Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: iphone (page 1 of 2)

Phone report

Gwen and I decided to update to the new iPhone 5, and along with that, I decided to switch carriers to Verizon. We’d previously been with AT&T, and Verizon was the one service that neither one of us had ever tried.

AT&T has notoriously bad service in San Francisco and New York from what I understand, but I had never had any trouble with them in Austin—except when there’s a big event in town that brings an influx of tens of thousands of visitors (and they’ve actually gotten pretty good about dealing with that). They do have lousy service out in the sticks—when I was riding the Southern Tier, I went a couple of days at a time without a signal. Verizon has better coverage in remote areas, including the site where Flipside is held, and now that I’m on the LLC, it will be more important for people to be able to reach me easily out there.

But so far, Verizon in Austin is not so great. I had no signal at all when I was inside Breed & Co on 29th St the other day. And Gwen had no data signal at Central Market on 38th St. And sound quality on voice calls seems to be worse than AT&T’s (this could be the phone itself, but I suspect it’s a voice codec issue). Usually, when I am getting a signal, it’s with LTE data, which is very fast. So there’s that.

And while I always felt that AT&T regarded me as an adversary, Verizon seems to regard me as a mark, which is even more galling than the poorer coverage. Immediately after signing up, I started getting promotional text-message spam from them. Apparently this can be disabled if you do the electronic equivalent of going into a sub-basement and shoving aside a filing cabinet marked “beware of the panther.” We also have those ARPU-enhancing “to leave a callback number…” messages tacked onto our outgoing voicemail greetings; some research showed that there are ways to disable this that vary depending on what state you live in (!), but none of them have worked for me so far. I’ve put in a help request. And every time I log into their website (mostly to put in help requests to deal with other annoying aspects of their service), they pop up some damn promotion that’s irrelevant to me. Like “get another line!”. Out of all the mobile carriers, the only one that I liked dealing with was T-mobile—but they’ve got the poorest coverage in Austin (I had to walk 2 blocks away from Gwen’s old place to get a signal), or anywhere else for that matter. As a friend who worked in the mobile-phone industry for years put it “They all suck.”

No complaints about the phones. I haven’t really tried out some of the new hardware features, like Bluetooth 4.0. The processor is much faster. The screen is noticeably better than on the iPhone 4, in addition to being bigger. People bitch about Apple’s Maps app. In Austin, I haven’t had any trouble with it, and in any case, Maps+ is available to give you that Google Maps feeling (in Iceland, I found that neither Apple Maps nor Google Maps had a level of granularity down to the street address—the best they could do was find the street).

Thoughts on an iPhone app for bike touring

I’ve played around with a number of iPhone apps for cyclists. None of the ones I’ve looked at are really optimized for bike touring—instead, they’re mostly oriented towards fitness cycling, which has somewhat different goals.

An iPhone app for bike touring would need to overcome the problem of battery life and fulfill three main tasks. Battery life isn’t as big a problem as it is generally made out to be, but even in a best-case scenario, it would be difficult to get a solid 24 hours of use out on a single charge when using the iPhone as a bike computer for a big part of the day.

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iPhone, Google apps for your domain, and Google “my maps”

I’m documenting this publicly just in case anyone ever runs across the same problem I’ve been having.

I occasionally plot out routes on Google Maps and save them under My Maps. Curiously, there is no convenient way to get My Maps onto my iPhone. This leads to the slightly ridiculous situation where I would need to print out maps to bring with me.

Google Earth for the iPhone purportedly will access My Maps, but I couldn’t get that to work, because I sign into Google through Google Apps for Your Domain; there’s a web-based sign-in inside Google Earth, and when I attempted to sign in through the GAfYD (launched through the Google Search app, which otherwise works great), it would throw an error.

I have discovered if I log into Google Earth through the non-GAfYD interface, using my full e-mail address and the usual password, it works.

From what I understand, there’s only a limited ability to show personal maps in in the Maps app on the iPhone, and this can only be done via some hackery. Google Earth seems like the best option for accessing personal maps.

Thoughts on bandwidth

In The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash, Charlie Stross wrote an analysis of Apple’s recent moves, and where he thinks Apple is headed (oddly, he never quite says what “the real reason” is). He’s looking 5–10 years down the line. I’m thinking about the next 1–5 years, and how (or if) we might get to the future that Stross envisions.
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Survey of iPhone bike-computer apps

I’ve written before about the iPhone’s potential and drawbacks as a bike computer. And there are a lot of bike-computer apps available for it right now. Let’s take a look at them.

I’ve gone on a bit of a kick lately and tried out four different ones. There are one or two others that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I hope to eventually, and will report on them in this space when I do.

Executive summary: Rubitrack for iPhone and Cyclemeter are clearly oriented towards performance cyclists; right now I’d give the nod to Cyclemeter. GPSies seems almost like a toy, but might be of use to hikers. Motion-X is for GPS otaku.

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Pulldock

The “unofficial Apple weblog” had a post calling on readers to submit their wishlist for future iPhone OS features, which got me to thinking.

Multitasking is an obvious shortcoming on the iPhone right now. Multitasking is possible: some of Apple’s own apps run in the background, and there are jailbreak apps that allow apps to run in the background and for the user to switch between running apps. But Apple does not allow app-store apps to run in the background at all, presumably because of performance and battery-life problems.

I believe that multitasking on the iPhone can be broken down into two functional categories: apps that you want to run persistently in the background, and what I’m calling “interruptors”: brief tasks that only take a few seconds to complete, and where you don’t want to break out of your current app. I’m concerning myself with the latter case here.

A jailbreak Twitter app, qTweeter, has the kernel of an approach to presenting these interruptors: it pulls down from the top of the screen like a windowshade, and is accessible any time.

This approach could be generalized to present multiple apps in what I’m calling a pulldock. There could be one pulldock that pulls down from the top, another that pulls up from the bottom, to present up to eight interruptors.

I envision these interruptors being stripped-down interfaces to existing apps or services, such as twittering or text messaging, that would appear in some kind of HUD-like view superimposed over the running app. Interruptors should be lightweight enough that they wouldn’t overburden the phone. I can also imagine new ways of passing information between a regular app and an interruptor—such as launching a camera interruptor while in the mail app as a way to take a photo and insert it into a mail message, which would save a few steps.

Here’s a screencast:

Yeah, there’s a lot of “umms” and sniffing in there. It’s the first screencast I’ve ever done. The visuals were done in Keynote using the template from Mockapp.

Mobile Hub

Years ago, Apple promoted the Mac as a “digital hub” for media. Today we take for granted that computers can be used as hubs for media.

Two of the numerous points covered in Apple’s recent demo of version 3.0 of the iPhone OS was that Apple was finally giving developers access to the port, as well as unblocking bluetooth. These points have largely gone unremarked, but in the long run, I suspect they’ll be especially significant. I think Apple is positioning the iPhone to be a mobile hub.

Right now, the iPhone/iPod Touch has a sharper display, more processing power, and better input affordances than many of the gadgets that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I predict that some manufacturers will take note of this and start producing headless products that will only work with an iPhone snapped onto the front to take care of these functions and/or provide new functions. This could be a nice moneyspinner for Apple, because of their “iPod tax” on products marked as compatible, and because it would make the iPhone that much more appealing, thus increasing demand for it. It could also be a profitable niche for manufacturers to exploit, since they could sell a product that is more functional than conventional equivalents but cheaper to build.

For example:

  • Car stereos: A car stereo with no faceplate, but simply a bracket and plug for an iPhone strikes me as the most obvious category. Many aftermarket car stereos already have detachable faceplates anyhow, and this would be a logical extension of that idea. Giving direct access to music on the phone would be the obvious benefit, but it would allow tidier integration of phone functions into the car, and add navigation as a lagniappe. A custom app might give simplified access to phone, nav, and music, and perhaps would have a radio controller that communicated with an actual radio in the car stereo over the port.
  • Bike computers: There are already a number of interesting apps that can use the GPS chip on the iPhone to track performance and routes over a bike ride, but these are hampered by some of the phone’s limitations. One is that there’s no way to continue logging GPS data when the app is not running, for example, when answering a call. I’m not sure if 3.0 will change that. (A friend who works at Apple suggests it will, but I’m skeptical. All that would really be needed would be a simple background daemon that logged GPS data at regular intervals, allowing the actual app to pick up where it left off.) Apart from that, a bike-mounted cradle for the phone would permit wheel and heart-rate monitor data to be fed into the phone through the jack and could provide extra battery power to the phone—so far, the only way to get heart-rate monitor data into the phone has been through a specialized product that uses wifi. This is a clever hack, but bluetooth or some kind of low-power radio communicating with the cradle would be more appropriate.
  • Cameras: I’m not the first person to observe that serious cameras could use an interface more like an iPhone’s. Snapping an iPhone directly onto a camera back would be ungainly, but tethering it over a wire could make a lot of sense, making it a tool for managing captured photos, backing them up, appending metadata (including GPS), and transmitting them.
  • Trackpads: Again, there is already an app for the iPhone that allow it to function as a trackpad (or as a tenkey input, etc), but again, these work over wifi. Apple has done a lot to make the trackpad on laptops not only a tolerable alternative to the mouse but in many ways a superior one. I can imagine a keyboard with a snap-in slot for the iPhone that turns it into a trackpad, giving those advantages to people using desktops.

What is not clear so far is whether a new port connection can trigger an app on the iPhone. This would be helpful—if not necessary—to create a seamless experience. Ideally one would simply snap one’s phone onto one’s car stereo in order to put it into car-stereo mode—the phone would recognize what it was connected to, and an application would have been registered to automatically launch when that connection is made.

Later: Looks like I’m not the only person to think about this. See iPhone 3.0 As the Accessory to …? and PC 1.0, iPhone 3.0 and the Woz: Everything Old is New Again

iTunes overload

Media types in the iTunes library iTunes is overloaded.

iTunes first came out in 2001. At the time, you could use it to rip CDs, burn CDs, play ripped files, and organize those files. You could also use it to copy files to an MP3 player (the iPod didn’t exist at that time).

The personal computing landscape has changed a lot since then, and so has iTunes. It’s being called on to do a lot more.

I’ve said before that the Mac works best when you “drink Apple’s kool-aid,” that is, organize your contacts in Apple’s address book, your appointments in iCal, etc, because these apps act as a front-end to databases that other apps can easily tap into. The same goes for iTunes: Apple nudges you into using it to organize not only your music, but also your video files, and the iTunes database becomes almost like a parallel file system for media files. iPhoto is the manager for, well, photos.

When I first got an iPod a couple years ago, it seemed a bit odd that I could sync my contacts and calendars to it—through iTunes. While it makes sense to manage one’s iPod through iTunes, there was already a subliminal itch of cognitive dissonance.

With the iPhone, that cognitive dissonance is breaking out into a visible rash. The media types that it manages now includes applications for the iPhone. iPhoto is the mechanism for selecting photos to copy to the iPhone, and either it or Image Capture is used to download photos taken with the iPhone’s camera. Curiously, there’s no way to get photos off the iPhone within iTunes; this feels like an oversight, or perhaps someone in Apple was feeling a bit of that itch as well, and felt unwilling to load up iTunes with another function even further from its central purpose.

While I’m not aware of any yet, at some point there will be apps from independent developers that need to exchange files between the desktop and the iPhone other than those handled by iTunes—it’s easy to imagine word-processing files, PDFs, presentation decks, etc, being copied back and forth. It’s not clear how that will happen. It could all happen via the Internet, although that would be indirect both physically and in terms of the user’s experience. For large files, it would be annoying, and for people without unlimited-data plans, potentially expensive. Apple does offer programmers a bundle of functions called “sync services,” but this requires the desktop application be written to support syncing in the first place. For a lot of the file transfers I envision, syncing wouldn’t be the appropriate mechanism. There’s not even a way to get plain text files from Apple’s own Notes app off the iPhone. It’s widely speculated that cut and paste are absent from the iPhone because Apple hasn’t figured out a good interface for it. I suspect it’s the same thing here: they haven’t figured out a good, general mechanism for moving files between iPhone and desktop.

At some point, Apple is going to have to re-think the division of labor in its marquee apps, to separate organizing files from manipulating or playing them.

Japanese input on the iPhone

I don’t expect to do a lot of Japanese text entry on my iPhone, but I’m glad that I have the option, and I’ve been enjoying playing around with that feature.

Any Japanese text-entry function is necessarily more complex than an English one. In English, we pretty much have a one-to-one mapping between the key struck and the letter produced. Occasionally we need to insert åçcéñted characters, but the additional work is minimal. In Japanese, the most common method of input on computers is to type phonetically on a QWERTY keyboard, which produces syllabic characters (hiragana) on-screen—type k-u to get the kana く, which is pronounced ku; after you’ve typed in a phrase or sentence, you hit the “convert” key (normally the space bar), and software guesses what kanji you might want to use, based on straight dictionary equivalents, your historical input, and some grammar parsing. So for the Japanese for “International,” you would type k-o-k-u-s-a-i; initially this would appear on-screen as こくさい, and then after hitting the convert key, you would see 国際 as an option. Now, that’s not the only word in Japanese with that pronunciation—the word for “government bond” sounds exactly the same and would be typed the same on a keyboard. To access that, you’d go through the same process, and after 国際 appeared on-screen, you’d hit the convert key again to get its next guess, which would be 国債, the correct pair of kanji. Sometimes there will be more candidates, in which case a floating menu will appear on-screen.

The first exposure most English speakers have had to the problem of producing more characters than your input device has keys has come with cellphones. T9 input on keypad is a good analogue to Japanese input on QWERTY: you type keys that each represent three letters, and when you hit the space key, T9 looks up the words you might have meant, showing a floating menu.

The iPhone, of course, uses a virtual QWERTY keyboard for English input, which is pretty good, especially considering the lack of tactile feedback and tiny keys. It guesses what word you might be trying to type based on adjacent keys. It does not (as far as I can tell) give multiple options, and isn’t very aggressive about suggesting finished words based on incomplete words. For English, at least, I’m guessing Apple decided that multiple candidates for a given input are too confusing. In general, the trend for heavy English text input on mobile devices seems to be towards small QWERTY keyboards, despite the facility some people have with T9. I’m wondering how many people are put off by the multiple-candidate aspect of T9, and if that’s why Apple omitted that aspect, or if it’s simply that not enough English-speakers are accustomed to dealing with multiple candidates.

Japanese input on the iPhone is different. It is aggressive about suggesting complete words and phrases. It does show multiple options (which is necessary in Japanese, and which Japanese users are accustomed to). In fact, it suggests kanji-converted phrases based on incomplete, incorrect kana input. Here’s an example based on the above:

iphone Japanese input sample - 1

Here, I typed k-o-k-u-a-a-i (note the intentional typo), which appears as こくああい. It shows a bunch of candidates, including the corrected and converted 国際, a logical alternative 国内, and some much longer ones, like 国際通貨基金—the International Monetary Fund. Since it has more candidates than it has room to display, it shows a little → which takes you to an expanded candidates screen. Just for grins, I will accept 国際通貨基金 as my preferred candidate. Here’s another neat predictive trick: immediately after I select that candidate, it shows sentence-particle candidates like に が, etc.

iphone Japanese input sample - 2

Let’s follow that arrow and see what other options it shows:

iphone Japanese input sample - 3

I’m going to select を as my candidate. It immediately shows some verbs as candidates:

iphone Japanese input sample - 4

Here, 参ります is a verb I used previously, but 見 and 食べ are just common verbs—I’m guessing they’ve been weighted by the input function as likely for use in text messages (the phrase 国際通貨基金を食べ is somewhat unlikely in real life, unless you are Godzilla).

The iPhone also has an interesting kana-input mode, which uses an あかさたな grid with pie menus under each letter for the rest of the vowel-row. It looks like this:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 5

To enter an -a character, just tap it:

iPhone Japanese input sample

To enter a character from a different vowel-line, slide your finger in the appropriate direction on the pie-menu that appears and release:

iPhone Japanese input sample - 7

You can also get at characters from a different vowel-line using that hooked arrow, which iterates through them. I haven’t figured out what that forward arrow is for. It’s usually disabled, and only enabled momentarily after tapping in a new character. Tapping it doesn’t seem to have any effect.

This method offers the same error-forgiveness and predictive power as Japanese via QWERTY. I don’t find it to be faster than QWERTY though, but perhaps that’s just because I’m not used to it.

One thing I haven’t found is a way to edit the text-expansion dictionary directly. This would be very handy. I’m sure there are a few more tricks in store.

Also, a fun trick you can use on your Mac well as on an iPhone to get at special symbols: enter ゆーろ to get €. Same with ぽんど、やじるし、ゆうびん, etc.

Update Apparently the mysterious forward-arrow breaks you out of iterating through the options under one key, as explained here. Normally if you press あ あ, this would iterate through that vowel-line, and produce い. But if you actually want to produce ああ, you would type あ→あ (Thanks, Manako).

Obligatory iPhone rhapsodizing

The day after the iPhone 3G was released, I got one. So did Gwen. It’s very nice. I feel like I’ve entered the future. It’s not fair to compare it to any other cellphone I’ve ever used—the difference is almost as stark as the one between the Mac I’m typing this on and a vintage 1983 DOS computer. I played with a friend’s Palm phone recently, and that was perhaps on the order of Windows 3.1 by comparison. Others have spilled gallons of electrons writing about this thing, so I’ll just offer a few random observations.

Out of the box, it is the source of enough wonder and delight to keep you going for quite a while, but the big deal now is that there’s an official path for independent developers to put software on it, which multiplies its value. The fact that these apps will be able to tie into location data, the camera, the web, etc, suggests any number of interesting possibilities. More than any other gadget I’ve played with in a long time, the iPhone seems full of promise and potential—and not just through software. Having a nice screen, good interface, reasonably powerful processor, and interesting ancillary functions suggests all kinds of hardware hookups to me. Two that I would really like to see:

  1. A car stereo that uses the iPhone as its faceplate. I imagine a home-screen alternative with direct access to four functions: GPS, phone, music, and radio (controlling a radio built into the stereo via USB).
  2. A bike computer mount. With the right interfaces, an iPhone as a bike computer could do a lot of interesting things: capture location-data breadcrumbs, capture performance data (heart-rate monitor, power monitor, cadence), capture photos and voice memos for ride logs. This would be a boon to bike racers and tourists alike.

One of the glaring problems everyone mentions with the iPhone is the lack of cut-and-paste. This is a problem, but another one that sticks out for me is the lack of a keystroke expander. There’s already predictive text input built in, so this wouldn’t be a new feature–there just needs to be a front end to the predictive-text library so that users can set up explicit associations between phrases and triggers. If any developers out there is listening, I’ve got my credit card ready.

Here’s a little interface quirk with the iPhone: One of the few physical controls on the device is a volume rocker switch. When viewing Youtube videos (which are always presented in landscape view), the rocker is on the bottom, with down-volume to the right, up-volume to the left. Check out this screenshot of what happens when you change volume using the rocker switch:
iphone volume control screenshot
The volume HUD appears, showing a volume “thermometer” on the bottom. Here’s what’s quirky: as you press the left rocker, the thermometer advances towards the right, and vice versa. This is counter-intuitive. The obvious way to avoid this would be for Youtube videos to be presented 180° rotated from their current position (that is, with the rocker on top), but for whatever reason, they only appear in one orientation. This is an extremely minor issue, but it stands out when the interface generally shows great attention to detail and emphasis on natural interaction.

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