Saturday, 23 May 2009

Notes from the N95: v6

Another, quite short, collection of random notes from the new smartphone, composed on the phone:

AppManager really needs to be able to filter by first letter, at the very least. It's so crude it looks as though they threw it together as a stop-gap and forgot to go back and fix it. "Broken gets fixed, mediocre lasts forever."

No facility to set appointments, memos or to-dos to repeat at set intervals, or to copy. What the fuck? Four years ago, my T630 could do that!

Massive credit, still, for letting you select the previous entry in the T9 options.

How can it lose a wi-fi interface it was using only two seconds ago, and have to search for it again? Repeatedly? This is REALLY ANNOYING.

If I send a txt to a number not in my phonebook, there is no way to then select that txt, and save the number. God dammit.

This is just plain stupid: the N95 has a dual slide mechanism, much hyped at release and re-used in just about every sliding Nokia since, that puts a line of audio player controls - stop, play/pause and forwards and backwards - at the top of the phone, accessed when you push the screen down. This also activates landscape mode. The thing is, although they apparently work as controls in the N-gage (what? Exactly) gaming application, they are otherwise stubbornly linked to the built-in media player. Which means that if you're in a third-party music player, or Nokia Audiobook player, which is a beta application written by a Nokia engineer who realised that if wanted a proper audiobook player he was going to have to write it himself, all that happens when you press one of the control buttons is that the media player launches. This is annoying enough, but what is totally ridiculous is that they don't work in the Voice Recorder application either, and that's part of the standard phone suite, not an add-on! Insanely, insanely, frustrating.

Essential free software installations:
  • Jbak TaskMan - The control panel that S60 should have built-in.
  • Active File - what the built-in file manager should be.
  • Dedit - Text editor - the world's most basic and useful utility. From the same programmer as TaskMan. Clever man, this Russian.
  • ShoZu - jack of all trades, master of none, but free and comprehensive. Just make sure it's what you want - it's too powerful to just use randomly.
  • Google maps - less annoying than Nokia Maps, has a neat non-GPS location finding trick using network towers (imperfect, but surprisingly good), and you don't need a subscription to get basic directions, but does use data.
  • Free iSMS - bringing Palm's threaded SMS to Symbian, by way of iPhone aesthetics.
  • Mobipocket Reader. Because it's just about the only option available.
I won't put in Opera Mini, because S60 is good and doesn't need replacing, unlike the built-in file manager. Opera is a nice adjunct, not an essential. N.B.: Most of the controls in S60 Web aren't documented. You'll need to do some googling.

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.

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