Friday, October 30, 2009

Disruptive

Google Maps Mobile Nav feature (for good reason) is being touted as crushing for the incumbent (usually over-priced) nav companies. So would it have been legal for Google to have foreseen this, and shorted the stocks of those companies?

GPS for Android

This is great. Undercut the ridiculous TeleNav $10/month subscription. Although for the time being, I think that a dedicated GPS unit (and they are SO cheap) is more functional for the car. Over time, however, I think the functionality of the Android platform can far outstrip dedicated GPS's. One key step--phones have to start being packaged with custom mounts, just as exist for GPS units. The mounts should actually be custom on one end (the end that the phone clips into), but standard on the other end (the hole pattern that allows it to attach to existing, standard suction-cup GPS mounts).

If that happened, maybe I could FINALLY look forward to a good, bike-friendly GPS.

Android Apps

For Android to really live up to all the hype it is enjoying, and be a serious mainstream competitor to the iPhone, I think the out-of-box experience has got to be made into a slam-dunk for the average user.

In my opinion, one great way to do this would be to ensure the basics are well-covered, right out of the box. I divide these into 3 categories.

Tier 1
Great Tier 1 apps will make the new Android user productive from Day 1, and will provide a daily reminder of how useful their hand-held computer really is.
  • Speed dial
  • Great texting (Chomp)
  • Great virtual keyboard (TouchPal)
  • Email
  • MP3 player
  • Browser--the current one, the only one available, just doesn't seem that good. Not that fast, not that functional.
Tier 2
Great Tier 2 apps will delight the user by letting them discover new, less obvious but valuable uses for their mobille device.
  • Alarm clock--see my other posts on how curiously hard it is to find such an important, simple app.
  • Timer--ideally, should be part of the alarm clock.
  • Calculator
  • GPS--based on recent announcements, it does sound like Google is working hard to cover this one.
  • Note-taker

Tier 3
Tier 3 apps will leverage the power of the device and platform to provide excellent functionality for more specialized apps:
  • Podcatcher--DoggCatcher is pretty good, but still could be improved.
  • E-Reader--lots of opportunity for improvement here. I want the functionality of a Kindle, but on my phone. The key is not to have to rely on a slow, mobile connection to read stuff in streaming mode--I want substantial chunks of reading material to be pre-downloaded, for very fast access.
Conclusion
Between Android, the device makers and the carriers, if they could make certain that the lowest common denominator for the Android brand were this high, Android would be in a much better position to compete with the iPhone. It seems to me like it wouldn't take all that much. Most of the apps necessary to get half-way there are available free or cheap. If some money were thrown into polishing them, and they were pre-installed, that would about do it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

MT3G Performance Much Better Post-Android 1.6

I almost returned my Android phone because it was lagging so much. Then I did a master reset, and it seemed okay for a while, but it eventually started to lag significantly. I was resigned to it, but it was a drag. Then along comes the 1.6 release (aka, Donut), and the problems absolutely disappeared. Gone. Performance is terriffic.

At first I though that Donut must have a number of performance tweaks. But now I think it just fixed one, big, bad bug related to Google Latitude and location services. What a difference.

Anyway, that is one example of the platform paying off. With a typical cell phone, what you buy is all you ever get. It never improves. If there is some really bad problem, you might get a firmware update, if you go after it. But with a real platform, such as Android, there are ongoing updates. In fact, there will have been 3 updates in about 8 months for Android. And they come automatically, for free, over the air, so it is totally painless.

On the other hand, this was a nasty bug, bad enough to really ruin the user experience. I don't think we should have had to wait for an upgrade for a fix to this to have been publicized (at a minimum, don't use Location Services for any extended period).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

T-Mobile "Project Dark" Ho-Hum

T-Mobile is making a big deal out of a new plan structure. It has a few components, but a centerpiece is lower rates for unlimited talk. For instance, $99 for a 2-phone family plan with unlimited talk and text. This really just does not impress me all that much. I am currently paying $89.99 for a Family Plan with 1000 minutes and unlimited texting. With myFaves, 1000 minutes is nearly the functional equivalent of unlimited [1].

So I'll compare one of the non-unlimited plans to what I have. My $89.99 price was a specially-negotiated deal, the "rack rate" is (was) more like $109.99 for 1500 minutes. Now T-Mobile is offering 1500 minutes and unlimited texting for $79.99. That is $30 cheaper than the rack rate, $10 better even than my specially-negotiated, contract rate. So I guess that is pretty good, IF you didn't really care much about myFaves. myFaves is crucial for me, though, because I use the local version of my AT&T conference number as a fave, so when I work from home, I can make all calls from my cell phone, and not tie up the land line.

So I would have to go with the Unlimited plan, which is $99.99 for the family. I guess that is not a bad deal, it's only $10 more than my contract prices, with unlimited minutes. But still not worth it for me and my family.

[1] Google Voice puts my myFaves program "over the top", to be 100% equivalent to unlimited. But Google Voice is non-maintsream, and so outside the scope of this discussion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nook eBook Reader - Kindle Killer?

I still have a hard time seeing the e-reader as more than a niche product for now. For me, it is just too specialized a device. If I am going to carry something around, I want it to have full capabilities. I think the sweet spot will be when the e-reader is just a specialized netbook--one with a form geared to reading, but useable for general computing. One key might be a built-in virtual keyboard, with the option of course for a plug-in or wireless, for home-bound usage. So the Nook sounds like about a 1/4 step in this direction.

Android Alarm Clock

I spent a fair amount of time looking, and checking out a few freebies, and I have not found a really good alarm clock for Android. Right now I am using Alarms. It has a nice feature in letting you set multiple, concurrent alarms and displaying them in a list. But that is an advanced feature. Advanced features should only be implemented after the basics are perfected. And in Alarms, the big thing I want is a FAST-set.

There are likely a number of things to do to create a fast-set. But to pick on one obvious item--like most apps, it uses the + and - buttons to set Hours and Minutes. If you are developing for a computer, why emulate a simple, mechanical alarm clock? Give me a large keypad, like the Dialpad, to key in the time.

One the other hand, it does one thing right. Something that almost no other Android apps or built-in features I have encountered does. It makes the very reasonable assumption, when you begin to enter a new alarm, that you will want the keyboard for the label. Nothing else seems to do this. Although now that I check on this, I see the new version of Android Market does also exhibit this behavior.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

SMS Backup Reinstall

A problem with Android App updates (which seem to come pretty frequently) is that they tend to re-set your app preferences. Usually this is just a mild nuisance. But it can have somewhat bigger implications. For example, I use--and love--SMS Backup to automatically copy my SMS strings to Gmail. Very nice. Set it and forget it. Except--for some reason I happened to look at my SMS-tagged emails, and was surprised to see nothing backed up for 4 weeks! A little poking around relvealed that the auto-backup option had been re-set, and I am pretty sure that happened when I updated the app.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Agile: Fail-Fast vs Perfect

One of the benefits of Agile software development is, quite simply, that it allows you to fail fast. If you assume that most first efforts are going to be failures, this becomes a very attractive feature. Build something, get very concrete feedback that shows you why your creation is a failure, and then incorporate that feedback into version 2.

Fast-fail saves immense resources. Because in software development, perfecting, polishing and productionizing takes a TON of work. With Agile, you don't go on to make those investments in a version that is going to be thrown away. You only undertake that very heavy lifting when you have something that sticks to the wall.

An incidental benefit to this arrangement is that the results the 3Ps will be higher quality, and probably more efficiently achieved, because you are documenting something concrete and complete, as to something that is an evolving work-in-process.

Other embedded emails

I mentioned before wanting to be able to email directions and have my email program automatically parse and pass those directions to my mobile GPS. No manual cutting and pasting or re-typing required. I have thought of some other types of information that I would like to have treated similarly: Podcasts, and Bible Verses.

The way I think this would work is using the concept of "intents" that is implemented by Android. Intents, as I understand them, are pre-defined activities, which different applications can register their interest in. For instance, my preferred Android speed-dial app, Quickdial, registers its intent to respond to the "initiate phone call" button. Then, when that button is pressed, Android responds by telling me all the apps that respond to that intent (Quickdial, Dialpad, Contacts), and letting me choose which one should respond at the present time.

So the email would include some marker that defines its intent. Something like: BibleVerseJohn 2:5-16. Then, my Android-based email program would parse the message, find the BibleVerse intent, and direct it to all BibleVerse intent-receivers. There are different ways those intent-receivers could react. They might immediately try to open the verse while I am reading the email. Or they might create a bookmark corresponding to the verse.

Similarly with Podcasts...the Podcast intent receiver might offer a choice of:
  • Stream now
  • Download now
  • Add to download queue

Monday, October 19, 2009

Flyscreen Android App

I've been dabbling with Flyscreen for Android in the past few days. I'm not sure how much I like it. But one thing I really do admire is the fact that it syncs with a web page. I heard an interview with a principal from the startup, and he acknowledged that while it is nice to be able do manage an app from your mobile, if you have the option, it is a whole lot more convenient to do it from a web page.

I have really been missing this functionality in DoggCatcher, a not-inexpensive Podcatcher for Android, for instance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Too Bad Google Is In California

I've long lamented that the electronics and software industries are so over-concentrated in California. If only Google had started somewhere else, it would have been big enough to create a software ecosystem in a new location. Much like Microsoft did in Seattle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Facebook vs LinkedIn

I thought Facebook would eat LinkedIn's lunch. Then I changed my mind--they seem to be serving two very different purposes, even in cases where their audiences do overlap. LinkedIn is strictly business, while Facebook of course is more social. So a lot of professionals, such as myself, have no interest at all in having our colleagues and professional acquaintances as Facebook friends. I think this is really helping keep LinkedIn going.

But it also seems like a barrier that Facebook could easily overcome. They just need to implement a strong typing of a Friend, where the choices are business vs personal. Posts would only be visible to Business Friends via an explicit opt-in approach.

myTouch Trackball

This is a point that all the reviews miss...it is hard to do fine, single-character editing with your fingers. I try to use the trackball for this, but sometimes it doesn't work. I think that is just a flaw of the myTouch 3G implementation--it sounds like the Cliq has implemented this better: "some early reviews questioned the use of a D-Pad, but after spending some time with the Cliq, I found that it was much easier to fix a typo or manipulate text with it than using your finger, like on the iPhone."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Safer Ground Beef

Thoughts on making ground beef safer:

1. They should not mix it from so many places and so many animals. Couldn't they process 100 cows' worth of ground beef, then sanitize everything before the next batch? I'm sure that would increase costs a little bit, but would it be that much?

2. On that note--Irradition. I have been reading about its benefits since I was a teenager. It has the word "radiate" in it, so people instantly are petrified.

My UPS

I just got the following message from UPS:
Our records indicate that you have not taken advantage of My UPS recently. To keep your registration active, simply log in to My UPS before Tuesday, November 10, 2009. If you no longer have a need for My UPS, do nothing and your registration will expire on Tuesday, November 10, 2009.
Seems pretty clueless to me. I have used My UPS. I haven't had a reason to use it lately. I would use it again. Why try to force me to log in, just to keep my account alive? I just don't get the thinking behind it. I suppose that there is some marketing executive at UPS who would really like to get a sense of how many My UPS accounts are still being used. And getting all active users to log into their account sure would help her/him get better statistics for that. But that kind of inwardly-focused, UPS-centric thinking just doesn't work. Seems really dumb, unless I am missing something.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Another Entrant in the Texting-While-Driving Problem

iZup. Name is dumb ("eyes up", get it?), will be interesting to see if this category catches on. Others are ZoomSafer and TextEcution.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Key feature: Email with GPS

I have two GPS options. One is a stand-alone device that I keep in my car, the other is built into my Android phone. The stand-alone is better, and the only safe option when driving solo, but the phone option is nice in that it is always with me.

I am not good with directions, so I originally thought I would rely on the GPS for finding any new destination. But I have found that they are just a bit tedious Both GPS options share that trait, even though the data-input strategy for each is quite different. So for very quick, simple new destinations, I still often it more expedient just to print the map, and navigate conventionally. But that is definitely a disappointment, especially when complications ensue, where a GPS would help--missed turns, detours, etc.

So what I would like is an easy way to feed my destinaton to the GPS, one that doesn't involve typing on a tedious little device. I would like to email my destination to the GPS. Similar to how I can email a posting to my weblog. The difference is that a weblog is based on free-text, whereas the email-to-GPS would require a standardized schema, and encoding via XML. Along the lines of the "semantic web".

Of course I don't actually want to type in an XML schema. So it would be nice if directions would include a "send to GPS option", which would generate the email with encoded address. And for free-text submissions, there could be simple, comma-based standards that would infer the schema.