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Smartphone Interfaces and Uses

Posted by tomwiles at 1:00 AM on October 15, 2010

If today’s smartphones are as powerful as our desktop machines were 5 years ago, the question emerges – why do smartphones have all of these apps written for them, whereas traditional desktop and laptop computers usually have a much smaller number of more generalized, less specialized programs installed?

Compared to the traditional laptop or desktop computer, the smartphone is with the user much more of the time. The smartphone has built-in location awareness, which the typical full-fledged computer does not have.

The smartphone has a very different interface than the full-fledged computer, dictated by its pocket form factor. That pocket form factor dictates a different interface interaction that demands bits and pieces of software to make specific uses easier. Because of always-on Internet access, smartphones can easily pull just the data they need instantly on demand for very specific purposes.

Here’s what can be surmised about the ideal future smartphone devices:

Ultimately, it’s a phone slash computer that fits into a pocket with an always-on connection to the Internet. The touch screen should be as large as possible, but still be able to fit into a shirt pocket. The battery life should be as good as possible. The memory should be as large as possible, the Internet access should be as fast and as reliable as possible. The processing, camera and phone performances should be as good as possible. The device should contain all of the current popular consumer wireless protocols. Overall the device should be as light as possible, and be as rugged and durable as possible.

In short, the smartphone should be able to do everything we expect, and do it well. Surprisingly, some of these devices are getting closer to meeting some of these ideals.

Tango to FaceTime, “Move Over”

Posted by tomwiles at 8:49 PM on October 8, 2010

There’s a new cross-platform video calling app that just became available called Tango. There are versions for both the iPhone as well as Android. Tango does what Apple’s FaceTime does, except it also does it cross-platform as well as via 3G. Apple’s integrated video calling app FaceTime works only with iPhone 4’s and via WiFi data network connectivity.

I called a friend that has an iPhone 4 with my Sprint HTC Evo via Tango. Both of us were in moving vehicles in different parts of the country, and both of us were on 3G networks – my friend obviously on AT&T with his iPhone 4 in the Miami, Florida area, and me being on Sprint 3G on I-81 in Virginia. Tango took advantage of the forward-facing cameras both in my friend’s iPhone 4 as well as in my HTC Evo.

Overall the experience was quite impressive. If you have either an iPhone or Android phone, download the free Tango app and give it a try.

One really strange quirk with Android phones is that there can be two phone books – the “phone” phone book and the Gmail phone book. Tango relies exclusively on the “phone” Android phone book, so keep that in mind when looking for and/or setting up contacts to work with Tango.

Fun With Android – “Camera 360”

Posted by tomwiles at 8:05 PM on September 17, 2010

A few months have passed since getting my Sprint HTC Evo. I’ve had a chance to try out a number of different apps. I’ve finally found one I liked well enough to buy. “Camera 360” is a full-featured software camera that can be used in addition to or as a replacement for the stock camera software that ships with different Android phone models.

Camera 360 offers many more features and user controls than come with the standard stock Android camera software. One of the features that sold me on the idea of paying the $3.99 for the ad-free version of the camera is the inclusion of high dynamic range or HDR photo simulation. Camera 360’s HDR simulation modes offers the ability to generate some very interesting photo results.

Here are some before and after HDR simulated images taken with Camera 360. Camera 360 can be set to automatically save the original non-processed JPEG file if that is your preference. The HDR effect works great for some images and not-so-great for others.

Camera 360 is an extremely fun application that has gotten me to the point where I’m constantly playing with my phone’s built-in camera. I haven’t had this much instant gratification fun from a digital camera in a number of years. Camera 360 is an Android app worth paying the $3.99 for.

Do Frequent Phone O/S Updates Make Sense?

Posted by tomwiles at 1:01 AM on August 18, 2010

I’ve had my HTC Evo for a couple of months or more at this point. When I first turned it on, there was an update waiting. The update installed. So far, so good.

Over the next few weeks I heard there was another update available, but it turned out there was a problem with the update. It took HTC and Sprint about a week or more to fix the problem update, but since the Evo was still in very short supply, I chose not to update it right away. What if there was a problem with the update and it bricked the phone? How would I get an immediate replacement? Better to wait.

A few days ago, Sprint and HTC started releasing the “Froyo” or “Frozen Yogurt” Android 2.2 update for the Evo. I decided it was time to take the plunge and accept the update.

There were two updates. The first one downloaded and installed, and then the second. No problems.

Now I’m asking myself, did the upgrade to Android 2.2 live up to all the hype? Android 2.2 on the Evo might be a little bit more snappy, but it’s hard to tell since the Evo already had excellent performance with the version of Android it shipped with. There are a few changes here and there that improve usability, some of them somewhat worthwhile, but was it really worth the trouble? The phone was a great device before the update. It’s a great device after the update.

Are updates to existing smartphones enough reason for consumers to get really excited over? As I see it, if lots of new basic usability and reliability can be added with a particular update, then it’s likely worthwhile. Smartphones are still evolving devices.

It seems to me that the job of adding new functionality to smartphones falls primarily to apps, and not necessarily the operating system itself. The operating system should be a stable, functional platform that offers basic functionality and services to those apps.

Once smartphone operating system design begins to mature however, the danger of updating and changing things just for the sake of change is always a potential risk. Also keep in mind that on average people replace cell phones about every 18 months, which is a much more frequent replacement cycle than desktop and laptop computers.

In the realm of desktop computer software, Microsoft Office is a great example of mature software design. There are only so many things word processing software can do. Microsoft Word and Excel both had good design and usability for me starting way back with Office 95. With subsequent releases, Microsoft seemed to sometimes arbitrarily change things just for the sake of change, which is a huge usability mistake. Computer software design is not the same as car styling design.

Are Smartphone Apps Really Practical?

Posted by tomwiles at 12:50 AM on August 6, 2010

Today’s smartphones are amazing devices and can do some pretty cool things. Some of the apps can be quite remarkable, but do they offer real-world functionality?

Yesterday was another 104 degree day. Get used to it – there are days like this every year.

I was in my bedroom yesterday afternoon and suddenly the lights went out. To spare you the details, the problem ended up being an aging 60 amp breaker that had weakened to the point where it couldn’t handle my dishwasher and washing machine running simultaneously.

So here I was standing there in front of the breaker box with a magnifying glass trying to make out the tiny numbers printed on the breaker in question and writing them down on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, I realized there was a barcode sticker located on the top of the breaker. Unfortunately, it was located in a position where there was no way that I could see the numbers on it.

Barcode… barcode… BARCODE!!! I have multiple barcode apps on my HTC Evo smartphone. “I wonder if I can possibly scan that barcode with my phone?” I thought to myself. I got the phone, started the Amazon Barcode app, and held the phone up a rather awkward, non-ideal position, trying to hold the phone as still as possible. Success!! The barcode suddenly scanned. I was able to click on the button to look the number up in Google and to my delight it popped right up with the product description and the actual model number of the electrical breaker.

A quick trip to the nearest Lowe’s store and $10 dollars later, I had the exact replacement breaker model that I needed.

It turns out that the Amazon Barcode app ended up being very useful in a way that I could have never imagined.

Becoming More Familiar With Android

Posted by tomwiles at 9:12 AM on July 30, 2010

I’ve been living with my Sprint HTC Evo phone for a while now, and I am still learning some interesting things about Android – at least the HTC/Sprint version.

Overall I’m still extremely pleased with the Evo. This is still one of the coolest gadgets I’ve ever come across.

I was having a bit of a problem with stability. Sometimes the phone would reboot for no apparent reason, usually after a few hours of leaving the WiFi hotspot feature turned on. One time it rebooted for no apparent reason while I was in the middle of a call.

I started experimenting with a free app called Advanced Killer Pro. I started looking through the list of running processes, and I was surprised to find quite a number of processes tied to installed programs I have never ran, many of which came preinstalled on the phone.

So, I simply started going through the list and killing various processes that I wasn’t using. That really did the trick – Android has been rock-solid since then and at this point a few days have passed since the last reboot. In the interim I’ve been making heavy use of the phone and the WiFi hotspot feature.

To be fair to HTC and Sprint, there is an available system update that I’ve been putting off installing that might fix some of these issues. Initially when this update came out there were many reports of bricked Evo’s, and even though HTC has since come out with an updated version of the offending system update, I am leery of installing it.

What if the update hopelessly bricked my phone? Evo’s are very difficult to get right now. Most Sprint dealers are waiting for new stock, and most of that stock is probably already sold to waiting customers. Why take the chance?

Over the years of my geekdom, I’ve had my share of updates gone wrong, bricking a few devices such as motherboards, mp3 players and aircards, not to mention countless Windows updates that have caused serious heartburn.

So, in the meantime I’m likely going to continue to wait for a while until Evo’s become a bit more plentiful before I run the system update. I might even wait for the 2.2 “Froyo” update or even beyond. Killing unused processes makes the phone super stable and everything is working perfectly, so the old adage “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” seems like good advice to follow for the moment.

Amazon Kindle E-Books

Posted by tomwiles at 3:55 AM on July 27, 2010

Shortly after getting my HTC Evo phone, one of the initial apps I downloaded from the Android Marketplace was the Amazon Kindle app with the idea I’d probably check it out at some point. Weeks went by, and I pretty much ignored the app.

Yesterday I was talking to a good friend that is in the process of formatting e-books for an author friend of his, including formatting the books in the Kindle format. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to him once again that I needed check the Android Kindle app out. He pointed out that there were free e-books available in the Kindle format on the Amazon website, including many books from 1922 and before that were now in the public domain, so after I finished his call I went on Amazon.Com with my computer and started digging around in the Kindle Store area of Amazon. Sure enough, there seemed to be plenty of free e-books available, so I started adding them. To get the Kindle app on my phone to synch with my Amazon account couldn’t be easier, I simply entered in my email address and Amazon password into the app. Any books in my Amazon storage area are quickly updated to the app.

Sure, some of the free books weren’t exactly my taste, but I was able to open them on my phone and finally see how well the Kindle app worked. Hummm, not bad – not bad at all. To make a long story short, I ended up finding a current book I really liked and purchased it for $9.99.

What a pleasant surprise I was in for. Reading a Kindle book on my HTC Evo is actually a good experience. The text is quite legible. The surprising part is that twice now I’ve carried the phone with me into restaurants and was able to easily read using the phone while eating. Of course, the HTC Evo has a handy built-in kick stand that allows the phone to sit on its side at an angle. I can eat and then periodically lightly touch the right side of the screen in order to make the Kindle app advance to the next page. The Kindle app even synchs the latest page I’m on back to the server, so if I open the book up again either on my phone or on my laptop, it opens up right at the exact page where I stopped reading.

At this point I have no plans on buying an actual Kindle, however I suspect I will be buying more Kindle e-books in the future. I often carry my phone around with me wherever I go, and because of the way the Kindle app works across all Kindle apps associated with my account, I have instant access to every Kindle e-book in my Amazon account storage area on every associated Kindle installation. There are often times I end up having to cool my heels waiting on something, and it’s incredibly handy to be able to use that otherwise often wasted waiting time reading. Ten minutes here and twenty minutes there really do add up over time.

All of this talk about, “Oh, the iPad has killed the Kindle” is bogus. Amazon has been very smart to put Kindle apps out for as wide a variety of devices as possible. Even if they don’t sell that many Kindle readers, the Kindle format e-book is a huge Amazon win, both for Amazon and for consumers like me.

Does The Cloud Have A Dark Side?

Posted by tomwiles at 2:41 PM on July 25, 2010

Does The Cloud Have A Dark Side?For some time we’ve been hearing about the virtues of cloud-based computing.

Certain functions seem to lend themselves to the cloud. Online word processing, spreadsheets, etc. can seem to make sense in some situations, such as collaborating with others.

In everyday use scenarios, does the cloud really make sense in more traditional private computer-use situations? I contend that it does not.

Right now I’m typing this into Microsoft Word on my MacBook Pro. At the moment I have rather lousy Sprint and Verizon connectivity, even though 12 hours ago at this very same location I had really good connectivity from both. The only thing that changed is the time of day. If I was currently limited to using Google Docs chances are I would be unable to write this. Network demand constantly fluctuates depending on the time of day and location.

Is there enough bandwidth available? With the tsunami of smartphones that are on the immediate horizon, will the carriers be able to keep up with the average five-fold bandwidth demand increase that the average smartphone user pulls from the network? Can carriers keep up with a smartphone-saturated public all trying to pull down data at the same time?

However, for the sake of argument let’s say that mobile Internet connectivity isn’t an issue.

What if the Internet is turned off due to a declared cyber attack and all of your documents are online? What good would the network appliance approach to computing be then?

Can e-books be revised after the fact? If government can simply decide to turn off the Internet, then it’s not that much of a leap to imagine laws and regulations being passed banning certain types of blogs or even books that have been deemed dangerous or seditious. There have already been books sold such as “1984” by Amazon that were deleted from Kindles after the fact by Amazon when it was determined that Amazon didn’t have the legal right to sell it in e-book form. What if instead of banning books, they were simply rewritten to remove the offending parts? What’s to stop instant revision of e-books that have been declared dangerous?

History Is About To Repeat

Posted by tomwiles at 12:18 AM on July 15, 2010

I remember it well. Back around October of 2004, I first heard the word “podcast” used on The David Lawrence Show via my XM Satellite Radio. It sounded interesting, and I wrote it down on my driver logbook cover with the idea of looking it up later. I heard David mention it again once or twice over the next few weeks. Finally, in early December of 2004 I finally got around to looking it up. I found Adam Curry’s podcast, realized what it was, and knew that I felt compelled to not only listen to podcasts but get involved as a podcaster myself. This was exactly what I’d been looking for for many years – a wide variety of content that I could choose, download, and control the playback/consumption of on MY terms.

Podcasting took previously-existing elements and applied them with a new twist. MP3 files had already existed for a number of years. Virtually every computer already came with a sound card and had the basic ability to both play back and record audio. Portable MP3 players had been around for a while. Apart from Adam Curry’s and Dave Winer’s contribution of the podcasting concept and making it work, the one key element that suddenly made podcasting viable and actually inevitable was the fact that Internet bandwidth got good enough to make it practical.

Practical is an important key.

We have now passed another important milestone in terms of mobile bandwidth. Mobile bandwidth, while not yet perfect, has improved dramatically in both terms of data delivery and coverage. About three or more years ago I had experimented with streaming audio via my smartphone while driving my truck, and quickly determined that it wasn’t viable. I couldn’t listen long at all before I would lose the stream. No problem, I had plenty of podcasts to listen to.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about Pandora.Com lately, so last week I finally tried the Pandora Android app out on my new Sprint HTC Evo. To my surprise, it worked amazingly well – even in Arizona and the western third of New Mexico along Interstate 40 where Sprint still has 1XRT service. The streaming music sounded great, and the few times it did briefly drop out in a couple of mountainous areas, it automatically reconnected and reestablished the playback stream.

(By the way, a side note – I was surprised to learn that Verizon has NO data card coverage around the Kingman, Arizona area – my Verizon aircard would NOT connect in the Kingman area.)

Streaming radio via the Internet in a moving vehicle is now practical. Smartphones have also reached critical mass to the point where they are really beginning to move into the mainstream. Even though streaming Internet audio has been around for quite a few years at this point, I believe the automotive market for streaming audio is about to open up in a massive way.

Up until this point most people have felt that streaming Internet radio had plateaued or was only going to grow slowly. I believe that improved cell networks along with smartphone proliferation will create a new market for streaming audio services. The automobile has been the traditional stronghold of terrestrial and now satellite radio services. An old kid that’s been around a while suddenly has a big and growing shot at a new lease-on life.

I believe opportunities exist for streaming Internet radio stations that deliver highly specialized content. For us geeks, imagine a 24/7 tech-centric streaming station. The sky really is the limit. The cost of running a streaming station can be very low, so therefore it becomes possible and practical to narrowcast to relatively small audiences.

Smart Phone Critical Mass

Posted by tomwiles at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2010

The smartphone is a concept and an evolving device that has been around for a few years, though until now mass consumer adoption has been slow.

The introduction of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a radical improvement in smartphone interface design, usability and device capabilities. The iPhone caused a big upheaval in the then somewhat sleepy cell phone market. Even though the iPhone was an instant hit and unquestionably successful product, Apple’s choice of tying the iPhone exclusively to AT&T in the United States likely slowed the pace of faster smartphone adoption. In a way, this slowing of smartphone adoption has been good because it has allowed carriers to beef up their networks in the interim.

Google entered the smartphone market announcing Android in November of 2007. Initial implementations of Android-powered devices demonstrated promise, but it has taken a while for Android itself to be improved, and smartphone manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola to come up with highly-desirable devices that take full advantage of Android’s evolving and and advanced features and capabilities.

We are now in July of 2010. The iPhone 4 has been introduced. Alongside the iPhone 4, highly-desirable and functional devices such as the HTC Evo 4G, Droid Incredible , Droid X, and other Android-powered devices have either arrived or are shortly to come on the market. Now there’s suddenly a new problem – all of these devices are in short supply, and manufacturers such as HTC are scrambling to ramp up production to meet the demand that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Where did all of this smartphone demand come from? There are several pieces of the marketplace puzzle that have finally come together all at the same time. The new smartphone devices are finally at a point where they are highly usable. Multiple competing cell networks are finally at a point where data connectivity and speed make them usable. Also, millions of consumers over the past few years have become intimately familiar with “dumb” phone models that have had smartphone-like features embedded into them, such as integrated cameras, limited Internet browsing, gaming, text messaging and GPS functionality. They make regular use of these features, and are ready to move up to better devices with larger screens.

The smartphone has reached critical mass and is ready to continue the march towards maturation. Smartphones are becoming a very mainstream product. People who a few years ago would have never considered any phone labeled with the smartphone moniker are now readily embracing the new devices.

As a result of this mass consumer adoption of the smartphone that’s now underway, the market for highly-specialized smartphone apps will continue to explode to a degree in the future we might consider surprising even today. Multiple millions of consumers have millions of different needs and expectations. This exploding smartphone app market lends itself to the development of highly specialized niche applications.

Virtually any type of personal or industrial use a computer can be put to can likely also be done with a specialized app running on a modern smartphone. One tiny example of this is already in use is the area of automotive diagnostics. For many years, automotive technicians have used laptop computers in conjunction with special software connected via a cable to an automotive diagnostic port to onboard vehicle computers. Such software already exists for the iPhone to be used in place of a laptop computer, able to replace the cable connection with a Bluetooth connection. Imagine this realized potential multiplied a million times and you catch a glimpse of the future potential for smartphone apps and the uses these devices can and will be put to.