Mobile Communications and the abstraction of computing devices

The 3G iPhone frenzy of misinformation and disillusionment.

Oh boy, yesterday Engadget kicked off a whole load of nonsense, proclaiming that someone knows someone who has fondled the next iteration of the iPhone. Apparently its ‘glossy black’, a bit thicker than the current model, and is full of WIN. It has chrome sidekeys. And the accompanying picture is that ‘mysterious’ iPhone that showed up some weeks ago around the Mac forums. You know the one right? It is sitting face down on top of a Macbook Pro, all glossy black and looking a bit fatter than the current model, complete with BLACK sidekeys? Well, fear not…you can have this ‘new 3G iPhone’ right now!!! Looks like Apple is directly targeting a new market for this strategic launch: The Hong Kong Market Stall. Be the first with the new model on your block.

ORDER YOURS NOW: 3G iPhone appears in Hong Kong?…Not really — winandmac.com]

It’s amazing isn’t it?

By the way, it seems everytechblog+dog is running this same story, with the same damn picture. What this categorically proves is that nobody know anything at all, at the moment. Except Steve. Maybe he knows what’s going on, has anyone tried to call him and ask?


That whole ‘iPhone idea’ just got a bit more serious….

Hitting the news at the moment: Apple has acquired P.A. Semi for about $278 million. Why is this interesting? Because P.A. Semi make embeddable microprocessors. So: target devices = mobile computers = iPhone/iPod Touch. What makes this even more revealing is that everyman+dog thought that Apple would jump to Intel’s Atom processor for next-gen ‘Mobile OSX’ devices. By purchasing P.A. Semi, Apple no longer would need to rely on Intel for mobile processors, and would not have to make the OS architecture jump from ARM to X86. This is no small thing for Apple’s long-term roadmap, as the purchase gives Apple the freedom to update and design the chips when and how they want, rather than waiting for Intel to come up with an update to their processor line. Plus this falls directly into Apple’s ‘Vertical Integration’: Control/design the chips that power your devices that run your OS.

While this news is good (as a signifier that Apple is deadly serious about the mobile space), fruits from this venture will not show up this year. P.A’s chips will not be in the next iPhone. Nor the iPod Touch. This is part of a strategy that spans out over the next few years, to have the most powerful and advanced mobile devices on the planet. It will also help to differentiate Apple’s devices from the expected glut of Atom-powered mobile devices which are getting ready en-mass to launch later this year. Is this the new ‘PowerPC vs Intel’ war? Only time will tell. But clearly you can see: The iPhone was no ‘G4 Cube’ style experiment, nor among the likes of AppleTV. The iPhone marks the next-level direction that Apple is going down, and they want ‘The head, the tail….. the whole damn thing’*

*= Quint. Jaws. A classic line…


My iPhone has been jailbroken for about 3 months now. I have installed and deinstalled many third party applications. One trend I have started to notice is how I order the icons. Before I go on, I have to say that I miss Apple’s simple pre-jailbroke homescreen the best.

After installing around about 40-50 applications, I noticed that I was having to spend longer selecting a particular application. I realized that this was due to not only having to navigate 4 new homescreens, but also because I had to ‘read’ the text under icons to work out what the hell the app was. It comes down to icon design, which is a combination of colour and symbol. Did I say I am also very slightly colourblind? Thus, I have always favoured simplistic colour palettes for logos, symbols etc. The iPhone in it’s virgin state was great. Apple’s design of homescreen makes it extremely easy to find what you want, with the default Icons clear, basic design and colour. So to find an application, after a short time it was pre-programmed in my mind: ‘ second-row, far right-blue’ was always Weather.app. I didn’t need to ‘think’, just an instantaneous visual cue, and my finger was always at the right place. Things changed once the design and control was released from Apple’s grasp via Jailbreak. It started getting a whole lot worse (I’m not even going to start to analyze the third party ‘themes’ you can install, that’s a whole different ballgame, and I don’t go there). Some of the standard icons for applications are so badly designed, that most tend to be very dark, and also suffer from trying to put as much visual representation of the actual application inside a 57*57 pixel space as to be entirely illegible.

So what I have now is an ordered bunch of homescreens that (from Apple’s default screen) descend in order of icon legibility. Coincidentally the applications that follow the default screen tend to have better designed icons (simpler and more symbolic) and these are also the applications I use the most. But after three homescreens, it descends into darkness – literally – with most apps having poor icons. It takes me far longer to select an application on the fourth homescreen than on the second, as I have to read the actual text underneath the icon to get a real idea what the application does.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that the developers of applications don’t necessarily make good icon designers. It would be good if developers tried to follow a kind of MHIG from Apple (Mobile Human Interface Guidelines) even though it doesn’t really exist yet.

No matter how ‘cool’ your icon design is in terms of graphical effort, it means nothing if it is not instantly legible to end users just what your application does. In this case, a simpler ‘less-is-more’ direction is the best, not just for the users but also for the ‘brand’ identity of your application, after all you don’t want to end up on the ninth homescreen in the dark, where nobody goes….

When dumb ideas attack!

Samsung has just patented a gesture-based interface for mobile devices. In plain english, this means that in order to operate and navigate the device you have to wave your hands/arms around. You don’t actually touch the device. This is a joke, eh Sammy? I can see it now: sitting on a packed London Underground Tube, getting the person next to you to hold the device while you make a strange sign-language at the screen. “It’s o.k everyone, I’m not absolutely insane, I’m just reading my emails”. Yes, this patent clearly has legs.

On a more serious note, it seems that manufacturers are looking for more and more obscure ways to 1-up the multi-touch interface of the iPhone. Haptics, Arm-waving, Shake Control, you name it. It is trying to be done. To me this is really futile, as Apple had enough of a struggle to convince people to trust in a device that has only one hardware button. Generally people are still cynical of touch-based interfaces on mobile phones, with many preferring still the ‘reliability’ of little plastic buttons. With the iPhone you really hand over the trust to the device, to get it right, to do what you actually wanted it to do. A perfect example is the keyboard on the iPhone. The best way to use it is to trust in the interface to get it right, and the more you ‘let go’ of as-you-type monitoring and let the device interpret your presses, the more chances it has of getting it right. My typing on the iPhone is far faster than on my previous smartphone (Nokia E61), due to the fact that I don’t monitor what I am typing. I wait till the end of the sentence or paragraph, and 99% of the time it’s all fine.

Mobile phones are by their very nature, devices that are designed to be held. Devices that are to be touched. The moment you uncouple that connection between the user and device, it becomes something else, something other. If anything, people want more physical interaction with devices, not less. Sammy, It’s back to the drawing board!

3G iPhone Slider / Flip? I don’t think so…

Today, The Times newspaper released some ‘insider info’ regarding the inevitable 3G version of the iPhone. Among the nonsense was the report that the Second Coming of the JesusPhone would have a hardware QWERTY keyboard. Did the ‘insider’ actually bother consulting Steve-O before apparently developing and releasing this iPhone? Jobs said specifically when the iPhone was announced that hardware buttons limit functionality, so really, a SLIDER phone? Just like all the countless WinMob/HTC devices out there?

And the possibility of a flip phone is also, well…not very clever. As I have said before, Apple will want to build up an easily recognizable handset design, just like the iPod. Did the iPod ever really change its basic design? Nope. Thats why the almost universally-know symbol for an MP3 player is a rectangle with a circle inside it. Now with the iPhone I am almost certain that Apple will want to do the same (rectangle with very small ‘filled circle’ at the bottom). It’s the same with Apple’s laptops: ALWAYS have an Apple logo on the back, glowing. It’s about building brand and device identity, as quickly as possible, which of course you cannot do if your hardware blueprint is always changing.

I expect relatively minimal changes to the industrial design of the iPhone. Maybe a touch thinner, maybe a different material. But it will still retain the ‘look’ of the iPhone we all know. And it will run the software that we use already, except faster….different.

Fring is finally released on the iPhone

Yesterday I got my grubby mitts on Fring for the iPhone. For those that don’t know: Fring started out as a Skype gateway application for smartphones (S60/WinMob) and then gradually added more services like SIP and various IM networks. When I had my Nokia E61 it was one of the ‘must have’ applications. Except it didn’t really work..continuously crashing the E61, and sometimes hard-locking the handset. I think I used it approx. 3 times before scrapping it. Anyway, now we have the first beta release of Fring for the iPhone, and so the question is: is it any better than before?

You can grab Fring via Installer.app (for Jailbroken iPhones/iTouches). After installing you must enter your current Fring account details, or setup a new account (which is free). After that, you are now connected to the Fring network. But the real reason for Fring is Skype, so you must enter your Skype details and (vvverry slowly) login to Skype. You can setup multiple services inside Fring, so I also setup my SIP account (VoIP). The interface is clean, clear and straightforward. After a minute or so your Skype buddies will show up in Fring, and then you can call/chat with them. The first thing I did was see how it was calling my Skype friends via the iPhone. This is in some way the ‘holy grail’ for the iPhone: to be able to make free voicecalls from any WiFI hotspot anywhere, cutting out the middleman (the Carrier). This is also the most ‘hated application’ by the official iphone carriers, as this would destroy traditional voicecall profits for them. Don’t expect a whole lotta love for this kind of application showing up in the Official AppStore, mainly because to get the most out of a VoIP application, it should really run in the background AND work over 2.5/3G networks. Apple has specifically stated that it will allow VoIP apps AS LONG as they only work over WiFi, and do not run in the background. Fring in it’s current implementation does exactly what Apple and the Carriers don’t want. So don’t expect Fring on the AppStore any time soon.

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase: Fring allowed me to place a standard Skype call with no problem. The voice quality was ok, not as good as a standard GSM call, but very except-able for a Beta release. SIP didn’t work at all. I tried calling my SIP number from a landline and it just rang and rang. Nothing happened on my iPhone. Apparently this is a known issue, and will be fixed before final release. When closing Fring via the home button, it carries on running in the background, keeping the WiFi link open if using WiFi. This is a good and bad thing. Expect dead batteries, fast. But it is cool to be able to get calls/messages without having to leave the application open on screen. Overall I was impressed with Fring, it ‘feels’ much smoother and less unstable than the S60 variant I used in the past. I have had no crashes yet or lockups. The voice quality could be better, but of course a lot if it depends on the kind of data connection you have: on my home ‘optimized’ WLAN accesspoint the quality was great, but at work with the calls going over WLAN, through a bandwidth allocator and then through numerous NAT’s, the call quality suffered (stuttering sound, dropouts etc). This is something that the makers of Fring cannot do anything about. If you have a piece of crap connection, then you have a piece of crap voicecall.

I have high hopes for this version of Fring. I think it will also become a ‘must have’ application, once they iron out the few bugs in the app. Recommended for a tryout.

UMPC’s MID’s and the evergrowing solutions looking for problems..

In the past couple of years, I have been watching an area of Technology grow. It’s an area with a slogan: Jack of all trades, Master of none. I’m talking about those devices that are not subnotebook computers, nor smartphones or PDAs. These devices..ahem…’Bridge the Gap’ between smartphones and subnotebooks. These devices sometimes have keyboards too small to type on, but too big to thumbtype. They have relatively small high-res LCD displays, that try to show a standard desktop environment, again too small to be usable. They have relatively large-capacity batteries, yet fail to hold a charge more than a few hours. Some have phone functionality, but cannot be held to your ear (too big).

I’m talking about Ultra-Mobile-Personal-Computers, or UMPCs. Or, pretty soon they will all be shrunk a few more millimeters and called MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices). The bastard offspring of an overbudgeted industrial design department. I have the feeling that this class of device has never been tested for real-world usability. After all, who’s idea was it to put WINDOWS VISTA on a 5″ screen at 1280*768 resolution? (Actually, just to be even more troll-like who’s idea was it that Vista was a good idea?). While there has always been interest in putting as much desktop-class power into as smaller footprint as possible, UMPCs/MIDs simply miss the point. You see, the moment a device becomes ‘handheld’, is the moment your hands are preoccupied holding the device. Which leaves your two thumbs possibly free to interact with the device (maybe the tip of your nose?). So having a normal keyboard slide out below the screen is an exercise in frustration. Smartphones work because the device is small enough for your thumbs to reach the center of the screen, thus covering the entire space if necessary. UMPCs or MIDs require that you hold the device with one hand, while pecking with the other at the screen. Or you can sit the device on the table, and pretend to type normally on a keyboard that is approx. 50% the size of a normal laptop keyboard. Just recently Willcom (A japanese company owned by Sharp) has released an MID that is running Vista Premium on a screen that is only marginally larger (5″) than the iPhone’s screen, but at a relatively high-resolution (1024*600). My question is:


What is the purpose of this device which is still too big to fit in your pants, still too underpowered to compete with any laptop, and still too big to use as a phone? Who thinks up these ideas? In a world where people even think that the Nokia E90 is way-too-big for a pocketable phone? Who are these gadgets aimed at?


Boys and their Toys. No serious smartphone user (male or female) would buy one of these things, nor would any must-be-productive businessman/road warrior. Yes, these gadgets are squarely aimed at buffoons with money, after all these things are not cheap (looking at around €700-upwards), there is NO carrier or any other subsidy to cushion the blow that you’re plonking down a whole wad of cash, for a device with no specific purpose, that does everything a ‘normal’ PC/Mac does..except…


I guess you could always tell people you ‘did it for the lulz’…

(UPDATE: By UMPC/MID I mean devices that are touchscreen based, with slide-out/side keyboards, not devices like the ASUS EEPC, or the new HP 2133 which in reality are just subnotebooks)

Twinkle Twittering on the iPhone

Yes, I decided to..ahem…’embrace’ more Web 2.0 antics with the download and installation of Twinkle for the iPhone. It’s a native Twitter application, and at first glance it looks good. I have now grabbed some people to follow (including the great JAIB (Just another iPhone Blog)…so my iPhone is now going a little nuts with updates.

Oh, and you can follow me, through my typical workday! Hear about Tech issues as-they-happen! See me moaning about User interface design in real-time! All these benefits can be yours if you just follow ‘rmtwrkr’ !

After some further testing I will comment more on Twinkle. But for now, just sit back and watch the drama unfurl…

Remember kids: ‘rmtwrkr’ has all the answers.

RemoteNote for iPhone = indispensable!

Today I installed an application that I had heard about a few days ago: RemoteNote – Updated – 1.0! « John Robinson

What it does: provide the easiest way to edit and create notes in real-time on your iPhone, but via your desktop browser. It can print the notes from your iPhone to a printer, which is excellent. It can backup your Notes database to your desktop, just in case you hose your iPhone. All this is done by just launching the app on your iPhone and then via ANY desktop browser, go to the IP address that the applications shows on its single screen. That’s it. You now have your entire Notes.app database ready to view, edit, delete, print etc. This also provides a great way for collaboration over a Network, directly to the iPhone. For example, you could have your ‘Secretary’ in another room access your iPhone Notes on her desktop and edit or create new Notes for you to take away. Plus anyone else on your local network can get involved and add info to your iPhone. This has great potential. But also risk, as currently the application (when running) will allow anyone who knows the IP address to view and connect to the Notes database. I would love to see some basic password protection implemented, just as a way to stop casual viewing of Remote Notes across a network.

The other thing I would love to see implemented (apparently it is being worked on at the moment) is Bonjour support. It would be far easier to have a single Browser bookmark with the Bonjour name, than a multitude of different IP addresses (if you use Remote Notes inside different networks and locations). But at this stage in the applications life, I am not complaining at all. This application gives life to a heavily under-utilized application like Notes.app. I didn’t really use Notes till now, due to the fact that it doesn’t really ‘link’ into any desktop app (forget solutions like Megadrive, that require the iPhone to be physically connected to the computer to work). Now with RemoteNotes, it takes me 2 seconds to have my notes up in my browser, ready for editing or printing. And, on my (trusted) network in the office, I can let others throw useful info into my iPhone.

I declare this a ‘Must Have’ application for any jailbroken iPhone.

Nokia’s ‘Tube’ is getting ready to do battle with the next iPhone.

Pics and details are starting to emerge on Nokia’s unofficial answer to Apple’s iPhone. At this point nothing concrete has come out of Espoo, Finland regarding release dates, specs and devices that will use this ‘Tube’ UI. Nevertheless, images of the supposed first device to have the ‘Tube’ UI have cropped up on various blogs like Engadget, Gizmodo and Symbian Guru. Seems like the first device is set to drop in Q1 2009. But will it be too little – too late to the party?

One of the obstacles I can see is that by Q1 2009, Apple’s iPhone v.2 will have been out a few months (maybe 6?). I am sure that the next iteration of iPhone will address all the hardware ‘shortcomings’ of the current model. And, maybe more importantly than the hardware side, the iTunes AppStore will have been running for 6 months. This means that developers for the iPhone will have been getting paid for at least 6 months, which in turn creates an attractive market for potential devs to jump in to. But how does this relate to Symbian? Well, for a start, it is entirely possible that current apps that are available for S60v.3-1-2 would have to be recompiled or rewritten to take full advantage of a new touch-based UI from Symbian. And this could possibly create a kind of jaded apathy from Symbian devs, who have already had to go through a few different transitions (from v.2 to v.3 and maybe more?). Couple that with the abysmal Symbian-Signed developer program, and then add the fact that there is no true central repository for purchasing Symbian apps from, and you may have a mutiny on your hands.

Of course, in the short-term this will not really impact Nokia or Symbian, as they already have a gigantic userbase, with a very large developer community. But long-term I can see that *if* Symbian’s Tube UI doesn’t get a groundswell of attention and start to eat potential iPhone customers, then this would signify a failure of judgement from Symbian, regarding their own future plans, and so the downward spiral could begin. Of course I could also be entirely wrong, and that Nokia releases a true ‘iPhone Killer’ next year, but somehow I think it could again be too little-too late.