Every Two Years

It’s new phone time again. I’m fairly statically keeping to the iPhone ecosystem for my main phone (I own android devices, but mostly for testing & backup). Having fallen out of “Smartphones” with a disappointing O2 XDA, my first experience of the first iPhone was borrowing one from the CTO of Trutap overnight, and losing it on the train home. It was an expensive day. From then I got an iPhone 3G when it arrived in the UK, switched sides to an HTC Desire when the iPhone 4 didn’t appeal to me, but after falling out with android’s lack of focus, switched back to the iPhone 4S for my next contract.  And here I’ve stayed. Two years ago I bought the iPhone 5S, and just as the battery on that is beginning to get annoying, the 6S is here.

Out with the old…

Out with the old - an iPhone 5S being put back in its box
Out with the old – an iPhone 5S being put back in its box

And in with the new…

in with the new, an iPhone 6S, cherry
in with the new, an iPhone 6S, still in plastic

…and then back in with the old

An iPhone 6S, restoring from backup
An iPhone 6S, restoring from backup

Pop Culture Consumerism: The iPhone 5s

2013-09-20 11.27.53 HDRGTAV tomorrow. Today:

The iPhone 5s

It’s two years  to the week since I bought an iPhone 4S on a two year contract from Three. Thus, my contract is up for renewal just as the new iPhone comes out. Syncroncity. So yes, it’s a phone. It’s a smartphone. It’s even an iPhone. You press the button and it turns on. It’s taller and lighter than the 4S, and the interface seems snappier to use. Pictures come out better, and the new slow-motion video camera is a neat trick. I can open it with my finger print. It’s the new version of the iPhone, and it’s a faster one.

TouchID is new, and works very well. A brief pause of your thumb on the lock screen is enough to open up the phone. Its theoretical security doesn’t hold up to cryptoanalysis, but to be honest if someone steals my phone, takes a high resolution perfect scan of a perfect print of the correct finger, makes a latex model of it and then uses that to reset my Bejewelled Blitz high score; all before I realise my phone is missing and use the Apple website to completely disable the thing, they have done more than it would take to guess my four digit passcode. EIther way, if they’re mugging me they’ll force me at knifepoint to unlock it first, at which point neither password nor fingerprint will save me.

Security is almost always a trade-off between risk and speed/ease of use, from door keys to deep crypto, and TouchID is better by several steps than the base level of security of most phones in the world, which is zero.


I like the new layout, I like the text based design, I even like the scrolling effects. I like a lot that Apple have taken inspiration from Android core features to add to iOS – or stolen them, if you prefer – in the form of the Control Centre and the new multitasking interface. Yes, I know Android did it first, and I liked it when I had an Android phone, but if you truly believe Android didn’t do the same with iOS features I have a bridge to sell you and no desire to have this argument.

It works less well on the iPad2, pushes the CPU a bit hard, but the new font rendering is very pretty. It does make the few Apple apps still using the old style stand out a lot – Find My Friends’ faux-leather interface is a lowlight – and I’m looking forward to my central apps adopting the new styles.


Pebble Smartwatch

The pebble in Watch mode.
The pebble in Watch mode.
I find it somewhat suspicious that in the last couple of weeks, as the 70,000 people who backed Pebble’s Kickstarter start to get their rewards, that the interest in an Apple branded smartwatch has reached fever pitch.

The Pebble is a smartwatch in the same vein, a bluetooth-connected extension to your phone, so that notifications from it can appear on your watchface, you can control your phone’s music, and basically your watch becomes a remote control for your phone.

My Pebble arrived yesterday, and I’ve been prodding it a bit. More long-term thoughts when I’ve been using it for a while, but here’s my first impression.

Let’s start with the hardware. The face is a bit chunky. I haven’t measured it exactly, but it’s about a centimetre thick, and takes over most of my wrist, as you can see below. It seems solidly built, with a nice curve to the screen, and comes with a rubber watch-strap of standard size (which I intend to replace quite soon). Charging happens over a magnetically attached USB cable, the design of which allows the casing to remain waterproof down to 180ft. Since my bath’s not that deep, that should be enough for me…

The screen is a backlit e-ink kindle-style screen of sufficently high resolution that I don’t notice any pixels at normal viewing distance. The backlight (which can either be activated with an ambient light sensor or by activity) is bright enough to the display by, but neither dazzling or distracting, and you will probably not be able to use it as a torch, for example.

The setup process is a bit unwieldy right now. You’ll need to install the Pebble app for your phone first,  attach the thing in your phone’s own Bluetooth settings (where it says “Verify the Pebble is showing this set of digits” when it doesn’t appear to be able to do that until the new firmware is installed), and then back to the Pebble app to activate it and upgrade the firmware, which takes about five minutes.

After that, you have a watch which will buzz and display your most recent text message/email incoming.

The iPhone app’s not very good, right now. It suffers from a “clever” navigation structure where you can swipe to get to different areas of the app, or back to the menu, but with no clue as to what “direction” anything is. Currently the only thing you appear to be able to do is add new watch faces. Pebble’s hopes of getting the SDK out early enough for people to have written apps for the watch appear to have been (aha) dashed.

There’s platform variation too. Apple only expose email and SMS/iMessage notifications over Bluetooth, so until the Pebble app can send notifications in the background (which I hope will be soon), only Android can send arbitrary notifications for whatever apps you want (Personally, SMS & email are fine for me for now, though I’m interested in future apps), and I’m not sure if this is a pebble bug or because I’m using exchange-synced contacts on iPhone, but the callerID seems not to be working very well.

There’s a bit of beta quality about most of the software and firmware, in fact. The phone ships with the light-sensor for the backlight disabled, because when you enable it any button click toggles the backlight, including scrolling the menus, turning the device into an SOS beacon. The “Tap” functionality to light the backlight at night also doesn’t appear to be there yet.


Music_IntegrationThat all said, the basic functionality is working, and all the problems I’ve found are very much software issues, things that can be fixed with future firmware and app updates for the most part (save any limitations Apple put on the communication. Android users are generally going to find generic integration better, I think). The music functionality, where the watch will display the track name and artist for the currently playing song, as well as Skip, Pause & Rewind, is working very well, even for Spotify and arbitrary music players (though I’m told this isn’t generically true for Android right now).

…and right now I can’t recommend you get one.

I preordered mine in April last year, for $115 + P&P, which is kind of outside my direct “I paid x for this” mental connection, but I’m not currently convinced that if I were to buy one right now for that price, I’d be happy with it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t get one. If the apps start coming though, and if it becomes more useful (being able to see what’s on my phone without digging around in my pocket? Handy, but not £80 handy), that might change, but there are too many “not currently working”, “Only on android”, and “not quite there yets” in the paragraphs above for comfort.

We’ll see how much of an everyday necessity it becomes in the next few weeks, and I’ll report back then.

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Computer Games

Dizzy – Prince of the Yolk Folk

So today, I’m going to tell you a tale of a game with an open world, filled with characters who repeat the same dialogue, where a primary concern is how full your inventory is and how useful a large percentage of it will be, and involves defeating trolls.

Dizzy has been released for Android, iPhone & iPad.

The earliest games I can remember playing:

The first Dizzy game came out in 1986 – I’d have been five – and was perilous. You had three lives, a single inventory slot, and touching any dangerous thing at all would kill you instantly. In modern game parlence, it’s a game of fedex quests, but with a single item inventory. So you pick up the grease-gun to fix the cart, which means you can’t carry the birdseed which allows you to kill the birds, and you need to get the diamond across the map which means swapping over to get the raincoat to stop the water killing you occasionally. Lots and lots of back-tracking.

By the time of POTY, which the new release is a port of, came out the inventory had been beefed up a lot and the instadeath mostly restricted to “Don’t fall in the sea” and “Don’t stand in the fire”.  With the new version comes infinite lives, which makes the game easier.

It’s certainly a far prettier game, with updated graphics and detailed animations.

It’s not very good, though.

It’s a perfectly servicable port of the original game, but with updated graphics, but it suffers from a half-hearted finish that lets the game down. It just seems a few steps away from being complete.

The biggest gripe for me is one that’s followed the game since the unremake, it suffers from a excess of float in the jump which makes precision platforming quite hard. Dizzy’s jump move is quite complicated for a platformer, in that has you jump he somersaults, and if you land while he’s somersaults he’ll roll for a bit until he stands up. This doesn’t seem consistent, and sometimes when you land you’ll roll directly off the platform you were trying to hit. If it was predictable when this would be, I’d be less irritated, but it butts against one of the other fundermental flaws with the game: You can’t tell where the platform ends. The new game has beautiful, cartoony graphics where your platforms connect to the trees behind them, where the clouds float in mid-air, but invisible on top of this is the edges of the platforms, which don’t match up to where the cartoon hand-drawn graphic says they do. In a game where you are required to stand at the very edge of a platform in order to make a jump, it’s incredibly annoying to fall though it instead. Dizzy has gained a Batman/Lara Croft style move where if you *almost* hit a platform, he will grab at it and hang there looking worried, but this doesn’t help, because he can’t – with his stubby little red gloves – pull himself up. It just delays your inevitable fall and death with a cheery animation.

There seems to be a half-finished integration with something as well, although it doesn’t call to Gamecenter or Twitter or anything; but when you actually do something you get a first-person announcement about it, like this:

Games can be unforgiving, so long as they’re fair. As long as the reason why I’ve just plummeted to my death is that I didn’t pay attention, it’s all fine, but this isn’t that.

As a call to nostalgia, it works wonderfully. I spent the time wandering though this game (Spending a lot of it wandering backwards and forwards having entirely forgotten you can jump on clouds) remembering trying to finish various Dizzy games on various 8-bit devices in the 90s, and it’s a faithful recreation of the kind of 8-bit platformer I really used to love beating my head against.

As a modern game for iOS and Android, it’s unpolished and the controls require more precision than the game allows. Without the Infinite Lives addition, it would be an exercise in pure frustration, but as it is I can highly recommend it for people who remember the old games and wish to wallow for a while. For everyone else, there are better games out there.

I hope it does well, though, because if they can tighten up the controls for the next one it could be a star.

A final point: Codemasters: Releasing the iPad and iPhone versions as two separate games is a Dick Move, especially when there are no differences between them. The iOS Universal Binaries system is good for customers.


The "Disappointment" of the iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S is not designed to make the IT Industry happy with Apple.

A while ago, while Apple were doing the iPod thing and their machines were still the main asset, the running joke about Apples was that they were obsolete before you got them home. Computers in general, sure, but Apple machines in particular. Now, the industry press is choc-a-block with disappointment for the new iPhone 4S, because there’s not much of a compelling killer-feature for someone who already has an iPhone 4.


Siri is a corporate lackey, as expected
My first iPhone – a 3G – was on an 18 month contract. This iPhone – a 4S – is on a 24 month contract. The vast majority of people buying the iPhone 4 won’t have had it given to them for review purposes, or bought it Sim-Free from the Apple store. They’ll have got it though their network on an 18 to 24 month contract. If they bought it on release date, that’ll expire June 24 2012 (Or July, if they were on CDMA. Or the following April if they bought it in white). The 4S isn’t designed to be a must-upgrade from the iPhone 4. It doesn’t need to be, and probably shouldn’t be. It’s a compelling upgrade for people with a 3G, or 3GS, though.

If we turn that onto the Android market and attempt to apply the same values, it gets a little strange. It’s almost impossible to have a top-of-the-line Android handset for more than two weeks right now, and at one point last year the top-range HTC models were being released *after* the next level of phones had been annouced for release the following month. All of these phones, unless you have the disposable income to drop on the unlocked versions, come with a 18 to 24 month contract. If I hadn’t bought my original-model Desire unlocked, I’d have another six months before I was able to switch, and that would be to a phone that HTC stopped supplying OS updates to a year ago, and didn’t even bother patching for the most recent security lapses.

So I won’t be getting an iPhone 5, because when it comes out I’ll be halfway though the contract for this one. But I’ll probably be right in line for the 5S, even though ZDNet & Engadget think it’s a “Disappointment”.


Siri-ous business

Tripped, Fell, Bought a new iPhone.

So far, so phone. I had an iPhone 3G, so the wonders of the iPhone aren’t very new to me, and the iPad means I’ve been playing with iOS5 for a little while now. I’d forgotten how much I liked iOS, to be honest.

So, reviews, then:

News Stand

News Stand is one of the smaller features of iOS, because really it’s a glorified categorisation. Previously, Magazine Apps were Apps, and went into App Places. Now they get automatically put into a drawer called “News Stand” which looks different.

However, since I got the iPad I’ve kind of bought into the “Future of magazines” koolaid. Not that the iPad is, specifically, but that Tablets may be. Paid content on the internet is a business, but not a very big or scalable one. The only people who’ve really made it work is the porn industry.

I’ve been reading three things in News Stand, PC Gamer, Edge and the new Guardian app. All are notable because the content is also available for free on the site, so it’s linkable and sharable, but all the sites suffer the great rolling news tragedy. Writing for rolling 24 hour access sites is speed, writing for tomorrow’s newspaper is speed and craft. Plus, instant updates tend to favour the Now over the Important, and the craft of a magazine or newspaper format, with the analysis of what’s important that will *stay* important and thus “Front Page News” is valuable.

They download into off-line form automatically as they become available, and from then it doesn’t matter if you’re about to go into a tunnel when you want to read the next page. The text is as big as you want it to be, you can fit the last two week’s newspapers – in searchable format – into a space the size of The Very Hungry Catapiller. Plus, the Guardian one’s free until January.


Siri is the most impressive piece of voice recognition software I’ve ever used.

It manages this by two methods. The first is by being limited in scope. It’s not that much different from the old Infocom lexographical parsers for adventure games. It recognises what you want to do partly by matching it against things you *might* have said and choosing the most likely.

Second, it cheats. I realised this when I wandered to do the laundry under our towerblock, and Siri stopped working. I don’t know *what* it sends out to get analysed, I’m assuming it’s not a full voice recording, but it doesn’t work without network.

You can use shortcuts for people, too. Like this:

“Who is my Girlfriend”
“What is your girlfriend’s name?”
“Okay. Do you want me to remember that Fyrheafoc is your Girlfriend?”
“Okay Aquarion, I’ll remember that Fyrheafoc is your girlfriend”

And so it does. Kind of. If your “me” contact is a contact that ‘belongs’ to a synchronised Exchange account (or, at least, with Google Sync) it doesn’t seem to be able to create a record of “girlfriend”, and logs the contact name as “Spouse” or – amusingly – “Manager”, and entirely forgetting the ‘girlfriend’ bit (so you go though the above roundabout again). I got around this by creating an iCloud-synced contact called “Aquarion” and setting that as my “Me” contact, and everything after that was fine.

But the most annoying thing?


“What is the distance from London to Glasgow?”

For questions that Siri knows the answer to, it answers.

For questions that it doesn’t, it checks to see if it’s something Wolframalpha knows.

For everything else, it says “You can search the web”.

The exception is for things that the US version of Siri, which has maps and location information enabled, knows, but the Non-US versions don’t. For those, you get this:

Siri Sorry

Now, the fact that it launched without location data outside the States sucks. But:

"Ask Wolfram Alpha the distance from London to Glasgow"

"Search the web for distance from London to Glasgow"

If you can’t do it, Siri, please pass it over the things that can, like you do with everything else.

This comes across as “It sucks”, but it really doesn’t. It’s right almost all the time, and when it isn’t it’s almost always because I wasn’t speaking clearly. But the closeness makes the wrong bits so much more infuriating.


Android's not as good

I’m giving up on Android. It’s good enough for now, and I won’t immediately go out and replace it with an iPhone 4, but come the next iPhone revision, I think I’ll be back to being an Apple customer.

These are some of the reasons why:

Upgrading to Gingerbread has increased my battery life by 100%. My phone will now go a couple of days without a charge, but it still goes from 100% to 20% over many hours, then ticks down the last 20% over ten minutes. This is shit.

The music player skips and bounces around sometimes if something else wants to do anything else. This is shit. If it’s due to the expensive SD card I bought not being quite expensive enough, that is more shit, not less.

The media syncing system, even with doubletwist airsync, is comparatively shit.

The music player will pick up every sound file on the device, from other program’s podcasts down to voice recordings. This is shit.

The market is filled with shit. A search for a popular item will result in the item – somewhere – and dozens of “$popular_app Wallpaper” or more subtle customer gouging shit.

The market support is beyond shit. I expect a support request email to result in user-blaming boilerplate text, because I am trained to expect little from technical support, but to respond to a reply with *more* user blaming boilerplate that doesn’t actually answer my question is just shit.

I did a factory reset of my phone, and now all the Marketplace items I bought before I did the reset are gone from my “Downloads” section, but it will let me download them again, happily adding them to the same google account I bought them from in the first place. This is shit.

When I finally get a reply about the above problem from the aforementioned support ticket, and ask when, roughly, it might be fixed I am told:

Unfortunately, we are unable to comment on the exact timing of the fix because of different variables affecting the roll out.

…which is shit.

The upgrade path is shit. As soon as HTC decide they can’t be arsed with the Desire upgrades anymore (a process I expect to happen before Gingerbread is officially released) I’ll never get an official update again, and I’m lucky that I don’t have an operator as an extra level in that. For all people complain about Apple’s “Another model along shortly” attitude, they’ve supply major OS updates for two years for each phone.

There is no good time to buy an android phone. Anything you buy will be succeeded in weeks, if not days. This is shit.

The Hardware UX standard design is shit. You cannot predict which buttons are on the phone in which order, whether they’re hard or soft or what. Good UX means avoiding metaphor-shear and maintaining consistant rulesets, and Apple’s good at that, there is probably a button *here* which will take you back a screen, *this* button will take you back to this place. Just the Back button in android could take you back to the last application you used, the last screen you saw in this application, the home screen of your current application, back a web page, or the home screen of the whole phone. This is shit.

There are two email applications on every phone. One is for GMail, one for IMAP. Widgets use one or the other, and every app which wants to send an email has to ask every time. This is shit.

If you try to open an MP3 attachment from the GMail program, the temporary file is deleted before the Android Music App can see it. This is shit (and stops me getting phone messages).

A cheap MicroUSB cable appears to have a 50/50 chance of carrying a charge. This isn’t really anything to do with Android’s fault, but is still shit.

Every so often I’ll answer a call and the UI will change to the “You’re on a phone call” one, but the phone will still be ringing and I can’t answer it anymore.

My phone has gigabytes of storage in it, but only a few hundred megs of app storage space, because every tin-pot application believes it has a divine right to hinder sleep mode, and therefore refuses to go on the SD Card. That I have to care about this is shit.

My Android has never failed to wake me up because the year or timezone changed. It has, however, failed to wake me up because it spontaneously crashed necessitating a battery removal at roughly 3am.

The default array of apps that HTC supplied with my phone (like the Facebook app that’s not as good as the official one, and the twitter one that’s not as good as the official one, and the Flickr one tha…) cannot be prevented from wasting the limited app space I have. This is shit.

MobileSafari has a useful thing: If you double-tap on a block level element, it zooms the view-port to match the width of it. In the Android browser, double tapping zooms the page in a lot. This is shit.

Gestures on the Android are almost always “I am doing this gesture to make the phone perform this action” rather than “I am performing this action”. Zoom and Rotate in particular suffer from the classic shower-tap problem of requiring a massive amount of micro-dexterity to get the effect you want.

None of these are deal-breakers. They’re bugs, annoyances, or lack of joined up thinking. But what I need out of a phone is to be able to pull it out, do the thing I wanted, then put it away again. Joined Up Thinking is the very thing I actually *need* it to do. The lack of system-level design (both UI design and hardware-spec) makes a day with android just a little more frustrating than the same day with the iPhone.

Apple computing linux

iPhone vs Android, Part Two

One of my main reasons for getting a new phone was that the iPhone was unable to get a signal in my flat. This is partly because of the construction and materials, and partly because the radios in the iPhone 3G are not particually good. The Desire gets a far better signal than the iPhone does in the same place, with the same SIM.

As an actual phone, they handle much of a muchness. I don’t actually like making phones on a smartphone, I sweat all over the screen, it gets icky and horrible. The Desire and the iPhone are both as good and as bad as each other in this regard. The speakers and microphones work, the quality appears to work, it works as a phone.

The interface is a different thing, though. The android device keeps its “Phoneness” front and centre, with a button labelled “Phone” at the bottom of the home screen. Press it and you get the phone app, complete with last dialled numbers, missed calls and such. Start typing a name in the search box at the top, and it’ll find the number for anything matching that. Press to dial.

Actually, the press-to-dial is the bit that annoys me. Generally, I don’t want to phone someone unless I press a big green button saying “dial”, and I keep – after a couple of months now – accidentally phoning people when I just want to view their contact details – which is what the same action does in the contacts view, which it otherwise resembles – or phoning someone back when I want to find out *when* I missed their call.

The iPhone interface on this is superficially similar, but more consistent. Clicking a contact brings you to the contact’s page, where there’s a clear call-to-action button to dial, message or email. These things seem small and insignificant, but they’re actually most of the big problem with Android (Including Sense) as a interface, all the functionality works, and sometimes works far better than on the iPhone, but even on native apps there are inconsistent reactions, meaning that you have to second thought most actions, think about where you are in the system, before you can do anything.

For example, the Desire has a “Back” button. What does it do? Most of the time it takes you to the screen you were on before you hit this button. “Back”. But that’s contextual, so if you clicked a notification saying “You have one new Twitter mention”, it takes you to the Twitter app (The official one, in this case) and to the page with your mentions on it. You click the mention, it has a URL, you click the URL, you’re in the web browser, you click a link in the web browser and you’re on a new page. Back, you’re on the previous page; Back, you’re on the tweet that mentioned you; Back, you’re on your Twitter mentions; Back, you’re at the home screen again.

However, if you launch twitter from the icon, you get the main menu. Mentions, Tweet, URL, New page. From there, Back to the URL, Back to the mentions, Back to the main menu, back to the home screen. From the “Mentions” page, therefore, you cannot tell what’s going to happen when you press the back button. If you came in from one direction, you get one action; from another place, another action. If you hit the “Web Browser” icon on the desktop, you’ll get the URL from the tweet. Click back from that and you’re at the home screen, consistent user action leads to inconsistent results.

That’s an example, and not one I have a solution for, but because apps define these behaviours, they all do it differently, and even within the core apps it’s not perfect. The aforementioned contacts problem – where tapping a contact might open up more information, or phone them, sometimes text them – is another. Neither are insurmountable problems, but they require someone to treat them as problems and solve them, rather than hope some kind of consistency comes out in the wash.

There’s masses I can do on the Android device that the iPhone can’t even touch. I could have half a dozen different alarm programs going off at different times. I could install an SSH server and run Aquarionics from it. I run IRC connections in the background while I’m websurfing, I can tell what’s using my battery (Maps drinks it). It’s a massively flexible device, but with that seems to come a lack of focus. I can upgrade the memory.

One of my main uses for a “superphone” is as my local music player. For this, the iPhone is great. I already have all my stuff in iTunes, in playlists, smart playlists, podcasts and folders. I tell iTunes that I want these playlists on the iPhone, and it syncs it. As it’s doing so, it installs the latest versions of my apps, trims heard podcasts and installs new ones. The sync is two way, so when I listen to something on the android, it’s marked as “played today” on the playlists, and the smart playlists update with it. If I play a podcast on my phone, it’s marked as listened to.

The default way of sending music to an android device is to drag a folder full of MP3s onto a mass storage device.

The music player finds any MP3s on the storage device and lists them, sorting by album, artist and collection as best as the tags allow, and this is fine.

Doubletwist is great, because it does the one-way sync bit as well as iTunes does, if a lot slower. It imports my playlists as best it can, it manages podcasts to some extent. I understand the problems a lot of people have with iTunes. It’s heavy and hungry, it doesn’t work under linux and it doesn’t even like Windows very much, and it lacks important music management things (like duplicate detection, lists of MP3s it can no longer find, et. al.) but it gets the two way sync right. Doubletwist is getting there, and I hope one day it works as well.

Finally, there’s the future.

Next year, Apple will release the iPhone 5. Anyone who bought an iPhone 4 will feel slightly dejected that their shiny isn’t the shiniest any more, iOS 5 will work on the iPhone 4 (missing some new features), work barely on the iPhone 3GS (maybe) and not at all on the 3G, which will be consigned to the same “unsupported” box that the original iPhone now resides in. Apple will spend from now until then constructing and polishing the unholy alliance of hardware and software they specialise in.

In the time that it took me to get a Desire, HTC had announced several new phones to succeeded it, some of which have launched by now. Some are faster, some have better battery life and some more memory and higher resolution screen. HTC currently appear to be releasing a new set of handsets – bigger, faster, better – every two months, and are significantly less than speedy about releasing the new Android revisions for the older ones.

Froyo – the new Android release – will make my phone feel faster. It’ll give it more features, more things the Android can do that the iPhone can’t. Gingerbread – the one after that – will solve all my problems with the Android interface, giving me a consistent UI I can trust to do what I want it to.

In the future, Androids will conquer the earth. It’s a great system, and it’s open, and it’s a far more flexible base than iOS is. But Android will be great around the corner, the jam will come tomorrow. The iPhone is here now, and it works.

I’m sticking with the Desire, at least for now. I’ve been a bit harsh on it in these articles, in part because it has so much it could be doing much better, but I like the idea of a system I can open up and fiddle with, even if I’m never going to get around to doing so.

If a less technically-minded person wanted a “superphone”, though, I’d recommend the iPhone. It has jam, and it has it in a pot ready to use.

Apple computing linux

iPhone vs Android, Round One, Initialisation

So, a couple of weeks ago, Apple announced that the iPad release date for the UK was delayed. Deprived of my chance of a shiny new gadget, and on top of the news that the new iPhone 4 release Just Won’t Work in most respects on my phone which as of the announcement was only one revision behind current, I gave in, bit the bullet, and bought an HTC Desire on a non-contract basis. Starting now, I’m going to bring together my thoughts on the differences. Some of these things are a perspective thing, possibly. I’ve been using an iPhone for close to two years, and the Android for less than a month. On the other hand, my Android device is brand new, and my iPhone is nearly two revisions out of date.


Boxed 2 Around two years ago, I eventually got an iPhone. Apple’s industrial design goes all the way to the box, which is made of high quality cardboard, opens easily, and feels high quality. The Desire box clearly takes inspiration from it, although with a more traditional – for phones – slide out packaging. One of the neat things about the apple box is the way the inside of the top is padded where it touches the screen, avoiding the need for cheap plastic film to protect it in transit. The HTC box is still a step above most phone boxes, however.

Out of the box, the iPhone turns on, and contains a semi-charged battery.

Unboxed 1

Out of the box, once you’ve taken the back off, installed the battery (and memory card if you need one), the Desire also turns on and contains a semi-charged battery. The Desire’s back case removal seems flimsy and breakable, and while you’re only going to need to remove it for rare things – new sim, new memory card, swapping batteries – it’s something of a point of worry. Maybe it’s more sturdy than I credit it for.

The iPhone box contains a special glorified pin for poking into the hole to eject the battery and install the sim.

From a usability point of view, the iPhone wins this. Putting aside the argument about user-replaceable batteries and memory cards (That’ll come later) getting the HTC from box to turn-on was faffy and required dealing with cheap, plasticky components that made me feel like I was breaking the phone. Not a wonderful start, however:

First Boot

I turned on the Android device. I was taken though a slightly under-brief tutorial on how to use the on-screen keyboard (it’s interesting that Apple don’t do this. They give you a keyboard, and expect their usability design to do the rest. The Android keyboard is almost exactly the same, but they don’t trust their own design enough to expect you to be able to use it. On the alternate, the “hold to select special symbols” functionality is explicitly covered in the tutorial, and is the one thing iPhone users used to miss. The 3GS may have fixed this somehow). During a setup wizard thing, I gave it my Google Apps account details and the wifi password, and it slurped down my contacts and emails. It asked for twitter, flickr and facebook accounts, and I gave it these too, and then it slurped down contact photos from facebook for anyone who put their mobile numbers into their profile. It showed me how to use the wigetized home screen, and then left me to it.

I turned on the iPhone. It demanded to be connected to iTunes. I was on a train, and my computer was far away. I turned it back off, put it in its box, in its bag, and sat quietly reading my new phone contract until I got home.

First Boot 1

Advantage Android, I feel.

Once home, and the phone was connected to iTunes, it ran roughly the same as the android thing without the tutorial (There’s a mini-tutorial in a manual that comes with it). I used NuevaSync to treat my google account as an exchange account, which gave me all the automatic syncing I mentioned above (There’s now a way to do this natively using Google, but it never worked for me as well as Nueva does). The Facebook app for iPhone does the contact picture syncing I mentioned (and by the same method, linking contacts to facebook profiles via a “fb://$fbid” URL in the “URLs” section).

Sync or Swim

One of my primary uses for my phone is as a media player, so I wish to be able to sync my music and videos as painlessly as possible. All my music already being in iTunes (with complicated inter-layered automatic playlists, like “Stuff you rate highly but haven’t listened to in a while, plus some new, unrated, stuff.”) iTunes sync is most handy. By default, Android’s music, video and podcast sync is the most old-school thing imaginable, mount as USB device, drag, drop. This works, but has no real “sync” support. Better is DoubleTwist, an app that is  attempting to make music sync on the Android as painless as the iPhone. It has successfully imported my iTunes playlists (mostly. No folder support, and imports automatic playlists as flat) and synced the ones I selected across. It even supports updating podcasts, though it appears to put them straight into the music application and there’s no tracking of what’s been listened to or not. There’s no two-way syncing at all, in fact. Also, Doubletwist is slower than wading though frozen treacle.

Given that the iPhone inherits a lot of this structure from the iPods, it’s no real suprise that being able to sync your own music and song metadata to and from the device is one of the iPhone’s highlights, but the rest of the industry has had eight years to make this stuff even slightly more palatable than dragging files hither and yon; and to launch a “competitor” to the iPhone while thinking that this stuff in any way doesn’t matter is just astoundingly stupid. That Android even needs Doubletwist to exist is proof that Google have missed much of what made the iPhone quite so popular, and even if it didn’t there’s more.

End of part one

Coming up: The phone as a phone, actually using the phone, using it as a media player, apps, app stores, app markets, and WHY THE FUCK HASN’T ANDROID MARKET GOT AN “INSTALL ALL UPDATES BUTTON?”


Apple windows

On being a late adopter III

Depite my great and brand new phone and its wonderous open-sorcery, I still don’t hate Apple.

I mean, I assume my new phone is great, as I write this it still hasn’t arrived.

I said, at the end of that article, that the choice of whether I wanted to waste my battery life is mine, the choice of what I install on my computer is mine. This is because I am a geek, and it matters to me.

I actually believe that there is not a right to tinker. In fact, having worked Desktop Support for a while in both professional and power-user contexts, I am firmly of the opinion that the right to tinker by someone who “knows better” than the guy who set up the system is, sometimes, to be nuked. From orbit. Twice.

In fact, the concept of giving a barely-computer-literate a machine that will work one way, can do the things it should do and also let them change the wallpaper, is a Very Good Idea, because it would minimise the amount of time I, or someone like me, spent on the phone or in a dusty back-office attempting to work out how to revirginise the PC in front of me.

(My favourite, ever, was a machine with a Windows 2000 install where they had infected it with a couple of buckets of spyware, and then ran out of diskspace as the porn-bot-net it was running filled up the hard drive. They had then seen the “Compress Drive” option when looking for ways of gaining space back. As a result, you had a PC running out of memory, where all its swap files needed to be decompressed in memory before access. It ran like almsot frozen blackstrap molasses)

One of the favourite metaphors surrounding the closedness of the iPhone & iPad ecosystems (For those of you playing at home, the iPad and iPhone can only get software via the “App Store”, which required apple vet every piece of software available. The vetting process is currently inconsistant, which is bad, but there is no other way to install stuff, which people see as worse) is that of the car engine, and how this turns the computer industry from the old days where you could see where all the bits went, into the modern car industry where everything is hermatically sealled under a plastic case. The complaint is that the barrier to tinker with your stuff is now higher.

I can accept some of this. I have been tinkering with computers for longer than I can remember. one of my earliest memories is crawling along the carpet to behind the sofa, and pressing the magic button on the white thing that made the numbers go to zero. This – I found out many years later – was the tape counter on a Commadore 64. My first computer was this same C64, where the entire interface *was* a Basic input shell. Shift Run-Stop, Press Play on Tape. I can see how people would say that this meant more people would become computer programmers when they grew up, but I think we’ve already passed that. With PCs up until Windows 95 and the Rise of the Mac, you *had* to learn the basic concepts of computer command lines to use them, be it the ability to type “cd gamesDoom” “doom2” or the inner workings of the config.sys file on the boot disk you created for when you wanted to play Theme Park.

The rise of GUIs pushed a lot of the people who would have become programmers, I think, to having their first experience of source code to be HTML. It just shifts a bit, and if it means that people do not have to understand how a computer works in order to use it, that’s possibly even better. To continue the car simile for a bit, it’s not as if the rise of BMW-type sealled engine blocks entirely removed the people who know how your car works. I’m pretty sure that the people with the mental tendancy to tinker with code aren’t going to be put off forever because their phone or their video player doesn’t compile things for them, as they’ll gravitate to the ones that do, and if it means that I can know my non-existant Uncle Martin has bought an iPad and I won’t be spending the 27th December scrubbing spyware from it, so much to the better.