Friday, June 22, 2012

How Apple Passbook Works

Vidit Bhargava
Apple released their latest iteration of iOS, last week at the WWDC 2012. Amongst many enhancements (which included a completely new vector based maps tool too) the announcement of a new inbuilt app called Passbook was slightly side lined. What exactly is Passbook? Or How is it going to change our Wallets?

Passbook is a pre-installed iOS 6 Application which will let you view your digital gift cards, coupons, boarding passes, shopping cards, etc. You can then use them instead of their offline counterparts.

Say you book a travel ticket, and receive an online boarding pass via email. Now at the airport you’ll have to search through your emails for that boarding pass and then get it scanned. Apple simplifies this task with the Passbook tool. The Airlines can create a Passbook based boarding pass and share it to you via email, which you can then open in your passbook application. Once in the passbook app, your new digital boarding pass will be updated real time. Also when you are near to the airport a push notification will come up at your lock screen, through which you can instantly access the pass!

Passbook can also store your movie, sports tickets, gift cards, store cards or whatever that qualifies as a coupon, pass or ticket.

Here’s how it works: The developer creates a passbook pass using Apple’s Pass-Kit API and then shares it to the user via Email, URLs or an iPhone App. The User then opens up the pass (ticket, coupon or card) on his phone, which takes him to the Passbook app and the pass is stored. Now the user can get push notifications for his pass. (For Example, if a certain store whose store card is in your passbook is near by, a notification will come up on your phone telling you that a certain store is in the vicinity, you can then open it to use it, as you enter the store)

Passbook is sure to provide a very productive future to the iOS Users. Almost certainly the weight of wallet is going to drop a bit, as you get rid of all those membership cards and gift coupons and instead store them on your phone.

But Passbook is a little far from perfect. There is a certain lack of availability of advanced 2D Bar Code Readers at many places. Currently Passbook Passes are restricted to embedding 2D or QR Bar Codes only, this is going to demand inputs from the companies to install the new and more expensive 2D Code Scanners at their shops. Here Developers might have to step in, by providing necessary hardware for many of their clients. The same is going to be a problem with many other countries all over the world. So if major outlets are willing to provide these services, they’ll need to actually have proper hardware first.

The success of the Passbook depends on how companies take steps to utilize it and how fast they install the necessary hardware. With Passbook Apple is not trying to digitalize your wallet but its creating a tool for online Passes. Much like what Adobe Reader is to PDF files, Passbook is to Digital Passes (only those created via Apple’s Pass-kit!)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Microsoft Surface First Impressions

Vidit Bhargava

Filled with gloss, covers, lights and music, Microsoft Surface made an appearance in a pressure sensitive magnetic cover’s ad today. Or was it the other way round? Well at least that’s what I felt when i first saw the Microsoft Surface Teaser Video. It’s evident that they are stressing on a part of the tablet which is neither unique nor uniquely designed. And since one generally tries to highlight the best of a device in his video, we may safely presume that this is the best they can offer us.

So, lets start with this new pressure sensitive keyboard attached to a smart cover like polyurethane (or a similar substance) ‘cover’. At first glance this pressure sensitive keyboard cum smart cover looks amazing. Some way even think that it’ll be their best typing experience on any device. But the final product may just act opposite to what you think its going to be. Microsoft’s protective cover is a razor thin keyboard. It’s razor thin and its flat. Which means, that it is more than likely that you’ll get a sprain in your hands than type comfortably for hours. This thing is quite ergonomically unfit. Moreover, you are going to need to touch the screen for any assistance while typing. And using multitouch on any screen which is perpendicular to your hands is a cumbersome experience. That’s the  ergonomic issue number 2. The third and the final issue which comes when you try to use this cover is the option to use it as a laptop and start using a track pad. Windows 8 is a dual minded software. It wants to be in your tablet as well as at your desk. History tells us, that its a bad idea. Microsoft itself has created and failed at this task. They’re trying again. My experiences with Windows 8 so far, tell me that its going to be a uphill task to actually stay at one UI and work efficiently. You can’t use the old UI efficiently with a Tablet and there aren’t many apps for Metro UI on the Windows Marketplace / Store.

In terms of hardware, Surface provides just about what all other tablets do. Its got a Tegra 3 Processor and 32GB and 64GB of Storage options + an SD Card Slot. There is also a USB Port which is a slight stroke of brilliance, since it may allow you to use your controllers and keyboard and mouse and everything and convert it into a notebook, if you get too annoyed with the touch experience or want a slightly better gaming experience. But then its just one USB Port and games that run on traditional PCs might not run on Windows 8 RT tablets. Also unlike as advertised, charging your phone on a tablet might not be the best idea if its own battery life is short (Microsoft is still to give a word on battery life). While the Magnesium casing is new and on first impressions looks sturdy, The back of the tablet is particularly uninteresting and slightly clumsy on design. There is a “Stand” that you can kick to put it at a good angle for watching movies, which is a good tool (only if its strong enough to not keep flapping every-time we hold our tablet), but it seriously harms the over all feel of the device since now you are left with a very bad looking back, with screws and stands all over. The tablet is just as thin as the new iPad (9.3 mm) and it weighs about 603 grams. A lot depends on how this hardware will eventually perform.

Surface runs on Windows 8. Windows 8 RT to be precise. While its a nice experience with the metro UI placed on the screen, its not going to be as good when you try to run some of the old UI software. Its going to be a little annoying. Having said that, there are a lot of pre-installed apps on the Metro UI too, and they look beautiful. Since I haven’t used the tablet my self I might not be able to tell you exactly how good or bad it is. (My experience with Windows 8 on a laptop was quite miserable)

The Microsoft Store however, is  yet to take any flight and with Microsoft’s ultra-strict app approval policies, tedious development standards and slightly inferior SDK and APIs its going to be tough to lure new developers to create apps solely for Windows 8. As of now iOS remains their preferred choice.

Well that’s pretty much it about the Microsoft Surface. We don’t have any pricing details or launch dates or even battery life quotes. All we have is a promo promoting the Touch Type Cover.

Microsoft Surface will have quite a task at eliminating internal competition with other tablet developers who are creating Windows 8 Tablets. Of what we have seen today at the unveiling the Microsoft Surface is not even close to be in competition with the iPad. The iPad sits firmly at the top with a well grounded operating system which is in its sixth edition and a huge developer database, Something which all other tablet Operating Systems lack.  Also Its got a massive head-start and Apple has so-far only improved the Tablet experience per upgrade. Which has left no-room for the aping competitors to step in. Surface is hardly a killer to the iPad.

Having said all that, we are still to get our hands on a Microsoft Surface Device, and it isn’t coming before Fall (That’s when Windows 8 is likely to be unveiled for Consumers), till then its hard to say if its going to be a success or not. I have given my impressions on the Tablet, the numbers will do the talking now.

And Did I forget to mention that there is going to be a second variant of this tablet, too. Its going to be called Surface Pro. They are adding an Ivy Bridge Quad Core i5 Processor into it, A USB 3.0 Port and a Mini-Display Port into it. There is also going to be a stylus for that tablet. And its going to be heavier and thicker. And it’ll have Windows 8 Pro (These names still remind of the prank Jobs played at them, at the launch of OS X Leopard)

P.S. I may have been  a little harsh at Microsoft Sometimes but seriously the first impressions were taken without being affected by previous experience with the Software Firm.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Being First. Does it Matter?

Vidit Bhargava
What was the world's first smartphone? The world's first camera on phone? Who was the first to come up with touch-screen technology? Who invented the light-bulb? The answers to these questions might be too trivial for you to remember. But are they important? Do you really need to care about the first in businesS? Or is it the best you want?

People and companies sometimes screw themselves by selecting a really new technology for their new gadget. Evidently they want the newest and best for their gadget. The tech-world is as it is highly competitive. Also the silicon valley giants are always under threat of some passionate Stanford or Harvard Grad who'd ace them with his new upbeat ideas. Its a cut throat battle out there and coming first, getting a patent and pushing some crazy new technology into your next gadget is sure to get a lot of attention.

But what most people overlook is the fact that being first doesn't mean that it is the best. Technology, like a life form, evolves. If you try to use it before it's mature enough to be used, you will end up with a buggy gadget that never works and no one likes. But if you wait for it to evolve, you perfect it, and then harness its technology into creating something powerful and economical, you might come up with something better that'll change the world around you.

The history of the light-bulb (much in question these days, due to Oatmeal's apotheosis of Tesla) has a lot for us to learn. It is clear that Thomas Elva Edison never came up with the first light-bulb. The first we saw something of the sort of an incadenscent bulb was when Humphery Davy created first incandescent light by passing the current through a thin strip of platinum in 1802. But then that's not how we use the light bulb in our homes, do we? Edison was the first to create a bulb which was feasable for public use. It was something that wasn't expensive nor harmful. It was the best of the many light-bulbs invented before and after his version. He became successful and trumped over the 22 inventors of light-bulb before him. Today he's widely known as the inventor of the light bulb (even though there were people before him). That's the classic example of how the best technology is the one which is evolved enough to be in a product and is feasible for the consumers. Had we all been delivered Humphery Davy's Incadencent light, well.. the future would have been darker than one could imagine.

Inventing new technology is just half the work done. Successfully implementing it into a fine product is what matters.