Tag Archives: iphone

AT&T Mark the Spot app

Makes me feel a little better about AT&T – their latest (only?) app allows iPhone users to quickly tag and submit areas of poor coverage. User location data is submitted, aggregated and hopefully used to improve the network.

A good deal for AT&T – crowdsourced network troubleshooting. One problem: as you are trying to mark a spot that has poor coverage, you need network connectivity to submit your location. At least they are trying (while shaking in their boots as the iPhone/AT&T exclusivity comes to an end soon.)

Background Location-Based Services on iPhone?

loopt screenshot


To date the iphone has only allowed certain built-in Apple apps to run in the background – mail and messaging for example – that basically listen for new events to come through and update you in real time. Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps to run background processes – basically when you quit the app it is completely closed.

A big area where this lack of background processes is problematic is location-based services (LBS). If an app like Maps can’t run in the background, it can’t receive notifications as the user changes location. So even though the iPhone has the ability to know where you are at any given time via built in GPS, apps can’t take advantage of this information until you actually start an app. What that means is that cool services like being notified when you are near othe people or places doesn’t happen automatically – you have to intentionally have to check.

The social networking app Loopt, with the help of AT&T has somehow gotten around this problem. For $4/month you will be able to have background location enabled – for the Loopt application that is. So basically this will enable the iPhone to update the users’ location information even when the Loopt app proper isn’t running. That’s cool, but I say a) this functionality should be available to any developer building an LBS-based app, and b) it should be free.  There are rumors that Apple may provide such an option in a future OS update, but for now they are tightly controlling this access.

Other mobile OS’s such as Android and Palm’s WebOS provide this ability built-in.  This is one differentiator to makes me less of a fan of the iPhone OS and more open to moving to one of these other platforms. But it is clear that Apple has the capability to make this happen, so maybe they are just holding back and slowly releasing this functionality on a limited basis.  Either way, background LBS-based services, especially tied to social networking apps, is going to become more and more ubiquitous and important on mobile.  This IS one of the key differentiators between the mobile device and a desktop computer – it should be wildly taken advantage of.

Android OS on netbooks

Vinton Cerf, internet co-founder and Google CIE (chief internet evangelist), spoke this week in Madrid about, well, the internet and Google’s role in it. One of the main points that he re-iterated was that for many people in the world, connecting to the internet from a mobile device will be their first interaction with the web.  What I read from the highlights of his talk is that Google, with its Android OS, is positioned not only to run on a mobile device that fits in your pocket (like the T-Mobile G1), but that it will run across multiple form factors, including netbooks. Since Android is free and open, Android will make a good run for netbook OS share.android_small_image

And what does Palm, with its forthcoming WebOS, and Apple, with who-knows-what-announcement(s) at their upcoming developer confernce in June, have to offer?  From what I’ve hear, Palm’s WebOS runs on processors typically found not only in mobile phones but in netbooks as well. And can Apple’s OSX run/be modified to run on a device somewhere between an iPhone and a MacBook, perhaps a stripped down version of OSX? Yes, but since Apple doesn’t like to license its OS (they like to control the whole UX of the device), might we see a new device from them in the coming months?

All this is to point out that the idea of mobile is expanding – it is not just limited to one-handed operation and easily carried in our pockets. It is extending out to netbooks and other devices with wireless access. As an interesting example, some wireless carriers (Verizon, ATT, cough, cough) are now offering subsidized netbooks for signing up for multi-year service agreements. Sound familiar?  Same model U.S. carriers have tended to follow with mobile handsets – provide an inexpensive device but lock people into long/expensive/hard-to-get-out-of service agreements.

From a UX perspective, the landscape keeps changing. The number of screen sizes and input modes are increasing. Additional use cases and behaviors are unfolding. And additional best practices will need to be sorted out. At this point the space is expanding and things are getting sorted out, but we will hopefully start to see some convergence soon…

Boom times ahead for mobile Web access.

Palm Pre. Where the iPhone left off?

preAt the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week Palm announced their new smartphone – the “Pre“. Not that a new smartphone from Palm is necessarily big news – they’ve released several over the past few years. What makes this one special though is that is it built on a brand-new Palm operating system called WebOS, an OS that many people have been waiting for for a long time. You can liken their release of this new OS to the release of the iPhone’s mobile version of OSX or the Google developed Android OS running the T-Mobile G1

Big deal. A new OS. The mobile world is awash in operating systems, fragmenting the space and making it difficult for developers to write software that will gain traction across more than one or two platforms. But WebOS seems to make the iPhone seems antiquated and very non-multitasking.  The Pre is very web-centric, in such a way that it extends what the iPhone has set as the bar for interaction with a mobile device. Spec-wise, the Pre has some shiny features – 3.1″ touchscreen, flip-down keyboard, 3MP camera with flash, 8GB built-in memory, stereo bluetooth, etc. Some of these features are an upgrade from the iPhone’s or the G1’s, but some aren’t.

But what I think make the Pre compelling is the contrast that its WebOS makes with the 


iPhone’s OS, and, to a much lesser degree, Android. A beef I’ve had with the iPhone for a long time is it’s lack of multitasking. The current iPhone requires you to think too much about what tool you need to communicate. For example, I can’t communicate via Facebook without thinking to myself “I wonder what is happening with my Facebook account. Let me stop what I’m doing on the phone right now, launch the Facebook app, and see what’s up.” Once I’m done with Facebook, I have to close it to get to my next task. This really bugs when you want to run Pandora while surfing the web or stay logged in to AIM while reading email. So, by the time the Pre comes out, I think Apple needs to do two things:

  1. get their background push notification system (touted by Apple this past Summer) up and running, and
  2. allow third-party apps to seamlessly move between one another without having to “resurface” to the homescreen any time you need to switch.

The Pre relies on the “apps” being web-appish in nature – think pre-SDK iPhone webapps. However, the Pre apps can run locally and don’t require a network connection (i.e. you are not opening your browser and going to a website to run your app.) This is similar in concept to Google’s Chrome browser model – the browser acts as the OS and allows you to run apps within it, as well as surf the web.  A developer simply has to use current web standards like HTML, CSS3, AJAX, etc., to develop apps. These apps should theoretically run on multiple devices. However, will the Pre’s WebOS be able to run games anywhere close to those on the Objective-C-based iPhone OS?  It will be interesting to see. The Apple SDK and the apps that have been developed to date (over 10k of them) underscore the iPhone as a media powerhouse and highlight its gaming prowess.  

It is also interesting that the iPhone, the G1 and the Pre all have the same screen size – 320×480 (HVGA). Good move – all the iPhone-optimized sites that exist are most likely also now G1- and Pre-optimized. This seems to be the de-facto size for touch screen phones. And all three devices run a browser based on the popular open-souce WebKit (as does some Symbian-based phones such as the Nokia E71 you may have seen floating around.) Same screen size and browser platform are both steps in the right direction for establishing a solid mobile experience.

As smartphone platforms continue to evolve, the desktop/laptop computer will become less and less of a part of the ecosystem. Right now sync is still very much a crucial part of the iPhone experience – you can’t set up or activate your phone without it, you can’t get video content onto your phone without it, and, up until the Macworld Keynote last week, you couldn’t get music content on your phone over the cellular network. I haven’t seen yet where Palm has specified how you are supposed to get all your media content onto the device – my guess is that it won’t all be over-the-air and that there will be a USB bulk-load of media content even though Palm has been very clear that their new OS doesn’t need a main computer to be linked to.

From what I’ve seen so far about the Pre, Palm is trying to revive their smartphone leadership role that they once carried in the days of the Treo 600 and Treo 650 – these we’re the coolest devices on the block. The new Pre seems to bring back some of the energy that the Danger Sidekick brought to the table back in the early 2000’s with their fun & friendly OS that ran backgroun apps, sync with your web-based calendar and contacts over-the-air, and download apps and update your OS over wireless.

There are many more innovative features of the Pre and WebOS that I haven’t touched on here, features that additionally highlight what the iPhone is lacking when it comes to a web-centric device. It will be interesting to see what effect a Pre-infusion will have on Palm in 2009.

Where are the Killer Apps?

…on the iPhone. Or should I say, where is the killer functionality? Since the announcement of the iPhone apps store on July 11th, I’ve spent around $40-$50 on apps, and have “researched” many, many more (amazing how you can kill a few evenings looking at app descriptions and screenshots.) In the app store there are tons of games, cool “show off” apps, some productivity and information apps, and some interesting social media tools. Like I said,  I have downloaded many of these and tested them out. I can’t say that I’ve hit them all (there is something like a few thousand up now.) But so far, very few are standing out for me as being must haves.

I really like some of the IM apps, particularly Palringo. I also really like Pandora and AOL Radio for streaming internet radio. And the News Reader RSS app is pretty sweet. But in all of these cases, there is no way to run the app in the background like you can on your desktop computer. This is a big deal, especially in terms of what I like to call the “flow” of the device – the multitasking and switching between apps that make for a fluid mobile experience. Not being able to run apps in the background may not  sound like a big deal, but it really is. Let me explain…

With instant messaging it is important to have a persistent “on” state so your status is visible, you can receive messages, etc.  However, all of the iPhone IM apps shut down as soon as I want to do something else on the device like check my calendar, look something up on the internet, or take a call. And when the app shuts down, any conversations end – just like you went offline. Apple does have a “notification” solution coming in September which will allow indicators to be sent to your device in the background – you can see if someone sent you a message and then open the app to start the conversation. But somehow this seems to put a dent in the user experience of the app. Blackberries and T-Mobile Sidekicks have several options for good instant messaging experiences, all of which run in the background so you feel connected. Pandora and AOL Radio have amazing interfaces, great quality sound, and key functionality. But the fact that I can’t use either of these in the background while doing other tasks also dents the experience (it is interesting though that the iPod part of the iPhone can run in the background). Even the Palm Treo allows for playing internet radio in the background. 

This “not-able-to-run-in-the-background” extends to other apps as well. In particular, RSS newsreaders benefit greatly by being able to download content in the background so that it is ready to go when you open the app. Not on the iPhone – when the app opens it makes a call for data. And you wait. Again, it might not seem like a big deal, but all of these usability hits add up to a less than optimal user experience. If you’ve used an RSS newsreader on your desktop or even Blackberry device, you know how responsive this type of app can be. And you’d also know that the content is available to read offline – say on the airplane or in the subway.

As the “mobile experience” is continually being defined through the plethora of devices, interfaces, and standards, it is important to always be thinking about the overall user experience and to try to leverage the technology where possible. There are many places where focusing on the overall user experience pays high dividends. Mobile device usability is defined by many factors, all of which need to add up to more than just the individual parts. By paying attention to the details, we create a better user experience. 

So maybe Apple’s upcoming notification system will do a good job bringing back some of the usability we’ve come to expect in our desktop machines.  So maybe it is not so much about where are the killer apps, but rather where is the killer functionality that will lead to the killer app. Do location services run in the background – does the iphone “know” where it is even when you don’t have Google Maps open? However, even though the upcoming iPhone OS update (2.1) will include notifications for non-running apps, we will still be limited by the extended functionality/user experience by not allowing multiple apps to run concurrently. It is interesting though that many of the built-in Apple apps can do this – you can play the iPod while using Safari. Mail “listens” for new messages and downloads them even when the app isn’t open. Perhaps Apple will start to let up on the constraints of what apps can run when and we’ll start to see/hear an improvement in the overall iPhone experience…

It’s the platform

Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, are often introduced and talked about as sole entities with this feature and that feature. The spec sheets about the devices and the review of the hardware and software running on them is usually the focal point. But what is often left out is the interaction of the device with the larger system. Sure, reviews tend to include quality of reception on a carrier’s network and what features tend to be locked down (e.g. MMS, IM). But what is often missing is talk about the ecosystem. Here I’m talking about how well the phone is supported through OS updates, how easy it is to find/download/install applications, etc.

The experience of the device – i.e. the full user experience — isn’t about device specifications. If the device is built well and has solid hardware and software under the hood, the specifications shouldn’t matter. In fact, if done well, the particular specs (e.g. camera resolution, screen resolution, speakerphone loudness, etc.) should fade into the background and fall out of focus for the user. The user can then focus on the tasks – sending a message to a friend, taking a picture, placing a call. It is when the hardware and software isn’t up to snuff that they become more obvious, more obtrusive, and tend to interfere with the user experience.

But getting back to the often one-sided reviews – leaving the ecosystem out of the discussion and focusing just on the device provides only half the picture. Getting my first Blackberry – a 7100 from T-Mobile – is a case in point. I had had several Treos and two Sidekicks by then, but was really interested in this device that looked and felt like a phone (tall/narrow) but had smartphone features. I was particularly interested in the modified QWERTY – the SureType keyboard – which seemed to be a nice compromise between the standard T9 entry and a full QWERTY (like on the Treos and Sidekicks). I spent time learning how to navigate the often cryptic menu system. I felt like I was becoming a power user as I learned more and more shortcuts and settings. But what I really started to long for was additional applications. Where do could I find applications for a Blackberry, for my particular Blackberry. I relied on reading Blackberry Forums to find the nuggets, the cool apps, along with the reviews of these apps by discerning Blackberry Forum members. But the apps were all over the place. Often, the could be downloaded from the app’s website. This frequently involved downloading it to your computer and then uploading it to the device during a sync – similar to the Palm Desktop model. Occasionally I’d find direct downloads to my device (which I thought was the coolest thing – no computer involved!) But all of this was work, and it felt like needless work. Why couldn’t all the apps be co-located in one place, searchable by the type of Blackberry I had? And why couldn’t they all be downloaded to the device directly? If I could do it with a few of the apps, why not all?

It seemed to me that RIM should have been in charge of corralling all of these into one place. To me, and I’m sure to a lot of people, having the ability to quickly and easily add functionality to my device so I could do more things was not just a feature, but part of my overall experience. And it seemed that RIM didn’t quite pull this together. Maybe it’s not the device manufacturer’s issue? My frustration was with a particular device, but in a way it was with the carrier as well. Either way, the ecosystem could have been much better and to stay competitive in the consumer space I think creating and maintaining a robust ecosystem aroudn a device is key.