App Centric Old Fashioned?

So the in thing these days is for tech pundits to declare that an app centric ecosystem is old fashioned, and that what people really want is a people centric ecosystem; witness Facebook Home, and Windows Phone 8 before it.

That's all well and good, but do app developers want their brand to be muffled into another system? I think most developers like having their icon on the home screen, like being able to design their app as they see fit, and wouldn't be happy if the operating system simply surfaced their content as part of a people centric approach.

Ecosystems are nothing without the support of developers and big brand apps. Everyone wants their cut of the 'mind share' pie.

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iOS Disappearing Calendar Notifications – Mystery Solved

Ever turned in your iPhone to see a calendar notices suddenly disappear from the lock screen? I've been seeing this a lot lately, and it's really bugged me – especially when my phone is on silent (as it is most of the day), so I can check it at chosen intervals rather than be disturbed (developer thing, no doubt) .

Well it turns out iOS will remove a notification after the event has finished. Kind of makes sense, although it does mean if you totally miss an appointment, you'd be none the wiser unless you pay very careful attention and see it before the notification quickly disappears.

Odd quirk, but probably not a bug – just a design choice (I would say it makes sense to remove them from the notification centre, perhaps not the lock screen) and Apple should probably hide it before the screen turns in to avoid the confusion of seeing something for a split second.

Size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts

Apple seems to be getting a lot of bad press recently because of their refusal to release a larger iPhone. That and the fact that iOS is apparently getting 'stale' because hasn't changed much since its release in 2007.
I completely disagree with this criticisms – and here's why: Firstly, when it comes to a phone, I don't believe bigger is better. What matters to me is the portability of the device, coupled with software which is of a high standard and turns this 'black mirror' into something useful. If anything, quality and resolution of the screen matters far more than the dimensions.
When people start talking up screen sizes, it reminds me of the TV market, where people routinely buy the biggest screen they can get for their money, even if it means the screen will disproportionately intrude into their living room. There hasn't been much innovation in TVs in the past 6 years, we've seen half-hearded attempts at 'app' ecosystems, but ultimately people just want to sit passively and watch stuff, not mess about with apps. Since the iPhone was released in 2007, introducing multitouch, inertia scrolling and a touch screen that didn't need a stylus, we haven't seen any other big changes in paradigm. The iPhone 4 got a super high resolution screen that made reading text all the more pleasurable. Apart from that, in terms of hardware at least, we've gotten thinner, lighter and faster and that's all.
With phones, the quality of the apps and ease of use is what makes the difference – not the size of the thing. Price also plays a part – a big part. Having used Android for the past 18 months (HTC Desire S, and a Nexus 7) I can't help but be drawn back to iOS, purely because th software is so much better.
 

 

My wish list for iOS 6

iOS delivered when it removed the need to synchronise with iTunes, and incorporated cloud backup right into the device. But what is still missing?

 

iTunes Account Sharing

Yes the bosses at Hollywood and the big music companies will hate this idea, but we humans like to share. Who knows what evaluation might have thrown up if we had been purely selfish creatures. That means when my partner downloads a TV show on her iPad, it would be quite nice if we could watch it on my iPad without jumping through hoops. How about a feature to link up to 5 iTunes accounts, so they can all download each others purchases? It would be one more argument for buying DRM protected content as opposed to downloading it for free from other unofficial sources.

Automatic App Updates

More ‘normal’ users don’t religiously check the App Store for updates, so having an Android-like feature whe selected apps can update automatically would be useful. This would need to be user-controlled, as some apps makers have a tendency to make their apps worse over time instead of improving them.

Standard platform for magazine/newspaper content

Digital newspapers and magazines are a mess. Most are custom apps that contain a series of digital images. There’s no ability to email links, lookup words or save out articles. What iOS needs is a standard system for newspapers (and a lesser extent magazines) – that offers a consistent way to navigate articles. When you pickup a newspaper, you expect it to work like every other newspaper. That’s not the case on the iPad. App makers might say this limits their creativity, but I think the egos of software developers can take the hit, and that the written content should take centre stage. It would surey be cheaper to produce for a system like this where all the publisher needs to worry about is the content and not the cogs and wheels that drive the app.

Less Clutter

iOS 5 seems a little bloated in placed. Cick the action button in Safari and the options no longer fit in on one screen on the iPhone. Where we once had ‘Add Bookmark’, ‘Add to home screen’ and ‘Mail link to this page’ we have now options to Tweet, Print and do even more. This is systematic of the OS in many places.

 

System wide sharing to other apps

Instead of a ‘Tweet’ link hard-coded into the operating system, why not have a share system simular to Android. The UI would need some work and the ‘intent’ be more specific that Android (on my Androird phone, sharing a link brings me a list containing Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox and a File Explorer app, why would I want to send Dropbox a URL?) – perhaps a way for apps to register as social applications ?

 

Scheduled Notifications

I like the fact my iPad has push email. I don’t like the fact it notifies me of new email at 2 in the morning. ‘Nuff said?

 

5 Must have mobile apps for Android

I thought I’d share with you some of the apps I use most often on my phone (a HTC desire S). Here are a few links to some “must have” apps (non-games).

Audible

I enjoy listening to Audiobooks while at the gym or driving, and this app makes it so easy. You can download any books you’ve purchased from Audible and the 30s rewind button and sleep timer are excellent additions. The ability to bookmark is also nice. Being owned by Amazon, I’m surprised your position and bookmarks are not backed up to the cloud (as they are when reading a book using the Kindle app) – so this means when I launch the app on my iPad I’m not in sync. Great app and great service.

Call Filter

I don’t like answering calls from anonymous callers – it’s usually someone trying to sell me something I don’t want. This handy little app silently sends anonymous incoming calls to voicemail, meaning anyone who does actually want to contact you can still leave a message for you to call back.

Dropbox

A while back I blogged about a rather convoluted way to mimic the excellent Photo Stream feature found on iOS on Android. That just got much easier thanks to the latest update to Dropbox which can now automatically synchronise photos and videos to your Dropbox account. No more plugging in your USB cable to download all your photos, and if you loose/wipe your phone your precious memories are safe.

IM+ Pro

A great chat application that lets me sign into MSN Messenger, Google Talk and Facebook all at once. The app cleverly maintains your sessions on their servers, and uses a highly efficient Push connection to keep you connected – meaning you can be signed into all your accounts and your battery won’t even notice. (Also well worth getting for iPad)

Dogcatcher

I love podcasts, and Dogcatcher is a great player for Android. I wouldn’t say it has the nicest User Experience I’ve ever seen, but functionality it has everything I could ask for from a mobile podcast player – including automatic downloading of new episodes (you can specify WiFi or Plugged in only). iPhone users should checkout Podcaster which provides similar functionality.

 

Hope you find this useful, let me know if you have any favourites.

When you buy software, how long should it reasonably continue to work for?

Electronic Arts have decided to discontinue some of their earlier Xbox 360 games, meaning players will no longer be able to play online. With the 360 still selling exceptionally well, the fact that games publishers are deprecating some of its older games must be worrying news for console owners. To think I can still play Team Fortress Classic, purchased in March 2000 to this day on my Windows 7 laptop –  this amazing feat however is  because the servers are not run by one company. Lesson learnt?

No, I don’t want to update!

Automatic updates aren’t always a good thing.

Software updates. We all all love them don’t we? Unlike any other industry I can think of, users of software expect to get updates on a regular basis. When Microsoft included Windows Update with Windows 98 it hailed a new era of self-updating software. But what happens when you are forced to update software? Microsoft has always been pretty conservative when it comes to forcing users to install updates, prompting, prompting again, and providing administrators with means of delaying updates (much to the dismay of web developers, as many institutions are still using IE6, which is 9 years old) while Google on the other hand takes the opposite approach with its web browser, Chrome that updates itself so quietly you’d never notice. This is fine with me, as Google have continued to add features and make the browser better and faster.

So what happens when (as seems to happen with all software) the browser starts to get a bit bloated and therefore needs a beefier machine to run on? Will I be so pleased when my browser suddenly takes longer to start up? Of course two things redeem Google here, firstly I would be free to downgrade and turn off automatic updates, and secondly they give it away for free, so it’s not as if would have lost anything, except perhaps the time investment spent learning and configuring the browser (which rules by the way, I used it on all my PCs and can’t recommend it highly enough)

I want my money back

When you pay for a piece of software, the publisher changes it considerably to its detriment, and then forces the update upon you then I have a problem. This was the case with Team Fortress 2. What started out as a fun, well balanced, class-based classic game of Red vs. Blue has slowly morphed into a terrible, badly balanced game of class-based luck that has more in common with Monopoly than its excellent predecessor Team Fortress Classic. Class upgrades and in game purchases are not what I originally bought into and it’s certainly not how the game was sold to me when I paid for it almost 3 years ago. Yet here I am 3 years later unable to play the game I originally purchased because that game no longer exists. Instead I have a considerably different game where they expect you to pay extra to get the best weapons. Can you imagine if your TV manufacture insisted you upgrade to a 3D TV and then burdened you with paying extra for silly 3D glasses you’d have to wear for the rest of your TV viewing years? Maybe there is an analogy here with the switch-off of analogue TV or when motorists were forced to stop using lead based petrol – but these were in the interests of the public good, and the decisions were no doubt made after lots of discussion by elected members of government.

I am struggling to think of any instances of when this sort of forced update would be acceptable. Security patches are a different matter, because they rarely take away features.and so I fully support them. Of course when the updates are actually good, then I don’t mind (TFC for example gained teleporters midway through its life) – but one person’s great new feature could just as easily ruin the game for someone else. There is no easy solution, I’m sure Value would argue it’s impossible to support each version ever released and still have people playing against each other. Had they released a whole new game called Team Fortress 3, then people would accused them of cashing in like they did when Left 4 Dead 2 was released.

So no easy answers, but as cloud computing becomes more commonplace in business I don’t see this problem going away.

Podcast Tool 1.2

I have updated Podcast Tool – a lightweight program for managing podcast subscriptions. The major new feature is it now includes playback functionality. I have also made many optimisations, so working with shows that have hundreds of episodes no longer causes a slowdown. The reason for adding playback functionality is so I can keep track of the playback position, meaning you can pause a podcast, close the program and when you come back to it, Podcast Tool will resume from where you left off.

Main Screen

main window

Shows are listed along the left side of the screen, with individual episodes on the right.

Download Manager

download window

Download Podcast Tool (freeware)

The application bandwagon?

A couple of years ago I remember reading in the technology press about how desktop software was dead, and that the web was the future. Skip forward to today and I still hear the same thing, only with the word ‘web’ replaced with ‘cloud’ – cloud being a buzzword, simply meaning some server, somewhere.

I liked that promise, in a world where Microsoft Outlook takes about 10 times longer than the combination of Google Chrome and Gmail to load, web based software certainly seems to me to be the future. So I was surprised today when I discovered that the BBC is launching some new pieces of client software for mobile phones. These days, all the major web sites have their own ‘app’ – The Guardian, RadioTimes, WordPress, even the White House to name just a few examples – yet nearly all of those apps could work just fine in the web browser. Does this mean the web application is dead? I pondered this, and came to the conclusion that no, web apps aren’t dead. The fact that The Guardian and The Whitehouse haven’t released an application for Windows or MacOSX tells me that this is just a mobile thing, and that installable applications are perhaps easier to use than web sites, with their caching, gestures and smooth animations. The BBC’s applications will feature high-quality flash, something Apple don’t allow inside the iPhone’s web browser so that’s probably their reasoning. Installable applications (on the iPhone in particular) create a desktop presence, you can bet that people who’ve installed The Guardian’s app visit The Guardian more often that those who have a bookmark buried away somewhere, or type the address manually, so there is added benefit to the content provider. Of course, as the Windows Quick Launch area taught us, too much branding on the desktop can get annoying, so maybe it is a fad after all, and we’ll all be using web based mobile apps in 2 years time?

Is that client software? Google cleverly pretends to install client-side software, when it is in fact, just a web application.

Announcing Podcast Tool

I download a lot of podcasts. I use iTunes to manage them on my “junk PC” (the one I install the rubbish, but necessary software like Real Player and iTunes, for syncing iPods etc).

However on my laptop I don’t want to be installing iTunes, and a quick search on Google left me thinking there weren’t many lightweight solutions out there for just subscribing to podcasts. Sure a general RSS reader would keep me up to date, but it wouldn’t download the files.
I decided to write my own bit of software, which I’ve aptly named “Podcast Tool”. It basically lets you subscribe to, and download podcasts, remembering which podcasts you’ve listened to. I’m putting it up here for anyone to test and give feedback.

Podcast Tool Main Screen

If you too download a lot of podcasts, then please give it a test.