2013: My Year in Review

Dec
12
Posted by David G. Paul at 21:24 0 comments

This past year has been so busy I’ve not really had the chance to post any development blog posts, which means this is the first post I’ve done to this blog since my last yearly review. However I have moved my travel blogging to Wordpress - this is only a temporary measure and will eventually be put somewhere that I can have a little more control over it’s features.

For the first several months of the year I tried having a go at Project 365 - a project where you take a photo every day for an entire year. By the mid-way point however I found it was getting difficult to stay on top of it and eventually decided to stop. I think it has helped me as a photographer though through having to look for more interesting shots in what I normally wouldn’t think of photographing.

The year started with a trip to Norway (via Finland) to see the Northern Lights up in the Arctic Circle. During this time away from civilisation we got to experience what life is like for those that live in such cold and harsh environments. There were elk and reindeer to eat as the major part of most meals, and there was an attempt at ice fishing however due to thickness of the ice extending down to the silt it was less than successful.

Aurora Borealis 04

We got to learn how to drive snow scooters and to then use them to drive around the area near the cabin (though this couldn’t be too far as the snow had gotten too deep), and I got to have a go at chopping firewood with an axe. On one night there was also a sauna which involved running outside into the incredibly freezing temperatures and diving into the snow in only swimming trunks. So far from civilisation there were practically no facilities and the only warmth came from log burners that would gradually go out over night.

Just a couple of weeks later I was back traveling again, this time to the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. Whilst there we got to see what the Samburu and Masai tribe cultures were like, but our main focus was a safari. We managed to see so many different species of animal during this time and also experienced some incredible storms whilst in Tanzania. One of the more memorable parts of the trip was getting to fly over the Serengeti in a hot air balloon whilst the sun rose over the savannah below.

Lion (Panthera leo): Roooawr

As this year I turned 30, I had a short break around my birthday to go down to Dorset for the Bank Holiday weekend followed by a couple of days sightseeing in London. Whilst there I also got to see “We Will Rock You” a musical theatre performance using songs from one of my favourite groups, Queen.

Trafalgar Square

After that it was fairly quiet travel-wise until July when I had a day out taking photographs of local castles and Bosworth Battlefield before going to the airport to fly out to San Diego. The purpose of this trip was to attend San Diego Comic Con - one of the biggest (and in my opinion best) conventions a fan of science fiction and fantasy could go to. It was an absolutely amazing time getting to see so much there, but also got to catch up with some friends that had been travelling around the US for the previous few months.

San Diego Comic Con International

Back in May we also booked a trip to Antarctica, one which would start before 2013 was over but will also continue on into the middle of January 2014. I expect to be somewhere out at sea when the New Year arrives.

In addition to travelling I also went to see a proper band play a concert for the first time ever - this was Alter Bridge and Shinedown at the Birmingham NIA. Another first was also visiting a nightclub with friends one evening - I’d never been in one before this year.

I also took up running which I gradually worked into using the “Couch to 5K” program. The reasoning behind this was it was suggested I could have a go at a Zombie run even, though this was later postponed and have yet to take part in an actual event. On the positive side though I’ve been able to work up to a reasonable pace and have now begun working on improving distance.

Photos: Norway

Photos: East Africa

Photos: London

Photos: San Diego Comic Con

If you want to find out more about the adventures I've had this year you can read them on my travel blog: Wandering the World

My Year in Review

Dec
19
Posted by David G. Paul at 12:48 0 comments

What a year this has been, it’s been a busy one and I have a feeling next year will be even busier.

I started the year eager to get back to blogging, but as the weeks went by I found myself blogging less and less before months had gone by with no new posts. Maybe next year I'll do a little better. 

Starting 2012 off I went to Autosport International at the NEC where I took photos of loads of cars and watched a live event. Just a couple of weeks later I drove down the motorway through snow and thick fog to get to Warwick Castle for my fourth visit. This was the first time I’d ever seen the castle in snow so made a nice change to my pictures, but it was also an opportunity to test out my new tripod and thick coat ready for Iceland. The castle was pretty empty as most people were staying off the roads.


Warwick Castle in the Snow

In February I then went to Iceland for a very hectic few days with very little sleep. Upon arrival it started snowing and by the time I got up the next day the place was thick with snow. I did note they handle it far better than in the UK and they just carried on as if it wasn’t there. The snow did make the first day’s photography a little awkward, but it was still fun and they do get a decent amount of it. The second day brightened up and I even got my first opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights, though they weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped. The landscapes in Iceland were pretty amazing; on one of the glaciers (which I’d climbed under earlier) there was a moment when I stopped walking yet carried along sliding stood upright along what seemed to be a flat surface. It seemed comical at the time. I did of course write a book for this trip and published a photo album and video to the usual places.

Me at Mýrdalsjökull Glacier
Me on the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier

The following weekend I went to a Rugby game for the first time ever, and then went to a second one in December. Both were opportunities to try taking sports related photographs. One of the stewards though would not let me use my big lens at the first game, though no one objected at the second game. The second game was also the day of the work Christmas party.

The Forbidden City - Shishi
The Forbidden City - Shishi

In April I went to China for two weeks, travelling around the Eastern parts of the country to see the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, Giant Pandas, and sailing down both the Yangtze and Li rivers. I will admit it wasn’t the best of the trips I’d done - I think having been to the Galapagos Islands set my expectations too high for future trips. Saying this though, I did enjoy it and there were many good moments. It’s not every day you get to run along the Great Wall of China carrying your camera equipment!

Bombe
Bombe machine at Bletchley Park

In May I went to Truckfest for the first time, I wasn’t that keen on it though so unsure if I’ll go again - but I'll leave that until next year to decide. Most things should be tried at least once. The following weekend I went to Bletchley Park, the home of the enigma machines, and also stopped by the museum of Computing next door. The weekend after that was then spent down in Poole, though I didn’t really bother with many photos this time - most of the ones I did take were taken around the Durlston Country Park area that had just been refurbished after a National Lottery grant.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) on the RSPB Bempton Cliffs
Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) on the RSPB Bempton Cliffs

It was then over a month before any more trips as I then spent a week in Yorkshire seeing sights such as Bempton Cliffs, Scarborough, York and a number of National Trust properties.

In September I went to the Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour in London, and whilst there also went round the Tower of London before flying up to Scotland for the best part of a week. In Scotland I hired a car and travelled around the country visiting many sights along the way.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

As the year drew to a close the most unexpected news was announced by Lucasfilm - the sale of the company to Disney and the release date for Star Wars Episode 7, the first in a new series of films. I'm still a little mixed about this as it could mean that they'll be ruined further, though maybe taking them away from George Lucas is the best way to preserve them.

So to cut a long story short it's been a busy year and I look forward to 2013 hoping it will be as fun. I hope everyone reading this has a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Sending Emails Without Becoming a Spammer

Nov
11
Posted by David G. Paul at 19:39 0 comments

If you are sending legitimate emails from your site then you should try to avoid them being marked as spam. Poorly constructed emails, or even incorrectly set-up domains can play a large part towards your IP address becoming blacklisted. In some cases those that use DNS Black Lists can also block your domain regardless of whether you change the IP address and/or hostname for the mail server. Of course though, not matter how hard you try there is still a possibility of your emails being marked as spam, especially if you genuinely are sending unsolicited emails.

This article covers:

  1. Server and Domain Configuration
  2. Email Accounts
  3. Email Headers
  4. Email Content
  5. Sender Policy Framework (SPF)
  6. Domain Keys Identified Email (DKIM)

Before you even think about sending emails from your site the first thing to do is to ensure that your webserver and domain are properly configured. Some spam checking tools will identify your emails as spam if your domain is not configured correctly. If you want to review your domain’s current settings then I would recommend a site such as http://www.mxtoolbox.com to check your DNS and MX records and to paste sample headers in for analysis.

As an example, I use Google as my email provider for the www.newearthonline.co.uk domain. This tool determines which hosts there are MX records pointing at and will allow you to check if any of them have been blacklisted. You can then analyse each individual host for things such as the time taken for the request. Slow response times from mail servers can also have an impact on your rating.

Large volumes of email are also seen as a likely source of spam so it is recommended to limit the number sent in one go by either configuring this in your mail server application such as sendmail, or to handle this in code. If you need to handle this with code instead of at the mail application level then you could for example use a database table for queuing up emails to be sent in batches. Where possible, providing a throttle at the server level would be better.

continue reading this article...

Anti-Spam Forms Revisited

Nov
11
Posted by David G. Paul at 17:58 0 comments

Over a year ago I first spoke about methods to avoid spam submissions from forms. Now it's time to take another look at this with moderated comments, Project HoneyPot integration, and other methods.

If you're not using Wordpress or similar CMS then it's a little trickier to use Akismet on your site; but after a close look at their API it shouldn't be too bad. The first thing it requires is for you to register for a free Wordpress.com account which will give you an API key which will work with Akismet. I do find it kind of ironic that non-Wordpress users have to register with Wordpress in order to use Akismet... since they can have a free Wordpress blog in doing so.

Once you've done that then you'll need to modify your comment submission code - the bit where it gets stored in your database as you're either going to want to block it or flag it as spam. On my site I try not to block spam just in case it's falsely identified as spam, instead I mark it as spam and then every now and then check through the spam just to make sure. Normally I use curl to access remote sources, but in this case I'll go with the example that Akismet provide and shall utilise sockets. The code I use is as follows:

function _sendRequest ($path, $request)
{
  $request = 'blog=' . urlencode('some website URL') . '&' . $request;
  $http_request  = 'POST /1.1/' . $path . " HTTP/1.0\r\n";
  $http_request .= 'Host: ' . ($path!='verify-key'?$this->api_key.'.':'') .
                    AKISMET_API . "\r\n";
  $http_request .= "Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded; charset=UTF-8\r\n";
  $http_request .= 'Content-Length: ' . strlen($request) . "\r\n";
  $http_request .= 'User-Agent: ' . $this->user_agent . "\r\n";
  $http_request .= "\r\n";
  $http_request .= $request;
  $response = '';
  if (false !== ($fs = @fsockopen(AKISMET_API, 80, $errno, $errstr, 3))) {
    fwrite($fs, $http_request);
    while (!feof($fs)) {
      $response .= fgets($fs, 1160);
    }
    fclose($fs);
    $response = explode("\r\n\r\n", $response, 2);
  }
  return $response;
}

This is part of a class which also contains other functions for interacting with Akismet where AKISMET_API is a constant defined as rest.akismet.com - this is a constant as it's easier to change if they ever move the location of their API. You should also notice that there are two properties of the class being used here - a User-Agent string and a property containing the API key to use.

As the blog URL is required on all requests the function appends the blog before sending it. The HTTP request is then built up by specifying the script URL to POST to, the hostname to send the request to (including API key for most requests), the length of the request, the content type, a user-agent and the request itself. The user-agent should be sent as something which identifies your CMS and plugin version in the following format:

CMS_NAME/CMS_VERSION | PLUGIN_NAME/PLUGIN_VERSION

continue reading this article...

The Walking Dead

May
11
Posted by David G. Paul at 07:07 0 comments

These days it’s considered cool to have a franchise featuring zombies. There games dedicated to this genre from well known publishers such as the titles “Dead Rising”, “Dead Island” and “Left For Dead”. In general this genre isn’t well known for it’s story telling but for the gruesome action-packed killing that usually ensues following a zombie apocalypse. Non-genre games such as Call of Duty got in on the act with zombie driven modes to further saturate the market. Even in the world of cinema you have films such as “Night of the Living Dead” and “28 Days” where the focus is on the action of killing zombies whilst trying to survive.

Writer Robert Kirkman changed this typical and overly visited genre with a fresh take. His idea was to make a serial about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. They’re every day people who are trying to live from day to day. Rather than going all out to kill zombies they spend their time actively trying to prevent the need to fight. These comics focus on how such an event would change people and how different people, even normally rational people, would cope with the stress this puts on their lives.

The Walking Dead has been an extremely popular franchise since the first season of AMC’s television started to air on television. In my opinion although the first season more or less followed the first volume of the collected trade paperback it was not as good as the source material. This is often the case from those that have enjoyed a series in one medium only to see it changed when released in another.

Typically computer games based on TV and film have been poor and get less than flattering reviews. In the case of “The Walking Dead” from Telltale Games it is important to remember that this is not an adaptation of the TV series or comics, but it is based on the world in the comics. To this end you will even come across some of the characters from the comics, which are of course present in the TV series also, but you are not following the story - your story happens alongside theirs whilst Rick Grimes is still in a coma.

continue reading this article...

Why no MMOFPS?

Feb
01
Posted by David G. Paul at 12:19 0 comments

Over the past several years there have been many MMORPGs of varying success, the most notable being World of Warcraft and the quickly growing Star Wars: The Old Republic. What I find surprising is how the MMO aspect hasn't easily transferred to other gaming genres such as the FPS.

What I imagine is a first person shooter akin to Call of Duty and Battlefield 1942, but set in a persistent world where you can jump in and out of ongoing battles as you go. Now if this could be combined with elements of Minecraft or something similar so you could create your own defences and dig trenches that would be amazing. It is true though that this would then become close to being an RPG, though technically it would be limiting the RPG to PvP only. 

The closest any game has yet come to this is when the browser based FPS, Man vs. Machine set the world record for the most players in a single game. This however was a one off attempt. Now what I imagine would be really cool would be a game set during World War 2 where the persistent world is actually the world as it was in the 1940's, with ability to drive military vehicles, drive boats and pilot planes. You would have to be forced to be either Allied or Axis, and have fast-travel to other parts of the world / country, so you could take part in conflicts all over Europe, or even in the Pacific theatre.

I guess part of the issue why such a thing doesn't exist are the mechanics behind player progression, etc. though I think an XP system similar to online multiplayer in CoD and others such as R6:Vegas would still work. Maybe weaponry and ammunition would work the same as RPGs too, and have what you're allowed to carry limited by what class you are. So you maybe a class that "doesn't know" how to fly a plane, or maybe one that does but then doesn't know how to operate a mortar. Maybe this is something where a player could learn skills over time to gradually be able to use more.

Maybe one day there will be massive 1000+ player battles on a regular basis. 

Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS 25th Anniversary Zelda Edition
Jan
04
Posted by David G. Paul at 22:17 0 comments

Since I got my Nintendo 3DS (I got the 25th anniversary Zelda edition) I'd been unable to connect to the eShop or use the social features of the device. The error message I got when searched for online indicated in pretty much every post that it meant the Wi-Fi wasn't working and that I should check the "Hotspot"... wish they just call it a router, anyway I digress, and I knew that wasn't the case.

The reason I knew otherwise was that the network test worked okay and the web browser did too - I did a search on Google and loaded up the website of the company I work for. This made little sense whatsoever as it was the same issue on my home network and also when trying the device in the office. Although on my home network there's very little diagnostics I can do (in part due to shockingly bad router firmware) I was fortunate enough to get some diagnostics done whilst in the office. When browsing around I'd seen mention that the eShop app uses port 9103 however unblocking this still didn't help. Fortunately a colleague was able to get a list of the ports via our firewall and the list was actually a little longer. In the end though it provided the information required to reconfigure my router at home and I can now enjoy the social aspect of owning a 3DS as well as downloading small games, etc. that Nintendo make available in their eStore.

To start with I've downloaded the Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition - I'll review this at a later date. For now though I'm pleased to see my 3DS working the way it should!

C&C 4

Jan
03
Posted by David G. Paul at 07:19 0 comments

When I said I intended on blogging more this year I certainly didn't mean three days running. Yesterday however after having spent 5 hours on Star Wars: The Old Republic (in which time I constructed a lightsaber, did a flashpoint, and arrived on Coruscant) I decided to try out Command and Conquer 4.

For those that have played previous games in the series, including other spin-offs such as Red Alert 3 will remember that there are always minerals that you have to mine in order to create units, and buildings such as power plants that are required. Other buildings would normally affect what units from the tech-tree you can build. In co-op mode at least, this is very different in C&C4. The first noticeable difference is the choosing of a class. These are:

  • Support
  • Offence
  • Defence

With Support you get "powers" similar to those you'd get in Generals. Though for Support and Offence you get no building other than your MCV. If you're playing as the defence class then you do get defensive structures. Instead of buying units you instead expend command points which for the first couple of maps at least is around 50. This gives you the ability to construct a very limited force. A tank for example is 6 command points so you have to plan ahead as much as you can. You can change your class if you decide you've chosen the wrong one, but your MCV must be destroyed first. This can be done a maximum of 3 times.

It does feel like a dumbed down version of C&C where you can just keep on playing until you win. For example the first GDI mission was to save 12 vehicles from the convoy. We must have lost twice that before we eventually figured out what we were doing and started to save some.

Quite a disappointing instalment, but it's one I'll still try to complete at some point and wasn't too bad for the £3.74 price tag I bought it for off Steam during their sale.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (Xbox 360)

Jan
02
Posted by David G. Paul at 10:27 0 comments

As I said in the previous post, as I pretty much neglected this blog last year this year I intend on posting more articles and reviews starting with an article on "Compression methods". If there are any topics or reviews you'd like to see here, please comment! Over the next few weeks I also plan on finishing the new design and putting that live, but will be finishing the design for http://davidgpaul.co.uk first.

Yesterday I played Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, a game intended to be played on the Xbox 360 using Kinect. Sadly I've not yet got round to getting one so it does restrict what challenges you can do in the game but does not restrict you from playing the story missions (there also 3 non-Kinect series of challenges too). This game has been a huge change from the previous two Harry Potter games that I played in that it no longer feels like a "chore simulator" but closer to what the early Potter games were like. The story varies drastically from both the book and the film and includes extra side missions that are compulsory as a way of artificially lengthening the game. These side missions feel repetitive as they generally follow a "Free X number of captured Muggle-borns from Y" pattern where Y might be Acrmantulas or Deatheaters. It seems it's possible to complete the game mostly using "Stupify" and can be completed in very little time. I'd only recommend this game if you\'re a fan of Harry Potter otherwise you may get fed up of this game quite quickly.

It's taken me months to get round to playing this game, and as I've now finished as much of it as I want to it's time to move on to Part 2. Hopefully this one will be better... 

Happy New Year! 2012

Jan
01
Posted by David G. Paul at 15:30 0 comments

Happy 2012 to everyone! Last year was a pretty busy year and I never really felt like blogging that often with the exception of the Apple related events that were on. In February I did a bit more diving at Stoney Cove, to complete my Dry Suit diver specialty qualification. I had started that one a few days before Christmas but the friend I was diving with got hypothermia due to the icy cold temperature of the lake (it was 4 degree Celsius on the surface and snowing!).

April saw another diving course to get the "Peak Performance Buoyancy" qualification just in time for a 2 week trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands at the end of the month. It was a great trip and had many memorably moments such as free-diving with Galapagos Penguins and scuba-diving with white-tipped sharks and rays.

In the gaming world May saw the end of a long running joke wait with the eventual release of Duke Nukem Forever. Sadly May was also a time when Smallville came to an end after 10 years, but the release of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire sure helped pass the time without it! I also placed a large order with Jedi Collectibles that month, which to this day I'm still waiting for and doubt will ever actually arrive.

In July I returned to Stoney Cove yet again to do my Advanced Open Water qualification - this one consisted of some underwater navigation, wreck diving, deep diving and multi-level diving. I also had another holiday to Weston-Supermare and finally got to see the Roman Baths in Bath.

In August I went camping for a weekend, something I'd never done before. It was at Silverstone for the Renault World Series - prior to this I'd barely seen any racing whatsoever as it's just so boring on the television, yet it was an enjoyable weekend with plenty of photography and hopefully something we'll do again in 2012. About a week later I then went with some fellow Jadugars to Wales to retry Mount Snowdon. Our previous attempt whilst doing the 3 Peaks failed due to high(ish) wind speeds making the climb unsafe. This time the winds weren't nearly as bad but we pushed on and made it to the top (and found there was a 4x4 up there which later made the national news - when we were there we'd assumed it was a park ranger). The rain had been severe and despite  heavy waterproofs still managed to get drenched.

In October there was a lot going on - the Harry Potter film series came to an end in an epic conclusion. The iPhone 4S was released, and Steve Jobs died. In the gaming world there was the release of Rage amd Batman: Arkham City.

November was a month to remember - the release of Skyrim, the fifth game in The Elder Scrolls series. Over the weeks that followed many hours were sunk into that game which also meant I'd not got round to playing Halo or Assassin's Creed. December was the release of The Old Republic, though that was not without it's issues.

In 2012 I'll be visiting Iceland and China as well as a few Harry Potter related places (the film studios being one of them) so it's looking like it may be another busy year. This time however I'll attempt to blog and/or post a review at least once a week.

Hope everyone has a great 2012!! 

Let's Talk iPhone

Oct
04
Posted by David G. Paul at 20:22 0 comments

With no announcement of a new iPhone at WWDC 2011 the rumour mill started working overtime with most rumours slating two new iPhones would be released in October 2011 - an iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5. A few short weeks after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple to be replaced by Tim Cook, they announced they'd be holding a press conference at the Apple campus on October 4th simply titled "Let's Talk iPhone". Apple have always big on symbolism so it didn't take long before people drew conclusions that the "1" on the phone image meant there would be one phone announced. Just minutes before the event was due to start Apple accidentally let slip on their Japanese site that the new phone is indeed the 4S and apparently dual-mode (both CDMA and GSM).

They announced that iOS 5 and the associated iTunes update would be released worldwide on October 12th. For the iTunes Match feature this will come later, an end of October release for the US and an unspecified date for elsewhere (but by the end of the year). They then went on to detail how their iPod line-up would change with a minor update to the iPod Nano to have bigger icons, 16 new clock skins, etc. and would be $129 for the 8Gb model, and $149 for the 16Gb. In bringing out iOS 5 it will also be added to the iPod touch which will massively update it's capability with iMessage and iCloud. This updated model will be priced at $199 (8Gb), $299 (32Gb) and $399 (64Gb).

Finally, after about an hour of these minor news bits from Apple they finally announced the iPhone 4S, an update that keeps the same general design as the iPhone 4 but with an A5 dual-core processor. What this processor means is improved performance and increased graphics capability. Despite this upgrade it will still offer battery life as follows:

 3G Talk Time 8

2G Talk Time 14

3G browsing 6

Wi-Fi Browsing 9

Video 10

Music 40

The new wireless system will now intelligently switch between the two antennas between transmit and receive to make even better call quality. They claim this should give a theoretical maximum speed of 14.4Mbs which is twice as fast as the iPhone 4. There will also be a new 8MP camera bringing the resolution up to 3264x2448 which is also faster at taking pictures meaning only 0.5 seconds between shots. In updating the camera it also means that video recording gets a bit of a boost to allow 1080p HD recording with image stabilisation and noise reduction.

One of the best new features for the iPhone 4S is the addition of Siri which is a voice control application with so intelligence behind the voice commands so you don't have strict things to say to get a result. You could for example say "What's the time in London" and it would return the current time in London, UK. In adding Siri they've also opened up dictation options everywhere so you can even dictate an email. At present Siri understands English (US, UK and Australia), French and German.

There will be 3 models available priced at $199 (16Gb), $299 (32Gb), $399 (64Gb) on a two year contract. The iPhone 4 16Gb will lower in price to $199 and the 3GS 8Gb will be priced at $49 (or free on contract). On October 7th you'll be able to pre-order the new phone, and in the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan it will be available from October 14th.

Google+

Google+
Jun
30
Posted by David G. Paul at 11:54 0 comments

Google+ is yet another foray into the social media market for Google. Although there were previous communities (mainly what Google had bought up), its first attempt was with Google Wave. When Wave first appeared on the scene it gained a lot of people quite quickly but was hampered by performance as conversations got larger and more people joined. Eventually its popularity waned, and what was a unique and interesting concept for social interaction on the web started to die out.

Google Buzz was another attempt; one that is still around today and is integrated with Google Mail (and now Google+) was a way of bringing a minimal degree of sharing between contacts. With Buzz you had the option of posting to it with links and/or photos and could even connect other sites to it so any updates from you elsewhere on the web would also get posted to Buzz.

Now, with Google+ they're setting themselves up as a direct competitor to Facebook. This is a comparison that is unavoidable, ever since Facebook became the most well known social media site any that have launched since no matter what their intentions, they have been compared to it. Whist there are a number of similarities between Google+ and Facebook there are also a number of differences (which I'll come back to shortly).

This being a Google project it is fairly obvious the focus will be on information. Once you're signed up to use Google+ the "Google bar" (I don't know it's official name) changes to include extra options to show the number of notifications you have on Google+ and a link to quickly share "stuff" with people on Google+.

When you share something you can type a message and then, like Buzz, you can attach a link or photo too it, though in this case you can also attach video or your current geo-location. Once shared this then appears in your stream and will be visible to those "circles" that you've chosen to allow the post to be seen by.

A circle, in Google+ terms, is a collection of people that have been grouped for easy categorization for when you want to communicate with multiple people. By default you have circles for Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following; but you can also add your own. To add people to a circle they have quite a nice interface where you visually see circles and thumbnails of people that are available to add/invite to join a circle. When you hover over the circle it expands out show who is in the circle and includes a nicely styled tooltip explaining the circle. To add people to a circle you can either drag and drop them in, or click on a circle and add them by searching for a name or email address.

The next new concept for Google+ is a "Spark" - this is a way of displaying news from popular sites based upon your interests. Each spark you add can then be viewed individually from the left-hand navigation and can be used to share posts with your circles.

Finally, there are hangouts. A hangout is where multiple people can have video chats using Google Talk - this does however require a plugin to first be installed to allow the use of your webcam and microphone. This currently supports up to 10 people in a single conversation.

Overall the design of the interface is nice and is a huge improvement over what Google Wave was. It's also similar in layout to Facebook which means anyone who has already used Facebook should find using Google+ to be a fairly familiar experience. The user experience when using the mobile application is actually even better though - it takes the familiar elements of Google's other mobile applications and builds upon them making the interaction feel smoother and easier.

When registering it will ask you to join your account with a Picasa account - this is what it will use for sharing your posted images with others. Hopefully there will also be a way of using Flickr, or at least automatically streaming from Flickr in the future.

From the point of view of a developer there are several key areas where you could potentially have API access for, and hopefully it won't be long before Google release an API for it. To some degree it is already possible to post to it due to the use of the Google +1 button but this is only for sending links to posts on other sites.

Over the coming few weeks as the site grows and evolves I'll carry on using this new site to see how it compares and to better determine what advantages and disadvantages it has.

Firefox 5

Jun
21
Posted by David G. Paul at 21:45 0 comments

Today was the release of the first Firefox update as part of it's shortened release cycle. The release of Firefox 5 does highlight what is currently wrong with the browser.

Extensions -  as you have to specify what versions of the browser the extension is compatible with when you're creating one a developer will typically go for 4.0.x for example, though this means unless extension developers update their extensions as regular as Firefox (and ahead of the releases) it means that the extensions will disable themselves when you update. Other browsers that use extensions, such as Chrome do not do this - they continue to work without a required update.

Installer - whilst Google Chrome silently updates itself, Firefox still requires an installer be run and the browser restarted. There are arguments that Google Chrome doing this is annoying if for example you're a web developer and need to test on a particular version, but even having an option there for it to be a non-intrusive update would be nice.

Performance - the performance has improved quite a bit since Firefox 4, and even more so since Firefox 3.5 - but from a cold boot it is still quicker to launch Google Chrome or even the ancient IE6 (forget IE7+ they have far slower load times). Whilst I put this down as a negative, I am quite pleased with the improvements they have made to the start up time, even JavaScript performance is faster.

The features added in Firefox 5 are:

  • Added support for CSS animations
  • The Do-Not-Track header preference has been moved to increase discoverability
  • Improved canvas, JavaScript, memory, and networking performance
  • Improved standards support for HTML5, XHR, MathML, SMIL, and canvas
  • Improved spell checking for some locales
  • Improved desktop environment integration for Linux users
  • WebGL content can no longer load cross-domain textures
  • Background tabs have setTimeout and setInterval clamped to 1000ms to improve performance
  • The Firefox development channel switcher introduced in previous Firefox Beta updates has been removed

Out of these the CSS3 Animations is the most interesting point, and may produce some interesting results. Hopefully we'll start to see a lot more innovation with Firefox in future releases.

E3 Day 1, Lion, iOS 5 and the iCloud

Jun
06
Posted by David G. Paul at 17:07 0 comments

It was a big day for announcements, not only was it the start of this years E3, but also WWDC. Whilst the E3 event kicked off with an Xbox keynote featuring demos of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and the great looking new Tomb Raider game, it was announced that all future Tom Clancy titles would feature Kinect support - as will Mass Effect 3. Gears of War 3 was then demonstrated, as was Crytek's new Kinect supported game - Ryse. A big surprise for me was not the release of a remastered Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition (due out November 15th 2011), but the announcement of Halo 4 (to be released in 2012) being the start of a new trilogy. Peter Molyneux also announced Fable: The Journey would be the first Fable title to support Kinect and will be out in 2012. Plenty of Kinect empowered titles, but the one that may get me to buy a Kinect is the announcement of the Star Wars game for Kinect. It's been seen previously as a tech demo, but this time it's an actual game set in the Clone Wars era. Sadly it doesn't actually look that good, but I'll have to give a try anyway.

On the WWDC side of things Steve Jobs took the stage despite a leave of absence due to health problems and introduced the crowd to the topics of Lion, iOS 5 and "some interesting cloud stuff".  Out of the 250 new features they report as being in Lion they started with demonstrating 10 of these. To start with they're making a big deal of multi-touch gestures in Lion. If gestures is enabled you will no longer see the scrollbars - an interesting idea, one which I wonder how effective it will be as in some designs it may not always be obvious there is more to see if the scrollbar isn't there.

Full-screen applications was mentioned at the last Apple event, here they announced that it would be available for more applications. There was also talk of Mission Control, though they didn't talk of any aspects of it that were not covered at the previous Lion themed event. Strangely the Mac Store also got included as one of the 10 new features for Lion, despite it being available in Snow Leopard - only difference is it will come pre-installed. For all people with Mac Store installed it will be better though - when updating software it will now only download changes rather than the full application every time.

Launchpad was again mentioned, the interface that takes it's inspiration from the iOS interface. There was also more talk of "Resume" a feature that saves the current state of an application, just as the new Auto-save feature will auto-save your work. I'll be interested to find out what sort of support it has for existing applications - if any. The autosave feature will use deltas to store versions so that it will save space and will also allow you to halt auto-saving and allow easy creation of duplicates. This then follows into the new "Versions" feature which is basically a repository for version controlling your files, but will be easy for all to use whether you're used to using SVN or not.

The next feature was "AirDrop", an application used for sharing files with other users on your network using it. It uses auto-discovery to see people on your network, but will require confirmation to send and receive files using an encrypted transfer.

Finally they demonstrated some big improvements to the Mail.app which now features better searching and rule creation, conversation view - all of which brings it closer to being level with the Google Mail web interface. Also, as previously rumoured, the Lion upgrade will only be available to buy via the Mac Store (and of course with new Macs!) sometime in July for $29.99 and will be a 4Gb download. A single download will also work for all Macs that you're authorised for meaning you only need to download it once. Apparently it won't even need a reboot!

Moving on to iOS 5 they announced that with selling over 200 million iOS devices they now have a 44% share of the mobile operating system market. With the new iOS 5 upgrade there are over 1,500 new APIs available. First off, notifications have had a bit of an overhaul. To solve the annoyances of notifications not only have they introduced a new notification centre, but the entire system. If you're using your phone when a new push notification arrives it will slide down at the top of your screen (even if in a full screen app), and if your phone is locked it will display in a great looking list above the slide to unlock part. On the unlock screen and in the notification centre they are all categorised and are easy to remove, read, and use. The notification centre is accessible by swiping downwards from the top of the screen.

The second new feature is Newstands - a new application in a similar vein to iBooks, but is aimed at subscription based magazines, etc. that are issue based. A lot of magazine publishers have already signed up for this and popular ones such as National Geographic will be available from launch. Next up is Twitter integration - the iOS settings page will now feature Twitter settings that can be made available via an API to any iOS application. It will also be integrated with Safari, Maps, Photos and Camera including others so that you can tweet straight from the application. It will also be possible to automatically update contacts via Twitter.

Safari Reading List seems like Apple's solution to Instapaper with the ability to save things to read later, and a Safari Reader for reading articles without any distractions. The articles you bookmark in Reading List will also be synchronised with other iOS devices too. Safari will also be changing it's multiple window view for tabs - hopefully they won't feel too clumsy on small screens.

Reminders is another new feature to use for creating "To Do" lists that will synchronise across devices and with iCal. Each reminder will allow a title, location,  and dates. The Reminders can also be based on location so that if you go somewhere it uses the "geofence" feature to determine a reminder is applicable.

The camera is getting some improvements too - to start with they have added a camera icon to the lock screen to make it quicker to get to for taking pictures (hopefully it won't result in many people taking photos in their pockets!) as well as the "volume up" button. The camera will now support an AE/AF lock to help handle exposure of an image, and also has a good pinch to zoom feature complete with bar to show level of zoom. Some minor editing on the phone will now also be possible - crop, rotate, reduce red-eye and a 1-click enhance.

Mail for iOS has been updated with Rich text formatting, indentation, flagging, and dragging addresses between To, CC, and BCC fields. The new dictionary API being used with Mail on the iPad actually looks quite good and will show definitions as well.

Recently we saw that Windows 8 will feature a split-keyboard option for touch based devices - well so is iOS. In iOS 5 you can scroll up through the keyboard to split the keyboard for easy thumb typing. 

Inline with the Mac Store change for only transferring changes in updates they will be doing the same with the App Store. In addition to this it will no longer be necessary to own a PC in order to download large applications or to register in iTunes - updates will now be possible over the air. This iTunes synchronisation over Wi-Fi will also allow music to be copied over in the same way.

The Game Centre will be getting some updates to it's social features (including a friends of friends feature), and will allow games to be bought and downloaded directly from it rather than going through the App Store.

The messaging functionality on the iPhone has now been renamed to "iMessage" and will expand beyond being SMS and MMS to also supporting videos, contacts, group messaging, and delivery/read receipts. The messages will now also be synchronised so that they will be available on both your iPhone and iPad. Interestingly it will also show if the other user is typing a message - similar to a lot of modern IM applications making this application more like a combination of iChat and SMS. The iChat-like functionality will work over 3G or Wi-Fi.

The iOS 5 SDK is available as of today, and will be released to devices in the Autumn and will be compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod Touch (3rd and 4th gen), iPad and iPad2. 

Finally they discussed the iCloud -  it will automatically store your content in the cloud and wirelessly push it to all your devices. Apparently the way this will work is that it will synchronise all content without any interaction required. All the MobileMe applications have been rewritten from scratch to work with iCloud - for example any contacts added on a device will automatically be uploaded to iCloud and will synchronise with your other devices. All mail stored with a @me account will also be synchronised between devices - basically just like using IMAP.

As of now MobileMe will cease to exist, and iCloud will be free. It will also be possible to use this to see purchased applications so that they can be downloaded and synchronised on other devices - this is also applicable to purchases within iBooks. This means your entire device is backed up to the cloud and can be easily transferred to another device or restored if need be. Daily backups to the iCloud will be over Wi-Fi only. This is also applicable via "Documents in the Cloud" for Pages, Keynote and Numbers. To complete the iCloud picture it will also be getting it's own APIs for developers to use.

  • Apps can stores documents in iCloud
  • iCloud pushes documents to user's devices automatically
  • Documents update on all devices when changed on any device

The iCloud functionality isn't limited to just iOS devices - it will work on PCs and Macs too! On the photo side of things it will have new photos automatically pushed to other devices using "Photostream". On the Mac it will be added as a new album in iPhoto (no mention of Aperture, but presumably the same). On the PC it will synchronise to a new Photostream folder in your "Pictures" folder - it will even stream to AppleTV. In the cloud photos will be stored for 30 days, and on devices it will store the last 1,000 photos - only on Macs and PCs will a photo be stored permanently in order to save space where needed.

The final iCloud announcement is for iTunes - it will now store your music purchases in the cloud so that it can be automatically downloaded on other devices. This can be done on a track by track basis, or by album and will not be chargeable for redownloading. It's also possible for new purchases to automatically appear on your other devices without manual intervention. It is limited to 10 devices, but will transfer 256kbps AAC files to ensure good quality.

The storage space available for iCloud will be 5Gb but doesn't include music, apps and books - these are counted separately. The synchronisation does also include non-purchases of music via iTunes Match - assuming the song is available in the iTunes store, but costs $24.99 a year to use. With iTunes Match it will automatically update the songs in your library to 256 kbps AAC DRM-free files, and comparitively doing the same with Amazon or Google would take weeks and would cost around twice as much.

iCloud

May
31
Posted by David G. Paul at 21:23 0 comments

As part of the press release announcing the agenda for the WWDC event next week Apple have not only confirmed that cloud based services will play a part in it, but that the name has been confirmed as being iCloud. Over the past few months there has been a lot of speculation about this and even sightings of trademark applications and domain registrations to confirm suspicions. A lot of music labels have reportedly already signed up to the new framework, but I would doubt it will yet cover the full extent of the library available in the iTunes store.

Both Google and Amazon have recently announced cloud based services for storing and listening to music so it would come as not surprise that the long anticipated offering from Apple would be imminent. There are also a lot of rumours flying around that Apple is also trying to sign up for distribution of TV episodes and films using the iCloud service as well. With the big push for digital distribution (which even DC Comics is getting in on the act with) it is starting to seem more likely that we'll see the end of physical media within the coming years.

So between iCloud, OS X Lion, and iOS 5 it sounds like WWDC 2011 is going to be good whether they announce an "iPhone 4S" or not.