Tag Archives: android

Hearts and Mobiles

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in March of 2010.

Are Microsoft and Apple using the mobile web to dictate how we use technology? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

Last week, John Herlihy, Google’s Chief of Sales, made a bold prediction:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant.”

Herlihy’s argument was based on research indicating that, in Japan, more people now use smartphones for internet entertainment and research than desktops. It’s hard to dispute that the long predicted “year of the smartphone” has arrived in the U.S., with iPhones, Blackberries and Android devices hitting record sales figures, and Apple’s “magical” iPad leading a slue of mini-computing devices out of the gate.

We’ve noted Apple’s belligerence in allowing applications on their mobile platform that don’t pass a fairly restrictive and controversial screening process. It’s disturbing that big corporations like Playboy get a pass from a broad “no nudity” policy on iPhone apps that a swimwear store doesn’t. But it’s more disturbing that competing technology providers, like Google and Opera, can’t get their call routing and web browsing applications approved either. It’s Apple’s world, and iPhone owners have to live in it (or play dodgeball with each upgrade on their jailbroken devices). And now Microsoft has announced their intention to play the same game. Windows Mobile 7, their “from the ground up” rewrite of their mobile OS, will have an app store, and you will not be able to install applications from anywhere else.

iPhone adherents tell me that the consistency and stability of Apple’s tightly-controlled platform is better than the potentially messy open platforms. You might get a virus. Or you might see nudity. And your experience will vary dramatically from phone to phone, as the telcos modify the user interface and sub in their own applications for the standard ones. There are plenty of industry experts defending Apple’s policies.

What they don’t crow about is the fact that, using the Apple and Microsoft devices, you are largely locked into DRM-only options for multimedia at their stores for buying digital content. They will make most of their smartphone profits on the media that they sell you (music, movies, ebooks), and they tightly control the the information and data flow, as well as the devices you play their content on. How comfortable are you with letting the major software manufacturers control not only what software you can install on your systems, but what kind of media is available to them, as well?

The latest reports on the iPad are that, in addition to not supporting Adobe’s popular Flash format, Google’s Picasa image management software won’t work as well. If you keep your photos with Google, you’d better quickly get them to an Apple-friendly storage service like Apple’s MobileMe or Flickr, and get ready to use iPhoto to manage them.

If your organization, has invested heavily in a vendor or product that Apple and/or Microsoft are crossing off their list, you face a dilemma. Can you just ignore the people using their popular products? Should you immediately redesign your Flash-heavy website with something that you hope Apple will continue to support? If your cause is controversial, are you going to be locked out of a strategic mobile market for advocacy and development because the nature of your work can’t get past the company censors?

I’m nervous to see a major computing trend like mobile computing arise with such disregard for the open nature of the internet that the companies releasing these devices pioneered and grew up in. And I’m concerned that there will be repercussions to moving to a model where single vendors are competing to be one stop hardware, software and content providers. It’s not likely that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or anyone else is really qualified to determine what each of us want and don’t want to read, watch and listen to. And it’s frightening to think that the future of our media consumption might be tied to their idiosyncratic and/or profit-driven choices.

Blogging from my phone

Okay, I like to brag that I can blog from my Nexus One, but, until today, I’ve never done it. What’s different? I installed a beta version of Swype, an alternate keyboard that lets you type by dragging your finger from letter to letter on the keyboard instead of pressing on the keys. The software is very good at guessing what you mean, so you can move pretty quickly and still be reasonably accurate. It’s somewhat amazing, and a godsend for people like me who are used to having physical keyboards on our phones.

To join the Android beta, sign up here.

I’ve only had this installed for a few hours, and I’m already faster than I was with the standard keyboard. Swype boasts that trained users can hit 50 words per minute. When I get there, I might have to give up the laptop altogether.

About that Nexus One

Nexus OneTwo weeks ago, I bit an expensive bullet and bought a new Nexus One phone, directly from Google. I’m a T-Mobile customer, and, as long-time readers know, an early adopter of the T-Mobile G1, the first publicly-available Android phone. I went for the unlocked version of the Nexus One (at $529 before taxes) rather than the $279 upgrade. My analysis of what the cost would have been, under the arcane T-Mobile condition that I can’t get a Nexus One and maintain my family plan at that price, was that it would have cost hundreds more over the two year contract term.

Here’s the short review: Fast, fast, fast, fast and shiny!

Here’s the long one:

My critique of the G1 has always been that it is mediocre hardware sporting an awesome operating system. I love Android; I loved it before there were any decent apps available. Maybe it’s because I appreciate a mobile OS that acts like a desktop OS when it makes sense to and doesn’t when it doesn’t, which is about the opposite of Windows Mobile with it’s “start menu” and “Program Manager” metaphors carried over from the PC and the incessant pop-ups interrupting whatever you’re trying to do. Android is like a computer OS in it that it is highly configurable, whereas every other mobile OS is tightly structured.  Android features unobtrusive notifications and a cloud-based approach to managing the phone’s data that makes it far simpler to deal with than something that requires Activesync or iTunes.

The Nexus one erases almost all of my G1 hardware peeves, with one big exception: it has no physical keyboard. That I miss, and I would gladly add an eighth of an inch to the thickness in order to have one. But, that said, the soft keyboard is much better than earlier Android soft keyboards and it’s not stopping me from using the phone. Another saving grace is that the Nexus supports voice input (as well as voice searching and dialing), so I can input an email by speaking into the phone, clean it up a bit, and send, rather than type the whole thing. The voice dictation isn’t perfect, but it’s really not bad.

The battery lasts exactly a day for me. That’s with GPS and Bluetooth turned off unless I have need for them, and average use. It’s about half a day less than I had after I impregnated my G1 with a fat replacement from Seidio. Seidio has one for the Nexus One, too, but I’m not willing to fatten it up for it, as opposed to just keeping a sync cable handy.

So that’s the bad news: no keyboard and a battery that’s as good as the iPhone’s. Everything else is awesome!

The 1Ghz Snapdragon processor — the fastest in any phone on the market today — just pops. The only time I ever see any churning is on occasional loads of the Android Market, and I know that those are on the server’s end. Email, games, maps, and most web pages are so snappy I have to blink and wonder if I’m really on a mobile phone. The snapdragon also features 512MB RAM and 512MB flash storage, which is worlds more than the G1. One of the liberating things is the ability to install and try out apps without having to first scrutinize what I have installed and remove a thing or two, another killer flaw for the G1.

The 3.7″ 480×800 resolution screen is beautiful. Unless you have a Verizon Droid, which is the same size with slightly higher resolution, you’ve never seen a screen this nice. Along with the multi-touch (added to my phone in an update that arrived on the same day that I got the phone), you can really read web pages and view photos. And the camera — 500 megapixel; flash; auto-adjusting. I finally have a better camera phone than my wife, who has the excellent Blackberry Curve 8900.

The phone itself sports two microphones, one that captures voice and background noise, and another that catches only the background noise and filters it out of the broadcast. this makes the Nexus One a very clear phone. This is big for me, because in my cubicle culture workplace, I often duck into the noisy server room in order to have conversations with my wife and kid.

I use all five home screens on the phone, with icons, folders and widgets. A handy included widget let me toggle the wifi, GPS, bluetooth, etc. I may ditch the ubiquitous Google search box widget because one of the four buttons on the phone pops it up. I’ll probably remove the pretty live wallpaper that shows autumn leaves falling behinds the icons in order to preserve a little more battery, but it has too much of a show-off factor right now to disable.

I’m appreciating a couple of apps that I never bothered to try on my stuffed G1. Seesmic’s twitter client is faster, stabler and better than Twidroid. There, I said it. I stood by Twidroid for over a year, but Seesmic includes bit.ly links in it’s free version (there is no paid one yet) and just seems to be more logically laid out. GDocs has replaced my beloved Wikinotes. I’m losing the Wiki, but I now have a notepad that integrates with my Google Docs account, allowing me to sync notes I write to the web and edit them in either place. That’s very cool.

I had MyBackupPro on the G1, and it lived up to it’s claims, restoring all of my Android preferences when I first set up the phone. And Bluetooth File Transfer and PDANet both seem to do what they claim, allowing me to transfer files to and from my Mac when a sync cable isn’t handy; and to use my phone as a 3G modem if I’m stuck without WiFi available for my Mac.

One issue I’m experiencing is that the phone won’t accept subbing in Google Voice as my voicemail carrier, but this might be because I have yet to make it down to T-Mobile and tell them that I’ve made this swap. I anticipate that they’ll tell me that i have to pay $5 more a month for their “Android plan”, which is somehow different from the “G1 plan”, but I also need to drop a monthly $5 equipment insurance fee that I doubt they’ll honor on a phone that they didn’t sell me.

I downloaded the WordPress app as well, but I’m cheating and typing this post on my computer. Next one, I’ll dictate into the phone. 🙂

There have been widespread reports of 3G connectivity problems with Nexus Ones. I’m crossing my fingers as I type, but I haven’t seen any of them.

My friends with iPhones still all believe that they’re better off because they have 50 million apps to choose from. And a phone that’s half as fast, with a smaller screen at half the resolution, a lousy camera, an operating system that they can’t customize, AT&T 3G, poor call quality and no ability to multitask. They have full iPods, yes, and I considered that significant for some time, but now that there’s Doubletwist, which can sync your own — or your iTunes — playlists to an Android phone, that’s not so big an advantage.

I’m confidant that the Nexus One is the best smartphone, period — I can’t recommend it enough. Android has come of age.

Smartphone Talk

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in June of 2009.

The last few weeks saw some big announcements in the smartphone world:

  • Palm released the phone that they’ve been promising us for years, the Palm Pre, with it’s new WebOS, to reviews that were mostly favorable and summed up as “The iPhone’s baby brother“.
  • Apple stole some of Palm’s thunder by dominating the press two days later with news of their relatively unexciting new phones and 3.0 software.
  • In the weeks prior, news came out that about 18 more Android phones should be out in calendar 2009 and that, by early 2010, all of the major carriers will have them.
  • And Nokia’s E71 hit our shores, an incredibly full-featured phone that you can get for just over $300 unlocked, and use the carrier of your choice. While this isn’t a touchscreen, and is therefore suspect in terms of it’s ease of use, it is an amazingly full-featured product.

Left in the wings were Blackberry, who keep producing phones, including their iPhone competitor, the Storm — to yawns from the press, and Microsoft, who are talking a lot about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 7.0, but seem to have really been decimated by the ugliness of their mobile OS when compared to just about anyone else’s.

What’s clear is that a few things differentiate smartphones these days, and the gap between the ones that get it and the ones that don’t are huge. They are:

Responsive Touchscreen Interfaces. The UI’s of the iPhone, Android and Palm’s WebOS get around the sticky problem that phones were just to small to support anything but simple functionality without requiring an oppressive amount of taps and clicks. This is why Microsoft has fallen down the smartphone food chain so far and fast — their mobile OS is just like their desktop OS, with no flagship phone that does the touchscreen nearly as well as the new competition.

Desktop-Class Web Browsers. This is where Apple and Google have drawn a huge line, and it looks like Palm might have joined them. All three use browser’s based on Webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari and Chrome. On a 3G phone, this makes for a fast and complete experience that puts the Blackberry, Mobile Internet Explorer and the Treo’s hideous Blazer. Add Google’s voice activation (native on Android and available for iPhone), and their smartphone-optimized results (which don’t work on the non-webkit browsers) and the task of finding a Starbucks or hotel on the road takes seconds, instead of the average ten to 15 minutes on the old, lousy browsers, which simply choke on the graphics.

Push Email. If you connect to Exchange servers, the iPhone and Pre have Activesync built in. If your mail is with Google, you’re connected to it as soon as you tell an Android phone your login and password. And the Android phone app is the best out there, with Apple’s mail running close behind it. What’s ironic is that Microsoft targeted their biggest threat with Activesync — the Blackberry’s kludgy, but, at the time, unparalleled email forwarding — and gave it wings by licensing it to Palm, Apple and others. This is fueling corporate acceptance of the iPhone and Pre, meaning that this Blackberry-beating strategy might have worked, but more likely it did it for Apple and Palm, not Microsoft.

Music. The iPhone is an iPod; everything else isn’t, meaning that, if having a high quality phone and music experience on one device is a priority, you’re not going to go wrong with the iPhone. I love my G1, but I weigh my value of the real keyboard and awesome, open source OS on T-Mobile over the iPhone’s built-in iPod and Activesync on AT&T. As OSes go, Android is only marginally better than Apple, but the Apple hardware is much better than the G1. Newer Android phones are going to show that up.

People make a lot of noise about the apps available for the iPhone (and Windows/Blackberry) as opposed to the newer Android and Pre. I think that’s a defining question for the Pre, but it looks like companies are jumping on board. For Android, it’s quite arguably a wash. All of the important things are available for Android and, given that it’s open source, most of them are free. And with those 18 phones due out by year end on every carrier, the discrepancies will be short-lived.

I have to wonder how long it will take Microsoft to “get” mobile. They have a heavy foot in the market as the commodity OS on the smartphones that can’t get any buzz. But the choice to bring the worst things about the Windows Desktop experience to their mobile OS was unfortunate. Should I really get a pop-up that has to be manually dismissed every time I get an email or encounter a wireless network? Do I have to pull out the stylus and click on Start every time I want to do anything? What’s even more worrisome is that Windows Mobile is a separate OS from Windows, that merely emulates it, as opposed to sharing a code base. Apple’s OS is the same OSX that you get on a MacBook, just stripped down, and Google’s OS is already starting to appear on Netbooks and other devices, and will likely fuel full desktops within a year or two — it is, after all, Linux.

So, the state of the smartphone market is easily broken into the haves and have-nots, meaning that some phones have far more usable and exciting functionality, while most phones don’t. There’s a whole second post dealing with the choice of carriers and their rankings in the race to offer the most customer disservice, and it does play into your smartphone decision, as Verizon might be a very stable network, but their phone selection is miserable, and AT&T might have the best selection but, well, they’re AT&T. I love Android, so, were I looking, I’d hold out until four or five of those new sets are out. But I don’t know anyone with an iPhone who’s unsatisfied (and I know lots of people with iPhones).

About that Google Phone

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2008.

After my highfalutin post on mobile operating systems, I thought I’d step back and post a quick review of my T-Mobile G1, the first phone running Google’s Android Mobile OS.  Mind you, I’m not posting this from my phone, but I could… 🙂

Hardware Specs for the G1

In order to discuss this phone, it’s important to separate the phone from the operating system.  Android is open source, based on the Linux kernel with a JAVA software development approach.   The G1 is an HTC mobile phone with Android installed on it.  Android is designed to run on everything from the simplest flip phone to a mini-computer, so how well it works will often depend on the hardware platform choices.

That said, HTC made many good choices and a few flat-out poor choices.  Since it’s impossible to not compare this phone to the iPhone, then it’s obvious that they could have provided a bigger screen or included a standard audio jack (the G1 comes with a mini-USB headset; otherwise, you need an adapter).  The iPhone, of course, is thinner, but that design choice was facilitated by the lack of a hardware keyboard.  No G1 owner is going to complain that it’s modest increase in heft is due to the availability of a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.  That’s one of the clear advantages over Apple’s ubiquitous competition.  Apple makes it’s virtual keyboard somewhat acceptable by offering auto-suggest and auto-correct as you type, features that Android currently lacks, but should have by early 2009 (per the Android roadmap).  But I find – as do many of my friends – that a physical keyboard is a less error-prone device than the virtual one, particularly without a stylus.  I have some nits about the Android keyboard — the right side is slightly impeded by the stub of the phone, making it hard to type and “o” without also typing “p”, but it’s overall a very functional and responsive keyboard, and I do sometimes blog from my phone, so it was a critical consideration for me.

The hardware has some other limitations as well. It sports a 2MP camera; 3 or 4 would have been preferable.  And they made an interesting choice on the memory, including 2GB on board, with expansion available on MicroSD cards up to 8GB.  This has led to what seem like some of the major potential issues with the phone and OS, discussed below.

Overall, the design is deceptively unsexy.  While the G1 isn’t as sporty as the iPhone, it is highly functional.  It’s easy to hold; the curved “chin” actually supports talking on the phone in a way that my flat Treos and Wing never did; the Keyboard slides easily and quickly, making it’s use less awkward when you need it in a hurry, and the decision to include a Blackberry-style trackball, which some have criticized as extraneous, was actually sharp – I find it useful to navigate text fields when editing, and as an alternate to finger-scrolling.  My favorite Solitaire game uses a trackball press to deal more cards.  It’s actually handy and intuitive. Unlike other smartphones, I took immediately to the functionality of the buttons; they’re well-designed. Also nice – one handed operation on this phone for basic tasks like making calls, checking email and voicemail is really easy.

A Versatile Desktop

Unlike the iPhone and Windows Mobile, a big emphasis has been put on customization.  You can put shortcuts to just about anything on the desktop, and you can create folders there to better organize them.  I keep shortcuts to the dialer, calendar and my twitter client there, along with shortcuts to the people I call most, and folders for apps, games and settings.  You can also set up keyboard shortcuts to applications.  This, again, makes the phone a pleasure to use – the things I want access to are always a few taps away, at most.

It’s a Google Phone

The Android OS is young, but elegant.  The primary thing to know, though, is that this is a Google phone.  If you use GMail and Google Calendar as your primary email and calendaring applications, you’ll love the push email and no-nonsense synchronization.  The pull down menu for notifications, with visual cues in the bar, is awesome; the GMail client is so good that I often use it to label messages because that function is simpler than it is in the web client.  But if your primary groupware is Exchange/Outlook, then you might want to stop reading here.  As of this writing, there are a few applications that – under the right circumstances – can sync your Exchange and GMail contacts.  There’s no application that syncs with Outlook on your desktop.  If you run on Windows, Google has a calendar sync.  But your options for non-Google email are either POP or IMAP in the G1’s “other” email application, which is pretty lame, or some scheme that forwards all of your Exchange mail to GMail (my choice, discussed here).  Google search is well-integrated, too, with a widget on the phone’s desktop, a dedicated search key on the keyboard, and a “when in doubt, search” default that pretty much starts a Google search whenever you start typing something in an app that doesn’t expect input.  For example, in the browser, you just type to go to a web site, no need for a URL bar; from the desktop, typing will search contacts for a match to call, but if one isn’t found, it will switch to a Google search. And that browser is excellent, much like the iPhone’s, but lacking the multi-touch gestures.  All the same, it;s a pseudo-tabbed browser that renders all but Flash-based web sites as well as the desktop, and puts Palm, Microsoft and RIM’s browser’s to shame.


Multimedia support also pales in comparison to the iPhone, which is no surprise.  there’s a functional media player, and an app that, like iTunes, connects to the Amazon music store.  there’s no support for flash, and the only installed media player is the Youtube app, but you can download other media players. You can store music and movies on an SD card (a 1GB card comes with the phone, but, if you plan to use it for music, you’ll want to purchase a 4, 6 or 8 GB card). All applications are downloaded to the internal drive, which means that there’s a limit on how many apps you can install – most of the 2GB is in use by the OS.  I’m hoping that OS fixes and updates — which are delivered over the air – will address this, as it’s a potentially serious limitation.

Maps and Apps

Another compelling thing Maps and GPS functionality.  While it doesn’t
do voice directions, the mapping features are powerful and extensible.
Street View features a compass, so you can see where you are going as
you walk, and there are already a number of apps doing great
integration with maps and multimedia, as you’d expect from a Google phone.

Since Android is so new, and the G1 is the only phone that we’ll see in 2008, it will be a while before the third party market for applications grows up to something competitive with Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Apple.  While I have almost everything I need to do the things I do on a phone (and I’m a power user), those apps are pretty rudimentary in their functionality, and there isn’t a big variety to choose from.  I have no worries that the market won’t grow – it’s already growing quickly.  But another consideration is that Android is still for early adopters who are dying for the Google integration, or, like me, want an iPhone-class web browser, but require a keyboard.

Application Recommendations

I get all of my applications from the market, accessible via the phone.  A lot of third-party markets are popping up, but they are either offering things that are on the Android Market or selling items (the Android Market only offers free software – this will change in January).  I have yet to see something for sale that looked worth paying for, versus the range of freely available apps.

Apps I’m using include Twitli, a Twitter client.  TwiDroid seems to have better marketing, but Twitli seems faster and stabler, as of this writing, and presents tweets in a larger font, which my old eyes appreciate.

Anycut – this is a must have OS enhancer that broadens the number of things that you can make shortcuts to, including phone contacts, text messages, settings screens and more.  Essential, as having contacts right on the screen is the fastest speed dial feature ever.

Compare Everywhere is an app that reads bar codes and then finds matching product prices online.  How handy is that?  But I think the ability to scan barcodes from the phone, with no add-on attachments, is pretty powerful, and something that the nonprofit industry could make use of (campaign tracking, asset management, inventory).

Connectbot is an SSH client – I once reset a web server in order to get an online donation form working on Christmas Eve from 3000 miles away.  Essential for a geek like me.  🙂

OI or AK Notepad – simple notepad apps.  Ridiculously, there isn’t one included with Andriod.

Password Safe – encrypted lockbox.  Splashdata has one, too, but Password Safe is more flexible, as of this writing.

WPtoGo is a handy WordPress Blog publishing app, for those brave enough to post from a phone without spellcheck (I’ll only post to my personal blog with this – I have higher standards for Idealware readers!)

And the Solitaire game up on the Market is very nice.


Overall, I’m loving this phone and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else on the market – even an iPhone, because I live and die by that keyboard.  If it sounds good to you, I’m assuming that you use GMail; you actually write on your smartphone, or would if it had a good keyboard; and that you don’t mind being a bit on the bleeding edge.  Otherwise, keep your eye on Android – this is the first of what will be many smartphones, and it’s all brand new.  For the first iteration, it’s already, at worst, the second best smartphone on the market.  It can only get better.

Small Footprints, Robotic and Otherwise

Here’s my 11/7/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/11/small-footprints-robotic-and-otherwise.html

As the proud owner of a T-Mobile G1, the first phone out running Google’s Android Mobile Operating System (OS), I wanted to post a bit about the state of the Mobile OS market.  I’ve been using a smartphone since about 1999, when I picked up a proprietary Sprint phone that could sync with my Outlook Contacts and Calendar.  We’ve come a long way; we have a long way to go before the handheld devices in our pocket overcome the compromises and kludges that govern their functionality.  My personal experience/expertise is with Palm Treos, Windows Mobile, and now Android; but I have enough exposure to Blackberries and the iPhone to speak reasonably about them. My focus is a bit broader than “which is the best phone?”  I’m intrigued by which is the best handheld computing platform, and what does that mean to cash-strapped orgs who are wrestling with what and how they should be investing in them.

I wrote earlier on establishing Smartphone policies in your org.  The short advice there was that the key Smartphone application is email, and you should restrict your users to phones that offer the easiest, most stable integration with your office email system.  That’s still true.  But other considerations include, how compatible are these phones with other business applications, such as Salesforce or our donor database? How easy/difficult are they to use and support? How expensive are they?  What proprietary, marketing concerns on the part of the vendors will impact our use of them?

The big players in the Smartphone OS field are, in somewhat random order:

  • Palm: PalmOS
  • Nokia: Symbian*
  • RIM: Blackberry OS
  • Microsoft: Windows Mobile
  • Apple: iPhone
  • Google: Android

Palm is the granddaddy of Mobile OSes, and it shows.  The interface is functional and there are a lot of apps to support it, but there isn’t much recent development for the platform. Palm has been working on a major, ground -up rewrite for about two years, code-named Nova, but it has yet to come to light, and there’s a serious question now as to whether they’ve taken too long.  Whatever they come up with would have to be pretty compelling to grab the attention of customers and developers in light of Apple and Google’s offerings.

  • App Support: C (lots, but not much new; Treos do Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: C (functional, but not modern interface)
  • Cost: C (Not sure if there’s much more than Palm Treo’s available, $200-200 w/new contract)

Nokia’s Symbian platform is notable for being powerful and open source.  It’s more popular outside of the US, I’m not sure if there are any Symbian smartphones offered directly from US carriers, which makes them pretty expensive.  They do support Activesync, the Microsoft Exchange connector, and have a mature set of applications available.

  • App Support: B (Activesync, lots of apps, but missing some business apps, like Salesforce)
  • Ease of Use: B (Strong interface, great multimedia)
  • Cost: D (Over the roof in US, where contracts don’t subsidize expense).

The Blackberry was the first OS to do push email, and it gained a lot of market and product loyalty as a result.  But, to get there, they put up their own server that subscribes to your email system and then forwards the mail to your phone.  This was great before Microsoft and Google gave us opportunities to set up direct connections to the servers.  Now it’s a kludge, offering more opportunities for things to break.  They do, however, have a solid OS with strong business support – they are either on top or second to Microsoft (with Apple charging up behind them) in terms of number of business apps available for the platform.  So they’re not going anywhere, they’re widely available, and a good choice if email isn’t your primary smartphone application.

  • App Support: A- (lots of everything except Activesync)
  • Ease of Use: B (Solid OS that they keep improving)
  • Cost: B (Range of models at decent prices)

Windows Mobile has broad third party support and powerful administrative functions.  It comes with Activesync, of course.  There are tons of smartphones running it, more than any other OS. But the user interface, in this writer’s opinion (which I know isn’t all that pro-Microsoft, but I swear I’m objective), is miserable.  With Windows Mobile (WinMo) 5, they made a move to emulate the Windows Desktop OS, with a Start Menu and Programs folder.  This requires an excessive amount of work to navigate.  If you use more than the eight apps (or less, depending on model/carrier), you have your work cut out for you to run that ninth app. And the notification system treats every event — no matter how trivial — as something you need to be interrupted for and acknowledge.  It’s hard to imagine how Microsoft is going to compete with this clunker, and you have to wonder how the millions they spend on UI research allowed them to go this route.

  • App Support: A (tons of apps out there)
  • Ease of Use: D (the most clunky mobile OS.  Period.)
  • Cost: A (The variety of phones means you get a range of prices and hardware choices)

Apple’s iPhone represents a leap in UI design that instantly placed it on top of the pack.  Best smartphone ever, right out of the first box.  Apple clearly read the research they commissioned, unlike Microsoft, and thought about how one would interact with a small, restricted device in ways that make it capable and expansive.  The large, sensitive touch screen with multi-touch capabilities rocks.  The web browser is almost as good as the one you use on your desktop (and this is important – web browsers on the four systems above are all very disappointing – only Apple and Google get this right).  The iPhone really shines, of course, as a multimedia device.  It’s a full-fledged iPod and it plays videos as well as a handheld device could.  As a business phone, it’s adequate, not ideal.  While it supports Activesync and has great email and voicemail clients, it lacks a physical keyboard and cut+paste — features that all of their competitors provide (although the keyboard varies by phone model).  So if you do a lot of writing on your phone (as I do), this is a weak point on the iPhone.

  • App Support: A (it’s still pretty new, but development has been fast and furious)
  • Ease of Use: A- (Awesome, actually, except for text processing)
  • Cost: B (since they dropped it to $199).

Android is Google’s volley into the market, and it stands in a class with Apple that is far above the rest of the pack.  The user interface is remarkably functional and geared toward making all of the standard things simple to do, even with one hand.  The desktop is highly customizable, allowing you to put as many of the things you use a touch away.  This phone is in a class with the iPhone, but has made a few design choices that balance the two out.  The iPhone makes better use of the touch screen, with multi-touch features that Google left out.  But the iPhone is has far less customizable an interface.  And, of course, the first Android phone has a full keyboard and (limited) cut and paste.  It is, however, brand new, and I’ll discuss the future below, but right now the third party app market is nascent.  Today, this phone is best suited for early adopters.

  • App Support: C (it will be A in a year or so)
  • Ease of Use: A
  • Cost: A (G1’s are selling for as low as $150w/new plan)

The big question, if you’re investing in a platform, is where are these all going?  Smartphone operating systems are more plentiful and competitive than the desktop variety, where Windows is still the big winner with Apple and the Unix/Linux variants pushing to get in.  But the six systems listed above are all widely deployed.  Palm and Nokia have the least penetration and press these days, but they’re far from knocked out.  Nokia could make a big push to get Symbian into the market and Palm’s Nova could prove to be really compelling — at one point, Palm was king of these devices.  Today, the interesting battle is between the other four, Microsoft, RIM, Apple and Google.  Of these four, all but Android are commercial OSes; Android is fully open source.  RIM and Apple are hardware/software manufacturers, building their own devices and not licensing their OSes to others.  Windows Mobile and Android are available for any hardware manufacturer to deploy.  This suggests two things about the future:

Proprietary hardware/software combos have a tenuous lead.  RIM and Apple are at the top of the market right now.  Clearly, being able to design your OS and hardware in tandem makes for smoother devices and more reliability.  But this edge will wane as hardware standards develop (and they are developing).  At that point, the variety of phones sporting Windows and Google might overwhelm the proprietary vendors.  Apple is big now, but this strategy has always kept them in a niche in the PC market.  They dominate in the MP3 player world, but they got that right and made a killing before anyone could catch up; that edge doesn’t seem to be as strong in the mobile market.

Open Source development won’t be tied to the manufacturer’s profit margin. Android’s status as open source is a wild card (Nokia is Open Source, too, so some of this applies).  Apple and Microsoft have already alienated developers with some of their restrictive policies.  If Android gets wide adoption, which seems likely (Sprint, Motorola, HTC and T-Mobile are all part of Google’s Open Handset alliance, and both AT&T and Verizon are contemplating Android phones), the lack of restrictions on the platform and the Android market (Google’s Android software store, integrated with the OS) could grab a significant percentage of the developer’s market.  I’ve been pleased to see how quickly apps have been appearing in the first few weeks of the G1’s availability.

If I were Microsoft, I’d consider isolating the WinMo development team from the rest of the campus.  Trying to leverage our familiarity with their desktop software has resulted in a really poor UI, but their email/groupware integration is excellent.  They need to dramatically rethink what a smartphone is — it does a lot of the same things that a computer does, but it isn’t a laptop.  Apple should be wondering whether their “develop your app and we’ll decide whether you can distribute it when you’re finished” approach can stand up to the Android threat.  They need to review their restrictive policies.  RIM has to fight for relevance – as customer loyalty, which they built up with their early email superiority fades, well, didn’t you notice that Palm and RIM the only names in our list that don’t have huge additional businesses to leverage?  And we, the smartphone users, need to see whether supporting Android — which has lived up to a lot of its promise, so far — isn’t a better horse for us to run on, because it’s open and extendable without the oversight of any particular vendor.

* I have to own up that I’m least familiar with Symbian; a lot of my analysis is best guess in this case, based on what I do know.

Hacking my Exchange Data onto my New G1

I’m the proud owner of a new T-Mobile G1 – UPS delivered it yesterday. The G1 is the first phone to use Google’s open source Android mobile operating system, and it rocks. This is the first true competitor to the iPhone, with a large touchscreen and a desktop-class web browser on a 3G network with WiFi, GPS and a flip out, full QWERTY keyboard. The G1 is particularly compelling if you use GMail, GTalk and Google Calendar – the integration, particularly with GMail, is phenomenal. The email is pushed to the phone, and the application for reading it is on a par with the standard web client – insanely easy to archive, label and delete messages. This is much better than the GMail for Mobile App that runs on other phones. The other compelling thing about Android, which I’ll blog more about at Idealware, is the open source OS and open programming environment. Android reeks with potential.

But, if what you’re looking for is a cool phone, it’s important to point out that this is brand new, and, as an early adopter, I’m paying some early adopter dues. If you aren’t the pioneering type, you’ll do much better with an iPhone. The Android environment is open, but the number of apps available is pretty slim, with some glaring holes. Missing on G1 Day 1 (which, officially, is today, October 22nd), there is no Notepad/Text Editor; limited video playing, no secured storage (for passwords and the like) and very limited connectivity with Microsoft Exchange/Outlook. There’s no desktop sync program for Android — you can mount the phone as USB storage and drag files to and from it, but the only synchronization available, so far, is the built-in sync with GMail apps (Mail, Calendar and Contacts) and a couple of brand new apps that can sync contacts with Exchange, given the right conditions.

My situation is this: I work in a Microsoft environment. We run Exchange 2007. I have an active extra-curricular professional life that lives in GMail and Twitter, primarily. So the G1 handles the latter beautifully — there are already three Twitter apps available — but the web site works great as well. It handles GMail phenomenally. But what about my work email, calendar and contacts? Solutions should pop up eventually. Funambol is promising an ad-based service that will start with Contact Sync, then grow to include Calendar and Email. A Google ContactSync app is available at the Android Market (you can install it from your phone), but it requires Exchange 2007 with the Web Services Extension enabled. We’re not doing that at Earthjustice, and I made a vow not to ask my Sysadmin to reconfigure the server for me (she’s got enough to do!). Finally, Google does have a Calendar Sync app, but it only works on Windows; I’m on a Mac, and while I have VMWare Fusion and Windows installed, I only boot up Windows when I have to, not often enough to keep the calendar up to date. So here’s what I’ve done, which is immensely kludgy.

Email: I used an Administrator-only feature to forward a copy of my mailbox to GMail. If you aren’t, like me, an IT Director with admin rights to your Exchange server, you’ll have to buy the System Administrator a healthy Amazon gift certificate and grovel a bit, most likely. On the Gmail side, I created a filter that labels each message from work with “earthjustice” and set up my EJ email address as a valid one to reply with, along with the “reply to address sent to” default. Now all of my work mail arrives twice – once in Outlook, once in GMail. I am hesitant about replying in GMail, because the Sync is only one way, and those replies won’t land in my Outlook Sent folder. But I get all of my mail pushed, so I don’t miss anything, and I can always jump to Outlook Web Access if I want to reply “in country”.

Calendar: this was a real kludge. Again, if I used Windows daily, I’d use the Calendar Sync. But I use my Macbook at home and work and generally log onto Outlook over Citrix, which I can’t install the sync on without installing it for the whole company. I worked out a complicated solution by publishing my calendar in icalendar format to iCal Exchange, a free server for storing calendars, then subscribed to it at Google Calendar, only to learn that either iCal Exchange is not sending the proper refresh headers to GCal, or GCal is inept at refreshing them. I couldn’t get it to recognize an update in three days, so I ditched that plan. But then I noted that, when I received Outlook appointments at GMail, they came with “Add to GCal” options. Since my Calendar was synched (via Google Calendar Sync on my Fusion WinXP desktop), I realized that I can just accept each appointment twice to keep both calendars in sync. Again, kludgy, but suitable until something better comes along.

Contacts: As mentioned above, there’s a contact sync app available, but it requires Exchange 2007 with web services enabled. I’m going to hold off. I have about 200 work contacts, and about 350 more personal/Nonprofit contacts, so my GMail contacts list is much larger than the one at work. I’m going to maintain them separately for the time being. So, no definitive answer here, but keep your eye on Funambol, who promise to have this going quickly.

It’s only a matter of time before someone licenses and resells Microsoft Activesync for Android, and other sync options will pop up like crazy. But, if you’re like me, and couldn’t wait for this phone, I hope there’s enough here to get you going. Please be sure to leave additional and better ideas in the comments.

Smartphone Follies

Here’s my 9/18/2008 Idealware post, originally published at http://www.idealware.org/blog/2008/09/smartphone-follies.html

If you man the support desk, or are the accidental techie for an org of ten or more people, chances are that you get a lot of questions about smartphones. And these generally aren’t the “what should I get?” questions as often as they’re the “how do I get my email and schedule on my new [Blackberry/Iphone/Treo/Razr/MotoQ/Sidekick/Android Dream]?”. If the state of computing technology were akin to smartphones, you’d have Commodore, Leading Edge, IBM, and Apple computers, along with IBM Selectric typewriters to support, all running different operating systems and different applications. It’s somewhat insane.

So how can you politely impose some sanity on the smartphone madness? People love THEIR devices; the choice of an Iphone vs a Blackberry is as heated as any political debate. But there are some commons sense arguments that IT can make for a modicum of standardization, without totally denying your users some choice.

It all boils down to email. While smartphones feature a range of operating systems, email platforms tend to support cross-smartphone access. So what’s your email system?

Microsoft Exchange includes ActiveSync. If you run an Exchange server, ActiveSync-capable smartphones can connect directly and wirelessly to it, providing contact, calendar, email and (on some phones) task synchronization. Any Windows Mobile phone includes Activesync, as well as Palm Treos and the newest iPhones (version 2 and above). Exchange 2007 also includes handy features like remote device wipes and access to network shares.

Google Apps/GMail Google makes a GMail for Mobile application that works on most smartphones capable of running java applications, which includes all of the major variants (Windows Mobile, Blackberry, iPhone and Palm).

If you don’t use GMail or have an Exchange server (you either run Outlook or Outlook Express without your own server, or you use a different system), Blackberries offer the ubiquitous solution. RIM, the company that makes them, runs their own server that can act as a gateway for your email service and forward the mail to your phone. Before Microsoft figured out how to support mobiles, this was a sweet, revolutionary offering, but my take is that, compared to Exchange/Activesync, it’s now a bit of a kludge. If you use Blackberries with Exchange, you can increase functionality by buying their Exchange add-in server, but that’s a significant investment that you’re not likely to make without a large fleet of phones. In the meantime, though, here’s a tip: when you set up that Blackberry to access Exchange, pick Outlook WebAccess, not Outlook (assuming you also run Webaccess). The integration through Webaccess updates the server when you read messages on the phone; the vanilla Outlook integration doesn’t. Outlook should be chosen when you don’t offer WebAccess with Exchange.

At my job, we have Exchange and a smartphone policy that states that we support Activesync, as opposed to any particular device. We recommend that our users get Treos or iPhones, because we like them, but don’t complain if they get Wings or MotoQ’s or whatever, because Activesync works the same way on any Windows Mobile device. The staff appreciates the guidance and flexibility; we enjoy the reduced time figuring every new phone out.

State of the Smart(phone)

I’ve been using the Palm Treo for about seven years now, ever since the original Treo 300 flip-phone was released. With my most recent two year Sprint contract approaching completion, and some motivation to ditch Sprint, I just took a pretty detailed read of the smartphone market and purchased a new model. I figure that this is worth sharing while it’s meaningful, but this is a market that changes rapidly, so if you’re reading this in 2008, it’s probably obsolete info.

Smartphones come in a variety of flavors:

  • Blackberries
  • Treos (PalmOS or Windows – new variant: the Centro)
  • Windows Mobile phones
  • Apple iPhone
  • Others (Nokia, Symbian).

My requirements were as follows:

  1. A decent voice phone
  2. A real QWERTY keyboard
  3. Push (or automated pull) email from my org’s Exchange server
  4. Access to GMail
  5. A good screen
  6. A Password-keeping application
  7. Third party apps
  8. Some ability to get internet connectivity for my laptop
  9. Not a requirement: small form factor. I actually prefer a decent sized screen and keyboard.

Note that this ruled out the iPhone on two or three counts. The iPhone can only do POP and IMAP email, making it far less capable for Exchange than a Blackberry or phone that supports Activesync (which includes any Windows Mobile device and all current Treos, Palm or Windows). iPhones also have only a soft keyboard, and I spent about an hour trying it out at the Apple store with way too many errors. Since I’m geeky enough to actually write things on my phone, the lack of cut and paste was pretty serious, as well. Finally, no java support and, at the time, no support for third party apps. Jobs announced a turnaround on the last one the day after I bought my new phone, but I’m still happy I steered clear. Maybe in two years the iPhone will be a better choice; for now, only buy it if you are looking more for a music and movie machine than a business phone. It rules for multimedia, yes.

There’s a reason why I’ve stuck with Treos for so long, and the new Centro – which is, essentially, the Treo 755p in a smaller body, is a great deal, particularly if you switch to Sprint to get it at the $99 price. The keyboard is small, but I had no errors testing it. I stayed away for a few reasons: Sprint, who I was trying to ditch; no wifi; and a small, lo-rez screen.

I’m not a Blackberry fan – having supported them at the last two companies I was at, I’m convinced that they’re buggy as all get out. And the push email, which was revolutionary a few years back, feels more and more like a hack, now that Microsoft has Activesync down. While it’s true that Activesync is more of a drain on the phone (it’s not true push; it’s just scheduled pull), it’s pretty seamless. My Earthjustice mail comes right to me, wherever I am. That said, I was pretty intrigued by the Blackberry Curve, and almost sold on the T-Mobile version, which comes with their Hotspot@Home service, allowing you to switch to VOIP (which isn’t charged against your minutes) whenever you’re in wireless range. But I couldn’t get all of the required T-Mobile and Blackberry required plans without upping my monthly bill by about $35 over Sprint, so I passed on it.

I wound up with what I think is the best Windows Mobile smartphone, the T-Mobile Wing (made by HTC, AT&T has something just like it). The Wing has a slide out keyboard, much bigger than the Blackberry or Treo; Windows Mobile 6; Wifi (but not Hotspot@Home); a 2 megapixel camera (very nice) and – this is important – a MicroSD slot that can take the new high density cards. The Curve maxes out at 2GB, but I’m carrying a 6GB card in my Wing. This allows me to copy my 500-600 song playlist to the card and have plenty of spare room for photos and other things.

Two warnings: It is Windows, so I have to reboot daily (I went months without rebooting my PalmOS Treo). it is sincerely Mac-hostile. My main computer is a Macbook Pro. I had to buy Markspace’s Missing Sync in order to sync iTunes playlists with it, and I still have to sync with a Windows machine to install additional applications and sync data in apps that don’t speak Mac. So if you don’t have access to a Windows box, or you don’t want this hassle, stay away from Windows Mobile.

The icing on the cake was that T-Mobile’s unlimited Internet plan (at $20/mo) includes unlimited access at any T-Mobile hotspot, for your phone and/or your computer. This means that, as long as I don’t mind buying Starbuck’s coffee, I have wifi access virtually anywhere I go. That was a killer feature for me.

To sum up, the best deal out there is probably the Sprint Centro. But T-Mobile is the only provider (as far as I can tell) that adds Hotspot access to their data plan. I’m paying about $5/mo more than I was at Sprint for all of the wifi access, and everything else that my Treo did.

I expect that buyer’s remorse will set in the day the Google phone arrives. Rumor or not, it is almost certain that they’ll be announcing a mobile OS, based on Linux, with a suite of java apps as cool as their Maps and GMail for Mobile tools, which are really nice cell phone apps (another gripe: Windows Mobile can do Google Maps, but not GMail. I’m hoping someone will fix that soon. But gmail.com/m works fine). But in markets like these, I figure you have to just buy your phone when you need it, and avoid being too much of a beta tester.