Sunday, October 5, 2014

HP to split into two businesses - report

Hewlett-Packard plans to separate into two businesses, one focused on PCs and printers, the other on corporate products and services, The Wall Street Journal reports. Hewlett-Packard may be ready for a breakup.
HP, the world's second-largest PC vendor behind Lenovo, plans to separate its PC and printer businesses from its corporate hardware and services operations, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, citing "people familiar with the matter." The company could announce the move as early as Monday, according to the Journal's sources. HP declined to comment.

The split is apparently one HP and its investors have been contemplating for a long time, said the Journal. HP's printing and personal systems group, which includes PCs, tablets, printers and other accessories, pulled in revenue of $55.9 billion during the company's 2013 fiscal year, almost half of its total revenue.

If true, the split could in part be an attempt to help HP move quickly to regain its position atop the global PC market -- it fell to the No. 2 spot behind Chinese computer maker Lenovo last year -- as the decline in that market shows signs of slowing.

"We're gradually shaping HP into a more nimble, lower-cost, more customer- and partner-centric company that can successfully compete across a rapidly changing IT landscape," CEO Meg Whitman said after the company's second-quarter earnings were released in May. Whitman had previously said the company is seeing renewed interest in traditional PCs over tablets in business.

Even so, HP as currently constituted doesn't have "enough focus on any one area to really dominate," wrote Larry Dignan at CNET sister site ZDNet, in a look at why a breakup of HP would be a good move. Meanwhile, he continued, the "printer and PC division [are] fighting for innovation spending with the enterprise side of the house. That's a lot of hands in an R&D pie that equates to about 3 percent of revenue."

Whitman will be chairman of the new PC and printer business and chief executive of the separate "enterprise company," one source told the Journal, while board member Patricia Russo will be chairman of the enterprise company. Don Weisler, the current executive vice president of HP's printing and personal systems group, will step in as CEO of the PC and printer business, according to the Journal.

This isn't the first time HP has attempted to jettison its PC business. In 2011, former Chief Executive Leo Apotheker tried to spin off the company's PC-making division. Investors rejected the move, and Apotheker was forced out. Whitman reversed the decision when she took over as CEO and began a "multiyear journey" to revive HP.

The 11.6-inch 1,366x768 display is bright and has decent off-axis viewing angles, but the edge-to-edge glass over the front surface invited glare (but also adds to the system's sharp look). Having a touchscreen on the N20p has uses, but at the same time, Chrome OS is not designed with touch in mind in the same way that Windows 8 is (or Google's other OS, Android). It will be interesting to see how Google or Chromebook makers try and adjust the OS to make better use of touch. I found myself primarily using it for webpage scrolling and closing Chrome windows.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Microsoft rolls out new plans for Office 365 users

Designed for small and midsize businesses, the three new subscription plans offer more features and flexibility than their predecessors, says the company.

Microsoft has launched new plans for subscription-based service Office 365 that the company says are designed to better meet the needs of business users.
Available as of Thursday, the three new plans are called Office 365 Business Essentials, Office 365 Business and Office 365 Business Premium. As described in a Microsoft blog post, the new plans are geared toward businesses with anywhere from one to more than 250 employees and replace the previous Small Business, Small Business Premium and Midsize Business plans with more options.

The goal was to simplify and beef up the plans available by cutting prices on one of the plans and increasing the number of users allowed on two of the plans. Microsoft also tried to incorporate more options for social networking, mobile devices and cloud-based services. Since unveiling Office 365 in 2011, the software giant has been trying to push more users, especially business users, to adopt the service as an alternative to the traditional desktop Office suite.

"We made these changes to the existing Office 365 plans in response to feedback from our customers, and as part of our longstanding commitment to bring the benefits of cloud-based productivity to every SMB" (small and midsize business), Microsoft said in its blog.

Office 365 Business Essentials offers Office Online, OneDrive for business with 1 terabyte of online storage, Exchange-based email with contacts and shared calendars, online meetings via Web conferencing and instant messaging, Sharepoint-based team collaboration and Internet portals, and a private social network via Yammer. The version costs $5 per user per month on an annual basis and $6 per user per month on a monthly basis. It replaces Office 365 Small Business, which also cost $5 per user per month.

The next level, Office 365 Business, includes the full Office suite (Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Publisher), OneDrive for Business, and Office Online. Users can also access and share documents across a variety of platforms, including Windows on PCs and tablets, Windows Phone, Mac OS X, and the iPad. Priced at $8.25 per user per month on a yearly basis and $10 per user per month on a monthly basis, the version replaces Office 365 Small Business Premium, which cost $12.50 per user per month.

The third level, Office 365 Business Premium, combines the other two plans, so you get access to everything included in Office 365 Business Essentials and Office 365 Business. This one will cost you $12.50 per user per month annually and $15 per user per month each month and replaces Office 365 Midsize Business, which cost $15 per user per month.

Those who opt for the new Business Essentials and Business plans will also see the maximum number of users they can add raised to 300 from 25. The Business Premium plan already carries over the 300-user maximum from the Midsize Business plan. Microsoft is also promising greater flexibility if your business grows. As you add more employees, you can easily switch to a different business plan, opt for an Enterprise plan, or add specific applications such as Microsoft Project or Microsoft Visio.

In a previous blog, Microsoft also explained the options for switching to the new plans. Existing Office 365 business customers can stick with their existing plans if desired and need to do nothing until their first renewal after October 1, 2015. Following that date, you'll need to select one of the three new plans when your next renewal kicks in.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Apple patent application reinvents remote control for the smartphone age

The tech giant considers shrinking down the user interface on your TV and putting it on your phone as a way to navigate Apple TV. Apple says today's remote control is outdated.
The numbered buttons on the remote were great when channels had numbers, but now many streaming services instead use graphic interfaces to show off channels, movies and TV shows. Also, searching for something to watch by repeatedly typing in 1s and 2s can be cumbersome.

With that in mind, Apple laid out in a patent application published Thursday a new kind of digital remote control for its Apple TV set-top box that uses icons and pictures, similar to those graphic interfaces on TV, but shrunken down and customized for a smartphone or tablet computer. Apple filed the application with the US Patent and Trademark Office last March.

Apple already recreated the physical remote control, offering up a slim remote for the Apple TV with only a few buttons to navigate videos and music. The new patent application shows the company could one day remake the physical controller again by doing away with it completely. Such an idea would be similar to Google's Chromecast, a dongle with no physical remote that's controlled using a mobile devices.

The concepts in the patent application go a step further than the current Remote app from Apple, which lets people navigate Apple TV with a program that's similar to the mobile iTunes library interface. Instead, the new interface appears to be much more complex, with more graphics and features, and can be used on a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

An Apple representative didn't respond to a request for comment.

The $99 Apple TV, which connects to televisions to stream video over the Internet, has been less of a focus for the tech giant than its primary moneymakers, the iPhone smartphone and iPad tablet. More than two years have passed without a hardware update to Apple TV. Apple has also been slow to add channels to the device, especially when compared with competitors such as Roku, which has hundreds more channels. A software update, such as the new interface mentioned in the patent application, could increase interest in Apple TV, though the device still remains well behind in content partners.

    

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

iOS 8 bug could delete your iCloud Drive documents

Tapping the option to Reset All Settings vaporizes some iCloud Drive files, say a handful of iOS users.

An alleged bug in iOS 8 appears to be deleting documents stored in iCloud Drive without the user's permission.
Discovered by MacRumors after complaints surfaced from users of the blog site's forums, the bug is triggered by the option to Reset All Settings.

Found in the Reset screen under the General category in Settings for iOS 8, the Reset All Settings option is supposed to simply reset your iOS settings but leave your data and media untouched. Yet several forum users say that's not the case as certain iCloud documents also vanished after they reset all settings.

Based on user comments, the bug seems to be specific to documents from iWork apps, such as Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, MacRumors said. One user reported that his iWork documents were deleted after resetting all settings, but other data files remained in iCloud.

"HELP," one user wrote. "Because iOS 8 was so sluggish on my iPad 3 I reset all settings (No data or media will be deleted) and sped it up BUT deleted my iWork data! Then promptly synced and deleted it in iCloud."

"I just had this happen to me," another forum user wrote. "I had a bit of weird behaviour on my iPad, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to just reset all settings. For the hell of it, I did it on my iPhone as well. ALL DOCUMENTS LOST! How on earth does resetting settings (with a clear notice that data will not be lost) wipe out iCloud drive? It's embarassing."

Apple's Time Machine feature is supposed to automatically back up your files so you can restore any that are lost. A couple of users said they checked Time Machine but were unable to retrieve the lost iCloud Drive files. However, a third person reported success with Time Machine, at least running the beta of OS X Yosemite. Several of the affected users say they've contacted Apple support personnel, who are investigating the issue.

MacRumors ran its own test on the bug and reported the following:

In our own testing, using "Reset All Settings" deleted all iWork documents stored in iCloud Drive on the iPhone and on iCloud.com. After allowing time for syncing to a Mac running OS X Yosemite, all of the documents disappeared from that machine as well. Preview and TextEdit documents, which cannot be accessed on the iPhone, remained untouched on the Mac.

iCloud Drive is Apple's answer to Google Drive, Microsoft's OneDrive, and other cloud-based storage services. Beyond just syncing your files between your iOS devices and iCloud, you can directly store and retrieve documents and other files on iCloud Drive just as you can store and retrieve them locally.

Surprise! Microsoft jumps to Windows 10

Forget Windows 9. In an unexpected twist, Microsoft will be going straight to double digits from Windows 8 as it faces a challenging future for its operating system.

Microsoft just said no to 9. The follow-on to the current Windows 8 operating system will be known as Windows 10.
Originally codenamed Windows Threshold, the new operating system essentially does away with the dependency on the tiled "Metro" user interface that Microsoft had attempted to implement across its entire device line, from desktop PCs to Surface tablets and Windows Phone devices. In its place is a combination of the so-called live tiles, present in areas like the new Start Menu, and a more classic Windows experience that aims to please both touch and keyboard-and-mouse users.

Windows 10 is such a substantial leap, according to Microsoft's executive VP of operating systems, Terry Myerson, that the company decided it would be best to skip over Windows 9, the widely expected name for the next version.

Microsoft has spent the better part of two years, since Windows 8's debut in October 2012, responding to criticism over the direction in which it took the operating system that has long dominated traditional PCs. Windows 8 introduced the touch-prioritized Metro design with live tiles and removed key elements of Windows 7, disrupting the familiar look and feel for long-time Windows users. The changes were representative of an overall acceleration of Microsoft's unification of its touch-enabled mobile devices with its desktop and laptop software.

Those changes found many critics and detractors.

Windows 8.1, released last year, attempted to address those complaints with the revival of core Windows design and usage properties, such as the Start button. Now, with Windows 10, Microsoft is not quite hitting the reset button on touch, but wants to make sure it does not repeat history in its attempt to take Windows forward.

"We believe that, together with the feedback you provide us, we can build a product that all of our customers will love," Myerson said. "It will be our most open collaborative OS project ever."

Taking the stage after Myerson's introduction was Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of operating systems and the current public face of Windows and Windows Phone design and development. He gave attendees a live demo of an early build of Windows 10. Belfiore, too, put the emphasis on a great leap forward.

"We want all these Windows 7 users to have the sentiment that yesterday they were driving a first-generation Prius," he said, "and now with Windows 10 it's like we got them a Tesla."

Windows 10 combines elements of Windows 8's forward-thinking design and the familiarity and functionality of Windows 7, still the most popular Microsoft OS. According to Web traffic-tracking firm Net Applications, Windows 7 could be found on 51 percent of desktop PCs in August, compared with just over 13 percent for versions 8 and 8.1 combined.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh it's Microsoft giving up on touch,'" Belfiore said, pointing out the most obvious criticism of the scaled-back Metro interface. "We're absolutely not giving up on touch. We have a massive number of users who know Windows 7 well and a massive, but smaller, number of people who know Windows 8 well."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Google strikes back at News Corp.'s antitrust complaint to EU

Amid a tangle with EU regulators over how it displays search results, Google gets into a war of words with Rupert Murdoch's media giant. Google has some pointed words for Rupert Murdoch, founder of the media giant News Corp.
Last week, News Corp. wrote an open letter to Joaquin Almunia, the European Union's competition commissioner, criticizing the search giant for its business tactics. Robert Thompson, News Corp.'s chief executive, wrote that Google is a "platform for piracy," and said the company "routinely configures its search results in a manner that is far from objective."

The public spat took another turn on Thursday, when Google published a blog post aimed not at Thompson, but the face of News Corp., entitled "Dear Rupert."

In a point by point response to News Corp.'s specific claims, Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president of global communications, said "Google has done more than almost any other company to help tackle online piracy."

The feud between Google and News Corp. comes amid a four-year antitrust investigation by European regulators into Google's practices around surfacing search results . In February, Google reached a tentative settlement with the commission over complaints that the company allegedly favors its own products and services over those of competitors in search results. As part of the settlement proposal, Google agreed to display search results for its own services in the same way as those for rival companies, but did not have to pay a fine.

Google's proposed settlement has come under fire after widespread criticism and complaints, including from European politicians, competitors like Microsoft,and publishers like News Corp. The media giant owns a handful of European outlets, including The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Times and The Sun. On Tuesday, Almunia told Google that if it did not improve its settlement proposal, the company would face formal charges from the commission.

Both companies declined to comment beyond their respective letters. "We're letting the letter speak for itself," a News Corp. spokesperson said.

In Whetstone's post, Google touted its role in shoring up traffic to publishers, noting that it drives 10 billion clicks a month to 60,000 publishers' websites. The company mentioned the local listings service Yelp and travel accommodations site Expedia -- who have both criticized the way Google displays competitors' search results -- as brands Google has helped in terms of revenue and traffic.

As for News Corp.'s claim that Google enables piracy, the company said it took down 222 million websites in 2013 that infringed on copyrights, and that the company "downgrades" repeat offenders in Google searches. The average take-down time for copyright violators is six hours, Whetstone noted.

Google's post was also tongue-in-cheek at times. In response to the idea that Google favors YouTube videos over others, the company said a search for "videos of Robert Thomson News Corp" brings up BBC and The Wall Street Journal content above YouTube.

"We only show YouTube results when they're relevant to a search query," wrote Whetstone.

News Corp.'s letter last week also said that the once "shining vision" put in place by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- who famously coined the mantra "Don't be evil" -- has been replaced by "cynical management." Whetstone pointed to the pairs' involvement with ambitious projects including driverless cars and Wi-Fi-beaming balloons.

"Larry Page and Sergey Brin are still very much at the helm of Google," she wrote.

The company also took a final dig at the media giant toward the end of the post, linking to a crude cover of the News Corp.-owned tabloid The Sun in response to the claim that Google's behavior toward publishers helps "lead to a less informed, more vexatious level of dialogue in our society."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lenovo N20 review: Lenovo's N20p Chromebook is half a hybrid

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Good - The Lenovo N20p has good battery life, a touchscreen and a better keyboard than most other Chromebooks. The half-hybrid hinge offers additional flexibility for presenting videos or slideshows.

Bad - Many other basic Chromebooks cost less, and the 300-degree hinge here seems needlessly limited, considering how many similar systems fold back a full 360 degrees.

Bottom Line - Lenovo's N20p is long-lasting touchscreen Chromebook with a design on the nicer side of budget, but its semi-hybrid hinge feels like a half-measure.
The recently reviewed Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook received high marks from us for its sturdy hybrid design and for pairing a touchscreen with Google's Chrome OS. But, that was a laptop intended for educational use. Built to withstand the rigors of the classroom, it was just too heavy and bulky for casual everyday commuting (and much more expensive than other Chromebooks).

The Lenovo N20p is a consumer-friendly alternative, and Lenovo's first Chrome OS not aimed at either business or education buyers. It's a slim, lightweight ultraportable laptop that takes the central idea of a Chromebook -- a low-cost, simple clamshell for online use -- and adds better keyboard and touchpad than Chromebook users may be used to.

At $330 for a configuration with an Intel Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD, the N20p is still more expensive than many other Chromebooks, which usually run $250 to $300. For that extra investment, you get a touchscreen, still a rare feature for Chromebooks, and a hinge that's less flexible than Lenovo's Yoga line, but more so than a standard laptop.

The system will be coming to the UK as well, and is listed on Lenovo's UK site, but without price or availability information, but converted pricing would be about £200. As for Australia, no price or release information was available, but converted pricing would be about AU$370.

Much like the Windows laptop line Lenovo calls IdeaPad Flex, the hinge on the N20p folds back past 180 degrees. Unlike fold-back hybrids, it doesn't go all the way back a full 360 degrees, allowing you to use it as a tablet. Instead, like the Flex, it stops, somewhat abruptly, at 300 degrees. That allows you to fold the screen back for use in what we call a kiosk mode, with the screen facing out and the base, keyboard facing down, as a kind of kickstand. It's marginally useful, more so if you're playing videos or presenting PowerPoint presentations, but unlike the Yoga hinge, it's probably not a system-selling feature.

Despite the trick hinge that might not get much use, the N20p is one of the better Chromebooks we've tested. The body is well-made and slim, the keyboard and touchpad are excellent for a budget-priced ultraportable, and the touchscreen, while not as useful in Chrome OS as in Windows 8, is still an occasionally handy extra. Yes, you could pay less for a Chromebook, but you'll be getting less, too.

The 11.6-inch 1,366x768 display is bright and has decent off-axis viewing angles, but the edge-to-edge glass over the front surface invited glare (but also adds to the system's sharp look). Having a touchscreen on the N20p has uses, but at the same time, Chrome OS is not designed with touch in mind in the same way that Windows 8 is (or Google's other OS, Android). It will be interesting to see how Google or Chromebook makers try and adjust the OS to make better use of touch. I found myself primarily using it for webpage scrolling and closing Chrome windows.

Connections, performance, and battery

Even a few years into the USB 3.0 era, we're still seeing a lot of slower USB 2.0 ports. In this case, you actually get one of each, which is better than some other ultraportables, and with only 16GB of internal SSD storage, it's not like you're likely to need fast data transfer speeds anyway. Having faster 802.11ac WiFi is a plus, but the idea of fishing out a dongle or special cable every time to use the micro-HDMI port doesn't appeal to me.

We've seen some differences in Chrome OS performance over the past year between systems with Intel Celeron processors, such as this one, slower ones with ARM chips such as the Samsung Exynos and faster ones with Core i3 CPUs. Nvidia and Acer upended the apple cart a little but with the recent Acer Chromebook 13, which uses the Nvidia K1 processor for average overall performance scores, but excellent 3D scores (as one might expect from Nvidia).

The N20p was middle-to-top of the pack in most tests, but keep in mind that much of your Chrome OS experience is going to be based on using online tools, most of which are pretty lightweight and easy to run. The N20p felt faster and easier to use than some other Chromebooks, but a lot of that also comes from the better-than-average keyboard and touchpad, making interaction less of a hassle.

One area where the system did especially well is our online video streaming playback test. The N20p ran for 8:19, just a few minutes longer than the Nvidia-powered Acer Chromebook 13, and well ahead of Lenovo's own Yoga 11e Chromebook, which ran for 5:36 on the same test.

Conclusion

Chromebooks have become common enough that shoppers can now expect either a rock-bottom price or one or more special features. The Yoga 11e has a hybrid hinge that transforms into a tablet, the Acer Chromebook 13 does mainstream-quality graphics, and the Acer C720p (a long-time favorite) packs a touchscreen into a very inexpensive system.

The N20p straddles that line. It's not the least-expensive, not the most expensive, and it adds a touchscreen and decent design. But its main calling card, a semi-hybrid 300-degree hinge, is of dubious practical use. Much like the IdeaPad Flex line of Windows 8 PCs that preceded it, the N20p still stands on its own as a very good clamshell laptop, even if you'll never use its fold-back hinge.