A taste of the Halo 4 “Purple Plasma” V energy drink

My sample pack of the limited edition Halo 4 “Purple Plasma” V-Energy drink from Microsoft finally arrived today. And yes, it tastes as interesting as it looks.

The purple packaged energy drink cans are part of a 2 month promotion to coincide with the latest release of the (never ending) XBOX 360 game franchise, Halo 4. A special printed code at the bottom of special Halo 4-branded cans gives buyers a chance to win a free game and console package.

Drinks purchased from different retail stores also offer a range of other prizes including a Jeep Wrangler, trip to Comic-Con, E3 2013 and a gaming pod. Master Chief must be feeling extra generous this year.

My co-workers and I decided we can only taste test this drink like a connoisseur so we poured it in a wine glass. In retrospect, it probably should have been a blind taste test had we realized sooner it wasn’t purple coloured on the inside. Nevertheless, we toasted to the Chief and gulped.

It turns out not to be so much grape-flavoured but a mix of passion-fruit and/or guava. Or at least it smells that way. For the most part it still tasted like every other Guarana energy drink – horrible.

But I guess if you really wanted to win a free XBOX 360 and get hyper-active, just drink it from the can.

Ford Focus ST: software technology to make future cars more fun, powerful and simpler

When our propeller plane landed in regional Australia and I was driven into an aircraft hanger housing World War II vintage aircrafts, I knew today was going to be a slightly different launch event than the technology product ones I’m used to.

Although I can’t emphasize enough my lack of qualifications in this area, test driving cars is a lot more fun than reviewing mobile phone or tablets, I’ll tell you that much. Having said that, I’ve been told a printer company once held a launch event for a “fast” printer to drive sports cars up to 200KM/h on a closed race course. Yeah, tough gig.

But back to Ford where today was the Australian launch of the ‘hot hatch’ Focus ST (Sports Technology) which received an impressive 9/10 score from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, the Top Gear show in the UK.

Driving it today on windy mountain roads and wide open highways was undeniably a thrill. Under the hood, Ford and other car manufacturers are packing in more software technology than just pure mechanics to make cars more fun and powerful to drive and simpler to manufacturer. I found three examples of this in the Focus ST.

The first, for fun, is a feature Ford dubbed Active Sound Symposer. This is an electronically controlled valve that opens and closes based on a combination of engine speed, acceleration and gear selection.

Since quiet and loud are contradictory goals, software technology has enabled Ford to deliver both a roaring low-frequency engine note at acceleration but maintain minimize interior cabin noise when cruising, by shutting off the sound tube. Power you can hear when you really want to feel it and peaceful serenity when you don’t.

The second, power, is delivered by a built-in software overclock feature on the turbo EcoBoost engines.

Similar to how modern computer multi-core processors temporarily overclocks a single core for small speed boosts under single-core uses, Ford does this to make the engine 7.4% more powerful for up to 15 seconds between 3,000 and 4,500 RPM for extra torque.

The last but certainly not least is that software is enabling Ford realize its “One Ford global car” strategy by building one common car with the same engine, drive-train, suspension and etc but utilize software control systems to adjust variables tailored for each country and region to conform to local vehicle standards and emission laws.

As someone who enjoys driving cars but doesn’t actually pay too much attention to the specifications, it’s interesting to learn just how much technology, and especially software technology, now goes into making good mechanics even better.

With a clear trend from user-serviceable software upgrades to a future with cars that automatically download new software patches in the garage, it’ll be fun to watch which car manufacturer becomes great software companies too.

Disclosure: I attended the Ford driving event as a guest of Ford Australia.

Windows 8 officially launches in Australia on Oct 26

Microsoft Australia today just sent out the invitation to the official Australian launch event for Windows 8.

The invite is to be held in Sydney on Friday the 26th of October 2012, just eight hours after the New York US launch event is scheduled to start on the other side of the world separated by 15 timezones.

Historically, Microsoft held Windows launch events on the same local date around the world which meant Australians were at an advantage as one of the first countries to usher in the new day. But not this time.

Looking back, Windows 8 will launch (in the US) exactly 11 years after Windows XP launched on October 25 2001. A lot has changed since.

Behind the new Microsoft.com: “Go with your gut”

Nishant Kothary, a web strategist at Microsoft, goes behind the scenes of the new Microsoft.com from the first conversation with his wife, the project manager.

Although he doesn’t go through the technical aspects of the website, he dives deep into the psychological reasoning and how the design team overcame falling into the trap of relying too heavily on telemetry and usability studies. Instead, they had the freedom to “design from the gut”.

“In rethinking the user experience, we didn’t want to simply offer up X number of programmable slots. We got together as a team to discuss how to best create an experience to tell our product stories, meet the needs of our customers, and how we wanted to have a beautiful experience across any device. We drew learnings from analytics and previous A/B testing, but at the end of the day it was strategy by gut, tweaking by data.” said Benson to me when we met in the RedWest campus of Microsoft a few days ago in reference to the impressive hero graphic that spans the top of the page. It’s easy to understate the significance of his statement in the absence of context. But consider that the new hero graphic is a huge departure from the information architecture of the last few versions of the site. The image below speaks a thousand words that amount to: go with your gut.

Microsoft and StackOverflow sponsors $15,000 “Apptivate” Windows 8 app contest

Cash and tablet rewards for apps is the strategy Microsoft seems to be pursuing for Windows 8 and this time it’s at the front doors at one of the most popular developer community today, StackOverflow. Having said that, you don’t have to write a single line of code to win this.

The “Apptivate” competition announced last week is a collaboration with Microsoft and StackOverflow to promote developers to develop apps up until and after Windows 8 launches in a month.

The total prize pool worth $15,000 is made up of a $5,000 grand cash prize to the two best judged apps, $500 runner up cash prizes, Windows RT tablets, copies of Windows 8 and shirts (who doesn’t love free clothing).

Different to other pure coding competitions, Apptivate actually rewards participants even if they don’t write a single line of code or actually develop an application.

Building on top of StackOverflow’s community mechanisms, people can enter the contest just by voting on apps, commenting on apps, asking and answering questions about Windows 8 and participate in the chat room (first one in a few hours).

The contest ends December 19, 2012 but app submissions close December 6, 2012. Register here to get started and start voting, commenting or writing code.

My first week with iPhone 5: what I miss from Windows Phone 7

For my first iPhone, the iPhone 5 is a pretty nice way to ease into the mobile platform that started it all.

Putting aside the overblown Maps controversy, the hardware issues and my own gripes about battery life, the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 are both very refined and polished products that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using for most part of this week.

While for the most part I think the iPhone 5 is a superior device than the Nokia Lumia 800 I was using and iOS 6 is much more powerful and polished than Windows Phone 7.5, there are actually a handful of features from Windows Phone that I sincerely miss.

  • People hub, “What’s new” – Native social integration was a Windows Phone first and its integration into contacts is a timesaver. Being able to tap on a person and see all their Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other updates combined makes stalking catching up with what friends’ are up to is very useful.
  • Me tile notifications – Similar to the social integration above, being able to see all the Facebook and Twitter notifications for yourself in a single combined view saves a lot of time jumping in and out of many different apps.
  • Better Facebook events integration – Since iOS 6 introduced native Facebook support, it also integrates with Facebook Events into the Calendar. Unfortunately it doesn’t allow much control so that all events including the ones I haven’t accepted automatically show up in my calendar (especially Notification Center).
  • Stricter multitasking and battery life model – Windows Phone seems to enforce a much tougher multitasking policy for backgrounded apps. Through my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, manually closing backgrounded iOS apps is somewhat of a necessity to reduce the chance of apps unnecessarily consuming battery.
  • Hardware camera button – While the iPhone camera takes awesome photos, it’s really hard to get to (if the device is unlocked). A dedicated camera button that not only launches the camera app but can also trigger snaps makes the WP7 camera experience much quicker and predictable.
  • Live tiles – I’m a little bit dumbfounded why Apple has not yet added the ability to dynamically update the app icon in iOS6, even though the Calendar app (changes dates) clearly shows it can be done. I don’t even need the animated or flipping tiles of WP7, just a simple icon refresh through push notification is sufficient.
  • Better software keyboard – The Windows Phone soft keyboard feels to have much bigger hit-areas per letter and a more tolerant error correction algorithm. Multiple word suggestions above the keyboard (within easy reach of the typing position) is much easier than reaching out to wherever the word might be.
  • (Developer) XAML app designer – After briefly diving into Xcode and Cocoa, developing apps for iOS is a big hurdle for a “designer”. XAML for Windows Phone is easy to learn for any designer with web development experience, and powerful enough to control every aspect of an app’s UI behaviour.