Friday, 26 September 2008

The Everyday Smartphone

Appreciating what you've got

Our society is so caught up with consumption that we are always looking forward, to what's new, rather than simply using and appreciating what we've got. This attitude is particularly prevalent in the geek community, with smartphone afficionados salivating over coming models, camera hobbiests crooning about previews of the latest DSLR, and so on.

But, hang on a minute! Isn't the smartphone I bought this year (or even last) more powerful than the computer I was using a decade ago? Certainly it is, and there's heaps of functionality in there to do all sorts of things for me. So let's just poke around our own smartphones and appreciate what we've got, eh?

Join me as I explore the joys of my current smartphone, a Sony Ericsson G900 (a sadly under-rated little treasure).

Getting around the G700/900

First things first: the UI. (By the way, most of what I say here applies to the G700 as well as the G900, and the G700 actually has a better keypad.)

The G900 has both a touch-screen and a fairly normal collection of keys. Here are some tips on how to optimise these:

  • Most menu interactions are far faster using your fingers -- mine are pretty big yet I still find it easy to hit the right menu option. This saves scrolling about with the joypad. Note that most UIQ apps are designed to have all the common commands visible in the menu without scrolling.
    • TIP: to navigate into a sub-menu, just tap the menu item anywhere, you don't have to try to hit the little rightward arrow.
    • TIP: to get to the bottom of the menu just hit the up arrow on the joypad immediately after tapping More. This wraps the highlight around to the bottom of the menu.
  • Switching between applications is easy, since the task switcher icon is in the top, right of the screen, and the screen is flush, you can either use the corner of a thumbnail, or tap with your finger, tapping away from the corner of the screen and then rolling the pad of your finger down and across until it hits the button. Even though it is a tiny icon, it's very easy to press using these techniques, thanks to its position.
  • One problem is that the standby screen isn't in the apps list (this is annoying, and I really don't know why it's not there). However, you can reach the standby screen from anywhere by holding down the back key for two to three seconds. It will switch back to wherever you were in the standby panels.
  • Don't forget the quick-menu in the top, left of the screen (the down-arrow). This is the best way to get to the clock or to play with the connections (eg. turning WiFi or Bluetooth on -- turning them off is easily done from their status-bar icons).
  • Don't forget the message and notes buttons! (I often do.)
  • Make use of the lock button on the side of the phone. I have the phone configured with auto-locking turned off, and I use the lock button to manually lock and unlock the phone. Very convenient.
  • Take advantage of the panels in the standby screen. There are extra panels you can configure from the Settings dialog on the standby screen. My favourites are "My shortcuts" (which I've configured with the main apps I use), the calendar, the messages, and the time. Music is handy, but I tend to use the music app.
  • Some specific widget advice:
    • Most of UIQ can be navigated with a combination of finger and joypad, you will rarely need the stylus (unless you use the handwriting input)
    • Tabbed views and the sideways-scrolling slots in list views (such as in Contacts with the contactable fields in the list view) can be navigated with left and right on the joypad -- no point trying to tap those tiny arrows
    • The time editor widget is easy to change using the joypad and keypad -- don't even bother trying to tap its tiny panes. Press the joypad's select (marked as Done on the screen) to finish editing
    • The date editor is the only widget that I'm tempted to pull the stylus out for. But it, too, is easy to edit with joypad and keypad. Left and right move between day, month, and year. Up and down change the currently selected date component. So skipping forward a month involves pressing right, then up. You can also just type the date -- the widget will automatically move fields as you type.
    • The text editor opens as soon as you start typing, so you don't have to press select to open it up. Remember that pressing Back will cancel any changes, while select will save them

All in all, the G900 is an easy phone to navigate, and the touch-screen gives its UI a nice, open feel, much more fluid than a keyboard-only solution than S60, and more sophisticated than the iPhone.

Built in apps

There a number of invaluable built-in applications. I'll focus on those I use, and give some tips about how to use them.

  • Web.
    • Useful both for general browsing and accessing your operator's portal. I have a generic phone and use 3 in Australia, so I had to figure out the URL for 3's portal, and then I was OK.
    • A bit of trick: since 3's portal only works using their network, and I usually prefer using WiFi around home, I find that 3's portal is innaccessible from home (because the phone tries to connect to it via the available WiFi). The solution is simply to disable WiFi, forcing the phone to use 3's net access. I can quickly turn WiFi back on via the quick-menu in the top, left of the screen
    • I've also used Web for paying tolls during travel and stuff like that. It works pretty well, depending on the site.
  • Which reminds me: take advantage of UIQ's internet groups, which allow you to specify the order in which the phone will try connection methods without any prompting from you. This is something that requires third-party software on S60, so relish it while you can.
  • Messaging.
    • Since I'm on 3, I've got push email via 3's IMAP server. The G900's messaging app supports "Always On push email" (have a look in the More menu under Settings > Email accounts in the Messaging app). This works a charm, and the only irritation is that 3's mailbox is only 2MB, require constant cleaning. I often get emails on my phone before I do on my PC (which only checks once every 5 minutes).
  • Notes.
    • This is handy for taking quick jots. Just be aware that it's hard to transfer your collection of notes around. They can only be beamed one-by-one, and are hard to even transfer between UIQ phones. You're better off using the excellent Quickoffice word processor.
  • Quickoffice.
    • This is a real bargain on these phones: a full version of Quickoffice (not just the reader). This works quite well with a bluetooth keyboard, but you do need to go into the input settings and turn off all intelligence (Main menu > Settings > General > Text input > Input mode > None) or the Bluetooth keyboard won't work properly.
    • Quickoffice is very good for taking minutes (my main use), or notes, and handy for reading simple spreadsheets and documents.
  • Camera.
    • Despite being 5mp, the camera on these phones is not particularly good (the 6220 Classic's is vastly superior). Still, it's good enough for snapshots, and the UI is pretty straight-forward.
  • Time.
    • This is my morning alarm, and is very handy. Take advantage of the work-days setting to set different morning alarms for week days and weekends.
    • Remember to set your home time zone properly (the setup wizard doesn't do that for some reason -- it just sets the current time zone). Having home time zone, current time zone, and zone of interest is quite handy if you travel much.
  • Calls.
    • From the standby screen you can choose Calls from the left softkey. Some people use this instead of the contacts database, which is not a bad idea. From here you can call or message anyone you've talked with (or failed to talk with) recently. Remember that More > Entry details gives you more details.
    • There's also a great feature here: Add call note, that copies the call info into a note which you can then extend. (Of course, the caveats regarding notes discussed above still apply.)
    • Don't forget that going right takes you to filtered versions of the main view (incoming, outgoing, and missed calls).
  • Media.
    • This is a fantastic application, and has received a lot of attention from SE for these phones. The slideshows and photo browsing is pretty cool, and you can use finger gestures to scroll as well as the joypad.
    • I use the music application as my MP3 player. The sound quality has a bit of background hiss, and I miss the W960's bookmark capability, and I'd like genre-based playlists, but apart from that it's pretty good. It even has a coverflow-style browsing mode (go into Music > Albums then choose More > View > Grid -- it's not actually a grid, but a Z-shaped scroll).
    • What I love most about SE's music player is the Play Queue. This is basically an on-the-fly playlist, and works just the way I would expect an MP3 player to work (I had an iPod for years, and it's lack of a play queue drove me up the wall -- playlists are a poor substitute). Remember that you can add any selectable item to the play queue -- ie. a song, an album, or even an entire artist or playlist. Also, take advantage of the AAC+ format's superior compression: 64kbs in AAC+ is almost as good as 128kbps normal AAC (ie. what iTunes uses).
Third party apps

While the UIQ built-in apps have some great functionality, there are some that could be better, and there are some features that are simply missing. This list of third party apps is based on my requirements, and your mileage may vary.

  • Opera Mini.
    • For all the websites that don't work well with the standard Opera (Web, above), Opera Mini is the answer. Not only does it display them well, it is both faster and slicker in doing so. You can get it for free from Opera.
  • Olive Tree BibleReader.
    • This application basically does what it says. The UIQ version is a bit easier to use than the S60 version. A hint: use the joypad when using the Versechooser -- then you won't have to drag out the stylus to hit those tiny book names or chapter and verse numbers. You can get it for free from Olive Tree.
  • DreamLife.
    • This application improves on two core applications in the phone: Calendar and Contacts. (This is, of course, from my company, so while I'll try to be objective, you need to be aware of that.)
    • DreamLife improves on Calendar by linking attendees and locations to the contacts database, and keeping those links live so you can tap on an attendee and be taken to that contact's detail view (ready to call or message them with just one more tap). It also uses a graphical planner view rather than a simple list view, which makes it much better for actually planning your life. Unfortunately it doesn't provide a list view, so while it supports Todo's, it's not great at managing them. It's also waiting for upgrades to support cut and paste and sending of calendars. It supports hierarchical categories for very precise management of the various parts of your life, and includes both colour coding and different alarm sounds for each category. It also makes editing easier with a split-pane context view showing the current day even while editing an activity. (Oh, and full undo-redo support.)
    • DreamLife improves on Contacts by adding a fast filter that allows you to filter the contacts as you type, as well as a smart-find that allows very sophisticated searches. It, too has hierarchical categories, full undo-redo, and a business card look detail view (which is much easier to read and use, especially with the touch screen). Full cut and paste works with contacts, with some pretty cool tricks such as automatic merging (pasting into a second contact will merge the two together) and automatic business card text copying (ie. copy a contact and pasting into a text editor will paste the business card layout of that contact).
    • DreamLife makes contacts and calendar finger-friendly. You can scroll around the contacts list (up and down as well as left and right) using gestures. The calendar supports gestures and tap-and-hold to add activities.
    • You can try and buy it from DreamSpring.
  • Google maps.
    • Now that the My Location is more accurate, this is even more useful. Very useful for figuring out what's around you (using the satellite view), and quite useful for routing, but since Google have lost the routing info to our street, the shine has gone off that functionality a bit. Hopefully they'll get that fixed soon. You can get it for free from Google.
  • Mobipocket Reader.
    • Smartphones make for fantastic ebook readers, at least for fiction (which is just text, and so page size is less important). Mobipocket Reader even has an ebook creator application that runs on the PC and allows any PDF or HTML to be converted to the compact ebook format (just pay attention to copyright, OK?). The reader keeps track of your location in all the books in your library, and makes it easy to pick up reading whenever. I find this great for those times when you suddenly have to wait (such as a visit to the doctor) and haven't prepared anything. You always have your phone with you, so you'll always have books with you.
    • A hint: are giving away SciFi books at the moment. Also is an excellent source of paid ebooks. Mobipocket itself has a lot of free ebooks, too. Don't forget to simply search the web. I found Blinky Bill (an old Australian classic kid's book) including pictures online at Project Gutenburg, and converted it across, including the pictures, to read to my daughter (she loved the pictures).
    • You can get Mobipocket Reader for free here.
  • Escarpod.
    • If you listen to many podcasts, Escarpod is a good app to have on the G900 (where it can use WiFi) to directly download podcasts, and then play them back. While it's a tad unstable, it works reasonably well, and allows you to keep podcasts separate from your music. It bookmarks where you're up to in a podcast so it's easy to resume later. You can get Escarpod for free here.


So, as you can see, with that collection of built-in and third party software, the G900 is a very powerful mobile media and life management platform. And it's also small, robust, reliable (I haven't had a crash for weeks) and cheap.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Carnival of the Mobilists

This week Carnival of the Mobilists is at Next Generation Mobile Content (which has a strangely familiar theme -- good to see I'm not the only lazy blogger around ;-) ).

There's lots of discussion on App Stores (including my post, below), thanks to Apple's latest successes and mis-steps, so check it out.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Happy Medium: Building a Smartphone App Store that Works

State of Play for Apple

It seems that the Apple App Store has hit its first real hitch, with the self-interested rejection of applications that potentially compete with Apple's own solutions.

This has, unsurprisingly caused a stormy response. The problem is a combination of factors unique to the Apple App Store:

  1. The App Store is the only channel to market for iPhone apps.
  2. The App Store reserves the right to refuse applications.
  3. There are no guidelines (at all, let alone binding ones) about what sort of apps will be refused.
  4. Refusal occurs at the point of publishing (ie. after development).
  5. There is no appeal process if refused.
  6. The App Store is run by the platform owner (ie. there is a conflict of interest).

This combination of factors creates an extremely unstable situation for developers, because they can invest heavily in creating an app only to have it denied access to the only channel to the end user, for no good reason, with no way to appeal.

Prior to this uproar, the risk of refusal was viewed by developers as relatively low, and the possible return as quite high. Therefore the trade off was considered worthwhile. Now, however, the estimation of risk has rocketed, and the potential return hasn't improved proportionately, so many are reconsidering their investments. This is simply good business sense.

State of Play for Symbian

On the Symbian side, we have quite a different situation.

  1. On Symbian phones there are no barriers to applications for many types of applications (but not all types).
  2. For more sensitive applications, Symbian Signing is the only barrier to applications.
  3. Symbian Signing is run by the OS vendor, who is not the platform vendor (ie. Symbian doesn't sell phones, or even make them -- Symbian has no vested interest, and there is no conflict of interest). Symbian Signing has strict, public processes (not perfect, but at least they're there, and they're improving).
  4. Applications are sold via one of four broad channels:
    1. self-distribution (via own website, etc.)
    2. online distributors (currently limited to two major ones: Handango and Motricity, although Nokia uses a third for their shop)
    3. operator shops
    4. bundling on device (eg. Quickoffice is bundled on most Nokia and SE phones)

So, the Symbian world has low risk of an application being actively blocked from reaching the user, but as you can see, it also has a low chance of an application making its way into the user's consciousness.

Why do I say an application struggles to come to a user's awareness? Well, look at the distribution channels the Symbian ecosystem offers. Apart from bundling on the device (which is reserved for a very few applications), the channels are scattered and inneffectual. Here in Australia I have seen Apple's TV ad (during prime time), promoting the app store. When will I see such an ad from Handango or Motricity? How come I've never seen Nokia or Vodafone advertising their app store? (In fact, I saw a TV ad for a new S60 device last night, and it merely advertised one feature. Given that the device was the 6210 Navigator, I'll let you guess which one. There was no indication whatsoever that this device was extendable in any way.)

For more commentary on this issue, see All About Symbian here and here.


Both of these situations need solutions, and quite urgently.

I think Apple needs to separate the App Store out as a separate company, so that there is no conflict of interest. It needs to publish clear guidelines and follow them strictly.

Symbian needs the Symbian Foundation to step up to the plate and create an app store with all the good features of Apple's (easy to use, well advertised, cheap for developers, source of all quality apps). The Foundation should do this rather than Nokia to avoid conflicts of interest and to allow the store to function for the whole ecosystem (not just the Nokia bit). This could also be a good source of funding for the Foundation, if it's properly managed (Apple claims that their 20% cut is merely covering their costs -- if so, all I can say is that their costs are ridiculously high).

One last point: Apple are evaluating apps on the basis of the impact they have on users or companies. Symbian Signed evaluates apps on the basis of the impact they have on the device or network. I think the former is really impossible to evaluate, and Apple is foolish to even make the attempt. Therefore the proposed Symbian Foundation App Store should merely evaluate the latter (impact on the device/network). Since this is already done by Symbian Signed, we already have a mechanism for determining whether to allow apps on the store or not, and we can simply focus on improving this.


23/09/08: This excellent post from John Puterbaugh (via this week's Carnival of the Mobilists) gives a much broader overview of the distribution system for mobile applications. However, all this new information simply reinforced my ideas shared above -- I still believe that Symbian (and Apple) can improve their ecosystems via the changes I have suggested.