Tip o’ the Week #213 – London travel with Windows Phone


There are plenty apps that help travellers to and from the city of London, some of which I’ve mentioned previously in Tips gone by. Apologies somewhat to international readers as many of these will be of little use to you, unless you choose to visit the cradle of parliamentary democracy, in which case you should install them all before your trip.

Commuters in London have had to deal with industrial action on the Tube in recent months, and may face some more to come unless BoJo and BoCrow can kiss and make up. Install these apps now, so that next time you’re stuck in a queue or wedged on a train studiously not making eye contact with your fellow passengers, then you’ll have something to occupy yourself with. You could try singing the Amateur Transplants’ “London Underground” song to yourself: Warning – NSFW. Seriously, very sweary NSFW. About as sweary as you can get NSFW.

If you find yourself trying to traverse the capital on unfamiliar modes of transport (with other strange songs ringing in your mind), you could do worse than check out Bing Get Me There – it’s a multi-modal travel app which will plot routes on Tube, bus, overground rail & DLR, as well as link up the walking bits at either end too. The London Travel app is also very good – it shows you when the bus is due at your stop, among many other useful functions.

clip_image003Some other mainstream apps also feature great functionality for navigating the city – everyone should have Here Maps installed and benefit from being able to plan your journey on Shanks’s Pony even if you are stuck in a crawling underground train with no signal, since the maps are all stored offline.

Tap on a train or Tube station and the maps even show the real over-ground and underground layout (ie. where the tube lines lie under the streets – a revelation to new visitors to London is when they realise that sometimes it’s just a lot quicker to walk than to change lines on the underground, as the famous Tube Map isn’t anything like to-scale). Select a bus stop, and it’ll show you the numbered bus routes which that stop serves, and where they go to. Here Maps also gives you great turn-by-turn walking sat-nav so you can figure out exactly where to go when you get off the transit.

Ceri Morriss helpfully points out that as well as using the Bus Checker app, many routes – including the TVP courtesy bus – are also in Nokia’s excellent & free Here Transit phone app, which lets you plan a route by public transport not only in London, but other cities too. 740 of them around the world, apparently. Yes, other cities are available. Even the BBC knows this now.

Finally, there is a slew of similar train-opco-supplied apps, many off the same code base. For travellers going Reading-London, the most obvious is the clip_image005FGW app, which lets you see plan journeys, buy tickets, see the status of current trains (so you can see how late they are running), view departures from your favourite station (and as you can see how late the trains are running, you can give yourself another few minutes before rushing out of the house).

The coup-de-grâce though, is the ability to see which platform a given train is going to depart from; often, it’s displayed in the app before it shows on the board in the station, so you can be smugly luxuriating in your double seat before the hordes start descending from the main concourse.

“Latent Data” – the secret sauce of the Internet of Things

This is part 2 of a series of articles exploring the Internet of Things, starting with the first post, What is this “Internet of Things” thing, anyway?

clip_image002The secret sauce, the Holy Grail, the raison d’être for Internet of Things is data. That much is pretty obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the field – why would you go to the bother of deploying a load of sensing devices and the infrastructure to manage and communicate with them, unless the data they provide is particularly interesting?

At Microsoft, we work with lots of partner companies who use our technology to build their own products and solutions. This often puts us into contact with people and organisations who are doing things we’d never expected or even imagined they’d do, and that is one of the reasons why it’s such a great place to work and an amazing ecosystem to be part of.

As part of this working with companies that are beginning to inhabit this growing Internet of Things niche, a special interest group sitting in Microsoft UK has drawn a few interesting, and sometime controversial, observations:

  • No one technology or technology provider will own the IoT, and a lot of systems will use a smorgasbord of standards and components
  • Scaling a system that manages a few hundred gadgets to one dealing with hundreds of thousands of sensors is very hard, as is managing and analysing a massive quantity of data
  • There are “stacks” within IoT
    • Sensors: the “things” in the IoT, massive in number but small in compute power
    • Hubs: the concentrators which harvest data from sensors, provide some degree of control, logic and processing and ultimately pass the information up the chain
    • Comms: many incompatible but functionally similar wireless standards will connect sensors to hubs, and hubs to the…
    • Cloud: the place where the data is brought back to, where analysis can take place on it and where insights can be passed on to other systems or even back to the devices
  • The real value will come from “latent data”

What is “latent data”?

To a large degree, the IoT is an emerging set of technologies, protocols and patterns for the collection, aggregation, analysis and actioning of intrinsic, latent data, and the management of this process.

Data is ubiquitous and inherent is all environments, be it an outside space, an ecosystem, a manufacturing complex, a supply chain or a city. This data can be regarded as “latent data” or “potential data” in the physical world – the data exists but is not accessible, or if it is accessible then it is of limited use since it is not combined with other, relevant data (such as historical readings, or data from complementary systems). Maybe the data is being accessed by some silo’ed system which uses that data for its own purposes but was never designed to provide any wider access to it.

Every physical thing has properties and attributes which may be discernable but are probably not being measured. A mechanical thermostat has intrinsic data on the temperature of a room and its own state, but this data remains in the physical world. A light bulb could be measured to see if it’s on or off, but this only becomes truly interesting when we could measure all the bulbs in a building, or a facility, or a city. If we can sense when all the bulbs need replacing, or alter their individual brightness depending on other conditions, that’s even more interesting.

For the avoidance of doubt, “Latent Data” is also a legal term applied to deleted files that need special forensic tools to extract… we’re talking about a more ethereal concept here, that there is data all around us in everything, but it’s untapped – and therefore, latent – unless we specifically decide to measure it and do something with it.

We believe that IoT is fundamentally about bringing this latent intrinsic data into the digital world in a way that allows the creation of value. This value is due to the aggregation of collected data, its analysis, and the use of that insight to drive decision-making and actions. The Cloud is the place where this data will be collected, where the data is likely to be stored in the long term, and where data aggregation and analysis will (mostly) occur.


The IoT patterns, the technologies and protocols that allow for this aggregation of latent data, are similar in a way to the OSI 7-layer networking model – the stacks which encompass devices, communications and Cloud. There are differing degrees of abstraction between these stacks and their constituent layers which means the IoT is inherently (and to the benefit of everyone within it and using it) a heterogeneous world.

Microsoft’s role in the Internet of Things

Microsoft has developed embedded systems that run in billions of devices already, and some of these could be considered part of an “intelligent system” that forms part of the IoT. Microsoft also has a hugely scalable and low cost cloud computing system in the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, where IoT applications can be quickly deployed and where the data that results from them can be securely kept and worked on.

Almost all IoT applications are likely to generate large volumes – petabytes, even more – of data, which will only become valuable when it is cost effective to keep it for a period of time and to perform large-scale computational analysis, both of which are difficult to do or economically unviable without the availability of public cloud computing.

If you’re an IoT developer building devices with Arduino or using systems like Raspberry Pi, and you’re writing your code in Python or Java and storing your data in some form of NoSQL database… that’s just fine by us. We think we have just the cloud service you need to let you concentrate on doing the stuff you started in this business for in the first place – writing your applications, building your devices and consuming your data.

With Microsoft Azure providing the backplane for these billions of devices to communicate – whether they are running Microsoft software or not – and to store and analyse their data, there is an opportunity for us and our partners to enable and monetize far-reaching change.

Some further reading:

  • If you’ve not seen much around Azure before, see an overview here.
  • For developer resources, including Node.JS, PHP, Python, Java and iOS & Android resources, see here.
  • For the more technically minded – The Microsoft Azure Service Bus and the Internet of Things (part 1 and part 2).

Tip o’ the Week #212 – Filing and piling of email

clip_image002The topic of filing vs piling of email has been had on ToWs passim (here & here), but this week’s gem comes courtesy of a recommendation by productivity guru Tim Pash.

Tim says he couldn’t live without a cracking utility which plugs into Outlook, called SimplyFile. The premise is very simple – it helps you file your emails in tidy little folders. Whoever has time to manually file all their email, eh? Using keywords it can derive from a message you have selected (combined with previous behaviour), it suggests a folder (or a number of folders) that you might want to file the mail into with a single click.


There are a couple of ways to actually invoke the filing addin – you could select a message and then look to the Outlook toolbar, where the most likely folder is displayed in super-size, you can do some pretty funky filing of entire threads or even all messages within a given folder, where it will prompt you for each one. The tools for selecting folders etc are brilliant, and a model for speedy efficiency.

clip_image006Another option is to just right-click on a mail in a list and use the File In > pop out menu. The software promises to learn as you do more and more filing, but even on the first run it seems to have a fairly decent stab at the right place to put stuff. There are no rules to configure, no wizards to run – remarkably, it seems to just work. You might want to switch off the default filing of everything you send, though – that could be a little annoying.

There are a couple of gotchas – one being that if you have an Archive PST (or a 2nd mailbox into which archive content is dumped) then you might well have multiple folders with the same name (such as the name of a particular client or partner), which could make things a little trickier: SimplyFile might well identify the archive as the place to dump current content instead of the fresh and mostly empty folder that’s still in your Inbox. If you grow to reply on the software, it could be worth coming up with a naming convention for your archive folders to avoid confusion.


Most of us probably have a strategy for arranging folders in Outlook’s hierarchy and giving them names anyway – in fact the two are sometimes linked, with names like zz-Archive that would historically have forced a folder to the bottom of the sorted list, or _ Important that would force it to the top. Did you know that in Outlook 2013, you can manually drag and drop folders around in the tree hierarchy to arrange them in ways other than alphabetically. Quite handy, really…

Oh, the second SimplyFile gotcha – it costs $50 of hard currency but like all the best addictive experiences, it’s available for free for a 30 day trial. Have a go, what’s the worst that can happen?

What is this “Internet of Things” thing, anyway?

I’m going to start the odd bit of blogging aside from the weekly Tips that will carry on making their way onto this blog. Here is the first in a short series looking at the Internet of Things.

The term “Internet of Things” (or IoT) has achieved buzzword fever pitch in 2014, thanks in part to a slew of product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Combined with high-profile acquisitions (such as Google’s purchase of smart home technology company, Nest), there have been many news stories which associated the subject of the piece with the Internet of Things.

imageEven people who work in the IoT world sometime struggle to articulate what it actually is. There are several ways of looking at IoT, however, and some of the scenarios are only being developed now and will become both significant and disruptive in ways that we probably don’t yet understand. There are, in fact, numerous types of “Internet of Things” application.

The consumer market provides plenty of examples of devices measuring and reporting data back to some kind of service that allows users to use that data for some purpose that would otherwise be difficult or impossible without this technology. “Wearable technology” is a category that typifies this approach.

Industrial Internet of Things applications have often existed for years, just under different names – M2M, SCADA, telemetry of numerous sorts – though are being combined in new ways and with new variants of technology, to open up new scenarios such as telematics. Industrial uses could mean using IoT technology to control a manufacturing process, to monitor complex machines in the field, extending even to remotely monitoring cars for the purposes of insurance, road tolling, safety and performance improvements.

Finally, companies will find a way to use IoT technology inside their own environments, offering up data that is consolidated from other systems and collected using sensors, to be combined with customer relationship management systems, building control systems and a host of other uses.

The interesting thing is, the majority of these examples won’t connect the many things to the Internet at all – maybe the devices and sensors at the very edge of the system will be individually addressable, but they almost certainly won’t be directly connected to the internet. Other groups have tried to establish alternative definitions – some talk or a “Sensor mesh” or a “Network of sensors", and Cisco, for example, talks about the “Internet of Everything” (and has some other, intriguing ideas such as Fog Computing… it’s like Cloud Computing but nearer the ground). It looks like the term IoT has stuck, at least until we stop talking about it as if it’s something special or something different, rather than just the normal way that these things work.

The definitive definition of the Internet of Things

The term “Internet of Things” was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, from Proctor & Gamble, then at MIT. He later wrote, in 2009:

“Nearly all of the data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so.”

Analysts express differing views as to the exact scale (IDC reckons 212 billion devices with a market value of nearly $9trillion in only 6 years), but all estimates of the future size of the Internet of Things business are extraordinarily large. If even the lower end forecasts are out by a factor of 10, there will still be billions of connected devices within a few years, and the reason those devices are connected is because they have something to communicate.

What’s Microsoft got to say about this Internet of Things? Well, there are lots of things out there which read data and send it for further processing, and those things are probably not going to be running anything like a Windows OS. There are going to be devices which these sensors talk to, which collect the information and process it to some degree (validating it, packaging it for onward delivery, maybe issuing commands back to the sensors on the basis of what the data says). These devices may well be running a more functional OS, something akin to Windows Embedded and forming part of what we could call an Intelligent System. Then there’s the cloud platform that will tie everything together – boy do we have one of those… called Windows Azure. 

Next time, I’ll explore a few thoughts developed by some Microsoft experts and collected by talking with partner companies active in this area.

For further reading in the meantime, check out a couple of articles on the MSDN Magazine site (here and here), which shows some practical examples of how to use the Azure Service Bus to build an IoT application.

Tip o’ the Week #211 – Manage your battery on WP8


The world – at least if you listen to ex-PayPal squillionaire Elon Musk – is destined to move from fossil-fuel-fired transport to electric vehicles that might be charged by the power grid rather than carrying around their own means of energy conversion. Some say that centralised generation (in the form of power stations) is more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells or petrol/hybrid,  and even coal-fired power stations are ~60% efficient, says the Hyperloop space cadet. We’ll see.

Hyperloop: Near-supersonic travel in a driverless capsule fired along a vacuum tube suspended monorail style, over-ground along the San Andreas fault. What could possibly go wrong?

Whatever, the current generation of plug-in electric cars – some of which are expensive and impractical hairshirt statements, some (like Musk’s Tesla S) a genuine move forward to a new world – brings a new phrase into the lexicon, which is also recognisable to many other technology users – range anxiety. In other words, the fear that there just isn’t enough power left to get you home.

Users of any smartphone will be familiar with the idea that you’re only a few steps away from running out of power, particularly the times when you are using it – and maybe need it – the most. Like when you’re travelling on trains, hanging around at airports etc. You have time on your hands, you’re reading and writing emails, maybe you’re listening to music or using your phone’s navigation, ergo the phone gets drained more quickly.

clip_image004Laptops have nice big batteries, at least in comparison to phones. Laptops need bigger batteries, but if the laptop is in your bag, did you realise you might be able to use it to recharge your phone, even if the laptop is asleep or even powered off? Look on the back of your machine and you may find a small electric flash symbol next to the port – which signifies you can charge devices using this port when the PC is not running.

USB ports will one day be able to drive up to 100W of power supply to other devices, but you might find the ports on your laptop today aren’t labelled yet one of them can power USB devices when switched off – trial and error may prove useful…

Another option is to control what’s happening on your phone itself – you could check that the background tasks section in settings / applications / background tasks and disable and apps you don’t want to run in the background (which inevitably drains battery life). A great tip (if slightly more drastic) comes from ToW regular Simon Boreham:

If one is more interested in battery life than Facebook & Twitter updates, etc. you can go into the Data Sense app, and under settings set restrict background data to always.  The results are amazing  ~70 % battery still left at the end of the day!  Incidentally I found out about this whilst traveling, there is an option to set it when roaming and clearly there are data volume advantages to setting it as well as battery life.  Obviously this restricts live tile updates etc, but it is a trade-off.

Whatever, keep a micro-USB cable on your person all the time. You never know when you’ll need it.

Tip o’ the Week #210 – Beam me up!

In the last few weeks, Nokia has shipped the Lumia Black update and it’s widely available. There are some cool additions that the Finns have made to the Phone platform, some new and synched with Black. Nokia now publishes loads of addons (some available for other phones, many only application on Nokia handsets), under both the Nokia and Here brands.


This is an evolution of the PhotoBeamer app that came out a while back, except the Beamer app lets you share your screen, the map of where you are, or the output of your phone camera, to many internet connected devices simply by visiting http://beam.nokia.com and scanning the displayed barcode on your phone. Hello Computer?!
(Great typing skills, btw, Scotty)

Focus, Focus, I think he’s trying to Focus

Many a gadget fan and itinerant story teller couldn’t wait to sample the Lytro camera, which promised to capture enough of a digital photograph that it would banish the problem of focus being in the wrong place.

Now, Nokia has launched the Refocus app (as usual, if you’ve a Nokia handset…) and a website to allow non-Nokia users to have a play. Here’s one I made earlier – all in the interests of research, y’understand.



Very nice. Now there’s at least half a dozen different camera apps on my phone.