1400 mAh -- well over double the charging capacity. The Proporta is thinner than the Megalo Mini; however, the Megalo Mini is shorter in length and width. The Proporta also doesn't have a built-in cable to recharge itself.

SL: How efficient is the Megalo Mini when transferring charge, does it get hot and how long does a full charge last before it needs refreshing?

MK: It transfers charge at 1 AMP and it does not heat up. A full charge can last you a month until you need to recharge the Megalo Mini.

SL: How rugged is the Megalo Mini? Waterproof? Dust proof?

MK: The Megalo Mini has a very sturdy build to it. However, it is not waterproof. It won't be damaged with a few drops of water, but we don't recommend swimming with it ;).

Megalo Mini

SL: What electronic protections are in place to prevent over-charging of the internal cell and to prevent over-depletion?

MK: There is a high quality PCB built in to prevent that.

SL: What timescales are we talking about for production hardware (months?) and any idea on a final retail price?

MK: Following the campaign (ending this week) we will begin production. Currently we estimate the initial production run to take 2-3 months. The retail price will be $45 in the USA and add $7 to that for shipping elsewhere in the world.

SL: I see from your Kickstarter page that anyone backing you in the remaining couple of days will get a Megalo Mini at 25% off the retail price above. Any comments about the Kickstarter process and feedback for backers?

MK: Kickstarter has been amazing. It is an unbelievable platform full of innovative and creative people. We have had great feedback from our backers and thank them for backing the Megalo Mini.



SL: Thanks, Michael.

_____________

This does look very interesting. With the input charging cable integral and with the jeans top (change) pocket targetted, this could be the charger to never be without, for true emergencies. The Proporta Pocket Power's credit card wallet form factor is unique in a similar way - so I guess all self respecting geeks should have both!

I also liked the pass through functionality, shown below. Such pass through isn't unique, but other chargers have needed you to bring along an extra cable or two - the Megalo Mini does everything within its body etc:


Author: "--"
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Date: Sunday, 15 Jun 2014 13:40

I've acquired something of a reputation of being obsessive about ultra-naturalistic, pixel-perfect photo quality and blind to the overall picture - after all, don't 'normal' people look at photos as-is, complete? And, with this in mind, I'd like to set a few things straight - I'm not against image effects, I'm not against post processing, and I'm certainly not advocating others go around looking at their photos under a magnifying glass or zooming them in to see individual pixels. But there is method in my madness...

You see, my eyes are the same as anyone else's. In fact, they're probably worse, having deteriorated with age. And when I see a photo on a phone screen or laptop display, I see the same overall composition and colours and can appreciate it as anyone else would. Even when it's VGA resolution and hosted on Instagram or Facebook.

However, when you want to do something meaningful, creative and memorable with a photo you've taken on your smartphone, it's important to at least start with as high a quality image as possible. Which means

  • decent resolution (5MP minimum, 8MP+ better)
  • colours as close to reality as possible
  • detail at the pixel level which actually is detail and not the figment of some sharpening algorithm
  • lack of digital noise (and I don't mean a smeared, blurry mess after a noise-reduction algorithm has been at play)

It's the same principle as in many other areas of life and technology - garbage in, garbage out. If you start with a photo that has bad colours, lots of artefacts or noise, then whatever you do to it later, you'll be fighting a losing battle. And the only reason why most people don't notice flaws in their smartphone photos is because they only view them on a phone screen and share via very low resolution versions on social media. 

However, choose wisely and start with images like those from the Nokia N8, 808 or Lumia 1020 and you've got starting material that's as good as it gets. Whether you're cropping in (reframing on the 1020) to pick out a specific subject in a larger photo or whether you're trying some very arty atmospheric effects, if you start with good detail, zero artefacts and almost zero noise then most of this will be preserved as you work.

A good example of why pixel peeping matters, from my recent camera shootout between the 2013 Nokia Lumia 1020 and the 2014 Sony Xperia Z2 (running Android):

Here's the scene, as captured on the Lumia 1020:

Scene, as snapped on the 1020

And here are 1:1 crops from central detail, from the Nokia Lumia 1020 (top) and Sony Xperia Z2 (bottom) - use the hyperlinked names to download the original JPGs if you want to examine them yourself, etc.:

1:1 crop from the 10201:1 crop from the Z2

Shot in sunny conditions, this shouldn't challenge either device, yet the Z2's native image processing makes a complete hash of the finer detail. Use it as the basis for any editing or cropping and you'll get very disappointing results. In contrast the Nokia PureView crop is so clean and detailed that you could almost be looking out at that detail through (e.g.) a car window.

Some of my most impressive shots of people have been in a group scene or situation, where they're reacting to somebody/something else - and I've simply cropped in on the person, still ending up with several megapixels, yet quality, detail and noise are as good as if I'd been three times closer and targetting the subject specifically (and, probably, intrusively - it's a bit like quantum physics - in order to get close enough to a subject you often change the dynamics of whatever they're doing!)

Also, as it turns out, and contrary to what you may have guessed, I'm a fan of photo effects. Not gimmicky 'retro' ones, mind you, but serious filters that enhance colours or add subtleties that couldn't be achieved optically at the time of capture.

For example, I was with my dad on a spring visit to a 'Bluebell wood', and we were delighted by the flowers but disappointed by the British weather on the day, with the cold and cloudy conditions making the bluebells themselves very dim in colour and the scene wholly unremarkable. I took some photos anyway on my phone (an N8, I think) and, later on, was able to dramatically increase the colour saturation in photo editing software, producing something which made a nice framed present for my father.

Bluebells

The only downside of image processing to increase saturation (and to boost blue in particular) here is that my dad's jacket also had a hint of blue - so that got dramatically boosted too!!

Another example, with landscapes, is to start with a nicely detailed image, but natural colours and exposure, and then try pseudo-HDR, saturation and sharpening tricks, producing something surreally impressive.

HDR-ish image

This was quite a dull evening, quite dark and with just a glimmer of light in the distance, but heavy image processing turned it into a really pleasing photo...

So the next time I do a head to head camera shootout and wax lyrical over the purity of the images produced, bandying about 1:1 crops, remember that I do this not because I intend to view the photos on a 50" screen or printout, but because purity is important in the ongoing workflow with what you intend to do with the image later on.

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Date: Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 18:41

One of the most frustrating things about marketing and branding, from my engineer's standpoint, is that technologies get brand names assigned to them (which is fine) and then the brand name gets used elsewhere, for something totally different. Which is where the aforementioned frustration comes in, of course. Let's call a spade a spade, etc. And a fork a fork.

All of this was brought to a head by my testing of the new Nokia Lumia 630 (here's the full review), which claims in its specifications "ClearBlack Display" (CBD), whereas my own testing showed real world performance to be unlike anything I'd seen in CBD before. 

But more of that in a moment. Let's take a step back, to 2012 and the announcement of the Nokia 808 PureView. The fact that the extra brand name was made part of the phone name showed how important it was. And rightly so.

The original Nokia 808 PureView white paper has been removed from its original URL now, but I tracked down a copy from the Internet Archive here. From the opening statement:

The Nokia PureView Pro imaging technology is the combination of a large, super high resolution 41Mpix with high performance Carl Zeiss optics. The large sensor enables pixel oversampling, which will be explained in detail in this paper but in a nutshell it means the combination of many pixels into one perfect pixel. PureView imaging technology is the result of many years of research and development and the tangible fruits of this work are amazing image quality, lossless zoom, and superior low light performance.

Nice and clear, unambiguous. And a great name.

Eight months later, the Nokia Lumia 920 was launched, also with the 'PureView' branding (though not actually in the name this time). In a revised white paper (also not on the original URL but available here), Nokia expanded the term 'PureView':

The 808 PureView uses one solution to improve low light image quality through the innovative and highly acclaimed pixel oversampling technology but we needed to explore additional directions for improving the image quality in dim light. This second development phase of PureView is therefore focused on exactly that - a significant improvement in low light whilst also making it available to a wide range of people. 

The Lumia 920 had a bog standard 1/3.2" BSI sensor and no oversampling, but did have Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), which is what Nokia is referring to above. But why use the name 'PureView'?

Now, I appreciate that OIS is a good thing to have, but it's completely and utterly different to PureView, as understood in the original white paper for the 808.

The argument at the time from Nokia's marketing folk was that PureView just meant superior imaging - and we gave Nokia a pass for this, since it was obvious that the next step was to create (what became) the Lumia 1020, combining both the oversampling tech and the OIS into one true next gen camera phone and obviously deserving of the 'PureView' brand name.

So, a temporarily confusing situation sorted itself out by the 1020, then Icon, 930 and 1520 all having both the oversampling and OIS, so you can see where Nokia was going with the brand.

Bringing us to the latest branding change. Back in 2010, at Nokia World, Nokia announced the Nokia E7 Communicator, with Ansii Vanjoki (on stage) making a big thing of the introduction of a ground breaking screen technology: "CLEAR BLACK DISPLAY" he almost shouted. And Rafe scurried off to find out details of what this meant.

Nokia even posted, a few months later (and it's still online) a very helpful diagram showing how CBD worked:

CBD

Along with some explanatory text:

ClearBlack display uses a sequence of polarising layers to eliminate reflections.

You have probably tried polarising sunglasses before now and so have a rough idea of how that works. If you look at a window or the surface of some water using polarising glasses, then they become more transparent – which is why they’re especially good for fishermen. The polariser cuts out reflected light.

Polariser layers used in display solutions are bit more sophisticated than in sunglasses. Light rays actually get “processed” many times on its way in and out of your phones´s screen. There’s both a linear polariser and retardation layers between the surface of your phone and the display. When light hits your screen, this is what happens:

  1. It hits the linear polariser, this vertically polarises the light. (Polarising means – roughly – aligning the wave vibration in a particular direction).
  2. Then it hits the circular polariser retardation layer. This converts the light again, making it right-circularly polarised.
  3. Then it hits the screen and bounces off it, switching the rotation of the light to leftist.
  4. It goes back through the retardation layer. When this happens, the light becomes horizontally polarised.
  5. Finally, it hits the linear polariser, since the light is horizontally polarised at this point it can be blocked entirely by this optical solution.

So why doesn’t the light from your phone’s display get blocked? Because it only goes through the second half of this journey so the light is unpolarised when it hits the final filter and goes through.

So, CBD depends on this combination of linear polarizer and a double journey through a quarter wave retardation film. And it works supremely well, used on (not a definitive list) the Nokia C6-01, E7, 808 PureView, N9, Lumia 800, Lumia 920, Lumia 925, Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520. Use any of these phones outdoors and you'll be amazed at the contrast and visibility, even when the sun's out, because of the clever CBD tech used.

Now we come to the new Lumia 630. I took it outdoors and saw the reflections on the screen and immediately concluded that it didn't have CBD. Yet the spec sheet disagrees. What's going on? I asked Nokia for official clarification and here's the reply:

"The aim of ClearBlack has always been to create superior sunlight readability and eliminate unwanted reflections with a bright display. The first ClearBlack displays were based on circular polarizer technology, but over the years the display & touch technology and integration of the ClearBlack solution have differed.

This was achieved in the Lumia 630 by high luminance IPS LCD display and window lamination to eliminate unwanted reflections, which meant we were able to achieve a thinner product than via air gap & circular polarizer. It must be noted the need to manually select the high brightness mode for sunlight conditions.  

Based on our analysis, Lumia 630 performance is much better than Lumia 520 in sunlight conditions."

"Over the years"? Every other CBD-equipped device, from 2010 to the present day, has used the full polariser set, as far as I'm aware. The Lumia 630 is the odd one out, by simply using a 'sunglasses'-like 'lamination'. Presumably because it's much cheaper to make that a full polariser display - understandable in an ultra-budget device.

I appreciate that outdoor visibility on the 630 might well be slightly better than the 520 (though I tried both side by side, at length, and found only a marginal difference overall), but that does not make it remotely comparable to the performance of real CBD, as defined above and as shown below:

CBD vs 'new' CBD!

Outdoors in oblique sunlight, similar screen fragments from the CBD-equipped Lumia 920 (left) and the 'laminated' Lumia 630 (right)

Now, Nokia owns the 'brand' here. If it (or, in this case, now Microsoft, I guess) wants to use 'ClearBlack Display' to refer to a simple lamination then that's absolutely its perogative. Heck, Nokia could use CBD branding on a toaster if it liked - it can do what it likes with its own marketing brand.

But it's the changing definition that leaves technologically-minded users confused. Even more so because the new 'definition', an ambiguous 'aim', has been applied in a device with definitively worse outdoors performance. The PureView change was at least a totally different direction that was intended to be folded into the original tech in the future. This 'ClearBlack Display' definition change just muddies the waters, in my opinion.

The Lumia 620 isn't terrible outdoors - but put it next to a Nokia E7 or 808 or Lumia 920 on the deckchair next to you and the difference is as obvious as night and day.

Comments? Does the changing definition of a brand bother you? Or am I getting worked up over nothing?

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