Windows 8, Some Essential Apps

I’ve been using Windows 8 since December 2011, developing a game which has been released just before Windows 8’s launch. It didn’t take long, but I very quickly learnt to love the operating system. The improvements to the core desktop have been solid, and the metro interface is becoming more useful as more apps become available. This is my pick of apps with ‘Metro’ interface support:

Wordfeud

This hit iOS/Android game has been in the Windows 8 store for free for a long time now. As an avid player, this was my first regular metro app. Playing during the morning commute on my Android phone, and responding to the same game in the evening on my laptop. The game’s really polished, and the developer has definitely done a great job making it work on the bigger screen.

Wordfeud

When my boss sees this he’ll know what letters I have.

Can be found in the store.

Google Chrome

Yes, this is a metro app. Somewhere around August, Google pushed through an update to Chrome’s desktop app adding Metro support. Given that I normally use it on the desktop, I didn’t initially notice. Until I clicked a link in a Metro app, and it asked me whether I wanted to use Internet Explorer or Chrome. No doubt, I wanted to use Chrome, and it happily opened a fullscreen Metro app. It’s also almost an exact copy of the desktop version, and includes account synchronizing.

Google Chrome

I am in no way hinting that you should look at my new website. Which can be found at davidgoemans.com.

This one isn’t in the store but can be downloaded from Google, as it’s included in Chrome’s desktop version.

Booking.com

I swear I had just made a conscious note to start using airbnb instead of Booking.com as my primary accommodation site, but then I saw this app. Beautiful.

It’s about time I took the wife to Italy

Google Search

Google has come a long way as a search engine, and now you can pretty much ask it a bunch of questions. Combined with windows integration, you end up with the ability to ask Windows those questions. This blows my mind.

This is my test question whenever I’m messing with voice search on my phone

This is in the store.

Evernote

As usual, these guys have a great experience on a new platform. It’s familiar, but still looks native to Windows 8. The important stuff is there; it syncs with your account and allows you to take notes. During the development of Rocket Riot 3D, we found this was one of the few apps that actually integrates sharing properly, and as such we made it possible to share both text and screenshots to Evernote.

Evernote

I bet Microsoft won’t like this note I took during Unite 2012.

It’s in the store.

Windows Search Functionality

I mentioned in passing that Windows integrates search functionality. While this seems like a cool thing, it’s worth considering the implications of this. When I hit the start button and type what I want to search for, I can do it via any range of applications that support this. What this means is that I can search for “How cold is it in London” in Windows 8, and direct it to use Google! This kind of integrated system means you have a unified environment from which you can get any information. In a way, this is like your web browser, but extended with extra native functionality from sources of your choosing. It’s a matter of time before someone makes apps that let me set alarms by typing in the search bar. That’s almost like Android and iOS let you do, except it’s in Windows. In your primary OS†. That’s big.

The only thing I really know about Chicago is that it’s where Oprah did her show.

Note that these were the apps that I could review pre-launch. Skype made a brief appearance in the store, but got pulled, so I haven’t had a chance to look at that or plenty of other apps which will be out when Windows is launched. If these apps are any indication to the future of the Windows Store, I am very excited at the prospects!

† I know, <blah blah custom app> allows you to do this in <any OS you can think of>. Sure, but it’s not integrated by default. What that means is that there are official, in the system APIs for using this. Developers can easily plug into this without having to support <blah blah other third party app>. That’s really important to make it feel native, and so that every app implements it.

Openness has little to do with it

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about piracy on Android. This came after Madfinger Games dropped Dead Trigger’s Android price to $0 citing piracy as the reason. A day or two after, a developer by the name of Matt Gemmell wrote a post criticizing Android for how open it is and how its openness drives piracy. Along with that came some bad reporting, implying that Matt Gemmell was a developer for Madfinger Games. In my opinion, openness has little to do with it and there are some things that need to be cleared up here.

Piracy happens on iOS

There seems to be a lot of misinformation about Android piracy. It happens, and I don’t doubt that piracy rates on Android are much higher than on iOS, but that doesn’t mean that iOS is invulnerable. The developer of FingerKicks, a popular iOS game, had a pretty horrible experience too. “FingerKicks has sold only 1163 legitimate copies but there are at least 15,950 pirated copies being played on a regular basis on Apple’s Game Center” [link]. That’s about the same figure we heard from the Dead Trigger devs. All you need is a jailbroken iPhone, and jailbreaking an iPhone is easier than installing a custom ROM on my Nexus S – the device for OS hackers.

Then there was the story recently about a Russian hacker who managed to redirect iOS in-app purchases through his own server. Apparently this didn’t even require a jailbroken iOS device, and it was very simple to setup. The Next Web reported that “30,000+ in-app purchases have been made through Borodin’s service” [link].

iOS is not free of this, and despite being a closed system, piracy is still a big deal.

Users who paid that much money for a phone don’t need to pirate.

Ye I said it. The iPhone is a luxury product. As is the Samsung Galaxy SIII. People who paid upward of $500 cash or $150 on contract for a phone are less likely to have an issue paying $1 for an app. Apple’s business model is, to a large extent, one of vendor lock in, so most users are used to paying extra money for Apple services and products. Sure, they make high quality, attractive looking products, but those come at a premium price. I sure wouldn’t go and sully my beautiful top of the range smart phone with pirated products, potentially containing malware. We also shouldn’t forget that while Apple’s iPhone 4S costs $199 on contract, Samsung’s Galaxy Y costs $159 on prepaid. Android has a much wider range of users, from the ones who can afford apps to show off how rich they are, to tech savvy teens who don’t have access to their parent’s credit cards…

Google’s market still requires a credit card in most countries.

iTunes has considerably better payment options. Until recently Google Play lacked paid market support for most countries. There are many cases where people pirate, not because they don’t want to pay, but because they don’t have a legal way of getting the app ( or music or movies or TV show ). This phenomenon is relatively common. For example, Game of Thrones was one of the most watched TV shows around the world this past year, especially in countries where it wasn’t being broadcast. While Google Play might have a paid market in the Netherlands, it doesn’t have payment options. The Netherlands is one of those odd countries where people generally don’t have credit cards. I know many people with Android phones who don’t have paid access to the Play store. I see iTunes vouchers in my local super market, but never Google Play vouchers. Google need to work at this.

Google is doing something.

Although OS updates are slow on Android ( this deserves another post lamenting device manufacturers ), Android 4.1 automatically encrypts all applications and generates a per device key for each application. Google realise that piracy is easy on Android, so they’re trying things to make it more difficult. It may not be enough, and I still think they should focus more on increasing payment options globally, but it’s a step forward.

Free-to-play generates more money on all mobile platforms.

Free to play and Freemium games generate more money on average on mobile platforms. Developing mobile games with a standard cash-on-sale business model is no longer advised by many analysts. Nicholas Lovell has publish much about this, and in my own experience in the mobile games industry, I agree with him. Going free isn’t automatically bad. Free-to-play works around piracy for the most part, and generates more revenue than paid apps. It’s the way forward and I respect Madfinger for trying it in an industry of peer pressure not to. Hopefully they’ll see the benefits of Free-to-play and build their next games around it.

Open has little to do with it

I see many issues here, but openness is not one of them. Openness means that it’s easier for the 1% of technical users to install custom operating systems and hack their phones. That 1% is not the 90% that Madfinger points out. Openness just gives users choice of where to get their apps from ( legally ) and what apps they use for every function on their device. Openness gives developers aren’t locked into an OS and a programming language. Openness is what allows device manufacturers to develop phones with hardware keyboards, massive screens and styli. Openness is what allows for $150 Android devices, which you can easily give your kids so they can use WhatsApp.

Payment options and the fact that we’re comparing different socio-economic groups are two of the major monetization influencing differences between the platforms. iOS isn’t some sacred perfect platform free of piracy, and it’s closed nature may mean that there are more security vulnerabilities, like the in-app purchase one, that we don’t even know about. Neither platform is perfect, and much work is going into improving both.

A week in Ubuntu: The good, the bad and the ugly

I used to be a Linux user, all the time. Then the mass exodus to Ubuntu and Gnome started happening. And Windows 7, which was a very solid OS. As a KDE user, feeling sidelined at the lack of deep OS integration that Gnome was getting in Ubuntu, I was at a crossroads. I tried to love Ubuntu, but never could. Ubuntu always disliked something of my hardware – which openSUSE didn’t seem to mind. Kubuntu never felt well put together, not like Ubuntu. So I left it behind, bought a great notebook with Windows 7 pre-installed, and stuck to that.. for 3 years. Over a week ago, I decided to give Ubuntu another shot. Here’s how that went.

The Good

Some things about the OS are great. Ubuntu has come a long way, as has Linux, and desktop Linux may still have a bright future, especially with Steam on the way.

Installation of Ubuntu is amazing. It’s easier than any other OS I’ve tried. This has always been the case. Good on Canonical knowing that if it wasn’t this easy, people wouldn’t even try.

The OS is fast, bootup is quick, everything is responsive. The experience feels very optimized. There wasn’t a point where I thought, damn this might lock up, or that I might be taxing the system by opening Inkscape, Gimp and Spotify at the same time.

Unity desktop is stable, and does exactly what it should. All of the demos, with the HUD and launcher are exactly as expected. This is something I could really get used to, and hope to see all desktop environments going this way. I know Windows 8 does something similar, but without the HUD for alt+key combinations – something that’s really awesome.

Gnome 3 is actually a really nice desktop environment. I’ve heard so much hate about it, and although I can see why, I don’t agree. It’s quick, stable, and customizable. The extensions are ridiculously easy to install, and the only thing I couldn’t find is a button taking me to the extensions site. The extension installer even worked out of the box in Chromium.

This deserves its own point, although this aplies to Linux in general. I could change the desktop. This is something I still love about Linux, and it’ll always have a place in my heart. Even if Unity itself isn’t customizable, I don’t have to use it. I could install Gnome, XFCE, KDE, LXDE, or even – something that I still have a soft spot for – Enlightenment.

Apps on Linux are just getting better. Geany is great for editing PHP and Python. Eclipse always felt more native on Linux than on Windows. Spotify ( since I have a premium account ) worked like a charm. I even managed to develop a Spotify extension using only the Linux version. The games selection in the Software Center is looking much better too, with some top premium games. And with Steam and Unity 3D ( the engine ) support coming, that will only get better.

My laptop is a Dell XPS 17, with an Optimus chipset. Something that’s been in the media lately for NVidia’s lack of official Linux support. It turns out, there’s a project called bumblebee, which works surprisingly well. Once I followed instructions, things were working great. The little 3D sample app, GLXSpheres, went from 1,6 fps – using the intel card – to about 180 fps – using the 555M my laptop packs. I tried a few 3D games, without a problem. I even played some levels of Swords and Soldiers, a port of the Xbox/PS3/Steam version. This is where Linux shines, if NVidia won’t support it officially, someone will find a way.

The Bad

Before installing bumblebee, Ubuntu decided to use Unity 2D instead of the full blown default 3D experience. It was still really quick, but it had some quirks that made me install Gnome 3. It was only after I installed Gnome 3, I realised that my 3D drivers weren’t active, because I kept booting into Gnome Classic. This may have sullied my Unity experience – which it did to some extent – so I tried full blown Unity again. I still went back to Gnome 3.

Unity in general hasn’t won me over. I dislike single menu bar and the side dock. I’ve written about this before. Basically, the dock becomes annoying for me to use if there are more apps on there than it is high. I also find global menu bars annoying – this argument is roughly how I feel about it. I generally dislike the way OS X deals with window management, and since they’re adopting OS X style standards, I dislike that. Sure, it’s  an opinion, and some people might like it, but I don’t and if Ubuntu is going the way of the Mac, that will make sure I never use Unity as a default desktop – which thankfully in Linux you can.

Gnome 3 is pretty good, but I’m disappointed by the lack of a default window list/manager as quick as that in other desktops. I installed the Window List extension, which has worked around the lack of space on the bar. That said, this extension works well, but not something I’d recommend for the beginners.

I was pretty disappointed to find Gimp 2.6 in the repository. One of the reasons I wanted to use Linux was for this. It’s a shame since 2.8 is now stable for a few months already and I’d have expected it to be up streamed into the repo.

The Ugly

Something that really got me angry was the default notifications in Ubuntu. I had forgotten about this from my previous attempts at learning to use Unity, but it actually makes me lose my patience. I use my laptop – which is my main computer – for several things. It’s my primary development environment, my internet browser, and my primary means of chatting. The fact that you can’t click on the notifications means that for me to respond to chat messages, I have to either multitask ( 2 clicks ) or go to an annoying menu at the top of the screen and select the chat that the notification came from ( 2 clicks ). It even goes to the extent of blurring the notification when you mouse over it, almost taunting the user, “I know you want to click on this, but you can’t”. That actually made me find and install an alternate notification system, which integrated so poorly with Unity that I installed Gnome 3 instead. It turns out that this notification system is like this by design. That fact annoyed me even more. Every OSes notifications are becoming more functional, I only hope Canonical wake up to this soon.

Something more directly related to Empathy – the chat client – was that every time I woke up my laptop, I had to redo my 2 step verification on my Google account. That meant, logging into my account in the browser, regenerating a new per app password and entering it into the client. As a default chat client, this is very annoying. Linux users normally have higher security than other OS users, so the fact that this bug wasn’t fixed before release is amazing. I found a bug report for it over a year old. It seems like a minor thing, but having to come home from work every day to re-enter a password behind 2 walls of authentication is not acceptable usability. Sure there were work-arounds, and other apps like Pidgin, but I was tired of fighting the OS defaults.

I have a Logitech Performance MX mouse. I paid good money for it to do some serious gaming. It’s a great wireless mouse with a darkfield laser – so I can use it on reflective surfaces. I probably won’t replace it any time soon and if then, only with something similar. The problem is that Ubuntu keeps forgetting it. It happened 3 times in 1 week. I’ll start up, and the mouse won’t work. It requires me to unplug the usb adapter for it and plug it back in. Add that to the previous hassle, and starting up my laptop is ridiculously annoying.

Conclusion

So I sit here back in Windows 7. Maybe it’s stockholme syndrome that makes me comfortable with Windows, but my chat client isn’t complaining at me and my mouse works. That said, I will definitely go back to Linux occasionally. Especially now that Unity 3D is going to have a Linux exporter. My current Unity 3D games will get Linux ports, and I will be putting them in the Ubuntu Software Center. Although I may be in Windows, I haven’t deleted my Linux install, and probably won’t any time soon. Ubuntu is better than I remember, but it’s still got a long way to go before I can achieve the same level of productivity that I can in Windows. Given that Apple’s share in the desktop/laptop market is only growing, users will be more comfortable trying out Linux. And I can only hope that with more end users, more of these usability issues will be ironed out.

Is the Windows 8 hate justified?

When things change, people get unhappy. Except fan boys of course, but that’s to be expected. Microsoft are launching a new OS soon, and the tech blogosphere seems to love hating on Windows 8’s new Metro UI. I don’t understand why.

First I need to clear some things up. I am not a Microsoft fan boy. In fact, I am very much an open source geek, and ex-Desktop Linux enthusiast. I still love Linux, it just doesn’t like me, my profession or my hardware. I do love Android, and think Windows Phone is bland and ugly. Windows 8 doesn’t particularly appeal to me visually ( like Ubuntu 12.04 does ), but practically, I think they’re catching up big time. I feel like i can say this with confidence, as I’ve been using Windows 8 for the last 6 months as my primary work OS. Windows 8 comes with a large bevy of improvements, including (finally) a much better copy dialog that stacks with other copy dialogs and has a pause button, improved Windows Explorer with a ribbon menu that doesn’t suck, ridiculously fast boot times especially with UEFI ( which I’m not sure I agree with on a moral ground ) and much better performance and memory usage, improved default app handling and notifications. And then there’s Metro.

I love this copy dialog

I love this copy dialog

There are many articles expressing hatred for the Metro UI, often with tricks of how to get your start menu back. The problem with almost all these articles is that I can’t seem to see a solid reason for the dislike of it as start menu replacement. On a touch device, most bloggers seem to agree that Metro is great. And I have used it on a touch device regularly and it’s great. Snapping – the ability to run 2 windows docked side-by-side, one at 30% one at 70% – seems like a feature iOS and Android could do with. I could really see the use in having my chat window open on the side while reading my feeds or playing a game. The share and settings charms provide consistent, context based sharing & settings, and developers can register their apps for types of content. Overall, a good user experience.

That said, I don’t see myself using Metro apps on the desktop. Because that’s not what they’re intended for. Metro apps are for touch interfaces. Many next-gen ultrabooks will ship with touch screens, so that’s something that Windows 8 is built for. For hardcore desktop users, there’s still traditional apps with full desktop support. Removing it in favor of the clunky old start menu is, in my opinion, just going to far.

My main reason for writing this post, is that i think the Metro dashboard is arguably the best replacement for the traditional menu system i’ve seen so far – with Ubuntu’s latest Unity shell being the counter. Windows 7 introduced the pinned apps to the taskbar. This is something that initially i hated, but after using it, realised that it was Apple’s dock done right. You always know how many windows of that app you have open, and it replaces quicklaunch for the apps you actually use. If there’s something you need that’s not in there, hit Windows key and type. That’s how people work, right? At least that’s how I work in Windows 7.

Windows 8 takes this last bit a step further. Your start menu is now full screen, and centered around your keyboard. You simply hit the windows button and type. You navigate with your arrow and tab keys. You can instantly find control panel settings ( Metro and desktop ), apps ( Metro and dekstop ), and files that are in your libraries. Hit enter, and it launches your selection. Everything is navigable by keyboard. And yet almost every single blog has gone on about how it sucks for the pc. Rather than learn a bunch of obscure Windows shortcuts, you can now get any app, file, or setting open with the Windows key. Why would you – especially as a developer – not want this? It’s just as good as the current iteration of Unity, Ubuntu’s desktop shell. If only Microsoft added the functionality to get menu items with the keyboard!

Searching for Settings

Searching for Settings

I think people need to spend some time with Windows 8, use it on the desktop for day-to-day usage instead of messing around for 20 minutes and then ranting about why it’s unusable for PCs. Sure, it took me a day or two of adapting to the new way but once the mindset of Win+”what i want” was there, i struggled to go back to my Windows 7 home PC. A colleague of mine is running it on his primary home PC as well as his work PC. The only reason I haven’t upgraded at home is because I don’t want to reinstall when it’s actually released.

Windows 7 is a good, solid OS, but Windows 8 outdoes it by far. For touch devices, Metro apps and the Metro UI is good. I don’t like the visuals, but from a usability and developer perspective, it’s really solid. For desktop devices, the Metro dashboard is a more capable, super slick, lightning fast start menu replacement. I see the best of both worlds here, ready for dual input devices like some new Ultrabooks, and Transformer type tablets. If i’m missing something obvious, please tell me. Because i really don’t see what people dislike.