Tag Archives: mobile

Living with the LG Arena

Thanks to the nice people over at LG, I’ve had the opportunity to play around with one of their devices for the past month – the LG Arena KM900. Let’s get the next bit out of the way straight off the bat…

Disclaimer: LG solicited my feedback on their products and provided me with a free phone for evaluation for one month.

Right, that piece is done 😉

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Bearing in mind that before the iPhone, my previous mobile phone was a pretty old Sony Ericsson T6xx, this was quite a change from the mobile phones I’d handled in the past. Of course, the flipside of that is that I’ve now been using an iPhone 3G and 3GS for more than a year, so the Arena had to cope with many of my prejudices formed on the basis of familiarity of how a touchscreen phone “should” (or, at least, could) work. I wanted to give it a fair chance, though, so I chose to ditch my BlackBerry Pearl 8100 for the period I had the Arena – frankly, not a hard choice, as I’m no fan of the BlackBerry UI, which I’m convinced was designed by someone who hates other people.

The out-of-the-box impression was certainly pretty good. It’s a sleek, shiny, device which feels well-made with a brushed metal and glass front. It’s got a great feature set, too – 5.0MP camera which also records video, Dolby Mobile audio, front and rear-facing cameras, wifi, bluetooth, Java, an FM transmitter, multiformat video playback including DIVX, 3G video calling… the list really goes on. It also has quite an interesting 3D user interface where the screen rotates around a virtual cube as you swipe left and right through the menus. So it scores highly on both the prettiness/style and the features. It’s lighter and smaller than the iPhone, too.

I’ll be honest… I had a mixed experience with with LG Arena. I think it could be a great consumer phone, if you take a step back and forget that the iPhone exists. The camera is great (and has a flash), and the video quality and playback were more than acceptable – very good, actually. I confess I didn’t try the music player much – I guess such things are becoming pretty commoditised and it seemed to be fairly standard. This was the first phone I’ve had with a front-facing camera for video calls, which was a nice feature – but I don’t know anyone who has a video call-capable phone or who uses that, so it was somewhat redundant. The range of stuff available on this handset is great, though. Email and web browsing, check and check… although the browser interface was a little finickity at times.

I had a few issues, the first being, sadly, the screen. Touchscreens are becoming de rigeur and this one looks good… until you try to view it in strong daylight, when the fact that it is highly reflective becomes a huge problem. Plus, it collects fingerprints like crazy. I also found that it wasn’t as responsive as other screens I’ve used, and some aspects of the UI were frustrating (swiping through menu options left-to-right, as well as through lists up and down, for instance). It looks stylish, but it’s not the best experience I’ve had. It does offer a level of haptic feedback, which I switched off straight away – by default, when you touch the screen it buzzes to simulate the experience of having been touched, but in practical terms I found this somewhat annoying.

The next drawback is fairly minor, as it’s mostly a business issue. I wasn’t able to use this on an office network, as the wireless didn’t support either 802.1x certificates or LEAP – disappointing, but not a core feature in a consumer model, I’ll accept. However, there was another problem with the way in which the wireless and networking support worked… it has a fairly complex set of profiles which (I think) are supposed to help to decide which type of network to use at which time, and I found that it kept prompting me to use wifi or GPRS rather than just defaulting to the faster option, which did drive me nuts from time-to-time.

The final complaint I have relates to probably the biggest emerging area in the mobile market… Applications. In theory, this is a Java / J2ME capable device. So, I merrily installed a series of applications, none of which were really suited to the touchscreen, and all of which looked very plain. An SDK is available, but I found it was poorly documented. There’s no centralised way of getting hold of apps, either. LG have a couple of downloadable “widgets” on their website, but having downloaded them to a PC I couldn’t find a way of installing them. All-in-all I felt it was a device that is highly capable, but crying out for an easier way to extend functionality.

Thank you, LG, for giving me the opportunity to take a look. I think it’s a nice handset, got a great combination of hardware features, a nice looking UI – but, in my opinion (and I’ll readily admit I’m an uber-fan of one of the competitors here), it’s let down by the “small touches” and by the software.

Keypoint – web slideshows for the iPhone

Ever wanted to build a slideshow on your iPhone?

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Well, Keypoint is a webapp, so it means I can’t sit here on my flight into Dallas this afternoon and build a presentation… besides, I have Keynote on the Mac to do that. But if I didn’t have the laptop with me, and I had access to a network, then I’d definitely play around with Keypoint. Open Safari on your iPhone and navigate to http://keypointapp.com so give it a try.

Keypoint is a beautiful, simple application that just works. You sign up on the site, and from then on the user interface is delightfully simple. You can choose from one of a limited number of templates and themes, and then quickly add text to your slides (not great for those into picture-heavy slideshows like me, I’ll admit… but great if you want to quickly summarise a series of points). You can play the slideshow by rotating the iPhone and swiping through them – no animation effects, but that’s not a big issue.

The best part is that you can share your slideshow online by sending an email to friends with a link showing where to find it so they can flip through an HTML slideshow… or, you can export it as a Keynote file and email yourself a copy! It lacks the richness of an ordinary Keynote presentation, of course… but the very fact that you can do this is just stunning to me.

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Here’s a very simple demo I recorded using the iPhone Simulator and iShowU:

TwtrCtr – Tracking Twitter followers with an iPhone

twtrctr logo I’ve already mentioned this on Twitter, but so far I haven’t had a chance to write about the culmination of my first “proper” efforts to create a mashup: TwtrCtr.

For those not obsessed with Twitter or their follower numbers, there’s an application you probably haven’t heard of called TwitterCounter. The site provides tools, graphs and APIs for charting the growth of a user’s Twitter followers. It’s interesting, and if you’re slightly obsessive about figures and have a belief that such things “matter”, then you might already spend time checking it and looking at the pretty graphs. It also provides an element of “prediction” based on historical growth trends, and does cool things like allowing users to compare themselves to others and watch the graphs intersect or overlap.

twittercounter website There’s just one issue – although it looks great on the desktop, the site isn’t laid out very well for mobile browsers like Mobile Safari on the iPhone. It also uses a Flash component to display the graph, and since there’s currently no Flash on the iPhone, you get a big blank box in the middle of the screen.

The nice part is that TwitterCounter has a simple REST API which enables a developer to get the raw data about a user’s follower numbers. If you use Twitter clients like Tweetdeck, then you’ll see this in action.

Based on my previous experience of using the iWebkit framework to build an iPhone-optimised web wrapper for the data from my Current Cost meter, I thought it might be interesting to play around with using iWebkit to display the TwitterCounter stats.

iWebkit is a simple HTML framework which provides a set of CSS classes to make your web pages look like native iPhone apps. There are other frameworks out there like iUI and webapp.net, but they depend a lot more on knowledge of AJAX and some more advanced / dynamic coding, whereas iWebkit is all about simplicity – if you know your HTML basics, it is pretty straightforward. As it happens, you can extend it very easily as well – in my case, I combined it with some PHP functions which call out to TwitterCounter and echo the numbers into a table on a web page.

Although I worked with PHP a lot a few years ago, I hadn’t really done much with the language recently. The first thing I did was to create a simple piece of code to call the TwitterCounter API and get back the data for a specific user; and then I displayed it in a web page. Once I’d done that, it was pretty easy to get the whole thing wrapped into two pages of iWebkit template code, and style it all appropriately.

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Revision one of the interface and app ran off my home server, and didn’t look fantastic. My initial thought for a name was “TwitterCounter nano”, but I changed it after realising that it didn’t fit so well as a name on the iPhone home screen 🙂

In the screenshot on the left, you’ll also see that the first form I came up with was far from “iPhone native-looking”… the current version of iWebkit didn’t have form CSS classes, so I had to tweak things a little. I also found it was worth digging into the Apple Web Development Guidelines for the iPhone, which gave some hints about how to make some iPhone-specific tweaks like turning off auto-capitalisation for the text entry box (since most usernames are all in lowercase), and how to add a text hint, for example.

twtrctr mark 2 So, the second iteration of the UI looks a lot nicer. It’s also possible to hit the bookmark button in Safari and add the app as a shortcut on the iPhone home screen… (see the icon at the top of the post)… if you do that, and launch TwtrCtr from there, it will act as a full-screen iPhone app with no Safari controls, giving a much more native experience. The user can then navigate by using the controls in the header bar rather than the forward and back buttons provided by the browser.

I added an FAQ page, too, so if you want to know more about the app you can check that out directly on the site. In these days of heightened concern about Twitter security I also thought it would be a good idea to add a note on the front screen to point out that it doesn’t ask for anything more than a username, and it doesn’t log that anywhere, it just passes it on to the TwitterCounter API.

twtrctr display OK, that was a rather long explanation of the evolution of the first page! The important part is actually how the data is displayed. Once you’ve entered a valid Twitter username and hit “Get User Stats”, you get a single-page representation  of the TwitterCounter data for the given user.

The top 2 or three rows are links which will open the user’s profile page, homepage/URL (if one is set… otherwise that row doesn’t display), or display a simple graph / chart which is generated by the Google Chart API. The latter is something high on my list of enhancements, because it looks a little dull at the moment; also, I’m generating the Google Charts URL myself rather than using one of the PHP wrappers to the API, which would probably be a lot simpler.

Don’t look too closely for the rough edges… right now, it doesn’t actually make any effort deal with cases where a user doesn’t exist, or TwitterCounter or Twitter is down…. I know about those small issues 🙂

In a nutshell, then – that’s all it is. A mashup which allowed me to explore a bit more iPhone-specific web development, some PHP / REST / XML coding, and a bit of Google Charts stuff as well. I have to say that the TwitterCounter folks (Boris and Arjen in particular) have been brilliant and very helpful and supportive, despite their app having an issue with the Twitter API while I was in the middle of developing this mashup on top of their API! iWebkit is a lot of fun to play with, and very simple as well – I know the developers are working hard to add new features into that framework whilst keeping it simple and aiming it at “non-techies”.

Oh, and incidentally, although the stylesheets make it look like an iPhone app, it should work perfectly well in any desktop or mobile browser – it’s plain old HTML.

I’m not making any claims about how this might develop in the future, but I’ve got a couple of ideas for tweaks that I might make. In the meantime, if you’re an iPhone (or other mobile device) Twitter user, do take a look at http://andypiper.tv/twtrctr and see how it works for you. Let me know what you think, or any ideas for additions you might find useful! Feel free to follow me on Twitter and @ your suggestions and comments to me, too.

Update: TwtrCtr is now linked directly from the TwitterCounter home page! Follow the iPhone link in the page footer! 🙂

iPhone (and mobile) web interfaces

In the past week a couple of Yahoo! properties – delicious and Flickr – have both released new mobile / iPhone-optimised user interfaces. There’s a striking difference between them… The Flickr one seems very functional, fast and rich while the just-launched delicious one is pretty stripped down and basic.

In the meantime I’ve been looking at hacking around with iPhone web UIs for my own little projects – there seem to be 2 major “toolkits” to make this easier and look more native, iUI and iWebkit. The experiments are ongoing, but maybe a well thought-out mobile design in the Flickr mould is a better way to go.