Samsung Announces Galaxy S4 Zoom

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When cameras first turned up in cell phones there was more than a little skepticism from the technology market and mockery from photography aficionados. No one is really laughing at the concept anymore as smartphones have taken over the top spot on image sharing sites by a wide and ever-growing margin.  It’s become obvious that the camera people use the most is the one they have with them and the one they have with them is embedded in their phone.  It’s no surprise when convenience triumphs in the technology market.

If a little is good a lot must be better, right? That appears to be Samsung’s philosophy with the latest variation of the S4 Galaxy, called the Zoom, that takes smartphone photography to another level. One could argue the Zoom is more like a camera that makes phone calls and appears to be the second generation of the Galaxy Camera.

Like Batman’s nemesis Two-Face, the S4 Zoom is clearly a device of two minds. One side has a retracting 10x zoom in front of 1/2.3 in 16-megapixel image CMOS sensor, the other side is all S4 Android smartphone. The camera side includes extras like image stabilization, an actual in-camera flash instead of the anemic LED flashlight imitation on most phones and image editing software.

The marriage of phone and camera is further enhanced by some clever software tricks such as the ability to send someone pictures via MMS while on the phone with them without interrupting the call. Of course, there’s no guarantee who you’re calling will be able to view the photos without interrupting their side of the call, but one has to start somewhere.

Other features include dual-band N wifi, Android 4.2 and a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera. The real devil will be in details like photo workflow, battery life and picture quality before I can pronounce the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom the holy grail of point-and-shoot photography but it is an interesting step in that direction all the same.

I could see the S4 Zoom replacing camera purchases for many people getting ready to go on vacation and it’s thin enough they’re not going to resent carrying it around when they get home. It does hint at some interesting possibilities for real-time applications involving photos and videos. My sense is this is going to be a niche model at best, but time will tell.

Will iOS Rally Against Android?

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In the battle between Android and iOS the next move will be Apple’s and likely announced at WWDC, which is already underway.

So far the tide seems to have shifted in Android’s direction and it seems likely iOS will have to bend in the direction of being more customizable going forward. That’s a big change for Apple, which has so far remained tightly in control of the user experience. Android is open and customizable, iOS far less so.

More Than Lock Screen Widgets

Users want more than screen widgets from Apple, they want apps that can manage calls, change the keyboard layout, customize the home screen and make substantive changes to the user experience. All things allowed with Android, but not iOS. It will be interesting to see how far Apple is willing to go in letting users and application developers run as it quickly runs into functionality such as application data sharing and allowing users to select default applications, two features currently not available on iOS.

Not The Only Challenge For Apple

Apple is facing challenges on several fronts, including phasing in streaming from iTunes which hit an early snag when a bug allowed test users to stream any pre-release album. Oops. Getting out from under the iTunes download only model has put Apple behind the curve in some respects to more established competitors and playing from behind is an unaccustomed position for them.

They’re also facing litigation by the DoJ that paints Apple as the ringmaster in an ebook price fixing scheme. It’s good to remember that the last time a government lawsuit actually changed anything was 1984 with the breakup of AT&T, though it’s an unneeded distraction at a time when Apple should be focusing on its product pipeline and customers.

The Post Steve Jobs Era

Apple is the same company with mostly the same people running it and only one big change at the top. Yet ever since Job’s death it seems as though Apple has struggled to find its footing in product development. For the first year afterwards it seemed like they were going to pull it together as their share price continued to climb, but recently Apple stock has returned to prices not seen since Jobs was alive and product development has lost its cutting edge appeal.

Pro users are hoping for a reason to stay with Apple and the Mac Pro product manager’s promise of “something really different” is coming late as many have already started considering PC alternatives. Video pros were already feeling snubbed by the FXP X fiasco and if the “something really different” doesn’t wow video editors, many of them could drop Apple altogether.

Perhaps WWDC will put all these fears and the sense of general unease to rest and demonstrate that Apple’s problems are related to communication rather than any real issues with their product development. It promises to be an interesting day for Apple watchers and many of those watchful eyes will be on Wall Street.

Windows RT – It’s Dead, Jim

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According to Bloomberg and other sources Microsoft is cutting the price of Windows RT, though that may be a mute issue since few hardware manufacturers are planning on fielding an RT device.

Windows RT was supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS but, like the Zune, it turned out to be a poorly implemented imitation. Microsoft gave RT a few Windows tricks, but the platform is incompatible with many big Windows software applications. Coders had to choose between Windows 8 and RT and that was not a difficult decision for most developers.

Hardware manufacturers are unloading their RT devices faster than AT&T is dumping the Facebook phone. HP and Samsung have dropped support and Acer’s CEO announced today the company is still deciding if they intend to offer an RT device, but definitely seem to leaning toward abandoning those plans.

While the Zune was a blunder Microsoft, and the rest of the tech community, could laugh off one wonders how many high-profile blunders the company can sustain and still stay relevant. The Redmond giant trying to compete with Apple always reminded me of your dad hitting on your college-age girlfriends; part sad, part creepy and a little uncomfortable.

In fairness to Microsoft, Windows RT may have looked like a good idea in the days when Android tablets were really expensive and online productivity apps were still in their infancy. These days cloud productivity has improved to the point many businesses started questioning the cost of Office, Android tablets dropped to the $200 price range and 64 percent of smartphones sold the first quarter of this year will be running some flavor of Android.  The domination of Android makes Windows RT look out of place and Microsoft appear out of touch.

All this culminates with news from the Wall Street Journal that Microsoft is now engaged in a massive reorganization starting with laying off 200 employees in various marketing divisions. As the era of big PCs comes to a close it’s going to be interesting to see if Microsoft can find its footing and a path forward in a rapidly changing technology market.

Five Hacks To Make Your Android Phone Do Awesome Things

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Technically a “hack” for your phone involves rooting it first, but that can cause problems such as voiding your warranty and, in extreme cases, can brick your phone. That’s bad.  Short of that there’s still a lot you can do to change the look and function of your phone without worrying about the downsides of rooting an expensive device that you depend upon heavily.

If you’ll allow me to use the softer definition of “hack” here are some great tools for making your phone do some pretty awesome tricks.

Fix The Annoying Autocorrect On The Galaxy S4

jb_keyboardInstead of real autocorrect, the Galaxy S4 and several other phone models, have a suggestion bar where you pick the word you want. Some people are okay with that, others miss the speed of real autocorrect. It’s easy to have autocorrect your way with an app called Jelly Bean Keyboard that also gives you the option of a split screen keyboard for thumb typing.

Run Your House With Iris

The Iris system available at Lowes stores makes home automation a breeze by packaging the system for you. Turn lights on and off, change the thermostat, even look around inside your house all from your Android phone. Iris is one of the few that gives you a decent amount of control from the free subscription account and $9.99 a month for more advanced controls, including contractor “day pass” access codes.

Improved Themes With Beautiful Widgets Pro

beautiful_widgetsTired of the stock themes and boring widgets on your Android phone? Apparently a lot people are because Beautiful Widgets Pro is one of the longest running top rated apps on Google Play. Get thousands of themes and different layouts. Go ahead and spend the $2 for the pro version, it’s worth the coin.

Harness Your Computers Media Power With Gmote 2

Gmote allows you to start and stop movies or music from a distance, stream music to your phone and even run your PowerPoint presentation. It’s like a remote control for your PC or laptop.

The Name Is Bond, James Bond

mobile_cameraWith Mobile Hidden Camera you can turn your phone into a stealth surveillance device, taking pictures or recording video without them appearing on your screen. Autoshot and burst mode options available for taking pictures and a stealth mode that makes it look like your device is powered off. A word of warning there 007, recording conversations may not be strictly legal in every state. And bring the car back in one piece, will you?

Six Awesome Apps For Your New Android Phone

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Connected devices are taking over as the world undergoes the most momentous technology shift since the internet was first opened up to the public. The same way PCs took over from mainframes, mobile devices are quickly replacing PCs and full size laptops.

Smartphone prices continue to drop and screen sizes get wider as more people want to do more things on their phone. It’s not so much that smartphones are taking over, it’s connected devices that are taking over and some of them happen to make phone calls. And what we’re seeing today is just the warmup act, what’s coming is even more amazing.

In the meantime smartphones have taken over our lives and have become more than a convenient phone, they are task managers, a compass when you’re lost, a light in the darkness, a still camera, a video camera and a device to watch movies and play games.

If you’re new to smartphones, here are the first six apps you’ll want to explore on that new Android phone. I was going to put Google Now on top of the list, but that’s only available for Android 4 and, for the five or six people who have that, it’s an awesome feature. The rest of us have to wait and that’s why Now didn’t make my list.

What you can get right now is amazing enough.

Netflix

netflixNearly identical to the experience you get on your PC. Even at 3G speeds you can still watch your favorites movies and TV shows. In fact, for spouses that Netflix cheat (watch an episode before their partner) most often that cheating happens on their phone.

Any.Do

any.doIf your life is driven by a hectic schedule, tame the wild timeline of your life with Any.Do. Featuring online sync, task snoozing, speech recognition, and a raft of options for reminding you about appointments, Any.Do is your digital valet. While it may not cover for you on the last bender, you can wipe away the evidence with a flick of your finger. Like it was never there.

The Weather Channel

weather_channelThis app made our list of Top Rated Weather Apps and is a must have if weather is a concern. Whether you’re at home or on the road the weather will never again sneak up on you and ruin your outing.

Pocket

pocketWhen you see something online you want to read later, store it in Pocket. The best part is you can sync Pocket across multiple devices for later viewing. You can also archive stories after reading them which are searchable by subject.

Google Hangouts

hangoutsIf your phone has dual cameras Hangouts is awesome for being able to have face to face meetings on the go anywhere. I use hangouts to routinely talk to family and friends and have regular meetings with a publisher in Virginia. Flip between rear and forward cameras to show your friends a view of where you are.

Google Voice

voiceIf you didn’t have enough reasons to get Google Voice before, you have another good one now. A Google Voice number is better than a burner phone and coupled with the app it’s nearly seamless on your phone. You can give it out to anyone without any connection back to your regular phone number. Screen calls, block numbers or route callers to specific voicemail boxes. The feature most people like the most on Google Voice is the transcripts of voicemails which is free, most cellular providers are charging extra for that feature. Google Voice is better than a phone number.

This is far from an exhaustive list but it will get you started with a set of features that will transform the phone in your hand into an information gateway to the world around you.

Like I said up above, this is just the warmup act. What’s coming just around the corner is even more amazing.

Gmail Update Borgs iOS Default Apps

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Google recently rolled out update to Gmail for iOS that will open links to Google services in the native Google app, if they’ve been installed. If you click on a YouTube link or Maps, the update will skip Safair and open the link in the corresponding Google app. The interesting twist is that standard URLs will open in Chrome instead of Safari.

So far both Google and Apple have been mum on the change and it remains to be seen if Apple will roll back some of these features. Apple doesn’t let users pick default applications in the iPhone, so this bold move by Google circumvents the typical user experience. Users can opt to turn the feature off, even at that it seems surprising Apple approved such a sweeping change.

Overall I see this as a good thing and Apple should get props for giving users the option to modify their default applications, even if it comes in the form of a hack by a competitive company. It’s a positive change that will make the iPhone even more attractive as users won’t have to choose between their favorite phone and their favorite online service apps. If Apple pushes users too hard they’ll switch to Android, it seems smarter to cooperate.

The world of technology truly does make some interesting bedfellows sometimes and it’s going to be fascinating to watch this change play out.

PC Sales Plunge But Is It Fair To Blame Windows 8?

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Global PC sales suffered a dramatic drop in sales the last three months; the numbers were startling even considering PC sales in general have slumped over the last year. The news took a bite out of PC makers and Microsoft stock prices with HP losing 6.5 percent and Microsoft losing 4.4 percent.

While it would be easy to blame Microsoft and Windows 8 for the sudden collapse of PC sales, and as a Linux user I would find that somewhat satisfying, this is really a problem that runs deeper than the operating system for the PC industry.

Even my big Linux PC doesn’t see as much use lately, there just isn’t any compelling reason to fire it up. I have a laptop that meets my needs just fine, so why bother with the big hardware? Sometimes when I’m doing photo editing I miss my big, dual monitors but that’s about the only time. The problem for the PC market may not be Windows (for once) but the improvements in more compact hardware and connected devices.

One could have predicted the continued popularity of smaller connected devices by looking at Japan where the connected device market is nearly a decade ahead of the U.S. and has continued to eat away at PC sales as most consumers just don’t need big applications.

Productivity Applications In The Cloud

Probably the most disruptive change for the technology market is the easy availability of productivity apps. If you still need desktop productivity you have many options; gone are the days when Office was the only serious game in town. Online apps like Google Docs and Zoho are quickly replacing desktop applications all together, even for big companies like KLM and Disney. Those tools will only get more functional and ubiquitous as time goes on.

Without productivity apps what does that really leave for big boxes? Video editing, gaming, maybe big graphics work, not really a long list.

So it’s not just an operating system issue. There’s enough power in relatively modest hardware to do most of the tasks users require. New tablets, netbooks and smartphones don’t need an outside monitor or mouse and even keyboards are optional. Storage and applications are moving to the cloud, reducing even the need for external storage. Connected devices are light, convenient and powerful, cheap enough to be almost disposable and you don’t need Geek Squad or an IT department to set it up for you. The OS is largely peripheral to the equation.

To be fair Windows 8 does deserve some of the blame. Instead of separating the desktop and device markets, Microsoft went for a one-size-fits-all solution that didn’t really work for anyone. That was followed by the Microsoft admission that Office for Android will be delayed by at least a year. In the meantime Google is forging ahead with the integration of Google Docs and QuickOffice.

For the time being Microsoft Office still dominates the productivity market, but one wonders how long they can maintain the lead while absorbing a near continuous series of body blows, some of which are self-inflicted. It’s good to remember that RCA once dominated the personal electronics market and Kodak dominated imaging. In their day it seemed impossible that more nimble competitors could overtake them, but that’s exactly what happened.

Microsoft needs to pull it together or their legacy is going to be joining the ranks of those serving as a warning to companies of the future.

Where Is The Chromebook Trend Going?

gallery-trackpadI’ve been watching the connected device trend develop for the last ten years and it’s just now starting to get interesting. What happens to the device market from here will depend a lot on the established players in the PC industry.

When I say “established players” I don’t mean Microsoft, which is meeting the Chromebook challenge the same way they met the Android challenge; by signing deals with hardware manufacturers to pay them off to avoid patent litigation. Chromebook supplier Wistron recently signed a deal to pay the Microsoft patent tax on Chromebooks and there will be others. You’re already paying the same Microsoft patent premium on Android devices.

That is an unsustainable business model for Microsoft that also seems a little pathetic. Sticking to it will ultimately leave Microsoft as relevant in the technology world as Kodak is in the world of imaging.

Connected devices like tablets and Chromebooks are at a clumsy stage in their own development. Chromebooks are not quite replacements for a full size laptop or desktop but they’re powerful enough for 90 percent of the routine tasks most people perform on their larger computers.

It’s that last 10 percent that’s going to determine whether connected devices become the standard or we all face up to buying a new generation of laptops. Right now the last mile for Chromebooks are applications like Illustrator, Photoshop and heavy video editing and rendering in applications like Premiere Pro. Chromebooks just don’t have the juice to run big apps and the native applications are still a ways off. A lot will depend on where development goes at places like Adobe, which is heavily invested in the desktop market.

Productivity applications, like Word and Excel, are starting to fall to cloud alternatives although adoption is irregular. I’m not counting productivity apps in the 10 percent of applications keeping people chained to a laptop.

Hardware manufacturers have seen the disembodied hand writing on the wall and jumped into the device market, but it’s low-end hardware. The hardware limitations almost seem designed to protect the manufacturer’s own laptop and desktop market. So far only Google has dared put more punch into Chromebook appliances but the pricetag will certainly discourage many people from even considering a high powered appliance which is a little like being able to brag about having the fastest go-kart in town.

For the moment, Google’s Pixel is the fastest go-kart in town but with its sleek aluminum construction, boot up times measured in seconds and high definition monitor it shows what Chromebooks are capable of being at a time PC and laptop manufacturers may secretly want them to go the way of netbooks. Chromebooks, and the concept behind them, are very disruptive to the big hardware and big software models that have been around for decades.

Google knows that and isn’t standing still to give anyone a chance to corral Chromebooks to serve the status quo. Development for Android and native applications for Chromium OS are flying ahead and the features of an online operating system like instant backups, cloud synchronization, automatic updates and integration of Google services are already compelling features that can only improve in the days ahead.

The real sea change will come if Adobe releases functionally competitive cloud versions of their popular image editing and video editing software. If they wait too long that runs the risk of watching their market share be eaten away by more nimble competitors.

For now most of us are still juggling a smartphone, which we use increasingly more often, a laptop or desktop, which we use less often and are loath to carry, and some assortments of tablets, netbooks or e-readers. What you’ll be carrying in two years and what operating system it will be running is still up in the air, but what is certain is you will have more functionality in fewer devices.

Google Now Coming To Your Desktop

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Google Now is a mobile Android app that takes predictive technology to the next level. So much so that one starts to wonder exactly where the line between “convenience” and “creepy” is actually drawn. Google Now knows where you’re going, when you’re going to get there and can make some eyebrow-raising guesses at what you’re going to need when you arrive. All that combined with reminder and organization features that make Siri look primitive by comparison.

I do have to say the convenience is quite amazing; during your commute to work Google Now will map out alternate routes in case you run into traffic and keep you posted on train and bus schedules. Near mealtimes Now will present a panel with nearby restaurants and if you’re by a particular restaurant it will present the menu. Besides the location features Now also keeps tabs on the weather, notifies you of changes to your flights when traveling, keeps you on schedule for your appointments and keeps you posted on your travel time back home. The panels in Google Now are constantly changing to provide information about where you are and what it thinks you might need when you get where you’re going.

Now speculation abounds that Google is getting ready to integrate Now with the desktop. Support for Windows and Chrome OS have been spotted in the wild and, once the applications are opened up to third party developers, the universe that is Google Now could expand dramatically.

Imagine the possibilities for a suite of applications that coordinate both your work and personal life, for those of you fortunate enough to have a life outside work. Google Now would know when you’re at the office and switch over to desktop mode automatically, when your phone leaves it knows you’re on the move and starts populating your panels with relevant information.

The big, red flag with applications like Now is, of course, privacy. Google Now not only can take a guess about where you’re going but it will know everywhere you’ve been. If you’re around other people also on the service, the system would be able to build a relationship matrix in the background, both in your working and private life. And that’s just your physical location information. Google would be able to combine all that with what knows from your email, contacts and search as well.

In the age old battle between privacy and convenience, the smart money is on convenience. But now we’re starting to get into some pretty scary privacy territory. Santa Claus won’t be the only one who knows when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake, or whether you’ve been naughty or nice. As more of our life revolves around our phones, the greater the privacy implications. And there’s no place to hide from your own phone.

For now the Google Now server URL remains out of reach for testing, but as soon as it’s available, you can check back here for the full review.

Home Automation Coming To Your Living Room

home_automateYou can tell home automation has come a long way when the cable company starts selling the service. That means the systems are packaged, reasonably affordable and within the skill of their contract installers to put in. Not putting down cable companies or their installers, who have always done a good job for me, but if you’re at all handy with simple tools there’s no need to pay the cable company every month for what you can do yourself.

These days home automation systems are becoming easier to assemble thanks to both hobbyists and home improvement specialists. Simple controls, most of which can be activated from a smartphone application, include:

- Wireless cameras
- Door locks
- Interior light controls
- Smart thermostats
- Various outdoor modules

If you really want to go big you can add more sophisticated systems, like programmable zone heating and cooling, which requires some specialized equipment and expertise to install.

Z-Wave and Zigbee

New wireless mesh standards like Z-Wave and Zigbee have helped standardize functions and make packaging of new devices easier. In your home you can literally have light switches and door locks creating their own self-discovering networks. While that may make some concerned about security, in the age old contest between security and convenience, always bet on convenience. What’s security compared to having the lights come on and garage door open when you pull in the driveway?

DIY Projects Mature

There are many mature DIY projects, including one that utilizes the new Raspberry Pi. Most of these started out as hobbyist projects but have matured enough a few of them are no longer routinely updated.

Enter Lowesiris

Lowes has fielded the Iris system that’s a turn-key, unified package of home automation products that utilize Wifi, Z-Wave and Zigbee and source from a variety of vendors. But Lowe’s is insuring that any controller with the Iris logo will be compatible with their system. It’s a brilliant move of the type that is increasingly rare in established companies.

Iris already has both Android and iOS apps for controlling the system and offers an upgrade service for $9.99 that adds additional functionality, including scheduling options.

Between packaged systems like Iris and a myriad of mature roll-your-own DIY systems, it’s now within reach of people with a minimal amount of skill with common tools and a little bit of technical ability to install some of these systems on their own.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a front door that can be opened electronically, but there are numerous options for operating lights, wall outlets, security cameras and saving energy that can be implemented without worrying about the neighbor kid hacking your front door.