What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

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?

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.

Bookmarks for August 5th through August 11th

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I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

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.

Bookmarks for June 3rd through June 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

iPad therefore I am

OK, so I said I probably wasn’t going to get an iPad. On Friday I bought one. I admit it: I’m pathetic.

Dave and his iPad box

My thing with the iPad before I got it was that I wasn’t sure where it really fitted in my life – what would I use it for?

A lot, it turns out.

I went for the cheapest option: a 16gb model without 3g mobile internet access – I have to rely on getting a wifi connection. That’s ok though, because I’m not planning on taking the iPad out of the house much.

The iPad is a simply wonderful device for consuming content. The web browsing experience is superb – quick, beautiful to look at, and the screen size makes it easy and comfortable to browse. It’s also great for watching video content, whether purchased and downloaded through iTunes or watched on YouTube through the dedicated app.

It’s also great for reading other stuff, like PDFs and other documents. They’re presented really nicely and it’s much better to flick through on the iPad rather than either stare at a bigger screen or print stuff out.

The form factor is excellent, pretty light and comfy to hold. I tend to keep mine in landscape mode and find myself sat on the couch with my legs crossed and with the iPad wedged into my knee-pit. This is where I see it fitting in – not replacing my laptop or desktop, but being a comfy thing for checking email and reading stuff when I’m not at my desk. Whenever I’m watching TV these days I’ve invariably got a laptop balanced on the arm of the chair and the iPad will suit this casual use really well.

One thing that is missing is a decent RSS reader. There are problems with all the ones I have tried so far (see below). What I really want is a decent iPad interface to Google Reader – in other words, not an app but a website that renders nicely. For example, Google have created a wonderful interface for Gmail on the iPad, but Reader is stuck with the one that regular mobile devices use – which doesn’t transfer well to the larger screen.

I’ve installed a few apps so far. Here’s what I think of them:

  • Pages – Apple’s Mac word processor redesigned for the iPad. Lovely to look at, and ok to use, though I can’t see myself typing for long periods on the on-screen keyboard
  • MindNode – a great mind mapping app which I have on iPhone and my desktop and laptop Macs. You can share mindmaps across devices if they are connected to the same wireless network, which is neat
  • Kindle – despite having iBooks, the iPad will not replace my Kindle as my e-reader – the screen is just too bright, and it’s the wrong size. But for quickly accessing books for a quote or a reference, having access to my Kindle e-books on the iPad is great
  • Huddle – a really nicely done version of the Huddle iPhone app on the bigger screen. Sweeping and swooshing round projects is good fun
  • Bulletin – an RSS reader. Syncs with Google Reader and allows for sharing of items on Reader, as well as via Delicious etc. It’s ok but not the best looking or the most user friendly
  • Articles – a Wikipedia client. Looks lovely and is quick and easy to use
  • iBooks – Apple’s free app for e-books. Comes with Winne the Pooh for free, and is beautiful. See Kindle above for why I won’t use it much though
  • Dropbox – brilliantly done – excellent for accessing and reading documents. Only downside is getting stuff onto Dropbox from the iPad – easy enough with photos, but what about documents created in Pages? Haven’t figured this out yet
  • Twitterific – the best Twitter client I have found so far
  • GoToMeeting – not used this yet, but Learning Pool have recently switched to GoToMeeting for their webinars and online meetings – apparently the iPad experience is really good
  • WordPress – quick access to editing content on a WordPress site, does the job adequately
  • Evernote – enables me to access my Evernote notebooks and add new notes. Read about what Evernote does here
  • NetNewsWire – another RSS reader. Had high hopes for this, but the sharing options just aren’t nearly comprehensive enough
  • TweetDeck – the columns view is very nice, but I couldn’t access individuals’ profiles or Twitter streams. Very weird.
  • Instapaper – a site for saving items to read later. Never really used it a great deal, but the option’s there if I need it!

I think overall, it’s just a different way of looking at an internet-enabled device. It isn’t a computer, and a lot of the criticisms of it – around the control of the app store and a certain lack of openness around the iPad – is missing the point. Your average person can’t programme it, but so what? If you want to programme your device, get a laptop or netbook.

The iPad is a great living room device. It’s not a piece of office equipment.

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!

Bookmarks for March 30th through April 5th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • The Collapse of Complex Business Models « Clay Shirky – Awesome stuff from Shirky.
  •   Reflecting on my MSc research by Michele Ide-Smith – "By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement"
  • Cinch – "Cinch is a free and easy way to create and share audio, text and photo updates using your phone or computer. Cinch enables you to capture and report on your experiences in a way that simple text just can't do. Using a simple interface, you can make and broadcast your content creations through Facebook, Twitter, CinchCast.com and more."
  • The State of the Internet Operating System – O’Reilly Radar – "Ask yourself for a moment, what is the operating system of a Google or Bing search? What is the operating system of a mobile phone call? What is the operating system of maps and directions on your phone? What is the operating system of a tweet?"
  • Penval’s Digital Inclusion Manifesto – Well done Paul Nash. This is what the digital inclusion debate needs – proper, thought through ideas. Genuinely constructive contributions. Not just people bleating about the problems.
  • tecosystems » Forking, The Future of Open Source, and Github – Is the future of open source going to be based on communities such as Apache and Eclipse or will it be based on companies that sell open source? Neither.
  • Dr Dennis Kimbro & his views on recruitment – Really interesting and thought provoking piece on talent management, and attitudes to it, in local government.
  • In quest of simplicty – "We expect IT to be complex and costly, but the lesson of the past 5 years in IT – where we’ve seen the consumerization of enterprise IT (“enterprise” is often a coy way of saying “this has to be complex and expensive – no questions!”) – is that IT can be both simple and cheap."
  • Law and social media – dull but important – "Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and a also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. "
  • Powerful petitions with real teeth set to bite – "Local people can now demand their councils take action on underperforming schools and hospitals, drink disorder, anti-social behaviour and other concerns under new rules giving real power to local petitions, announced Communities Secretary John Denham today."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.