From mobile

How to show utter contempt for your users

I was never a regular user of Whatsapp, the mobile messaging app recently purchased by Facebook for gazillions of dollors, but now I’m never touching the thing again.

Why?

Well, after a recent update, every single time I open the app, I am greeted with this:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

It’s an annoying pop up thing telling me to turn on notifications for Whatsapp.

Only, I don’t want to. I’ve never had them on, and I don’t want them on now.

I cannot, however, turn off this nagging screen. It appears every time. It would appear the only way to get rid of it would be to switch on those damn notifications.

Well, that’s not happening. I won’t be bullied by software, for goodness’ sake!

So those few people i converse with on Whatsapp I will start to chat to on something else, and Whatsapp is gone from my phone.

If you’re looking for a replacement, Glassboard is a great bet. Not that well known and not overly polished, but a nice indie solution.

The lesson here is to let your customers use your system the way they want to, not the way you want them to – else they might just go elsewhere.

Update: the app store on my phone tells me there is a new version of WhatsApp is ready to download. And guess what?

wa2

At least they are listening.

Drag and drop app development from Mozilla

zteopenOne of the things we get asked about all the time, whether from artists, community groups or bigger organisations is how to develop apps for mobile.

Usually the answer has to be ‘pay someone to do it’ – even though this can be an expensive process.

There are some do it yourself options – the App Inventor for Android from MIT springs to mind – but it’s fair I think to say that they still aren’t terribly easy to use, and of course in the case of App Inventor, your projects will only work on the Android platform.

Mozilla – the cool folks behind the Firefox web browser amongst other great projects – might just have another option in the works. It’s part of their development of FireFox OS, a competitor to Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. In other words, a smartphone operating system.

The unique thing about FireFox OS is it’s use of web apps rather than native apps. What this means is that instead of having apps that are written specifically for one platform, whether that be iOS or Android or whatever, these apps work through the web, and so can be accessed on any device.

This also means that no one company can control what apps you decide to put on your phone or tablet – as they are all accessed via the web, the user is completely in control.

Mozilla is also aiming this work at emerging markets – in other words, they aren’t necessarily out to steal Apple’s crown. Instead they want to bring the power of mobile computing to those areas of the world where tradition feature phones dominate.

One early example of this endeavour is the ZTE Open, a phone running FireFox OS. You can buy one, completely unlocked, here on ebay for just £60. I have one, and it’s fair to say it won’t be impacting on sales of the iPhone 5s any time soon. It’s closer to the low range Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace range. However, as a cheap, effective and open entry point to smartphones, it’s an interesting device and it will be fascinating to watch how other manufacturers decide to use Firefox OS.

So, how to make apps for this environment? Mozilla is working on that too, with Appmaker. This is at a very early stage in its development, but you can have a play with it. It gives you a drag and drop style interface to build web apps, and seems really easy to use, and could put the power of app development into the hands of pretty much anyone.

Of course, tools like this make developing apps easy, but I suspect developing great apps is still just as hard!

Here’s a video explaining more.

Dumb Store

Apparently, not everyone has a smartphone! News to me.

Anyway, the Dumb Store is potentially very exciting, I think. Apps for ‘dumb’ phones – ie those that have limited ability to access the internet and the web.

They can be interacted with by sending SMS messages or making voice calls.

The SMS option is most interesting as it turns your message into a command line of sorts. So, for the Google Maps directions app, you text something like:

dir High Street, Peterborough to Letsbe Avenue, Dundee

and you then get a text back with the directions. Neato!

Apps are written in Ruby, apparently. Still, a potential step forward for making web services more accessible to folk without the latest mobile kit!

Galaxy Nexus

So, a couple of weeks ago I had an accident* and my iPhone broke for good. I needed a replacement, which gave me a good opportunity to assess the options.

It came down to the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus. I opted for the latter, for reasons I will explain. However, if someone were to ask me which is the best phone, I’d still say it’s the iPhone, hands down. But for my particular circumstances, the Nexus suited me.

So, why choose the Galaxy Nexus (GN from now on)? First of all, it’s the latest flagship phone from Google, designed to show off the Android platform at its best. It’s made by Samsung but to Google’s specification, and also features the latest version of Android, called Ice Cream Sandwich, unadulterated by any other crud that carriers or manufacturers like to install on Android phones.

I’m a heavy Google user, we use it for Kind of Digital’s email and calendaring, etc, and the integration with Android is excellent. The Gmail app on the GN is far better than the iPhone’s default mail app (certainly if you are a Gmail user, anyway). As email is by far and away the most used app on my phone, this is pretty important!

One of the other considerations was cost. I generally prefer to pay for my phones up front rather than get a subsidised phone via contract. By getting an unlocked, sim-free phone, I can shop around and get a better deal for me. I usually manage to make this pay for itself within a year. I managed to get the GN for a smidgeon under £400 – which is considerably less than an new unlocked iPhone 4S would cost.

In terms of apps, the Android platform is still way behind the Apple ecosystem. The market place, now called ‘Google Play’ – perhaps because of the emergence of other market places for Android – is still full of junk, and it’s too hard to find the good stuff. Also quite a few cool apps just aren’t available for Android yet, which is a real shame.

However, for my needs, the main ones are all there. There’s a NatWest app for banking, a rail enquiries app, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Remember the Milk for to do lists, and so on. Pretty much everything I really need is in there.

Some thoughts on having used the phone for a few days:

  • It’s *just* too big. My hand aches if I use it one handed for any length of time
  • It’s thin – but almost too thin. I do worry I might break it
  • It’s light – the iPhone 4 and 4S have real heft. Despite its size, you often forget the GN is in your pocket
  • It’s the best keyboard I’ve ever used on an Android device, by which I mean it’s actually possible to use it without going insane
  • It has a really useful widget on the home screen that lets me switch things like wifi, GPS and 3g on and off as I need them without having to mess around in the settings – dead handy
  • I need to figure out how to get my iTunes library onto it so I can stop carrying my iPod around too

Overall, I’d say that the iPhone is the best handset you can get right now. As much as I like my GN, it’s not as nice to use as an iPhone and it lacks the app ecosystem. However, for my personal circumstances – particularly my reliance on Google’s platform – the GN works pretty well and I’m happy enough with it.

Dan wrote up his views on his Galaxy Nexus on his blog.

* I threw it really hard at the floor after having failed to send a text for the 16th time. I can therefore categorically state that I am worse off financially due to being digitally excluded.

Playing with QR codes

I’ve been looking into QR codes recently – yes, I know, I’m somewhat behind the times – as part of some research I’m doing into how digital engagement can help in planning.

For the uninitiated, QR codes are square barcode-esque looking things, that when scanned, contain data such as a web address or indeed any other text string.

Though there are other ways of accessing QR codes, most people can do it using their smartphones, through an app that uses the phone camera. The app I use on my iPhone is Quickmark – there’s an Android version too.

(This strikes me as being a bit of a barrier to QR code usage, to be honest. Why can’t it be built into phones from the get go? Having to download an app – even a free one – will exclude a lot of people.)

Here’s an example of how I’m using them as a way of helping people get in touch with me. I’ve created a QR code that links to a site I have created with all my contact detail on it.

Here’s the QR code:

Contact Dave

The site it points people to is one I have created using Tumblr – this is because Tumblr automatically generates a nice mobile friendly look and feel if a smartphone is being used to access it – which is most people as I won’t be promoting it other than with the QR code.

I’ve just ordered myself some new business cards, which have the QR code on them – it’ll save people the hassle of typing my phone number in, if nothing else!

QR codes and planning

Anyway, what does this have to do with planning? Well, at LocalGovCamp in Birmingham the other week, there was a lot of talk of using QR codes on planning notices.

The way this works is that on the planning notices – usually attached to lamp posts and similar – people could read about the planning application and then scan the QR code into their phone, which would then bounce them onto the consultation site where they could air their views.

This seems quite a nice easy way of getting people to contribute. However, I suspect that getting people to the consultation site is the easy bit – you’ve also got to make sure that people can easily get involved once they get there.

So, if your planning consultation platform doesn’t play nicely with mobiles, then the whole QR code thing is probably a waste of time. You need to make sure also that what you are asking people to do is simple and suitable for mobile interfaces – making people read long documents or answer hundreds of questions won’t work either!

So, as usual, QR codes aren’t a solution – but I suspect they ought to become part of the answer.

More notes on mobile apps and government

I still haven’t really got my head around mobile apps and their use for government services. However, James Coltham wrote up some excellent notes from a meeting up in Scotland on the subject recently:

There is definitely a groundswell of interest, though, as well as a growing demand from the public, making for interesting times for anyone involved in making sure their services are ready to go mobile.

I wrote a few bits down last August, and if I’m honest my position hasn’t much changed from:

  1. Platform neutral mobile friendly websites are probably a better bet in an age of austerity
  2. App development is probably a job for the private sector, but I’m not convinced there’s an actual market (ie would people pay for an app to access government services?)
  3. Any app that would work for more than one organisation will need open data in a common format which doesn’t yet exist, though it might do soon (LinkedGov, KnowledgeHub, etc)

Also, what are the sorts of things people will want to do with councils or other public services on their phones? I suppose there are two elements to this:

  • Those things you might want which are suited more to a mobile device than anything else: ie, I need this information now, and here. Bus timetables are a good example, perhaps, or something else that can use location data.
  • Everything else, but delivered to a phone because that either where the owner prefers to access information and services, or because it’s their only way of accessing information and services

I think the second point is probably key to winning the argument for whether government organisations should seriously explore delivery via mobile devices. If we come to a point where a lot of people don’t bother with PCs because their phones do want they need them to, then that’s where the focus of electronic delivery probably should be pointed.

In other words, what does e-government look like in a post-PC era?

Phones, phones, phones

To probably misquote Stephen Fry: “Was there ever a smartphone that I didn’t buy?”

As I posted a little while ago, I’m pretty happy with the Nexus One. Android is a nice, feature rich, open operating system, and the hardware isn’t bad. However, the one major drawback is the keyboard, which is at times incredibly frustrating.

As well as the Nexus One, at home I have an iPhone 3gs and a Blackberry Bold 9700. Each has its ups and downs, and I thought it might be worthwhile writing them up here. It would be great to hear what others think in the comments, too!

Google/HTC Nexus One

Nexus One

Pros:

  • Integrates beautifully with both Google and third party services
  • Email application is a delight
  • Decent browser
  • Plugs straight into a computer to manage files etc – no messing about with iTunes or other software

Cons:

  • Touchscreen not always brilliant, and the keyboard can be appalling at times
  • Not as many high quality apps as the iPhone
  • Hardly any games

Apple iPhone 3gs

Pros:

  • Lovely user experience
  • Great on screen keyboard
  • Mail application is OK
  • Web browser is excellent
  • Lots of great apps

Cons:

  • Lack of sharing options – eg with photos etc
  • Reliance on iTunes
  • Not great as a phone

Blackberry Bold 9700

Pros:

  • Physical keyboard is great
  • Small and light
  • Phone is very reliable

Cons:

  • Mail application is surprisingly rubbish
  • Doesn’t really work at all well with Gmail (whether consumer or enterprise editions)
  • Terrible web browser
  • Few apps

So there we are. The iPhone is probably overall the best, but because of my reliance on Google, I’ll stick with the Nexus One for now.

Perhaps the way forward would be an Android phone with a physical Blackberry-like keyboard?

Android thoughts

So, I was lucky enough to be given a Nexus One by my wonderful employers a few weeks ago, to have a play with and possibly replace my iPhone (3gs) if I liked it. I thought perhaps folk reading this blog would be interested to hear how I’m getting on with it.

Nexus One

Well, the short answer is that I really like it.

Here’s the longer answer:

The Nexus One uses the Android operating system, which is developed by Google, and is a competitor to the iOS of the iPhone and the Blackberry OS, which appears on, yes, Blackberries. Instead of being limited to one company’s hardware, though, Android is open and can be used by any manufacturer.

Here’s a video about the latest version of Android:

This has led to Android being described as a more open system that, say, iOS and this is backed up by the open source nature of Android, based as it is on Linux. The Nexus One is a bit different though, as it is made by HTC, but is to Google’s specification. This has a number of advantages: you get operating system upgrades before anyone else, and the phone is free of any of the crud often automatically installed by carriers and manufacturers. It also means you can stick any sim card you like into it and it should work fine.

Android is therefore often compared with Windows in the 90s, on desktop computers. Apple’s MacOS was only available Apple computers and was tied to the hardware, resulting is a very high user experience but limited sales. Microsoft’s Windows, on the other hand, could be installed on any computer running on an Intel processor, and so was significantly more popular as a result of its portability.

This openness has a number of effects, some good, some not so good. One is that the Android app store doesn’t have the same rigorous checking regime that exists for the iPhone, which means it is easier to get apps listed in the store, but that inevitably brings down the quality somewhat. Indeed, Google are so keen for people to develop for the Android platform that they are making available the Android App Inventor – a drag and drop authoring tool for mobile apps (this reminds me a great deal of the Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit on the Commodore 64, but I digress).

Another form of openness is the way the phone integrates with other services. On an iPhone, when you choose to share a photo, you can usually just email it somewhere, or upload it to Apple’s MobileMe service. Choose the share option on the Nexus One, though, and you can email it, or send it to a service like Twitter or Facebook. It also knows if you have installed apps, so on my setup the options to share to Evernote and WordPress are also available. This is in addition to Google’s own services like Picasa and Goggles.

In a similar vein, external service are integrated to your contacts – so I can, if I choose to, add all my Facebook contacts to my phone, where they are added to existing contacts where possible. This is a nice touch, so for instance all my contacts with whom I am also Facebook friends have their Facebook profile picture added to their listing. I can also access people’s Twitter and Facebook pages straight from their contact listing, which is handy.

The camera is a 5 megapixel one, with a flash, and it seems to take excellent photos, as I found on my recent trip to Ireland:

Ireland photo

As someone who uses a lot of Google services, not least email, one thing that works as brilliantly as you would imagine it would is the integration with Google stuff. The native email application is a joy to use, and various other Google services have their own apps, or just work extremely well in the browser.

Battery life is pretty good, slightly better than my iPhone 3gs but with things like wifi, 3g and gps turned on all the time.

The downside is mainly the touchscreen, which simply isn’t up to the standard I have come to expect with the iPhone. It’s not as responsive, and typing on it can be tricky. I’ve no doubt I’ll get used to it in time, but for switchers it’s an obvious thing.

So for now I’m sticking with the Nexus One. I’ve had a quick play with an iPhone 4 and didn’t see enough in it to make me want to switch. The Android platform may not be as polished at iOS, but it appeals to my tinkering nature and I’ll forgive some of the user experience let downs for having better control over my phone.

Government and mobile apps

A really thorough and thought-provoking post from Public Strategist on the whole ‘should government develop iPhone apps?’ debate:

If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.

In the comments to that post, Steph Gray makes some equally astute points:

Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.

But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.

My view on this comes in two main flavours:

  1. It’s probably best to concentrate activity on making sure existing web properties render nicely on a decent range of mobile platforms than focus on native apps
  2. It’s also very difficult to justify the development of (still) currently pretty niche native applications on smartphone that have the reputation (perhaps undeserved) for being the playthings of tech-obsessed media types

That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for the native mobile application in government, just that government probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Another problem, taking local government as an example. If we’re honest, that’s where most of the services are based that would be of use to most people in a mobile application. If every council were to create an application, whether on iPhone, Android, Blackberry or whatever, this could lead to considerable fragmentation and irritation to the user. Quite a few of us are in the boat of using services in different areas, whether transport, education, waste etc, and having a different app for each of those could get irritating.

The answer is I suspect in open data. In fact, mobile apps is one of the areas that the whole open data thing really makes sense to me (as explained here, I’m no data buff).

Here’s how it could work. Some people sit down and think about the services that would really benefit from having a mobile interface. Then the bits of government that want to be involved make sure they publish the relevant up-to-date data in a usable format.

It would then be up to the commercial sector to do something with that data. The obvious solution would be for someone to produce a platform that pulls in all the data, then spits it out as per user preference within one application – so I can have waste collection dates for Cambridge and bus timetables for Peterborough (say) all in the same app. The supplier then makes their money by selling the application, advertising, or some service arrangement. The important thing though is that government isn’t spending money on the development of, or having to sell, the thing.

Am sure there’s a lot of holes in this – not least in terms of how the app developer is ever going to make any money out of it – with your average app developer making just a few hundred pounds a year. However, if it is something citizens feel they want, or need, then perhaps the market will help decide how information is best delivered to people.

Mobile opportunities

GeeknRollaI had an enjoyable day yesterday at TechCrunch Europe‘s GeeknRolla event – a conference for techy startups. There was lots of discussion about what the next big thing might be (no-one really knows) and how to get funding from venture capitalists (it’s really hard).

One of the most interesting and useful sessions from my perspective was the one on mobile platforms, by Ewan McLeod of Mobile Industry Review.

Ewan really put into perspective the mobile landscape in terms of who is using what – with an emphasis on the fact that the iPhone isn’t the only platform developers should be concentrating on. Nokia, and their Symbian operating system, dominates. The problem is that it’s harder and more expensive to develop for, and doesn’t offer the great user experience that the iPhone offers.

For public services, where accessing as many people as possible is the major issue, platforms other than the fashionable ones need to be seriously considered when developing native mobile applications.

I took some rough notes during the talk, which I have reproduced below with some minor edits for spelling and tidiness. A much better written summary of the session is on TechCrunch itself, and I have embedded the slides too, which are full of goodness.

My notes

  • 4.6 billion mobile subscribers on earth (1.6 billion tvs for instance)
  • Nokia 36%, Samsung 19% of total sales
  • Smartphone OSs: Symbian 47%, RIM 20%, iPhone 14%, Windows 9%, Android 4% (last year)
  • UK – 19 million handsets sold last year
  • Only iphone and android seems to have most developer interest. Symbian etc less elegant but popular with consumers!
  • Is developing on iphone the new “buying IBM”?
  • Do a deal with a handset manufacturer – great way to get succeed. Alternatively the mobile operators.
  • Get a trad. media conglomerate onboard
  • Build on an existing brand – whatever it is, as long as it appeals to consumers
  • Advertise on admob and getjar – v popular tho there are others
  • A mention in the Times is good for 10k downloads or more
  • QT new nokia development platform
  • iPhone devleopment is easier than android.
  • Clients only ask for iphone and brands want consumers to have a great experience
  • Other platforms are more difficult and possibly expensive to develop for. User experience can be mixed. But the numbers! The numbers!