Live Tiles takes center stage as a unifying element across Microsoft’s ecosystem

It first appeared on Windows Phone 7, then it became the basis of the Windows 8 Start screen, then the updated 2011 Xbox New Experience UI, and just recently, it popped up on the Bing homepage. I’m talking about Microsoft’s interface concept of ‘tiles’. Or to be more specific, ‘live tiles’.

live tiles microsoft

Tiles are essentially widget engines, but in my opinion better. Most widgets on various platforms aren’t very uniform in how they appear, the level of interaction they support, how often information gets updated, and so on. The way Microsoft is doing tiles, based on WP7, is that they have similar size aspects (which makes it more orderly), can offer updated info. instantly and dynamically (3rd parties as well since Mango), allow access to bits of information without having to open an app, and even match the appearance of the system theme. It’s just widgets on a much better level, that you forget their pretty much widgets.

Of course you can’t forget that they’re main purpose is pretty much a shortcut; whether it’s a specific application, part of an application, webpage, a piece of media, contact or tons of possibilities that the updated tiles in the Mango update show. Hopefully, any information you hoped to glean from launching any of those, can just be done by glancing at its tile.

If you’ve read comments about the way Windows Phone uses tiles, there are people that like it or dislike it. People that dislike it, often claim to dislike the appearance of the tiles, that they’re too big and waste space, and you can’t customize them that much. I personally do like the tiles. I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m not very picky on how something looks, as long as it’s consistent and fits. Plus the way themes work in Windows Phone, it’s nice that native apps share the same color style. Tiles fit the screen just fine, and I’m sure nobody wants to squint at what’s on the tile, because they’re meant to give as much bits of info. without having to try so hard to depict things. I don’t have a Windows Phone, so can’t say for sure on this, but I’m thinking customization settings are up to the developers who made it, and Microsoft has already offered some more functions with Mango update.

Windows-phone-7-jailbreak

Windows 8 will appear to use tiles in the same way. In fact, I’m thinking they’ll probably replace Windows Gadgets. Gadgets was Microsoft’s answers to the Dashboard widgets in OS X, but didn’t see the same level of quality at all. Microsoft-made gadgets work just fine, but most 3rd party gadgets just didn’t have the same level of polish as Microsoft’s or the OS X Dashboard, and didn’t even have much support from popular companies. Plus how you still pretty much get them from the very outdated Windows Live Gallery site, just shows how much care Microsoft had for its Gadgets, which is honestly none. Oh and they take up memory too. I’m hoping the live tiles in Windows 8 will replace Gadgets, and hopefully pick up some more mainstream adoption.

Windows_8_tablet

In Xbox, they again pretty much work the same way. Though I guess limited 3rd party support, since Microsoft controls the Xbox plug-ins a bit more. Also, it’s a bit modified for controller/Kinect use with the tile raised up a bit from the rest, and a highlighted border to indicate that this is the one you might select. It’s consistent in the way it looks, like on Windows Phone and Windows 8.

live tiles xbox

Now as far as the Bing one goes, it’s not official. It’s just something that someone stumbled upon, and is probably getting tested. So it could look different or might not exist if it rolls out. Some people commented that it might be ‘distracting’ from the image of the day, but I think most people would see the image of the day first, and then travel their eyes down to the tiles if they’re interested in getting any info. The tiles may even be optional on Bing. Plus, I think the tiles are very limited to only what Bing wants, and that maybe the tiles shown in the picture (weather, news headline, map, movies, search trends) are the only options.

bing-live-tiles

I hope Microsoft sticks to their Live Tiles concept, and continue to expand on it and make it even better. Might we see it on another Microsoft platform? I don’t think so. Desktop, mobile, TV/console, and the web are pretty much the only places that Microsoft sees any need to bother with. Maybe as a flashy visualizer of information in other software or services, but with not so much of the same level of functionality. Visually, I think Live Tiles are appealing, and could see it being a way to show quick information on webpages, see notifications at a glance, etc. Do you like the Live Tiles or feel quite the opposite?

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It’s 2011; Why haven’t I got a smartphone by now?

If you’re a tech/gadget lover, you probably have already picked a smartphone by now. However, being a tech lover, I don’t have a smartphone. Why? Let’s see my reasons:

1. Data plan – Any smartphone you buy in the US from a carrier pretty much must have a data plan attached. I won’t buy an unlocked phone because they cost so much more (even though carriers inflate your smartphone plan to subsidize phone cost), so it’s not like I’ll be getting away with it on WiFi. Plus I have high-speed Internet at home (Comcast) or can access a public WiFi point on my Zune HD for simple browsing and some apps. Though it’d be useful to have dependable Internet connection when I’m out and about, I’m content with typing a memo to remind to look up something later.

2. Smartphone market is still young – Though the smartphone market has grown quickly, and probably won’t stop anytime soon, I want the basic technology to become more standard and better. Right now, as far as a smartphone OS goes, I’m pretty much loving Windows Phone. WebOS is a very close second, and I’m not that fond of Android and iOS outside apps. They’re still growing up, and I’m very curious to see if Windows Phone will get more users on board, and how it might evolve with the next release of Windows after Windows 7.

Hardware wise, there’s many choices. Motorola is only Android, so no. HTC has become primarily Android, and the basic phone is really good, but the camera and sometimes the screen often sucks. Samsung hardware is nice, but they’ve been known to hold back on firmware updates. Apple’s phone is all right, but I’m not a fan of the way the company works and markets, so I don’t think I’ll be a user anytime soon. LG just usually has the worst designs. Blackberries are gimped outside the keyboard and trackball. Now Nokia’s hardware is definitely something I might like, based on their recent N9 phone running Meego. It’s an engineering delight, and seems like awesome quality based on the specs and website’s video. Meego seems all right, but I’m not a code tweaker, so I’d prefer Windows Phone. I want the N9 hardware with Windows Phone. See why I’m waiting?

Stuff like NFC chips, front-facing cameras, waterproof exterior, quality camera lens (it’s not just the megapixels!), and other stuff still isn’t standard in many phones.

3. ‘Dumbphones’ work all right for me – Though a dumbphone may seem cheap, and thus less durable, they can rough it pretty well in my experience. I hear of iPhones or Droids falling and getting cracked screens (because they use glass), but most dumbphones are made of cheap plastic. I guess that kinda helps durability wise. I like durable.

The touchscreen ones mostly use resistive, which aren’t truly finger-friendly, but it’s ok. Camera quality definitely isn’t good, which is why I have my own Canon point-and-shoot. Built-in software is mostly meh of course. Definitely no hopes of great apps, games, or really great utility software. PC syncing software is a mess to deal with, and the Samsung one I use just didn’t work. So I mostly just use my phone straight up for calls and texts. And writing down memos when I’m out. Not so much alarm or calendar features.

4. Risk of getting stolen – Smartphones are what thieves want most. Sure, thieves would probably snatch a dumbphone too, but they’d probably aim around for anyone with a smartphone. It’s like that when you have any nice things on you, but like I said, a smartphone isn’t for everybody so why bother carrying one?

Not to mention there’s less important data on a dumbphone too. Yeah, many smartphones have security solutions and abilities to find it if lost/stolen, back-up data, etc. But most dumbphones barely have any important data to begin with, so it’s not too much of a loss. For us GSM people, yes, it might mean losing text messages you loved, any memos, and crappy phone pics, but I guess I’ll get over it.

That’s pretty much it. A smartphone would be nice to have, and could be very useful for unique utility-apps, but I’ve survived pretty well without them. My decision is based on price, needs, and uncertainty in smartphone choices as of now. Maybe, in a year I might have one, but I’m very content with my Samsung Highlight (on T-Mobile USA).

Digital newspapers > Paper versions

I’ll admit, my household still subscribes to an actual physical newspaper. Well it’s not too surprising since many Americans do as well. However, the idea of digital newspapers has long since been here, but aside from a few things, digital newspapers are the way to go.

newspaper

Here are the only few (sensible) advantages why I see people buy the newspaper (and how it’s not too exclusive if papers were gone):

  • Coupons – From my experience, digital coupons don’t have as good a variety as the ones that come with the paper. Don’t know why, but even the supermarket’s selection for your member card is rather poor. (could easily be remedied if businesses put more of their coupons online)
  • Secondary uses – It’s useful for containing food spills, making your own cheap confetti, and various projects like painting, paper mache, and other arts. (There can be post-recycled paper sold, without the cost of ink and reporting).
  • Special displays – Rarely, the paper may have a nice large infographic spread on a topic, or a wall-worthy poster spread on something. Just worthy enough of keeping at least. (News companies could be nice enough to put it online as well, or available to purchase a print on it)
  • Keeping jobs – There does have to be people that design the paper’s layout, supply the paper, run and maintain the machines, distributes them via car, etc. These people have jobs, and can make and spend money. (There are other jobs out there, and the idea of jobs existing based on outdated modes isn’t too great of an advantage)
  • Access to ‘print-only’ articles – My newspaper does a ridiculous thing, where on Sundays, they have a higher amount of special original (non-AP) articles, that they claim is only in the print version, and not online. Though after awhile, or even a day after, I find out it does go up online. It’s really dumb, in my opinion. (How about the news company gets that people will go elsewhere online if you don’t provide it?)

Now, all the negatives:

  • News gets old fast– New news comes up quickly. Most papers no longer run in the morning and evening formats. So if you depend on the paper for news, it’d take another day for the day’s news to come. Especially weather info.
  • Cumbersome to read– Big articles start on one page, but you have to flip through and find it on the next page. Have to position the paper well enough when you want to read inside it.
  • Clipping articles that run on both sides– There are plenty of times when you want to clip an article out, but the article runs on both sides of the same sheet unevenly. You need to clip carefully around the sheet so you can get the whole article.
  • All the ads– I’d like to wager that at least 40% of the entire daily newspaper real estate is just ads. We’re talking about classifieds, banners, obituaries, full page spreads, half page spreads, coupons, weekly store guides, stick-on ads, etc. Sometimes, one can even say articles themselves may serve as an ad for some businesses. Online, it doesn’t usually seem so noticeable or it doesn’t get in the way.
  • The non-green aspect– Sure, you can have it made of post-consumer paper, you can recycle it, but that’s about it. However, paper recycling has some inefficiencies not yet solved, so there are a good amount of trees that get knocked down just so people can throw away the paper the next day. The manufacturing requires lots of energy and water. Distribution involves primarily fossil fuels to deliver to doorsteps and newstands around the world. Newspapers can get unsold and tossed, making it even more wasteful.
  • Less engaging– You read an article, and you just get that one representation of the facts or opinion of this journalist. Online, given comments are allowed, you can get enriched with more of the same or different opinions and facts. There may also be more multimedia through video, audio, and interactive infographics. More than what a picture does.
  • Black and white pictures– Color ink is usually expensive. Newspapers usually don’t bother making any of the inner pages of the paper color, though they might sometimes. I think most people prefer color than black-and-white images.
  • Getting stolen or destroyed– The delivery person is on a tight schedule with his or her van, and they rarely have time to deliver papers directly to your door. As a result, the paper (even when they come in plastic sleeves like ours) can be susceptible to creeping grass dew, rain, or even snow. If on the rare chance it gets stolen or unfound, it might take the next day to receive it as the company probably won’t make special trips.
  • Limited news– Sometimes newspapers would love to cram some more articles into one day’s paper, but there isn’t enough allowable room to make it feasible. Other times, they’ll have to cut down some details in other articles to make room for more articles. No such issues with the Internet-based news.
  • Less media – With a physical paper, you may lose out on more, bigger pictures, videos, and audio that relate to the article.
  • Link to source documents – It’s easier to give an option to navigate to another website or a PDF/DOCX than it is to print it out in newsprint. Source documents like reports, memos, press releases, full speech transcripts, and others so that people can arrive at their own conclusion and see the cold hard facts.
  • Multiplier effect – You can share news more easily with the click of a button, and send it to friends via e-mail, social networks, or even IM clients. Even more people are informed and visit the site.

All in all, I can completely see traditional newspapers completely phased out in the new few decades. The only advantages of the traditional model are rather weak, and can easily be overcome by better solutions.

If it weren’t for the coupons and the fact that my newspaper’s website could use some better coding, then I’d completely drop the physical paper quickly. Hopefully, all the major newspapers can see the light, and find better ways to make an online model work out in terms of profit and convenience for the subscribers.