Sunday, November 28, 2010

Winows Phone 7

WP7 has hit the Microsoft campus on November 18. This was the date when the free phones the company gave to all the employees have arrived.

I've got one, too, and has been playing with it ever since. So far I cannot imagine going back to my iPhone 3GS.

The UI is slick and extremely responsive. In two weeks of use there was not a single case when the UI lagged. Not one frame of scrolling, zooming, or moving between apps. Not a trace of hesitation. It is also quite intuitive, everything you use often is at your fingertips when you need it.

Search is fully integrated into the experience. It works in the context of the currently running program - in maps it searches maps, in IE it searches the Internet, in Zune UI it searches the music, and in the Marketplace it searches the app store. It works well, too - the results are formatted for the phone, and the way local results are mixed in is uniquely useful for a mobile device.

The IE works great. Really, truly great. It feels faster than the iPhone's Safari browser. With the Samsung Focus' gigantic, bright screen it feels like a mini-tablet. When I bought the iPhone I noticed that I go to my laptop to browse less. With this device I go back to a real computer even less.

One of the reasons that I was awaiting WP7 was that the iPhone was syncing my calendar unreliably. Some of the appointments were transferred, and some were not. I have heard similar complaints from my peers who are also very heavy calendar users. Needless to say, this is the most critical part of the device for me, possibly even more important than the actual phone - I use it as a phone at most twice a day, but I use it as a calendar and email device at least once an hour.

Both calendar and email sync flawlessly on WP7. So does the rest of Office integration. I've spent a few hours reading a book formatted as a Word file, and, again, performance was fantastic and the document rendered flawlessly.

The device is rock solid. I have never - ever - had to reboot it for anything other than the change of the system locale.

Of course, as a v1 device, WP7 has a number of problems as well.

First, it has no way to upload custom ring tones to the device. Yes, this is actually true - the only ringtones that are available are ones preinstalled by the OEM. I have no idea how they managed to cut a feature that at this point is available anywhere else.

Second, the phone only supports a handful of mostly western European locales. For example, it has no support for entering Cyrillic, which, with me being in Russia right now is a big problem. Actually, this plus the absense of copy-paste makes entering an internet search query in any language other than English impossible. Given iPhone's completely universal keyboard that allows writing in any language with ease, this is a big disadvantage for anyone who speaks more than one language.

Third, the phone does not support - this is absolutely, amazingly stupid - user names that have spaces. So if your company has a "First Last" template for the user names, you are out of luck - Exchange sync will not work. Whoever tested the user input dialog - please hang your head in shame now.

Windows Phone 7 lacks the iPhone's breadth of apps, but this is actually an opportunity for developers, and the gap will probably be closed quickly.

Other than that - the device is actually great. I gave away my 3GS after playing with WP7 for less than a day, and 2 weeks in I did not regret that decision for a second. Very highly recommended!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Windows Phone 7 unlocking - NOT!

I am travelling to Russia, and tried to use the services of this company - - to unlock my phone. They claim on the web site that it takes "up to 72 hours" to unlock the phone.

After waiting for 3 days, no response, I sent them an email, asking about the status. They responded that "some Windows Phone 7 devices take longer", and they will be clarifying this on their web page. However, they are confident that they will have the code in 24 hours.

Two more days go through, no code in the mail. I send them another query. This time, the response:

"Dear Sergey
Please accept our apologies with the length of time it is taking to acquire your unlock code. This is because it is with AT&T. It seems that they will not be giving out the unlock codes for several months after the phone has been registered, or until June 2011. We have just had your order returned to us as not found, not surprising as we are finding out no-one can get codes for Windows Phone 7 handsets on AT&T. However along with yours and other returns of not found came back one successful code return, which is peculiar. I don't know if this is a one-off or it means with some other techniques it might be possible.

I appreciate it has been a long time to wait, so at this point can you please advise if you want a full refund, or you want us to keep trying other techniques.

Many thanks for your patience,"
So, basically,
(1) They claimed that they could unlock Windows 7 phones, but they did not actually check it.
(2) The way they unlock phones is by simply asking for the code from AT&T on your behalf. Or, you can do it yourself and save the money. Of course, in either case AT&T does not supply the unlock code unless you own the phone for 90 days, as any customer service rep will tell you, which is why they couldn't "unlock" mine.
So stay away from these "services" and save yourself some time and money.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Trickle-up economics

With all the talk about tax cuts as a universal cure (for which of course there is exactly zero statistical evidence) that are prevalent in US media I wonder why no one is talking about much more obvious concept - a trickle-up economics, where the well-being of the population is certain to benefit the people at the top of the economic ladder.

After all, to earn more money companies need more people who can afford their products. The debt-financed prosperity of 1990s is perverse, but recent, evidence for this. By supporting policies that lead to growing inequality, the top 1% of earners are actually digging a hole for themselves. With the debt as a source of income nearly exhausted, the population will soon not be able to afford much, and the inevitable result will be collapsing incomes at the top as well...

Devices and PCs

The device wave seems to be sweeping the world. Apple's new tablet is selling like hot cakes, there are over a dozen of eBook readers on the market, and Android announces the support of a new device category every week.

I have been building the OS for devices for what is still the majority of my career at Microsoft, and had been a passionate advocate for and an avid user of various embedded electronics since 1997. I have shipped the first Microsoft's embedded product that sold for less than $100 (MN-700 residential gateway).

I have used video players, networked storage, terminal server clients, eBook readers, tablets, Internet terminals, portable music players, PDAs, car media players, portable displays, residential gateways, cameras, game boxes, etc, etc, etc. And, of course, smartphones, smartphones, smartphones, and more smartphones.

Over the years I have accumulated 4 large cardboard boxes full of devices in my basement. Almost all of them followed a very similar usage pattern: a new exciting device would come to market, I would get it and use it for about a year. Within a year though, rarely two, almost never three, the device would be obsolete. A new media format will become popular. A new display technology would call for higher video resolution. An upgrade to an OS would obsolete the device drivers. A company would go out of business and shut the web service down.

In the end, the destiny of all these gizmos was always the same - the brown box under the stairs. I think the longest I had embedded device was a couple of $15 wireless routers I got at Fry's 3-4 years ago, and I had a Sony eBook reader for 3 years. All the rest hit the box in at most 2 years.

I actually loved my SONY Reader. Despite the fact it took 10 minutes to boot. Despite the fact that there was no way to organize the collection in any meaningful way, so I always had to go through 66 pages of book titles to find the one I intended to read. Despite the fact that the battery life was nothing like advertized.

I even wrote a filter to automatically translate Project Gutenberg books to LRF format (

What eventually killed the Reader was a multitude of factors. The hacked support for Russian script was no longer available for the most current firmware upgrade, so I had to stay on the old version. The new connection software no longer supports the old firmware. Finally, BookDesigner, a program that I used to translate RTF files into LRF to read them on the device does not work on newer operating systems.

At the same time, while playing with all these devices, I was slowly but surely - and mostly without realizing it - replacing them with PCs. Where devices lasted only a bit, PCs persisted.

A NAS device was replaced by three of server PCs first consisting of expensive case, good power supplies, cheap motherboards, and 30 disks. The cheap motherboards were quickly replaced by an expensive ones, but the rest was reused, and the machines are now in service 24/7 through the last 5 years. I have replaced a few disks, taking a couple of opportunities to upgrade - first going from 300 to 500GB, then to 1TB drives.

A couple of media center PCs that were in the house since 2005 went through a refresh this year. I have replaced motherboards, CPU, and memory ($400 per PC for 6-core Athlons, 8GB RAM,  and top of the line ASUS boards), and upgraded the OS to Windows 7. I have reused the 500GB disks that were left over from the server upgrade.

A gaming PC that I have in my garage in front of a thread mill is in daily use since 2007, and it plays Halo 2 as well as it was on the first day of its life four and a half years ago. I have turned on the Xbox 360 next to it less than a dozen times over the same period of time. Last time only to find out that it had died, perhaps of loneliness.

Because of the super high level of commoditization, PC hardware is unmatched in price. Even the retail markup is different - for devices such as DVD players it usually is over 50%, whereas for PC hardware - thank you, Dell! - it is almost always below 15%. So you can buy a 4TB TerraStation for $800, or a pretty decent PC with 4 1TB hard drives which would in many cases cost much less.

And because PC hardware is interchangeable, when you decomission an old PC, you can almost always reuse at least some of the parts - a case, a power supply, a DVD drive - at a minimum, which makes your new build so much cheaper.

But of course the biggest advantage of the PC platform is that it is constantly evolving. A new codec that could kill a media player will be just a tiny upgrade to a Media Center PC. A Blu-ray is trivial to install without changing much of the existing functionality.

PCs do come with a cost - they could be hard to maintain. But there is a very simple solution - my PCs are all single function. A game PC is only used to play games. A Media Center is only used to watch movies. Servers are only used for storage and virtualization. There is a dedicated PC for Skype. I do software development and email on a VM that is specially built just for that.

As a result, there are usually no compatibility problems with software, and in fact configuration changes are very infrequent, so I spend very little time on my home infrastructure these days. Much less, in fact, than I used to spend trying to get all the devices to talk to each other :-).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We are screwed...

Here's the new (Republican) chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee. He says that Bible promises to not flood the Earth after Noah, therefore there will be no global warming. True story. This is the level of idiocy in Congress. I think I would rather live under Brezhnev again... Soviet government may have been evil, but it was not so monumentally stupid.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

This is why Democrats need to abolish farm subsidies... hold on to power.

Among other things that they should have done, but didn't ( because they are too corrupt and incompetent...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Couple of interesting quotes

"Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity."
    -- Frank Leahy

"Competition whose motive is merely to compete, to drive some other fellow out, never carries very far. The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time. Businesses that grow by development and improvement do not die. But when a business ceases to be creative, when it believes it has reached perfection and needs to do nothing but produce - no improvement, no development - it is done."
    -- Henry Ford