Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Giving The People What They Want

The other day I decided that I needed a new profile picture for Facebook, and given that I'm rarely photographed by other people, and there was no one around, I opted to go the selfie route.
I took several shots, but there was only one than I actually liked.  Unfortunately, due to my shaky Frankenstein hands, it turned out rather blurry.
I ran it through Photoshop, using the "Shake Reduction" filter, and while that did make it a bit sharper, it also added a lot of noise.
Then I thought, "Wait, don't I like, draw, or whatever?  Didn't I take the selfie while I was drawing?"
So I decided that there was enough detail in the blurry pic to use it as a reference to draw my own selfie-portrait.
I then made it my profile picture, and I found it interesting that it rapidly became the most "liked' drawing I've ever posted to Facebook.
That's...weird, I think.
It's also kind of disheartening, in a way.  I mean, it's nice that my friends like the picture of me, but, while it is pretty well done, I've done better, or at least I've posted pictures that I've been prouder of than this one, and yet many of those get no likes at all.
Of course, maybe the lesson is that I should give up on drawing Scarlett Johansson, and Eve Angel, and other beautiful women and assorted comic book characters and focus entirely on self-portraits.  It seems to be what the people want...

And who can blame them?  Rawr!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Suggestion Box

Not that anyone who has any influence will see this – although I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of traffic that my last post about Windows Phone 8.1 has received – but as this is my primary public forum (such as it is), I thought I’d share some suggestions for improvements and enhancements for the two pieces of technology I’ve been living and working with for the past few weeks:  Windows Phone 8.1, and the Surface Pro 2.

Windows Phone 8.1:

I’m starting with WP 8.1 simply because, as it exists right now, it’s actually pre-release software, and as such, there is room for Microsoft to make some improvements before the product is officially released, though, again, as a person who is completely lacking any sort of influence and lacking an audience of people who have influence, I doubt that anything I write will even be seen, let alone implemented.
Beyond that, some of my suggestions pertain to Cortana, and as much of what Cortana does takes place in the cloud, rather than client-side, there is the possibility for a more rapid turnaround when it comes to adding or changing features.
So let’s start with Cortana.

Functional Reminders – By this I mean reminders that are not for me, but rather are for Cortana herself.  As an example, I can tell Cortana, “Turn off WiFi,” and she’ll do it.  Conversely, I can then tell her, “Turn on WiFi,” and she’ll turn it on.  Combining this capability with reminders – particularly the location-based reminders – would be a particularly useful function.
In the interest of conserving battery life, I typically turn off WiFi when I’m out and about, where my regular 4G or LTE – I have unlimited data – is usually sufficient for my needs, and I don’t have a need to connect to random WiFi hotspots.  However, I usually turn it back on when I get home, where a constant WiFi connection is available (as is a steady source of power for recharging).  So in this use case, I would turn off WiFi when I leave the house, then set a reminder for Cortana to turn it back on when I get home.
I tried this to see if it was available.  It’s not; when I said, “Turn on WiFi when I get home,” she simply set a reminder for me to turn it on, which popped up when I got home.
I believe she does have this capability to some extent.  You can, for example, tell her to Check In (via the appropriate app, like Facebook or Foursquare) when you get to a specified location, but I don’t do check ins, so I’m not sure if I’m right about that.  Either way, it would be an incredibly useful capability if it were extended to a wide array of functions.
(And for what it’s worth, you can set WiFi to turn itself back on after a specified interval.)

Natural Language Improvements – Improvements in this area are bound to be forthcoming anyway, but speaking of reminders, when I ask Cortana to create a reminder for me, I have to do so in a slightly unnatural fashion.  For example, if I were a different Jon, namely the one from the comic Sex Criminals, which is a great comic, by the way, I might want to set a reminder to drop a deuce in my boss’s potted plant at noon.  So if I, as the other Jon, said, “Remind me to drop a deuce in Mr. Shankworth’s plant at noon,” Cortana would respond with, “Okay, I’ll remind you ‘To drop a deuce in Mr. Shankworth’s plant at noon.’  Is that right?”
(Note:  She doesn’t have enough of a personality to ask, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”)
That is to say that the reminder on your Calendar would be titled, “To drop a deuce in Mr. Shankworth’s plant.”  She knows enough to figure out that “at noon” is the when, but not enough to drop the “To.”
So to get it formatted without the “To,” I would have to say it like this:  “Remind me:  Drop a deuce…”
Similarly, saying, “Remind me that I need to to stop dropping a deuce in Mr. Shanksworth’s plant” would create a reminder that contains everything after “Remind me.”  It’s not a huge deal, but it would add to the sense of familiarity and make talking to Cortana feel a bit more natural if she could figure out that when you say, “Remind me to buy toilet paper next time I’m at the store,” she would just create a reminder titled “Buy toilet paper.”  She’s already smart enough to know that “next time I’m at the store” defines the time and place, so I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to get her to pare out the extraneous relative pronouns and whatnot when writing the reminder to Calendar.

Lack of Interests – Cortana can keep track of the things you’re interested in using her Notebook, through observing your usage patterns and through direct input, which is great.  However, I’d like to see it go a step further and make it possible for you to let Cortana know not only what you like, but also what you hate.
For example, she knows that I’m not interested in sports, in that it was not something I checked off as an interest, which means that she won’t deliver me any sort of sports news or scores or whatever.  However, she doesn’t know that my feelings go beyond merely lacking an active interest, and that I don’t want to see anything relating to sports.
I mean, I don’t care who wins any game.  At all.  Ever.  But certain sporting events tend to spill out beyond the limits of their boundaries and fall into the general category of “news,” which means that I’ll still end up seeing headlines about such-and-such sportsball team winning the big sportsball tournament.
I’d like to avoid that by being able to specify with a certain amount of granularity what types of “news” stories I don’t want to see.  I’d also like to have more control over the news sources.
Of course, an anti-sports position is peculiar to me, but I think most people have topics they don’t want to hear about while still having an interest in the more general category under which those topics fall.  You might, for example, have an interest in entertainment news, but no interest in, say, Justin Bieber, or the Kardashians, or whoever.

Action Center – On the non-Cortana front, I’ve been somewhat disappointed in the Action/Notification Center.  It’s been pretty hit-or-miss – mostly miss – when it comes to notifying me about activities on Facebook.  The other issue with Facebook notifications – and this may be a problem with the FB app itself and/or the way it’s designed, though the same may be true of the sporadic nature of receiving notifications – is that if, say, I get a notification that someone commented on my status, I’ll click on it, the FB app will launch, and it will take me to the applicable status, but the comments are collapsed, so I have to make an additional click to see what the comment was.  So much less efficient than the old way.
Additionally, it would be nice to be able to actually manage the notifications right there.  For example, if I’m notified of an e-mail, I’d like to be able to just delete it right there without having to go into the actual Mail app.
Ultimately, though, what really needs to be done is for MS to implement the interactive live tiles that are being tested by Microsoft Research, as the overall experience needs to be a bit more seamless, as it was/is in WP 8, while still adding in the ability to add functionality via the more rapidly deployed app updates as opposed to core OS updates.

Extra-Large Tiles – Windows 8.1 has them, so why not Windows Phone 8.1?

Calendar – This is much improved in WP 8.1, but while the week view is appreciated, why did adding that necessitate eliminating the Agenda view?  Yes, it’s sort of there in the week view, but there’s no reason it can’t exist separately.
Also, add the ability to display more than one appointment on the live tile.

Surface Pro 2:

Some of these fall into the category of Windows 8.1 suggestions, but they’re things that have really stood out for me while using the Surface Pro 2, so…

Custom Gestures – There are apps that will allow you to create your own custom gestures, but this needs to be baked in.

Independent Scaling/Display Controls – And here I’m not talking about whatever it is that’s being called independent scaling, but true, honest-to-Glob independent scaling, whereby a user can invoke separate controls for each display.  I right-click on the external monitor and bring up Screen Resolution, and I’m presented with controls that will only apply to the external monitor.  So I can set my scaling to 100%.  Meanwhile, I do the same on the Surface Pro, and boom, I can set the scaling there to 150%.

Saved Docking Preferences – When in its docking station – or otherwise connected to an external display – it should remember how you had things set up the last time you were docked.  (Assuming this isn’t your first time docking it).
I put the Surface Pro in its docking station.  It remembers that I want the scaling on the external monitor set to 100%.  It also remembers that I want all of the icons and shortcuts on my desktop to display on the external monitor, and that I want all x86 applications/control panels to open on the external monitor, without me having to set the external monitor as my primary display.
Then I undock, and everything automatically moves back over the Surface Pro.
Also:  fix the damn mouse problem.  Having to undock and re-dock the Surface Pro to get the mouse cursor to stop being invisible is a nuisance.

I’m sure that if took the time to think about it there are a lot more suggestions I could make – particularly on Windows Phone 8.1 – and I do have some ideas around the way some things ought to work and the potential for better integrating MS devices and services into the average person’s life, but many of them would require a lot of development from companies other than MS and are likely things that are part of Redmond’s vision anyway, but these are the main ones that have been on my mind.

Of course, while I’m tilting at windmills…

Adobe:  Make your Creative Suite more touch-friendly.  In Manga Studio 5, I can pan, zoom, and rotate the image using touch.  in Photoshop or Illustrator?  Not so much.
On the other hand, despite responding well to touch, the overall interface itself in Manga Studio isn’t especially touch-friendly either.  So that’s something to be worked on in both worlds.
Which isn’t to say that you have to make “modern,” Windows Store-style touch apps, but Photoshop/Creative Suite and Manga Studio have different default workspace options to choose from, so why not add in a touch-based option?
Also, Adobe, admit that there’s a problem with lag when it comes to certain brushes in Photoshop and fix it rather than trying to blame it on some mysterious “something” that your legions of users must all somehow have on their disparate computers that are running on an assortment of operating systems.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living With Cortana

Microsoft recently released the developer preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 update, which is a significant overhaul of the current Windows Phone 8 operating system.
The process of installing the developer preview involves registering with Microsoft as a developer, downloading the Windows Phone SDK to a PC, performing a developer unlock of the phone, installing an app on the now-unlocked phone, and them simply choosing to run an over-the-air update on the phone.
There are some risks involved – the developer preview is, after all, a beta product, installing it may void any warranty you have, and once the update is installed it’s not possible to roll back to the previous version of the OS – and the update does not contain any device-specific updates provided by the handset manufacturer that are typically included with the MS update once the update is officially released by your mobile carrier.  In the case of the manufacturer of my phone – Nokia – those device-specific updates are often rather substantial, with bug fixes and new features.
Given the glacial pace at which AT&T rolls out available updates – I just recently received the “Lumia Black” update, a combination of Microsoft’s third GDR (General Distribution Release – a minor update consisting primarily of bug fixes) and Nokia-specific enhancements, despite the fact that it had been available for carriers to distribute for months prior to my receiving the update, and was installed on all new handsets – I decided that I found the promise of new features in WP 8.1 compelling enough to install the developer preview.
After all, by the time AT&T makes it available, the odds are that MS/Nokia will have already distributed the first WP 8.1 GDR and will be ready to distribute the second GDR, and it will be nearly time for me to upgrade my phone anyway.

So with that preamble out of the way, let’s dive into the point of this post:  my experience using WP 8.1…after some more in the way of preamble.
I was an early adopter of the Windows Phone platform back when it launched in 2010 as Windows Phone 7.
While there were definite shortcomings, overall I was pleased with the experience, finding the user interface to be rather compelling, with more visual appeal – to me – than the iOS and Android options.  The dynamic Live Tiles, which bounced around on the Start screen, frequently changing to give at-a-glance updates on the people and things I was interested in struck me as much more useful than the comparatively static icons found elsewhere, and, again, I though the flat “modern” design of what was then known as the Metro design language, seemed much more fresh and appealing than the dated glossy icon look.
The “app gap” wasn’t – and still isn’t – really an issue for me, particularly given the “hub” approach that MS took, which allowed me to centrally manage multiple accounts and services.  For example, the “Me” tile, which contained information about me, allowed me to post a status update to Facebook and see any and all notifications from connected services, while the “People” hub created detailed contact cards for collating all of my contacts’ information from various services into one spot, allowing me to easily follow their social media activity, and even keep track of my recent interactions with them.
And it’s worth mentioning that in order to get all of this information, I just had to sign into the phone with my Microsoft Account, and all of the heavy lifting of bringing in my contact information was done for me.
So who needed a Facebook app, or a Twitter app?  On other platforms, there may be an app for that, but on WP 7, there was a hub (and Live Tile) for that.
Beyond that, I don’t care about the latest and greatest Angry Candy game or whatever, or need dozens of different fart apps (or even one, for that matter), so the “app gap” was a non-issue for me in that regard as well.
Beyond any of that, I was already pretty well entrenched in the Microsoft ecosystem – mostly for pragmatic and financial reasons; having no reason to attach any special significance to my computing platform of choice, I simply went with what provided the most ease of use and hardware/software compatibility for the lowest cost, so…Windows – having just come to the end of my contract with my second Windows Mobile device, Microsoft’s previous smartphone platform, which was an outgrowth of the moribund Pocket PC/PDA market.
Prior to my first glimpses of the Windows Phone 7 interface, I had assumed that I would more than likely move to the Android platform once that contract expired, but I was swayed by the potential I saw in Redmond’s offering, and so I became one of the select few who invested in that platform.
Since that time, Windows Phone has made substantial gains in market share – and in closing the app gap – particularly outside of the US, but it remains a very distant third behind the various flavors of Android and iOS devices in terms of number of apps, market share, and mind share.  A Windows Phone in the wild is a rare sight indeed, and when people see mine – it is quite eye-catching, after all, particularly given its brilliant red color and its sleek design – they express surprise at the idea that there is such a thing as a Windows Phone.
All of which is to point out that investing in the Windows Phone platform was something of a leap of faith, given that it was a completely new platform, and in many ways an entirely different paradigm compared to the market leaders.  Ultimately, it was a matter of believing in its potential, and being willing to overlook – or at least live with – its shortcomings.  Out of the gate, for example, it lacked any sort of multitasking, or even basic functions such as copy and paste.  Indeed, not only did it fail to achieve full feature parity with its primary competitors, it failed to achieve parity with its predecessor.
(In many ways, Windows Mobile was an amazing smartphone OS, with many strengths and features that are lacking in all current smartphone platforms.  Where it was most lacking, however, was in its interface.  I may write a future post discussing some of the things I miss about WinMo.)
With 8.1, Microsoft is making a surge to close that gap, approaching the problem from multiple fronts beyond the OS itself, and to build on the foundation that they built with WP 7, and then rebuilt with WP 8.  So how well does it do that?  It’s difficult for me to say, as my experience with other smartphone platforms is limited.  All I can tell you is what I know, and what I’ve discovered over the past few days.
So, finally, let’s get to it.

Interface:
At a glance, not much here has changed.  From my perspective, that’s a good thing.  Given that the tiled interface is a major component of virtually all devices in the Microsoft/Windows ecosystem – desktop PCs, tablets, Xbox One – it makes sense to retain a consistent look.
That said, the interface is rather polarizing.  I won’t dive into the complaints and comments from the haters, but clearly, there are a lot of people who hate it.  That said, regardless of the distribution, most people seem to fall into the love it or hate it camp (though it’s worth mentioning that many of the people in the “hate it” camp have a sort of context-aware hatred; they hate it on a standard desktop PC, but are a little warmer to it on touch-enabled devices).
As mentioned, I fall into the “love it” camp.
In any case, while there is little in the way of obvious changes to the interface, a deeper dive reveals some rather significant changes.
With GDR3, Microsoft added support for larger, higher-resolution screens, such as those found on the Lumia 1520 and the Lumia Icon.  As part of that support, they added the ability to display three columns of medium tiles – there are three sizes available:  small, medium, and wide, with wide taking up the amount of space of two mediums – but this feature was only available on 1080p screens.  With 8.1, they’ve made the third column available for all handsets, regardless of screen resolution.
I’ve found that I like having the third column available, though many users complain that it makes the text on the tiles too small, and makes the small tile size unusable.  Fortunately, it’s an optional setting.
While it’s always been possible to customize the Start screen to a certain extent through the arrangement of tiles and through the choice of accent colors, there have been many users over the years clamoring for the ability to add a background image to the Start screen.  I’d never seen the point, personally, as the image would be almost entirely obscured by the tiles.
It is possible to have a background image on the Start screen on the PC/tablet side, but there it makes slightly more sense, as there’s a larger area and that iteration of the Start screen is rather more open.
However, with WP 8.1, that option is now available on Windows Phone, and I have to say that the implementation is rather clever.
Essentially, if a background image is a selected, the non-text areas of the Live Tiles – assuming that the app developer allows for it - become transparent, revealing the image behind them, but also maintaining the background color in the gutters between tiles, which makes the background image look rather like a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one with very simple rectangular shapes.  It’s a nice look in and of itself, but MS went even further and created a parallax effect, whereby the background image scrolls at a much different rate than the tiles above it.  The tiles, as they scroll, reveal a different part of the image.
It just plain looks cool.
And the last thing I’ll mention about the interface is that it’s possible to sync your phone’s theme with the theme of your Windows 8.1 PC or tablet in the same way that you can sync your PCs/tablets with each other, though I personally haven’t done so.

The Start screen with a background image.

The parallax effect; note how the background image hasn't
moved as much as the tiles have.  Also?  Run Pee is one of
the greatest, most useful apps ever.

Calendar and Office:
There have been a lot of apps put out by various developers to replace the default Calendar app, which since WP7 has had only minimal options.  With 8.1, the Calendar is much improved, adding a Week view, which was one of the most requested features.  Beyond simply listing your appointments for each day of the week, the Calendar also displays weather information for your current location, which is a nice touch.
As far as I’ve read and seen, there haven’t been any changes made to the Office apps.

Internet Explorer:
Users don’t really have any options when it comes to which browser they use on Windows Phone.  It’s Internet Explorer, period.  It’s possible to install other browsers, but they’re essentially just “skinned” versions of IE, and it’s not possible to make any of then the default.
That complaint aside, 8.1 sports a mobile version of IE 11, which brings several enhancements, such as the ability to open unlimited tabs, the ability to upload files to sites, the ability to save passwords, and the ability to sync passwords and favorites with your Windows 8.1 PC.  If you have a tab open on your synced PCs (in the “modern,” Windows Store version of IE), you can choose to open that same tab on your phone.  Again, this is a feature that was already available on PCs/tablets running Windows 8/8.1.
Additionally, you can pin individual sites to your Start screen, and, presumably through looking at RSS data (or through some other mechanism), that pinned site will become a pseudo-Live Tile, changing to show updated information from the site.  For example, if you were to pin Threshold to the Start screen, it might (I haven’t tried, so I don’t know) alternate between showing the titles of the most recent posts.
(Update:  Nope.  It just shows a static image of the page.)
The other enhancement – and this is dependent on whether or not the site supports it – also comes from the PC version, and allows you to view a page in “Reading Mode,” which strips much of the sites formatting and multimedia content, rendering it much more readable on a small screen.

And now on to the two most substantial changes to the Windows Phone platform…

Action Center:
Another demand users have been making for years is the inclusion of a notification center, one place where they can go to see a listing of recent calls, texts, e-mails, and social media notifications.
This function has always been a component of the Live Tiles – as well as the Lock Screen – but this system wasn’t fully centralized, nor did it always provide a lot of detail.
Additionally, “toast” notifications, or banner notifications as they’re now called, appear only fleetingly, and if you didn’t catch what they said when they popped up, there was no way, short of looking through your Live Tiles and finding what app had notified you, to view them after they disappeared.
Enter the Action Center, which can be accessed – even from the Lock Screen – by swiping down from the top.
Beyond seeing notifications, you can also toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and Rotation Lock through buttons in the Action Center, and quickly launch All Settings.
I’m told that this is pretty much the same as what’s available on Android and iOS.  Which…fine.  It works.  Not everything needs to be a radical new paradigm.
I have some additional thoughts about the Action Center below, but basically it does what it’s designed to do.

And now the biggest change…

“Technically, that would be Bill Gates.  No big deal.”
While voice commands have been a component of Microsoft’s mobile platform going back to the Windows Mobile days, pretty much the most famous example of voice command is Apple’s Siri, which, beyond being able to respond to simple commands, has a personality and is able to talk back to the user.
After Siri’s launch, Android got Google Now, which is a bit less chatty, but has a better contextual understanding, able to look at various pieces of data about the user in order to serve as a more efficient virtual “personal assistant” than Siri, or at least that’s my understanding; again, my experience with other smartphone platforms is limited.
With 8.1, Windows Phone introduces its own virtual personal assistant in the form of Cortana.
Taking its name from a character in the Halo series of games –an artificial intelligence that assists the Master Chief character – Cortana is something of a hybrid of Siri and Google Now, with a similar contextual awareness to the Google iteration and, like Siri, packing a personality of her own.  The title of this section is Cortana’s reply to the question, “Who is your father?”
She will also tell you jokes – “There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those who need closure.”  - sing songs, and tell you, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.” If you tell her to open the pod bay doors.
Beyond the gimmicky aspects, however, Cortana serves many useful purposes, with several unique – so far as I know – tricks of her own when compared to the other virtual personal assistants available.
Cortana actually replaces the Bing app; clicking the Search button now invokes Cortana.  Beyond search – which now extends to searching your SMS messages – she can launch apps, take notes, send texts and e-mails, dial your phone, set reminders, and perform all of the other functions you would expect a virtual personal assistant to perform.
If, like me, though I am warming to it a little, you feel strange talking to your phone – I so rarely use my phone as a phone that I even feel a little strange talking on it – she can also accept text input.  Indeed, she’s smart enough to know that if you aren’t talking, she probably shouldn’t talk either, so you don’t have to worry about her loudly announcing that she found that German scheisse porn you were looking for while you’re in the middle of a meeting.
Where she differs from Google Now is that you have a degree of control over what she knows and can know about you.  In creating Cortana – which was originally just a code name, but after information on the project leaked, thousands of users signed a petition for that to be the actual name – Microsoft interviewed several real world personal assistants, and found that many of them kept a notebook filled with information about their clients.
Cortana does the same, and you can go in and edit her notebook at any time, telling her what she can and can’t look at when gathering information about you, and also correcting any false assumptions she might make, because Cortana actually learns about you the more you utilize her services.
There’s a lot more I could say about Cortana, but plenty of others have already done so in-depth, so if you want to learn more about her, hit the interwebs and check out the various articles and videos.
Instead, I’ll just focus on my own experiences with her and say that I have, in fact, found her to be helpful, and have been amazed at how well she responds to natural language queries and commands.
I’m particularly impressed by her ability to understand context.
For example, if I ask her, “What’s my day like tomorrow?” she’ll provide me with a listing of all of my appointments.  I can then ask, “What about Saturday?” and, based on the context of my previous question, she’ll know what I’m asking.
Similarly, if you ask her to find you a Thai restaurant nearby, she’ll present you with the information on the nearest one, and if you then say, “Call it,” she’ll know that you want her to call the Thai restaurant.
Her contextual and place reminders are also pretty cool.  If I tell her “Remind me to tell Scott that Cortana is pretty cool,” she’ll take a note of it, and the next time I interact with Scott, whether on the phone, via text, or e-mail, a reminder will pop up.   (Admittedly, I might have to take additional steps to ensure she knows which Scott I mean if I have more than one in my Contact list, but even so.)
Similarly, she can set up place reminders.  For example, I can say, “Remind me to buy condoms that will sit in my drawer unused until their expiration date the next time I’m at Target,” and the next time I’m at Target, the reminder will pop up.
If you have to travel to get to an appointment – provided it has an address in the appointment – she can look at traffic data and tell you when you need to leave in order to arrive on time.
In the morning she will provide a “Daily Glance,” showing your appointments, the weather, and headline news, though I have to say that it’s pretty adorable that she thinks my day doesn’t start until 7 AM…
Again, there’s a LOT more stuff she can do, but the info is all out there, and so far these are the primary features I’ve utilized.
At present, you have to invoke by hitting the Search button or opening the app, but there is, apparently, a plan to give her an always listening mode, which would allow you to invoke her with a voice command, much like the “Ok, Google…” command, or, for the douchier among us, the “Ok, Glass…” command.

Summary:
So far, I think that 8.1 is a substantial improvement to a platform that I was already well-pleased with, despite its shortcomings, many of which have been addressed with this update.  I definitely look forward to getting the final, fully-baked, Nokia-specific update, probably sometime late this summer or early in the fall, but in the meantime, the developer preview has been a worthwhile update.

Complaints (There had to be a few):
One aspect I don’t like about Cortana is that while I’m able to specify my interests, I’m not able to modify the sources of information she pulls from when presenting me with the latest news.  This seems strange, as she’s pulling from the Bing News app, which does allow me to specify sources, and yet she’s giving me a lot of headlines from a source that I’d removed from Bing News.
As for the Action Center, while it is useful, and I like it overall, it kind of renders the “Me” tile, which had been a key differentiator from the Windows Phone competitors, irrelevant.  Indeed, much of the functionality of the tile has been stripped.  It no longer shows me my notifications, and the social media integration has been changed for the worse, in my estimation.
Previously, I could post an update to Facebook (or Twitter as well, if I so chose) directly from the Me tile via a customized WP interface.  It wasn’t robust, by any means, but it was quick and efficient.
Now, however, MS has opened up the API to allow apps to integrate with the Me tile rather than providing a built-in integration.  I understand the reasoning behind this – new features can be rolled out more rapidly via app updates than via OS updates – but the implementation, at present, is clunky.
I can still go to the Me tile and click “Post Update,” but this now results in launching the Facebook app, which isn’t exactly smooth and seamless.
Beyond the Me tile, these types of functions have been de-integrated from most of the hubs.  It’s still possible to view your photos that are in Facebook or OneDrive albums via the Photos hub, but, again, it’s not entirely seamless.  Additionally, the new Photos hub no longer has the panoramic wallpaper that it used to (which also served – and now only serves – as the background for the Photos tile), and by default it opens to an “All Pictures” view – arranged by date, and which does not include non-local files – rather than a list of available albums.
The Music app – now Xbox Music – has also changed for the worse, though oddly enough, and contrary to the experiences of other users, I find it to be a little faster.  Still, the overall experience actually marks a regression.

Conclusion:
Many reviews have stated that this really should be considered Windows Phone 9.  I agree that it’s much more than a simple point upgrade, but I don’t entirely agree with that assessment.  Even so, with this release MS is providing something that is a much more credible alternative to Android and iOS than any previous iteration, at least for those who are less ensnared in the Windows ecosystem and who don’t already feel an enthusiastic affection for this smartphone platform.
It also demonstrates that MS is committed to continuing to develop the platform, which is never a sure thing with anything that MS produces outside of its core business.
As Cortana continues to learn – she mostly exists in the cloud, and as such new features can be rolled out without requiring an update to the app or OS – and gains new functionality, she’s likely to become a strong selling point, and is less likely to become little more than a gimmick that gets old fast, which is the way many of the iPhone users I know feel about Siri.
If Microsoft rolls out a version of Cortana for its other platforms – Windows PCs/tables and the Xbox One – which they bloody well should, though, again, that’s not a sure thing* with Microsoft, there’s the very real possibility of her becoming a major game-changer.
And finally, with relaxed hardware restrictions that allow pretty much any device that can run Android to be quickly adapted to run WP, making the OS free to OEMs, the looming acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services division, and the incremental move towards a universal app model, the continued growth of the platform is there waiting to slip through Microsoft’s fingers.  Hopefully, they can manage to grab it.  Honestly, I’m kind of counting on them to screw up, but I’m hoping I’m wrong, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to be a fan of the platform for as long as it lasts.


*I’m still mad about Courier.  I will always be mad about Courier.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Heaven, Hell, Life, The Universe, And Everything

As it does every year, the time has come to extend birthday wishes to the evangelist who was inspired by the propaganda techniques of the Communist Party of China to begin releasing “gospel” tracts, which have been (ironically) loved and (unironically) hated for more than fifty years.  Happy 90th, Jack Chick!
Of course, at the same time, we have to extend our condolences, as that means that Jack has lived in this fallen world for nine decades without being vacuumed up to meet Jesus during the Rapture.  After 90 years, it has to be difficult to keep on believing that the Rapture will happen any minute now.
(How about now?  Nope.  Now?  Nope…)
He must be especially dismayed, given the rising popularity of the “entertainment” that is little more than an efficient delivery system for demonic influences.  Sorry, Jack – the Illuminati just knows how create propaganda that's more interesting and compelling than your righteous little comics.  But don't worry; I'm sure the Rapture will happen any minute, and those of us who haven't said the right magic words will suffer for our enjoyment of things like Harry Potter, role-playing games, and comic book movies.
(And...now!  ...now?)
And speaking of demonic entertainment, happy birthday to Ron “Hellboy” Perlman, who turns 63 today.  Get to work on convincing Guillermo Del Toro that the world needs more Hellboy movies before you get too old*!
And, finally, happy birthday to some dork named Jon, who, at 42, has hit the geekiest age possible, what with being the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
If Jon’s the answer, I don’t think anyone wants to know the question…

*I’m not saying he’s too old; he said it himself while working on Pacific Rim and making a case for more Hellboy.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Manual Override

I did some more digging around on the Internet and found a solution to the problem I was having on the Surface Pro with the Wacom drivers and my mouse.
It actually ended up being something that I had considered trying, though I hadn’t, as I’d just gotten sick of dealing with it and uninstalled the Wacom drivers.  I decided to give it a shot after seeing that someone else had done it and, confirming my suspicions, gotten it to work.
As I thought, the problem was that for some reason the Wacom drivers overwrote the drivers for the mouse, which caused the mouse to not work, as it isn’t a Wacom device.
The solution was to open up Device Manager, right-click on the “Wacom Device” that showed an error, choose to update the driver, then manually browse to the correct driver file.
Boom.
I’m still annoyed, however.

****

Confused Jon Is Confused Department:
This morning when I got up, after getting dressed in my workout clothes and brushing my teeth, I went out to start my car, as, despite the eventual warmth of the day, the early morning hours are still chilly, and then headed back inside, so that I could go back outside to the patio and smoke a cigarette while the car warmed up.  On the way back in I noticed that there was a package next to my door.
”That wasn’t there when I got home yesterday,” I thought.  Then, “Did I order something?”
I remembered that I had, but the thing I had ordered was a T-shirt, and while I’ve encountered my share of excessive packaging, this rather large box seemed especially excessive.
”Maybe it was left here by mistake,” I thought, but upon bringing it inside and inspecting it – determining that it was too heavy to be a shirt – I confirmed that it was, in fact, addressed to me.
”The hell…?”
I opened it up and discovered that it was this statue of Batgirl.
I stared at it in confusion for a while – in fairness to me, keep in mind that I was still pretty groggy, as it was still hours and hours before sunrise – and then thought, “Did…did I order this?  Have I been sleepshopping?”
Then, somewhere in the back of my mind, a thought occurred to me.  “Isn’t it my birthday soon?  Is this a…present?”
Why, I wondered, as he was the most likely suspect, would Scott have my present shipped to me, rather than just giving it to me in person on my birthday?
The whole thing was rather baffling, and was made moreso by the fact that I couldn’t find any sort of packing slip indicating who had bought this for me.
Finally, after digging through all of the packing material, I found the slip and discovered that it was a gift from the (former) Boss Lady, and at that point grateful Jon was grateful…and especially glad that, since it’s the “New 52” version, that she selected a character whose costume redesign I actually like.
So…thanks, (former) Boss Lady!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

It IS A Microsoft Product, After All…

So after getting more use out of my Surface Pro 2, I’ve encountered a few more problems beyond the scaling issue.
For what it’s worth, Windows 8.1 supposedly does have independent scaling, in theory, but it just doesn’t work, or at least doesn’t work in a way that yields the kind of results I want.
Basically, if you uncheck the box for choosing one scaling level for all displays, you can choose from a sliding scale that will give you more options for scaling levels.  In theory, you can try to find a sweet spot that will look okay on both displays – say 125%, for example – and when connected to an external display, the Surface will adjust the scaling accordingly.
Or something, though despite calling it that, that doesn’t sound like independent scaling to me.
It also seems to be tied to some sort of autodetect of the pixel density of your display in some fashion, though I don’t really understand the details, and I don’t see how it makes a difference, as you can’t actually select independent scaling anyway.
In practice, it doesn’t actually appear to do anything any differently from simply choosing one scaling level for all displays.
In any case, that isn’t the biggest complaint I have.
The complaint I have goes back to something that was an issue with the first generation Surface Pro:  a lack of pressure sensitivity in Photoshop.
That was kind of a huge oversight on the part of Microsoft.  After all, you’ve got a full-fledged computer that’s capable of running Photoshop, and a nice Wacom active digitizer, so naturally people are going to want to use it in Photoshop, and they’re going to expect pressure sensitivity.
Eventually, sometime before the release of the Surface Pro 2, Wacom put out some drivers that would enable pressure sensitivity in Photoshop.
What made this especially frustrating is that pressure sensitivity worked in other applications, such as Sketchbook Pro, Manga Studio, and various Windows 8 applications – of the legacy x86 variety, such as Microsoft’s One Note, and of the “modern” Windows Store variety, such as Fresh Paint – thanks to built-in drivers for the Wacom active digitizer.
Photoshop, however, doesn’t utilize those drivers, and requires a different set of drivers entirely.
One can choose to blame either Microsoft, Adobe, or both for this, but frankly, I don’t care who’s to blame; shit should just work.
In any case, Photoshop still requires those other drivers in order to recognize pressure sensitivity, so I downloaded and installed them, and, as a result, gained pressure sensitivity in Photoshop.  (I already had it in Manga Studio, as it can use either driver)
However, once I brought it back upstairs and dropped it into its docking station, I ran into a problem:  my mouse stopped working.
My mouse and keyboard are from Microsoft, and both connect to the Surface Pro via the same USB wireless dongle.  The keyboard worked fine, but the mouse wouldn’t.
Uninstalling the Wacom drivers restored the function of the mouse.
After trying the install of the Wacom drivers again, I plugged in some random old wired mouse and it worked with no issues.  Looking at the Device Manager, I noted that there was an entry for a Wacom device that had an exclamation point on it, indicating that there was some problem with it.
From what I can determine, installing the Wacom drivers somehow replaces the drivers for the Microsoft mouse with some random Wacom drivers, which, not being the correct drivers, won’t allow the Microsoft mouse to work.
I even reinstalled the keyboard and mouse software, and in the resulting setup screen that appeared after the install, it only showed the keyboard as being installed – it doesn’t see the mouse at all.
So my options are to either have pressure sensitivity in Photoshop, or have a working mouse.
Overall, as I’m largely using the Surface Pro in its docking station as a desktop computer, the need for a mouse wins out, but I have to say that it’s pretty goddamn annoying.
After all, neither the Surface Pro 2 nor Photoshop is cheap.  Hell, even the mouse and keyboard were relatively pricey.  I should be able to get my money’s worth.  And, again, I don’t care who’s at fault here*; someone needs to fix it.
For what little it’s worth, I’m not the only person who has this problem.  That’s not worth much, because no one has a solution.
Of course, there are other problems with mouse support anyway.  Upon initially docking the Surface Pro 2, the mouse cursor is invisible.  It will only reappear after undocking and re-docking.
Which, again, is shitty, and, again, I’m not the only person with that problem.  At least in this case there’s something I can do.  It’s annoying, but it works, unlike the Wacom driver issue.
So, yeah.
Still, it is a product from Microsoft, so it’s not like I dropped all that cash on the thing without expecting to have some kind of problems.
But seriously, Microsoft and/or Adobe:  get your shit together.

*That said, I do tend to blame Adobe just a little bit more than Microsoft.  After all, other software vendors – who make much less expensive products – are perfectly capable of getting their products to work with the standard driver that comes with the Surface Pro 2.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Too Clever By Half

As mentioned, I ordered a copy of Manga Studio 5 to install on the Surface Pro 2.
Unfortunately, they no longer sell it via download, so I had to order a physical copy.  Fortunately, I ordered it through Amazon at a substantial savings – almost half of the current 40% off sale price when buying it direct from Smith-Micro.
The unfortunate aspect of having to buy a physical copy is that the Surface Pro 2 doesn’t have any sort of DVD drive.
I do, however, have a spare external Blu ray burner, so I hooked that up, but the installation for that is unnecessarily complex, and I couldn’t find the installation guide, so I wasn’t able to get it to install from the DVD.
However, last night I installed an update to Manga Studio on Odin, and I realized that the downloadable “updates” are actually full installation files rather than just a patch.  You just have to provide a valid serial number in order to be able to download the updates, so I went to the update site on the Surface Pro 2 – just “the Surface” going forward – entered the serial number from my new DVD, downloaded it, and successfully installed it.
I’m so clever!
In the process of installing it, though, I learned that the license for MS5 allows you to install it on two computers, with the limitation that you can’t have both copies open at the same time.  (My Adobe Creative Cloud subscription has the same licensing terms, which is how I have Photoshop installed on the Surface and on Odin).
So, even though I got the software for about 75% less than what I paid for it the first time I bought it (not counting my later upgrade to the EX version, which I didn’t bother with for the Surface), I still ended up paying more money than I really needed to.
I’m too clever!
Oh well.  In any case, I now have MS5 on the Surface, and will begin experimenting with doing some actual drawing on it.