Microsoft has Awoken

Microsoft has been a mess for years. Windows 7 was a solid, but decidedly dull operating system. People that needed to use Windows liked its stability and security but I think it would be a stretch to say that anyone was excited about it. The next version of Windows took a lot of chances and really tried to change some things up but Windows 8 ended up being a bit of a disaster for them. It was too big a change and unfocused. I’ve heard very few positive reviews from users. Even the people that do like it took a while to get there. Microsoft also really missed the boat on mobile. While their phone OS has gotten really good reviews, no one seems to use it and the app ecosystem just cannot seem to get any traction. They now represent low single digit percentages of users in the smart phone world.

Compared to Apple and Google, Microsoft has had a real image problem with consumers. Aside from the Xbox, there was no sizzle from Microsoft, no sexiness. Yes, they still had a lock on the business world but it was difficult to find anyone as passionate about Microsoft as people are about Apple and Google. On January 21st, Microsoft had a special event around Windows 10 and some other technologies. History may show that event as being when consumer sentiment started to shift in Microsoft’s favor.

It’s been a while since a new version of Windows was exciting and yet that’s what Windows 10 seems to be. It shares a lot of similarities with Windows 8 as far as how it looks but Microsoft has learned some lessons. They have fixed a lot of the things that people didn’t like about Windows 8. No more charms, the start menu is back, and there seems to be a better way of switching between desktop and touch interfaces. The phone and tablet interfaces look really good. I’ve always thought that Windows phone had an interesting approach and I think that Windows 10 has taken more steps along the path to being really good. I’m not as convinced about the desktop, nor am I sold on the switching between tablet and computer mode but maybe that’s my Apple bias showing…

The big news is that Windows 10 will be on computers, tablets, phones, and even the Xbox. I’ve always wondered why Microsoft hasn’t made more hay with their Xbox branding. That is one aspect of their product mix that people were actually passionate about. Better late than never I suppose. Of course the big excitement of having the same OS on all of the devices is that the same programs should be able to be on all of them. That could be a huge deal for the phones. If Windows developers could easily port their computer apps to the phones, Windows phones might start to close the app gap it has with other platforms.

Combine Windows 10 with all of the cross platform services Microsoft has and it looks like they have a focused, unified company for the first time in a decade. Windows 10 plus Skype, OneDrive, and Office on everything is a compelling product. Microsoft as a unified product, I never thought I’d see the day. As a certified nerd, I was impressed with the way Microsoft was able to seemingly get its act together all at once.

The best was yet to come though. People that follow Microsoft already knew all about Windows 10. What nobody saw coming was the announcement of HoloLens. It’s an augmented reality headset that projects “holograms” into your field of view. It’s not a virtual reality headset that completely replaces your environment, it adds objects to your environment. The video at the top of this post gives you some idea of the possibilities. You could throw screens into your field of view either to watch TV or to carry on a video chat. You can project images onto real life objects. That could be used for fun (like the minecraft example) or for real life modeling. It really reminds me of scenes from Ghost in the Shell. Microsoft is claiming that the things you build as a hologram can be sent directly to a 3D printer and become actual objects. Yes, there are all sorts of nick knacks you could build but think about the possibilities in the construction, medical, and maintenance fields.

Members of the press were allowed to use the prototype HoloLens. Going by what they said, the video doesn’t really do it justice. They say it is absolutely, jaw droppingly amazing. They were given a real time tutorial of how to replace a light switch, complete with 3D annotations to the switch that was right in front of them. Apparently the Minecraft demo was amazing. They did something similar to what they did in the video, blow a hole in the wall of the room and see into another world. They were also able to walk on mars, just like on the video. Do watch the video to get an idea of the possibilities. Incredible stuff. Even more incredible? It’s going to ship this year.

This could very well be the next step of computing. It certainly has the possibility of completely redefining how we interact with technology. How excited am I about this? If Microsoft were the only company that offered this and you needed to use a Windows computer to use it, I’d buy one. Yes, I am that excited about this. The good news is there is talk of at least one other company making similar technology. It’s also hard to believe that other big tech companies like Google and Apple aren’t working on something like this as well. I anticipate having some choice in providers as this technology becomes mainstream.

I never thought I would be interested, let alone excited, about what Microsoft does. It’s awesome to see a massive tech company flex its muscles and give us a view of the future. It’s even more amazing to have them bring it to us. Well done Microsoft.

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Film Photography reality Check

Noticed my Horseman VHR system in the corner. Again. It’s the last big film rig that I own. The Horseman VHR is a mini press camera (think press photographers from the 30s and 40s) that has interchangeable lenses and removable backs. It also has a rangefinder and framing window, so it works kind of like a really, really big Leica.

Horseman VHR

Anyway, I’ve got it, three lenses (all set up properly for the system), 5 backs, and seemingly every accessory ever made for it. That includes the custom hard case and another soft case. I originally bought it with the idea of taking it to Yemen. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons but I’ve had it ever since.

I’ve been meaning to sell it for years. Just haven’t gotten around to it. Looking at it last night I shook my head and realized that I should have sold it years ago. I’m not likely to get much for the system these days. Sigh.

Then a little thought popped into my head. “Why don’t you use it? If you won’t get much money for it, why not? That’s why you bought it in the first place Isaac…”

That had a lot of appeal. I bought the camera system because I really liked it. I loved shooting with film, did it for years. I found a light meter app for the phone and downloaded it for free. Ilford is still going strong making film for the camera. Plus, the lab I liked using is still around and is now doing scanning too. This was starting to look good…

OK, time to get serious. How much would this cost? Added it up and it came to almost $800. Wow. Er, maybe I don’t need the super fancy processing. I’ll do negatives instead of positives. OK, 18 rolls of film (they are done in batches of 6) came up to just over $500.

Five. Hundred. Dollars. Keep in mind that there is no guaranty that I’d get anything I liked, or possibly anything at all. Never mind that this is how we used to do photography. You’d pay lots of money and see if you got anything useful. Digital photography has totally eliminated all of the guesswork, the time, and reduced shooting to a costless activity. Actually considering spending money to take pictures seems a bit crazy these days since the normal thing to do is free.

So I was left wondering what I’d gain by spending the money. It isn’t clear to me what the benefit would be beyond some (expensive) nostalgia. I could imagine the possibility that the negatives could be enlarged more than what my current camera offers but that doesn’t seem like a likely limitation. I don’t have any real complaints about my current camera and lenses. I’m pretty sure whatever I could do with the Horseman I could do digitally. $500 would almost buy me the newer version of the camera I have now or go a long ways towards a really sweet lens. Or something else, anything else.

Yeah, I can’t justify that kind of money on taking pictures. I was happy paying for and shooting film when that was what photography was. I have some ideas of what I’d like to shoot. I’m going to try with the digital camera. I reserve the right to go back to film if I think it’ll help but I think the Horseman is destined for eBay. Eventually. One day…

Life as I see it podcast #13 I got new speakers!

 

Yes, I got a new system. This time the system is mostly just the speakers. I have ditched my vacuum tubes (gasp) and ton to an active speaker system. A regular system gets a small signal from a source (CD player, computer, etc.), goes to an amplifier, gets sent to the speaker where it is split between the woofer and tweeter and then you hear sound. That is how 99% of all systems work. An active system does it slightly differently. You still get a small signal from a source but you send that to the seekers directly. It is then split into the different frequency ranges. Each driver in the speaker has its own amplifier, amplifying only the frequencies that are given to it. This has a lot of technical advantages, most of them revolving around the ability to have a sharper distinction of the frequencies going to each driver (steeper slope in the crossover) and much better control over the drivers (the amplifiers are directly coupled to the voice coil). The result is a much more dynamic, clearer, and more accurate speaker. Plus, this particular speaker uses Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to correct for some of the inevitable issues and compromises that are involved with every speaker design. I’ve gone from WWII vintage technology to 21st century!

 

I got a pair of Equator Audio D8 speakers.

D8

It’s a coaxial speaker, much like my long time favorites KEF. It shares the open, wide soundstage and wonderful tonality. It adds fantastic clarity and dynamics. I think this has been a great upgrade. Anyone looking for some kick ass single ended tube amps?

 

You can see all of my podcasts at bli.ms/u/eyes. You can subscribe using the RSS feed bli.ms/u/eyes/rss

 

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Life as I see it podcast #12 Bitcoin part 3

 

This is the third installment of podcasts about bitcoin. It’s the last one I have planned but I reserve the option to make more if things get interesting. The Bitcoin protocol is actually pretty flexible. If it proves to not be flexible enough it is easy to fork the code base and make your own Bitcoin based system. Here are some of the articles and stories I referenced in the podcast.

 

Twister is a peer to peer, decentralized social network based on the Bitcoin protocol. Still in alpha, download it at your own risk!

Danny Bradbury writes about Colored coins. Colored coins pain sophisticated future for bitcoin. 

Bitcoin: How its core technology will change the world by Jacob Aron. 

A video introduction to Ethereum. Also a good, quick inter to the uses of the Bitcoin protocol. That page also has lots of info graphics and explanations, recommended.

Bitcoin is not just digital currency. It’s Napster for finance by David Morris for can.com. Not a fan of the comparison to Napster but a good article.

 

You can see all of my podcasts at bli.ms/u/eyes. You can subscribe using the RSS feed bli.ms/u/eyes/rss

 

You can also subscribe via app.net or email. I encourage you to join app.net in order to take advantage of all of the services it offers. It’s free!

 

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Life as I see it podcast episode #8 Hell has frozen over

 

In my quest to ditch Google in as many ways as possible, I have actually gone back to a company that I wrote off a long time ago. I still loath Microsoft software with a passion but I have come around on their services. When someone suggested I try out Office 365 I thought they were nuts. I have zero interest in using Office, maybe even less than zero. I’m pretty sure I would pay money to avoid using Windows or Office ever again. The attraction to Office 365 wasn’t Office, it was the mail system behind it. I use Apple software to access my mail and contacts, I only use Microsoft for the back end. Email providers I had been looking into were going to be about $40 a year. Office 365 small business is $60. For that amount I get spam free email and full Exchange support. What the hell, thought I’d give it a try. Once I got everything set up it worked just fine. With any luck, I’ll be away from Gmail completely very soon.

I thought that me paying money would signal Hell freezing over. It turns out that me seeing usefulness in Microsoft services was a far bigger change. Microsoft has a very straightforward business model. Pay them money and you get services from them. That is in stark contrast to Google which gives you services for free while taking advantage of your information to do… whatever it is they do to profit from it. Apple software (and hardware obviously) with Microsoft services, a great combination.

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How I use my iPhone pt.2 (long)

This is old news to my friends on app.net but I have some family and friends still trying to get a handle on the possibilities of having a computer in your pocket.

 

Ok, continuing on my apps I use theme…

 

The app store is absolutely awash in weather apps. Most of them seem to be about the particular Apple fetish, design. Lots and lots of pretty apps. Some really are wonderful. I tend to use a couple more utilitarian ones. I use the Weather Channel app a lot because of the amount of info it gives. It’s especially good for warning explanations. The other is a more localized app. Dark skies revolves around one theme. When is it going to rain and for how long, right here. As in, where I’m standing. I’ve found it really useful, saved me several drenching when trying to figure out when to leave/go back to the car. 

 

Ok, here’s the big one, Communication. Yes, I mentioned earlier on that it being a phone is almost an afterthought. I do talk on the phone, but in several different ways. There is the regular phone app. I use my sell number like any other phone. I do also have a Google Voice number. I got this for three reasons. 1) I live in a cellular hole so I would frequently drop calls at home. Using wifi is far better. 2) A land line is even better, n ow I have one. 3) I can hand out 1 number and use it both on the go and at home, pretty useful. I use Talkatone to access Google voice. I also use Obion to access the little box that my landline is created by. Gives me better sound quality while at home. Of course I prefer doing FaceTime with my Apple friends. It’s like Skype but a little easier to use. I “call” someone and it rings all of their stuff, phone, iPad, and computer. Good stuff.

 Texting is handled by the messages app. I can either send an SMS or an iMessage depending on what kind of device they have. The only practical difference is that iMessages can go to people’s other devices like computers and iPads while texts can only go to phones.

 And then there’s my most common ways of communicating, social media. I use two different services. The first one is Facebook. Everyone knows what it is, even if they don’t use it. It’s ubiquitous, most people that I know have an account. I’ll post various things on there and keep up with the goings on of my extended friend network.

 I have been using Facebook less and less ever since I joined app.net. Yes, I’m going to talk about that again, mostly because I use it with my phone so much. App.net is a social service that is user supported. It has the same business model as Dropbox, Github, or even an idealized public broadcasting without fund raisers and Federal funding. The service is mostly made up of free users with a small amount of paid users supporting it. Because users are supporting it, there are no ads. Because there are no ads, the people using the service are the customers. They do not monetize your activity or track you in any way. You can read about it and their core values here. You won’t find any other social network like this. They are actually the complete opposite of ad financed social networks. Here’s the full complement of my app.net apps on my phone:

 

IMG 0316

It is also different in the fact that they are allowing developers to make whatever they want on top of the service. I have apps for microblogging (a la Twitter), private chats/messages, podcasting, check ins, journaling, photo sharing, and file management. I might start backing my websites to it as well. Storage space is part of the membership so I have access to all of my content. All the apps I use are unique to iOS. Here’s what I use the most:

1) hAppy, Riposte, and Felix. They are general purpose microblogging clients with a host of other features like private messages and chats.

2) #pan. It is a general use App.net client for microblogging but I primarily use it for posting media. I make podcasts with it and I share pictures with it. Whatever media I post with it gets stored in my private storage and then is aggregated on my own web site. It generates an RSS feed and I can distribute it to Facebook, blogs, etc. You can see my main one here.

3) Whisper is a private messaging app. It supports both individual and group chats. Once again, because there isn’t any advertising these really are private and app.net actually encourages people to use them!

4) Ohai is a journalling app that stores the info on your app.net storage. This is a daily (or more) journal I do for myself. I will occasionally public all post to app.net as well. It records location, a picture, and text. One of the nice things about the information being stored on app.net is that if someone else makes a journalling app that uses app.net I can switch to that and all of my posts come over to the new app.

5) Filez is a file manager for the stuff in my app.net storage and allows me to post the content in other places.

 

Whew! That’s longer than I thought it would be. I hope this gives you a feel why I’m addicted to my phone. Everyone has different things that get them, but iPhone users usually get gotten by some apps or services:) Let me know what your favorite apps are!

How I use my iPhone pt. 1

While this will all be old news to my ADN friends, I have other friends and family that are still getting used to the idea of having a computer in their pocket.

 

A friend of mine recently got an iPhone and posted something to the effect of, “What’s the big deal?” I put off buying an iPhone for a while because I thought the same. My iPod touch convinced me I needed to try an iPhone and I’ve never looked back. Calling an iPhone a phone doesn’t really make sense any more. All of the smart phones out there are networked pocket computers with cameras, GPS, and sensors. If you want to know why a smart phone is a big deal, you need to use the apps made for them. The iPhone has an advantage in that it typically gets apps before anyone else and they tend to look, and function better as well. iPhones also get regular updates adding features and security patches along with bug fixes. Other platforms tend to lag behind, if they get updated at all. Plus, it’s nice owning a product that wasn’t designed as a method of collecting your data and presenting ads to you. Here’s a run down of my most frequently used apps…

Productivity apps. Not going to go into detail here but things like calendar, notes, contacts, and reminders are used so frequently that a lot of us have forgotten that we didn’t used to do them on our phone. Adding to their usefulness is the ability to sync back to your computer(s) and other devices, great having everything available.

Music. I can’t tell you how important this is to me. I have not listened to the radio in years. I get everything from my phone. i stream music for a radio-like experience (minus the ads and plus control over which songs get played) primarily from Slacker Radio and Spotify. For listening to specific things, I either use spottily or my iTunes library. I use iTunes in the cloud so that I have access to all of my songs without having to keep them on my phone. When I’m at home I listen to my stereo of course but I use my phone either to control my iTunes library with the Remote app from Apple or using other services and sending the audio to my stereo via airplay. Airplay is a super simple way to send media to my TV or stereo via Apple devices.

News. I get a lot of my news via RSS feeds. Really Simple Syndication is a way for websites to send out updates to you instead of having to go to each site. I follow… 100 websites? This is the best way to see what they are doing with minimal fuss. I use an app/service called Newsblur. I’ve been very happy with it, it does what I need it to do. I also use several apps that aggregate news based on my interests or specific sites. They tend to be more visually attractive and fun whereas RSS readers tend to be text based and emphasize functionality. I use both Zite and Pulse for attractive ways to read the news that’s important to me. That tends towards the geeky, techy side of things. I also use apps from Al Jeezera English, BBC, and The Guardian for regular news. I tend to use foreign news sites because they have much better coverage of world wide events.

Reading. I read books, short stories, and web sites saved for later reading on my phone. I buy content from a variety of sources including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and the Apple iBookstore. I prefer reading on a larger screen but my phone is always with me and is ideal for killing time.  I use Instapaper to save specific web articles to read later. There are plenty of times that I have come across blog posts, articles, or stories that I don’t have time to read at the moment or I just want to always have access to. I can save any web page to Instapaper to read later.

Games. I’m not much of a gamer but there are several games that I do play more than I should. Pinball arcade is amazing. They take real life pinball games, disassemble them, and then reconstruct them digitally. The physics engine is amazing and its a ton of fun. I think I have managed to shake my Bejeweled addiction although I always fear a relapse. I’m currently obsessing over Spelltower and I’ve had some intense Letterpress games. Both of those are word games.

Photography. iPhones are easily the most popular camera on photo sharing sites designed around mobile phones. I am a huge camera and lens snob. I have no delusions about the absolute quality of the iPhone’s camera but damn, it is awfully handy. The killer application of a phone camera is sharing. I can snap a picture and in seconds share it with anyone. It really isn’t a bad point and shoot camera, especially outdoors. The standard camera app is fine but its panorama mode is amazing. So easy to do and it makes impressive images. There are a zillion photography apps for the iPhone.  Cortex Cam is a great app for getting good shots in low light. It takes a bunch of images and then stacks them. It can then do a pretty good job of taking noise out of the end result. It doesn’t work for things that are moving but it can be a life saver in darker situations. 645PRO is the most sophisticated photo app that I’ve seen for the iPhone. It has emulsion emulators, lots of different “lens filters”, and WB adjustments. It also allows you to capture uncompressed images. When I don’t feel like fiddling with controls, I use the standard photo app for color and Hueless for B&W.

I even use photography apps after the picture has been taken. I’ll get to some sharing options in the next post. I use an app named Geotag Photos in order to make GPS coordinates for the pictures I take with my real camera. The app records where I am as I am shooting. The file it makes can be merged with the pictures I’ve taken and BAM! All my pictures are geotagged. All of the pictures taken with the phone are already geotagged of course. For quick edits of the pictures I take I use Snapseed. It’s a super easy editing program and surprisingly powerful one at that. For more involved edits I use iPhoto. Lots and lots of options and there is a ton of things you can do to your pictures with it.

That’s enough for now. Will hopefully finish up in the next post.

Insomnia is good and bad (geeking out)

The downsides of insomnia are obvious. I’m super tired and super frustrated. But while I’m exhausted physically, I have been a bit wired mentally. So at least in my current bout of insomnia I’m getting stuff done. Sleeping 5 hours over two days gives you a lot of time to take of things. In addition to the blog goodness I mentioned earlier, I have set up a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone system and redid my stereo.

 

The phone thing has been a long time coming. Like a lot of people, I only have a cell phone. That’s mostly OK but there are some downsides to it. Unless the phone is on you, it is easy to miss calls. It’s like being back in the 70’s when we only had one phone! The bigger issue is that I have zero signal in the basement which is where I spend most of my time. Rick has a land line but it’s his number. Plus, there has been a lot of robo callers accumulated over the years on that line. 

For a long time I thought I’d get a femtocell network booster. Those are essentially a mini cell tower in your house that uses your broadband connection to hook you to their system. By all accounts they work well but I thought they were expensive. Plus, it still doesn’t solve the problem of having the phone nearby. Alex Lindsey (of Pixel Corp fame) mentioned the Obie VOIP bridges on a podcast I watch. That got me thinking about the possibilities. I got one for a little less than $40 and a free Google Voice account. Hooked the Obie100 to the internet and tied the Google Voice number to it and Viola! I now have a land line with no monthly charges!

All I needed was a phone. I hadn’t looked at cordless phones in a decade or more. Turns out there have been some really cool improvements over the years. Bought a set of Panasonic Bluetooth cordless phones off of Amazon around 5:45 AM (insomnia, remember?) and had them delivered around 3PM later that day. I love living in the future… Hooked the main base station to the Obie and put the other handsets downstairs. Pow! I now have a fully functional phone system. Here’s where it gets good… I paired my iPhone to the base station. Now when I get a call on my iPhone, all of these phones will ring! That means I can leave the iPhone upstairs where there is a decent signal and I can still receive my calls downstairs! The cordless phones also imported my contacts from my iPhone. We’ll see how easy it is to actually use that contact list. My call quality has gone up, I can talk downstairs, and I didn’t add any new monthly charges. I call that winning…

I made sure that the handsets I got had the ability to use a headset. I had assumed that by headset they meant headphones because that is what is used in the mobile phone world. Well, no, they don’t mean headphones at all. They have their own, slightly smaller connection for headsets. Grrr. Still they aren’t very expensive. If I wanted to get really fancy I could try using a bluetooth headset pair to the base station. Need to look into that…

My stepsister is in town with her little ones right now. The obvious place for the base station is within easy reach of the littlest one. So I’l have to wait until they go back home before I can really take advantage of the cell phone thing but at least I can make calls from downstairs. Next post is another gear head one I’m afraid. Going to regale you about my stereo…

How much would you pay for Facebook? (app.net)

We all know that Facebook is free. I mean, it is free, right? On the other hand, we all also have that kind of unsettling feeling that they are doing something with our online identities. Facebook is what made the question, “Why are they showing me this ad?” a common one. We never thought about it on TV or radio but we all have a sense that they are looking at us and targeting specific ads towards us. They’re sometimes way off of course but that is their game plan. There is also the worry about what other companies they are allowing to look at us.

It’s a tradeoff. Facebook has to be paid for somehow. All of the programmers, the servers, the IT guys, the bandwidth, none of it comes for free. Just like radio and TV before it, Facebook decided to go with ads to support the site. TV and radio ads are annoying, but they don’t have the creepy factor that social media sites do. The TV can’t know who your friends are and what all of you like.

So if you don’t like the way Facebook uses our information, would you be willing to pay them directly instead?

I routinely pay for content so that I don’t get ads. It helps that I really only follow one tv show, Dr. Who. I don’t watch it on TV anymore, BBC America is just brutal with the ads. The show is chopped up enough to make it annoying. Instead, I watch it a day later when I can download it from iTunes. No ads, no interruptions. 

I also subscribe to several music services. Slacker Radio, LastFM, Spotify, and Amazon Play all cost me money, but it also means that I get to listen to the music I want, when I want it, the way I want it, without ads. Nowadays, I can’t sit through FM radio and network TV. I do the same for apps, I buy them whenever I can to avoid the ads. 

App.net is an attempt to bring a paid experience to social networking. You pay them directly and you get the service with no ads and no usage of your information. Almost everything I’ve read says that it is trying to be Twitter so it is bound to fail because it doesn’t have the numbers that Twitter has to make it a viable service. It’s true that the current Alpha release (a release that is not meant for general use, it is for demonstration only. Traditionally software goes through an additional Beta phase before being deemed fit for end users) looks like Twitter but as GigaOm has pointed out, the goal is to be a platform and not just a Twitter competitor. As a platform, app.net could then be used by other application writers to access it and do some amazing things with it including expanding the social aspect of it. 

The minimum buy in fee was $50. That would allow you to secure your desired user name plus give you a year’s worth of time on it. Some of my friends have balked at the price and I had to think about it. I realized that I pay that (and more) to other services without even thinking about it. If this takes off, would you be willing to pay 4.25 a month for a social experience that isn’t interested in selling you? That made my decision for me. My handle is IsaacC.

There are plenty of other types of paid vs. free experiences on the web and on our devices. Apps, web development sites, photo galleries, even blogs! Not sure why something like social networking couldn’t be the same. Has anyone else ever tried this? I know of services that are private social sites, but app.net is trying to scale to allow anyone to interact with anyone else if they wanted. I wish them luck and I’m excited to see what developers can do with this platform.