Despite the fact that the last event seems like only a few months ago it’s nearly time again for Mobile World Congress, as usual there are a raft of competitions around offering tickets to lucky entrants so I thought I’d collate the ones I’ve come across here.
For anyone unfamiliar with MWC, it’s an annual coming together of the entire mobile industry from network operators (MNOs), manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Nokia, HTC, software and services companies like Google, and a whole host of companies making apps, accessories, etc. Having been once (see my MWC Impressions post), it’s quite an experience and well worth going if you can make it.
Anyway, on to the list – if you spot any I’ve missed please leave a comment and I’ll bump it up into the post.
- Appscend (you have to build an app with them to enter)
- TechWeekEurope (sign up to newsletter)
- Mobile Monday London (send in a reason why you should win!)
- Developer Garden (just a tweet)
- Click Software
It’s not always obvious when the open/closed dates are so I apologise if any of the above are no longer valid, please leave a comment if you find that to be the case and I’ll remove the link.
During a project there always comes time to determine what the minimum version of iOS to support is for a given project, last night I stumbled across a handy infographic for checking which devices support which OS versions as well as some other handy feature related info.
I started the day at the App Planet exhibition in Hall 7 and whilst one or two of the stands were still busy setting up I started at RIM where they were demonstrating NFC and streaming media from Blackberry to PS3. I found the Blackberry guys to be typically bullish (always a little more so than you might expect) and their offering was quite slick but overall they lacked a ‘message’, especially when compared to their closes rival in the smartphone space: Nokia.
Having kept everything under wraps until after the press conference had finished Nokia really had something to show and the message loud and clear was: “we’re doing lots of crazy cool stuff”. Innovation was a strong theme including high-definition call quality, nano-technology and indoor positioning as well as the superb tie-up with Dolby for digital audio and the frankly incredible 808 PureView boasting so many features you have to double-take when you find out that it’s a Symbian phone. It was definitely good to see them back on form and if the enthusiasm of the staff is anything to go by thing are looking up and seriously, it’s gotta be hard to stay chirpy in a blue Where’s Wally outfit.
One interesting technology I saw was Clic2C, a print watermarking method that gives QR-code like functionality but without the ugly QR code despised by magazine layout artists the world over. Most impressive was the fact that it can work in newspapers which typically have a low dpi. The best individual app I saw was probably Runtastic, a fitness tracking app due to launch imminently which is available with a heard rate strap and receiver for around €60. Another app launching soon is Voice Over IP service Voxtrot, free of charge from handset to handset with PSTN calling coming later their USP compared to Skype is set to be call quality and address-book integration – interesting if it lives up to the spin.
I had an interesting chat with a guy from haptics company Immersion, if you’ve never heard of them you may still have used one of their products – they’re responsible for that little buzz when you press the on-screen keys on your phone. Their idea is to provide a sense of physical action when interacting with touch screen devices and some of the uses demonstrated were quite compelling though hard to explain in writing. The advances are being made in terms of response times, sensitivity (very soft to quite aggressive) and resolution (i.e. how close to your finger does the effect feel), this is great news for gaming though I am convinced that all kinds of apps can benefit from improved and varied user feedback mechanisms.
Down in Hall 1 things were much more carrier oriented With LTE testing gear and a phenomenal focus on small cell and femtocell technologies. One unexpected highlight of the day was SpareOne, an emergency phone that can be powered by a single AA battery with a reported standby time of 15 years (basically, the life of the battery) and a talk time of three hours on a single cell. Sure, it has niche uses and isn’t going to be supplanting the major handset manufacturers but it has the potential to make a massive impact on the niche it serves and will no doubt save hundreds of lives. Also down in Hall 1 were Opera, touting their Opera Mini browser – a great alternative to the stock Android browser and with the benefit that their proxy technology saves on bandwidth and makes content load considerably faster than other browsers.
Back to handsets, HTC were hanging with the carrier-grade boys but had a good showing with their new HTC One lineup and whilst I’d be hard pushed to explain the differences between the V, the S and the X some of the features in the range were impressive. As a photographer the burst mode shooting caught my eye, allowing you to take 5 photos per second which will be great for taking photos of moving subjects – parents taking photos of kids will definitely appreciate that as kids and animals rarely stay still. The Beats Audio addition is interesting and it adds a bit more “welly” but under the hood I’m not sure it’s anything more clever than the “BASS” button you used to get on old portable tape decks.
Well, that’s the bulk of my floor-walking for the day – time for a bite to eat and some shut-eye to prepare for tomorrow’s sights.
I was given the chance to order a new work phone recently and whilst I could’ve upgraded from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 I decided to make the jump to Android with a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2, I’ve still got the iPhone for testing though so I’ll be jumping from one to the other. Having been a long term iPhone user it does feel somewhat like a switch to the dark side but if I’m going to design Android apps I’m going to have to understand the good and the bad parts of both platforms.
One of the most important considerations when designing mobile apps is the user’s expectations and that varies considerably from one platform to the next and despite their differences iOS and Android are comparable platforms, much more so then Windows Phone 7 or Blackberry. Both Apple and Google have created thriving downloadable app ecosystems that together are fast becoming the platform of choice for the modern smartphone, I’m confident Windows Phone 7 will become a major player in the space but there’s a long way to go before it gets there – as for Blackberry and HP/Palm – who knows?
So now to the results of my little experiment, in this post I’ll focus on the features and capabilities that I like about Android and whilst I will cover the things I don’t like, this is not a rant for or against either platform, it is intended to be as Bill O’Reilly beautifully puts it without a hint of irony: “fair and balanced”.
The best features…
The “back” button – at first it seems redundant to have a hardware based button for just one purpose but once you get used to it you realise how handy it really is. Every time I go back to the iPhone I end up in a situation where I find myself bailing out of an app when all I really meant to do is back up a step, everyone that owned a Sony Playstation or PS2 will know how natural it felt to always use the triangle button to go backwards and I really do find I miss it when I’m on the iPhone.
The pull-down notifications bar – this may well be more of a Samsung customisation but the top status bar can be pulled down like a roller blind to reveal some quick key settings (turn on/off bluetooth, Wifi, GPS) as well as showing notifications such as apps needing updates, new emails, push messages, etc. It’s a brilliant way of accessing those features without compromising on screen real-estate.
Swype – if you’ve not come across Swype already you have to give it a try, it is an alternative keyboard where you type words not by tapping each letter but by drawing lines between them. This might sound a bit odd and it is at first but once you get up to speed it really is a delight to use. The main issue I have is that whist you’re in the middle of a sentence and you’re flowing nicely from word to word if you suddenly hit a word that Swype doesn’t recognise or isn’t in the dictionary your entire flow is broken and a hole is punched straight through the fourth wall of user experience. As soon as you have to start thinking about what you’re doing it’s game over in UX terms, something Apple have turned into an art form and most find hard to emulate.
‘Front Screen’ and ‘Back Screen’ applications – the iPhone has a ‘desktop’ and you’re stuck with it, sure you can have folders but even they’re a little limiting and I find myself completely unable to organise my apps in a way that makes sense. Android on the other hand has a distinct separation between the ‘desktop’ where you can have both apps and widgets (time, calendar, twitter, etc.) and the full list of apps, this makes it easy to de-clutter the main screens of your phone but you’re only ever one click away from your entire app library.
The bad parts…
Massively modal menus – I really, really, really don’t like the way that most of what you might call ‘right-click’ actions bring up giant, screen-filling menus from which to choose options. For example, if I’ve opened an email and I want to mark it as unread I have to come back up to the inbox, hold my finger on the email for a second or so then the screen is filled by a giant ugly menu (with plenty of dead-space) from which I can choose to mark the email as unread. On the iPhone if I’m reading an email I’d just press the “Mark Unread” button. No really, that’s it.
General flakiness – it’s hard to qualify this exactly but I’m referring to the many times where I’ve tried to do something and received some weird obscure error message and thought “oh well, that didn’t work then” without knowing why or what to do instead. As an example when I first started playing with the phone I bounded like an excited puppy towards the Android Market, I signed up for an account and picked up a few freebie apps before deciding I really had to have Nmap so I clicked to buy and got the message: “A server error has occurred”. After a little Googling around I finally determined that the cryptic “server error” was just because I didn’t have my card registered in Google Checkout – why couldn’t it have just told me that in the first place? Issues like this really make me think that Google just doesn’t “get it”, at least not yet.
Text selection – again it’s hard to describe but in a nutshell – it’s horrible, I almost never end up putting the cursor in the correct spot and about a third of the time I end up opening a modal menu where you can copy and paste (it works but it’s clunky not very intuitive).
Security – I’ll start by saying that I’ve not personally had a bad experience of security on Android but I know there are plenty of known instances and I can’t help feeling a little ‘ooky’ about download strange and unheard-of apps knowing that anyone could have put them into the Android Market and they didn’t have to go through any approval process.
Recently I’ve been working more in the smartphone world than in BI and SQL although for the time being at least I’ll be doing a bit of both so you’ll probably see more mobile app related posts in the feed. In order to provide some degree of separation I’ve created a Mobile User Interface Blog at usabl.net which contains links and screenshots of interesting designs, though any longer more technical articles will still appear here.
If you’re wondering what the crossover is between mobile apps and Business Intelligence it’s all about the user experience, in BI you generally aim to give people the information they need as quickly and efficiently as possible not necessarily in terms of software performance but in report design. I’m not the only one that’s thinking along these lines, Jen Stirrup gave an interesting talk on Data Visualisation at the inaugural SQLHerts meeting and if you’re interested in either topic you’ll most likely be able to catch both of us at the next meeting on July 28th at the University of Hertfordshire (register here).
I’ve been doing a little research into how best to manage the whole iOS Development / Ad Hoc Distribution (UAT / beta) / App Store (prod) lifecycle and whilst I’m not quite at the stage where I’m ready to write-up a workflow document I’ve come across some useful resources that I thought might be worth sharing. Since all compiled iOS apps must be signed there are some extra considerations when compared to rolling out regular compiled or interpreted code, sure you can brute-force your way through the process (I did this for my Veggie Phrases app) but that can only ever work well when you’re a one-man-band developing apps for your own purposes.
If you’re developing apps for clients or have a distributed development / testing team you’re almost certainly going to think a little more carefully about how you manage keys, certificates, provisioning profiles, App IDs, bundle seeds, bundle identifiers and so on. There’s not much structure to this post since it’s just a ‘what I’ve found so far’ effort but hopefully the resources might prove useful…
I’ll start with what is probbaly the best piece of Apple documentation I could find: the iTunes Connect Developer Guide. After banging my head against the desk trying to get Veggie Phrases onto the App Store it’s the document that made all the pieces fall into place, athough it’s a pretty high-level overview.
Antonio Holguin has written an excellent post: Apple iOS Development Process Summary which explains the whole end-to-end process in depth. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it answered a lot of the questions I had where I’d found the rest Apple’s documentation lacking (please correct me if I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve just not found the best bits?).
If you need to write applications that share Keychain Access there’s some useful information on UseYourLoaf.com, even if you don’t need to do this it will help understand how to use Bundle Seed IDs correctly.
Another challenge with iPhone app development is how to distribute applications to remote testers and how to conduct a beta / trial without going via the App Store, thankfully TestFlight solves this by providing a simple way to gather device UDIDs and distribute the Ad Hoc executable over-the-air. The service is clearly evolving and it currently does a very good job of what it does but seems to be suited to small-scale development and lacks some of the features that a corporate development team might need (audit trail, alerting, security hierarchy).
I’ve also come across the iOSDev UK Conference which may be interesting, I’m not yet sure whether I’ll attend since I’m only a casual developer but some of you may find it worthwhile.
Well, I hope that helps people, if anyone has suggestions for additional resources covering process management, workflows, etc. I’d be glad to hear it.