Thursday, 21 May 2009

Updated: Why feature-rich social networking clients for smartphones aren't really there yet.

(Edited to update: See below)

There is a beguiling seductiveness to the thought that, on a modern smartphone where the menu structure may be a little hectic already, you may be able to install just one multi-function client for all your social networking needs.

Have a care, however, should one of these clients try to attract your gaze with a come-hither look.

Jacks of all trades are frequently, as everybody who has ever paid attention to trite sayings well knows, not masters of any.

I have, or have had, ShoZu, Widsets and Snaptu installed, to cover the fairly limited set of Facebook, Twitter and Blogger. I have NOT given these an exhaustive workout, but by the time I'm finished you should see why that's not necessary for me to make my point.

The first problem is that Facebook, according to the folks at ShoZu when I asked them about this, does not release an API for commenting on items, so you're stuck with reading other people's updates, and can't say anything.

Another thing: I demand speed. I don't run programs all day so that I can glance at them when I feel like it, so they have to be fast to start. I don't have an unlimited data plan and, with an N95, I don't have an unlimited battery, either.

Let's get Widsets out of the way first, because I did. It's shiny, yes, but for a program with official support from Nokia, it's a slow pig to start, login and be available. The Facebook widget is pretty, and nice. The Twitter widget, however, doesn't work at all and, if the comments on the websites when I tried it were anything to go by, it hadn't been working for a while now. So, piss off.

Then there's Snaptu. It's java, starts much faster than Widsets, and is very clean and pretty. It's also a network client proper: only the one piece of software is installed on the phone, which makes the footprint small and means that when the program loads, it's available to use and isn't still trying to load data in the background. But it has one fatal flaw, even next to the inability to make comments on Facebook. It can't open links from Twitter. So, goodbye.

Then, and anybody who knows anything about social networking on mobiles will have been waiting for me to get here, there's ShoZu. The swiss-army knife of social networking clients, ShoZu makes available more sites than I knew about, or even wanted to know about. And it's the only Twitter client I've seen (at least, among the free ones) that lets you view individual feeds, not just the whole lot, so if there's someone you really don't want to miss out on reading, you don't have to.

However: ShoZu, being the most powerful of the lot, has the most problems. To start with, it refuses to die. Oh, sure, it has an option for "Run in background" which can be set to "no", but it doesn't bloody work. I've caught the naughty little fucker using my data connection while my back has been turned. ShoZu is a major reason I have KillMe installed.

And then there's the main problem - it's SLOW. Not to start, that's commendably fast, but to load content. It will sit while loading updates for EVERYTHING, and give you absolutely no notice of how fast it's going. Oh sure, it will put a star next to updated feeds, but only within Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever, and it sometimes gets that wrong.

Oh, and I can't seem to get the Blogger posting to work.

Edit: I forgot another issue. Because ShoZu has just so much to download every time it starts up, if all you want to do is load, fire off a tweet and close down (tweet by SMS doesn't seem to be available in Australia, unless I've missed something), it can take a fair old time for the twit to be sent, while it sits in a queue. At least, that's my experience. Another reason why it's only a great tool is you run it in the background, all the time.

To be honest, it would be a great tool if I wanted to run it all the time, (it can even geotag photos if your phone has GPS) or if I didn' have any feeds to download and only wanted to upload to Twitter, Flikr, Picassaweb, or whatever, but I do and I can't afford to, which means it's not the tool for me. It's simply too annoying.

So what am I left with? Well, Facebook's mobile site is actually pretty good, and Twibble, particularly the latest, very new version, makes a great little java Twitter client, because the Twitter mobile website is absolutely pathetic. There are other Twitter clients, and there are even mobile websites which reproduce Twitter, more powerfully.

There is of course a bigger problem here, quite apart from Facebook's mean approach to application developers. Those who try to do all things, must do all things, and spend just as much time on each of them. This is no less relevant in making software than it is in building cars, and sets the bar just as high for programs such as Widsets, where the widgets seem to be mainly developed by different individuals, as it does for programs like ShoZu, where the development effort appears to be much more coordinated and centralised.

Jack-of-all-trade programs also face the problem that if one component is sub-par, witness the Twitter widget not working, you can't just swap it for another, the way you can for a built-up collection of different tools.

They're a nice idea, but not quite there yet.

3 comments:

John Neal said...

Hi,

My name is John and I'm QA manager here at ShoZu.

Sorry to read that ShoZu isn't performing well for you. I was particularly disturbed to read that run in background mode and uploading to Blogger isn't working. Can I help fix those up?

Regarding Background mode - are you running the latest client (4.1.107?). This has been improved in this area and also we fixed a battery drain bug with certain wi-fi conditions.

Regarding Blogger - if you drop me a mail direct we can try and get that going for you.

Once again, apologies it's been a poor experiences for you - hopefully I can help improve that.

Regards,
John

John.neal@shozu.com

Dubito said...

Hi John,

Thanks for commenting.

Yes, I am running the latest client, but haven't actually used it much since updating.

With Blogger, I have sent a couple of posts without them appearing. I tend to do long posts rather than photos, which are inconvenient on the phone, so I very rarely use this function - I tend to compose in a text file and upload via the desktop.

The biggest improvement suggestion I have would some indication of progress for updating feeds.

As I mentioned, the biggest "problem" I have with ShoZu is that it fills needs I don't have at the moment. A bit like Windows Mobile, or the iPhone. I'm still very impressed with it.

Sorry if I didn't make that clear in the post.

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