Tag Archives: iphone

Just for Fun

I’ve not done much programming in the last few years. When I first started working my job was mainly to “cut code” but I’ve done less and less as time has gone by. I now tend to concentrate on high level modelling and writing small utility scripts. I have not been doing much at home either, just minor tweaks to pre-existing software to “scratch an itch” or programs to automate tedious tasks.

For something that I claim to enjoy, why have I been doing so little of it? In short, it’s hard. Writing something useful that does not already exist is an increasingly challenging task. Even if the act is fun, what’s the point of making an inferior version of a pre-existing product?1

It hasn’t always been like that.

In the olden days it was possible for one person to write a whole, useful application alone. Steve Wozniak wrote the original Apple Basic before they licenced Microsoft’s version. Matthew Smith single-handedly wrote the classic game Jet Set Willy. Even I managed to write a database application for my GCSE in Computer Studies and a graphical adventure game on my Sinclair Spectrum that at least one friend was quite impressed with.

But by the end of the eighties, software was getting more sophisticated and typically required a team. Programmers, designers and “architects” were required to make commercial quality programs. The lone, enthusiast programmer was effectively squeezed out of the market.

Fast-forward ten years and a new generation of developers were given their opportunity. Early web applications could be quickly slung together using a few lines of Perl, a rudimentary understanding of HTML and a commodity PC running Linux. I guess if I’d attended Stanford I would have been a dotcom millionaire by now2 but here in the UK I missed the boat. Just like programs on home computers had done before, useful applications quickly got far too complex for one person to build alone.

And now here we are in 2008. A few months ago Apple released the SDK for the iPhone and the possibilities are there again. If you go to the App Store you’ll see that many of the available programs play Sudoku or are thin front-ends to web-apps like Twitter or Facebook. The more sophisticated games — such as Super Monkey Ball — have tended to be ports from other platforms and so while originally written by many people were ported by a much smaller number. Sure, many applications are tiny and frivolous or just plain poor, but the barrier to entry is much lower than it has been for quite some time.

Undoubtedly the complexity level will rise over time — probably fairly quickly — but until then programming is actually fun again. I am, indeed, writing an application for my iPhone and, who knows, I might actually have something to announce in a few weeks. Watch this space.

  1. I know that for many developers the challenge is enough. I’m awkward in that I also want to be useful. []
  2. I do have a t-shirt that says, “I got £80 million for my dot com idea but now all I have left is this lousy t-shirt.” []

WordPress for iPhone

When they first announced the App Store and the iPhone SDK I thought that a blogging tool might be something worth downloading. On the first day TypePad had their application but we had to wait until this week for the WordPress equivalent. On the plus side, WordPress for iPhone is both free and Open Source.

First impressions: it’s nice. Setting up a new blog is simple. Writing a new post is straightforward too, just press the “new” button, fill in the fields much as you would in the web interface and get typing. You can also add photos — either directly from the camera or from your photo library — but only to the end of your post.

So far so good.

I’ve found four real problems so far, mostly things outside the control of Automattic, the authors.

First is that I have not found a way to view drafts that have already been saved on the server. iPhone side drafts are visible — making it possible to work without cell tower reception — but I often have a dozen unfinished articles sitting on the server. I don’t want to write everything on the phone.

Secondly, if you use anything other than the standard picture uploader, you’re on your own. I usually use Photopress.

Next, I found that the “Preview” — useful feature incidentally — and “Photos” buttons at the bottom the screen occasionally go missing.

Finally, well, best to to by example. Go back to the start of this post and count the number of links.

Back? Presumably you found no links, not even to WordPress for iPhone itself. And that’s because there’s no way to get a URL from Safari into WordPress other than by remembering it or writing it down.

Of course, Apple failing to include cut and paste in their operating system is hardly Automattics fault.

Overall I like it. It’s failings are not great enough to put me off, especially considering the types of post I am most likely to write on the move. It’s certainly earnt a spot on my home screen.

Byline Bypass?

Earlier today daringfireball pointed me to Byline by Phantom Fish, a Google Reader client-side application for the iPhone.

Since I recently abandoned Safari’s built-in RSS reader for Google, this is just the kind of application that I have been looking for. Unlike a lot of programs I’ve found on the AppStore, Byline seems to be very well put together. The author appears to have included a thoughtful set of features. Not everything, just those elements you use every day; either a good starting point for later versions or an Apple-like approach depending on your perspective.

However, one thing worries me: Google have not released a publicly available API for Reader. Unless Phantom Fish have reached some deal with Google — and there’s nothing on their website to say that they have — then the only way that this application can work is if they reverse engineered the protocol1.

I’m confident that the interface works now, but what about tomorrow? The popular opinion is that Google are not happy with parts of the API and will publish the full version soon, but until the API is publicly available and stable there are no guarantees and it could change at any time.

Do you want to spend ?5.99 on an application that could be disabled at any time by a third party? As useful as it looks to be, I don’t want to start relying on an application with foundations as shaky as this.

  1. My first thought was that it was just a specialised RSS feed. However, the video shows support for the “Star” functionality and they say that it synchronises read status, etc. []

Error Mishandling

A common refrain is that computers are too complicated for ordinary people to use. Yet mostly when I see people sat with a notebook on their lap I don’t see frustration. The confusion tends to come when something doesn’t work as expected. Naturally bad design plays a big part in this but the biggest stumbling block comes when a dialog box like this pops up:

Mac Application Unexpectedly Quit

What is an average user to do when confronted with this? Everything after the first line is utter gobbledygook. Even to a software developer much of this is unintelligible — you’d need the source code to get much a clue about what’s going on and most vendors do not share.

So, if almost no-one has a chance of understanding this, why are users asked to make a choice? It’s bad enough that the application crashed but why force the user to make a decision about something they don’t understand?

Angels on a pin?

Worse, let’s remember that this is actually an improvement over what has come before. Remember the “Unrecoverable Application Error” in early versions of Windows?

I was therefore fascinated when I realised what my iPhone was doing. Initially I thought that the software was just very reliable, which was pretty naïve of me.

When an iPhone application crashes you just get returned to the home screen. No nasty error message with impenetrable text and confusing options; often you’re not even aware that anything bad has happened. Behind the scenes the crash is recorded and is reported back to Apple next to you sync with your computer.

iPhone Crash

It would be easy to conclude that “no error message” is the way to go, however the iPhone has a couple of other qualities that makes it work. Firstly the applications seem to save their state regularly, which means that even if there is a crash you rarely lose anything of significance. Contrast this with most PC application which tend to crash only when you have an hour of unsaved work. Secondly, while not automatic, relaunching the crashed application is almost instant.

The result of these three elements together is that users are not punished for finding defects in the software. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Where iPhone went wrong

There’s this feeling in the Mac community that you should avoid the first iteration of any new Apple product. Yet back at the beginning of this decade I went out and foolishly put £350 down on a first generation iPod. Sure, it looks clunky now. It’s bigger and lower capacity than the current revisions, has a monochrome screen and the scroll-wheel actually rotates. But for a version one product it was remarkably well rounded.

The same is kind of true of the first generation iPhone. Most complaints have been about missing features like GPS or 3G data. This side of the Atlantic there have been complains about the lack of MMS (which is pretty lame for such an expensive phone). But, for me, the only significant missing feature is a to-do list. Yes, I know I can use the Notes application, but will that sync with iCal? (No in case you didn’t know.)

In fact, Where I Think iPhone Went Wrong is probably not something that will make any list of bullet points on a Jobs Keynote. It’s pretty much a single use-case: one handed operation.

One of the things that really bugged me about Windows Mobile1 is that almost everything required the use of the stylus. Not only was the stylus small and easy to lose, it requires both hands to operate the phone. Not great when you’re trying to make a call while carrying a latte or juggling several items at the supermarket and calling your significant other for advice on which to purchase.

The iPhone is way better than Windows Mobile in this regard, but there are two areas where it doesn’t work quite so well:

  • Multi-touch. Clearly this is a key feature for Apple, and rightly so. The pinch gesture is unique as far as I know, intuitive and works well. But you need two hands! One to hold the phone, the second to swipe the screen. Let’s say you open a graphical email message. The sizing is all wrong of course and you need to zoom in. In addition to the pinch you can also double-tap. Except that’s quite tricky to do with your thumb and half the time you end up accidentally tapping a link and switching over to Safari. What I’d like to see is something like the Photos application. If you’re holding the machine vertically and a landscape image appears you simply rotate the handset. The same trick works with wide web-pages, but not mail messages. Pain.
  • Orientation awareness. This is kind of related. Why does Safari know which way you’re holding your phone but mail does not? Worse, except by experience, how can you know which applications support switching orientation and which do not? (You can’t.)

These probably sound like very small points but when everything else works so well they stand out. I don’t think this is really a fundamental problem. It’s just fit-and-finish, that final 10% of software development that takes 90% of the time.

I am hoping that Apple gets around to fixing it soon — I need this much more than the much-hyped and almost due “enterprise” functionality — but if not then the title of this post allows me two follow up posts entitled “Some More of iPhone’s Greatest Mistakes” and “Who is this iPhone Person Anyway?”2 I am looking forward to not having to write them.

  1. The version with the stylus is, I think, these days known as Windows Mobile Professional. There’s also a version for actual phones rather than PDAs with built in phones that works only using a key-pad. Maybe I chose the wrong WM device. []
  2. This is a reference to Oolon Colluphid‘s god-busting trilogy. []

My del.icio.us bookmarks for March 2nd through March 10th

  • Dear ISP, I am not a target market – "Some things should just not be for sale, no matter what assurances are on offer or who they come from. Regardless of how the data is acquired and processed, and despite the powerful ISP friends Phorm has made since the PeopleOnPage days, spyware is spywa
  • Happy now, bitches? – A fair and balanced analysis of yesterdays announcement of the iPhone software developer kit and "enterprise" functionality.
  • Polls say 88% want EU referendum – About a year ago the Daily Mail (I think) published a poll saying pretty much the same thing. But they also asked "Do you understand the Libson treaty?" and about the same percentage of people said "No." (Can anyone find a link?) Is democracy best served