05.15.10

Fun with the iPad

Posted in Mobile at 2:58 pm by mike

So I decided to get my wife an iPad for mothers day that MPSharp needed to do some iPad research (business requirement), so I picked one up at Best Buy a few weeks ago.   Went for the 64G version with no 3G, thinking that I really didn’t need to give AT&T more money on a monthly basis.  Also, given the iPhone 3G is getting a little long in the tooth, I figured it was time to jailbreak it and turn it into a mobile hotspot for the iPad.   I’d already added mobile hotspot software to my HTC Touch Pro 2 (Tilt 2) and the iPad works great with that.   The question was how much work was involved to jailbreak the iPhone.

So it seems it seems that jailbroken iPhones are now widespread enough to have their own app stores.    Jailbreaking the phone is now idiot proof.   Download the Spirit  jailbreak program, connect your phone, run the program, click “Go” and you’re done!   Installing the hotspot software was a little trickier.   I actually paid $9.99 for MyWi, which also required another jb app store manager called RockYourPhone.  Of course, as soon as I paid for that, I found a free one called PDANet.  This got me wondering about the market for jb iPhones and how many of them there are.   Last year, Cydia reported almost 500,000 visitors a day (I’m sure they are well past that now)  It’s an interesting testament to Apple’s business model.

So back to the iPad.   A few observations:

  1. It’s heavy. It’s too heavy to suspend in the air for any length of time.   Even trying to watch a 5 minute YouTube video is a little too much.   I suspect stands will be a hot selling item, especially if you want to watch a movie on an airplane, or some such.
  2. Lack of Flash sucks.   I sincerely hope Apple loses this fight.  I did find an interesting Bookmark hack called iTransmogrify which pipes the video through YouTube to make it iPhone friendly.   This helps to a small degree.   As usual, there are some JB solutions such as iMobileCinema, but I’m not excited about jailbreaking the iPad just yet.
  3. The screen is difficult to read in outside daylight.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very compelling device.   Browsing through the JB iPhone is useable, but it seems to go much faster through the HTC which has been hacked for HSDPA (4G) performance.  It really seems to get the most use as a TV companion device.   It currently shares the coffee table with a laptop, and it’s interesting to see which device you want to use for what.   For instance, I’m using the laptop to write the blog (the on-screen keyboard is much better than the phone), but nothing really beats the lean back browsing experience.   It’s obvious the device will have an infinite use as a remote control, even if it’s made obsolete by newer versions.   I just installed an RDP client on it today and used it to play music on the HTPC.   I happen to know there are a number of  interesting IR solutions out there made for the iPhone, they’ll be even more usable with the iPad, but even an old iPod Touch will work in this case.  I’ll wait for the price on those to drop a bit.  Next thing to try is some book reading, but I still think the device is going to be to heavy to do that comfortably.

Finally, it wins hands down for one handed browsing while feeding a baby.

02.28.10

One Month with the HTC Tilt 2

Posted in Mobile at 9:36 pm by mike

So I’ve been happily using an old Samsung Blackjack (the original) for at least 2 years now (maybe more).   Turns out there was a recall, and AT&T sent me a new one for free about a year ago, so I had a new phone again.   Recently, HTC offered a trade in program with $100 credit for my Blackjack if I upgraded to an HTC phone. (This offer has been extended through April)   Given my upgrade cost for the Tilt 2 was $150 with a $50 rebate from AT&T, free smart phone #2 was a no-brainer.

I was able to upgrade the old Blackjack to WM 6.1 (which provided support for the on-board GPS), hence most my needs were being met by the following apps:

  • TCPMP for streaming RadioParadise and KQED (NPR)
  • BeyondPod which downloads podcasts directly to the phone
  • Built-in Outlook for work email
  • Google Maps (with GPS)
  • Skyfire for full Javascript and Flash support
  • Tethered Internet connection

The Blackjack even supported Bluetooth Stereo A2DP.   In short, 3 years ago, I was doing everything with WM 6.0 and the Blackjack that the IPhone couldn’t.    Lately, they finally relented on the streaming media,  added support for A2DP and I hear Outlook support is improved (assuming you fork out the $ for the apps that support them), but you still have to doc your IPhone to update your podcasts and we know Apple will never pay Adobe a penny for Flash, though I imagine they will give up the ghost on tethering soon.

Of course, Safari on the IPhone is still the most usable hand-held browser out there (even sans-Flash), and Pocket IE on WM 6.1 is nothing for anyone to be proud of.    Skyfire is an interesting solution, but the experience still leaves much to be desired over a 3G link.  But I still find putting  WMIE in mobile mode, and setting the home page to nytimes.com, makes a fast and simple news reader.

So I was basically looking for three things in my next phone: a bigger screen, a better web browser and Wifi support.   I also knew I had to have a full keyboard.    When the Motorola Droid was released, I seriously started considering a purchase, until I was offered the Tilt 2 free.

The Good

So the Tilt 2 is AT&T’s branding for the HTC Touch Pro 2.   Even though this phone is almost 1 year old, it still has an impressive feature set with a 3.6″ 480×800 touchscreen, full QWERTY keyboard, GPS, WiFI, BT and a 3.2MP camera.   Some features I’m quite happy with:

  1. The keyboard:   The buttons on the keyboard are very big, which is perfect for someone with large thumbs like mine.   I have a very hard time typing on my wife’s IPhone on-screen keyboard and also hate the fact that screen rel-estate is lost.

    Nice fat keys for fat thumbs

    Note, while the letters are in standard QWERTY positions, they replaced the numbers in the top row with commonly used punctuations.   So the : / and @ characters are easily typed without a shift function.   The downside is that all numbers require a FN shift, but a simple double press on the FN key acts as a numlock, so the trade-off feels like the right one.

  2. Standard mini-usb connector!  It means I find an extra data and charging cable at the local dollar store for $1.29 (no shipping) and I can charge using the same USB/Car Converter used by my wife’s IPhone.
  3. Seamless Bluetooth connectivity.   The new phone coincided with the purchase of a 2010 Mazda CX-9 (welcome to family life).   Once I paired the phone, it switches to the car speakers seemlessly and downloaded my phone book to the car’s system.   Through newer BT protocols, the touchscreen GPS/control system on the car can select and play music and podcasts from the phone.
  4. Swapable battery.   I was easy enough to find an extra battery for $12.99 at the CellPhoneShop along with a standalone battery charger, which includes a USB port as a bonus.   Throw in a $1.29 mini USB cable, and you have an extra phone charger as well.
  5. Active Sync vs Disk Drive vs Tether:  Each time you plug into a PC, it gives you three choices, and I often switch between all three modes.   It’s the little things that count.
  6. 16GB HDSD card support.  I’m still using the 4GB card I had in the Samsung, which made moving my data over trivial.  Waiting for the price to get under $20 for the 16GB versions.
  7. Touchscreen (sometimes).   Below, I don’t have many nice things to say about the touchscreen interface, but there are a couple apps where it seems to work well: Outlook, GoogleMaps and BeyondPod.   When using the web browsers, it turns out to be a bit of a wash.
  8. ROM Development Community.   It seems HTC is quite open with their specs, allowing the Mobile hacking community to create all sorts of customizations.   I probably won’t try this unless I need the phone unlocked for Europe.   There’s also a dual-sim adaptor available!   This seems to be a common hack in the Far East.

The Bad

So as with any device (and especially Windows Mobile 6.1 as pointed out by Ballmer) there are a number of disappointments in store as the technology is just beginning to catch up with what we really want.

  1. No standard headset connection.  I told a small fib when I said the phone had a standard mini  USB connector.   They actually added a few more pins to support the headset connection.   Any mini cable still works for data and charging, but you have to use the same connector for the headset.     If you want to use a standard headset, they make this screwy connector which also allows you to charge the phone while the headset is plugged in. This is a passable solution for the other car which doesn’t support bluetooth, but it’s just another accessory you are forced to buy (they give you one with the phone) rather than using standard headset or even just ear phones for listening.   It does provide another mini-port, so you can use the HTC headset and charge at the same time.
  2. Windows Mobile 6.5 IE.   Much to my suprise, OOTB, the phone is configured with Opera 9.5 as the default browser.   I decided to try IE with the touchscreen “Zoom bar” (more on that later).    IE was configured in desktop mode, but it basically crashed the first time a tried it, and pretty much everytime after that.   I finally switched IE to mobile mode, and it was much happier.   As mentioned above, I only use it to read nytimes.com now.
  3. Opera 9.5:   As I was writing this, I went to the Opera web site and just downloaded the 10.3 Beta.   Although it doesn’t crash, I was disappointed at the performance.   Also, it seems very reluctant to use the WiFi interface (I haven’t put a sniffer on my network to prove this), but I notice no difference when I hook up to WiFi in the Opera browser performance, while BeyondPod and Skyfire scream on the WiFi connection.
  4. Touchscreen Performance: Best I can tell, the key problem with the phone (and WM 6.1) is the response time to touch actions.   Sure, the WM UI isn’t designed for a touch screen, and things generally work better when using the stylus, but there’s a terrible delay when using a browser between when you slide your finger across the “Zoom bar” and when the action actually takes place.    There are a number of hacks you can make to the phone to improve performance.   I guess I don’t understand why these aren’t done OOTB.
  5. FM Radio.   Why waste the electronics space when every FM station in the western world also has an Internet stream? Also there’s no way to enter a radio station address, you can only search?   Create more space for heat dissipation, and turn up the processor clock.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the upgrade from the Samsung Blackjack, especially given the cost (OK, it was actually $38 in sales tax).   Two of my three goals were hit head on: bigger screen & WiFI support.    Bonus value was a better keyboard and better BT connectivity.    I haven’t given up hope on the web browser just yet.    I now have Opera 10.3 to play with and WM 7 is around the corner and looking compelling.   And if for some reason they don’t make the upgrade available, then I can always reprogram the ROM and install Android…

09.25.09

Microsoft: You can’t play Apple’s Game

Posted in Mobile, Windows at 8:32 pm by mike

So I read the NY Times Zune HD review last week and I hope every Microsoft employee is experiencing the embarrassment I feel for them.  The feature set reeks of committee compromise.   It’s obvious that so many different parts of Microsoft needed to have their say in the Zune design that none of them won, and the goal became to make the second best media player in the world by copying a couple features from the best one.    Rather than play up Microsoft’s strengths against Apples weaknesses, the Zune HD tried to hit all the IPod’s strong points, and comes out second best.   Somehow, even in Job’s absence, Apple was still able to maintain rigid control over every touch, click and byte over every product they make.   This IS NOT Microsoft’s strength and they will fail trying to emulate it.

What Microsoft does best is give their development community fantastic tools for expanding the platform.   This is the one area where Apple still lags far behind Microsoft.   I say this as a Mac enterprise application developer who is currently suffering the pain of lack of binaries compatibility between 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6.   But if I believe this review, Microsoft has abandoned developers for the Zune HD.

One example I have to mention is NControl.   This is the best remote control application I’ve seen for Windows Media Center.  And BTW, it runs on the IPod/IPhone platform.   Where is the Zune version?   Sorry, you can’t even start working on it yet because according to David Pogue the development environment and Zune app store is closed.   I have a very difficult time believing this, especially when I see other announcements about XNA Game Studio and the like.   If this isn’t true, Microsoft needs to get the NY Times to correct that part of the article.

So where can Microsoft trump Apple?   The one evil thing Apple does is lock it’s users into a box which they are not allowed to escape.   Now, Apple marketing does a wonderful job convincing customers they really want to live in that box, and life will be better if they just give Apple their credit card numbers, and never leave the box.    Google has already begun to play on that theme by making Android as wide open as possible, and they must snicker every time the see Microsoft try to pull the Apple trick.    But there are at least three places Microsoft can win while making Apple look like the evil empire:

#1: Jail-Break everything!

Take the handcuffs off the developers and let the hacking community loose.    So much time is wasted fighting the DRM requirements for media that developers are losing interest in the Media Center platform.    Take a hard look at XBMC.  There’s simply no way that a company the size of Microsoft can compete with their development community when it comes to innovation like this. Rather than try to create a poor mimic of that interface, provide a mechanism for it to tie into the CableCARD pipeline and MCE recording engine.    Yes, I know the legal issues surround DRM are non-trivial, but Microsoft is one of the few companies in the world with the resources to manage the Entertainment industry’s legal charge to their own death.

At the same time, open up the XBox to anyone.   Sure, some small percentage might be lost to Linux gaming stations or crypto decoders, but it’s never going to be enough to effect the bottom line and that minor revenue loss will make up for itself in marketing value.    It’s a much better solution than what you have today, where people buy the machine anyways, hack past the DRM and then just promote more bad press against the Microsoft experience.

Furthermore, this obviously puts Apple on the defensive, since they need to keep their users in the box to micro-manage the experience.   It appears Microsoft is trying to emulate this with the Zune HD, and it’s a fatal mistake.

#2 Build a mobile browser that works on ALL WEB SITES

Another area where Apple convinces it’s users the IPhone box is a good place to live.   You can’t stream video or audio through Safari.     Meanwhile, Skyfire (which has been blocked from the IPhone App Store) has done it for Windows Mobile with a Proxy RDP browser architecture.  Every Flash, Silverlight, Javascript, etc.. site works perfectly!   With the Zune HD touch controls, you’d have all the slick touch controls of the IPhone, but without boxing in the user.  The only problem they run into is when a site decides to block their proxy.   I assume Microsoft could correct such misunderstanding much faster than a small startup.    A full web browsing experience could the the killer app to take a big bite out of the IPhone.

#3  Support the development community

Of course Microsoft hasn’t abandoned their developers, but they certainly weren’t included in the Zune HD announcement.   The community needs Microsoft to do a couple things.   One, solve the hard grungy problems, like CableCARD OCUR specs and running Flash and Silverlight on the same handheld device.   Two, provide a roadmap through the plethora of Microsoft API’s and SDKs especially with respect to the three screens and the cloud.   How about some $1M contests and prizes for the best Zune/Mobile app, or the best combo 3SC app?  Apple basically abuses it’s development community, counting on the fanatical user community to beat them into submission.   That strategy will not work for Microsoft, and I fear the company is trying to emulate Apple in this respect as well.   The danger here is all the interesting applications get pushed to IPhone, Android and Palm.   There’s still no Stitcher app for Windows Mobile.   It’s now been pushed to your third or fourth port after BlackBerry, Android and soon Palm WebOS.

Now that Microsoft is releasing some amazing products (W7, XBox, Zune HD hardware),  it’s time to go back to Microsoft’s roots, and focus on the developers.   There’s plenty of cash in the coffers to throw at the development community, and the bang for the buck has to beat a Windows 7 launch party.   This is the place Microsoft can win big and avoid the large company politics sucking the life out of product development.

06.29.09

Hulu is now blocking Skyfire

Posted in Mobile at 4:38 pm by mike

I downloaded Skyfire on June 24th, tried Hulu and thought it was cool. Tried it again the next day and figured I did something wrong.  Nothing but silence on the Skyfire forum but plenty of twitter action: https://twitter.com/#search?q=skyfire%20hulu.

I sucks if they have to play the same game Boxee does.   Hulu has definitely thrown a wrench in their spokes.

Also found a few folks on AnandTech who have the same issue.

After some thought, it’s pretty obvious Hulu wasn’t about to let this stand.   Apple has established that people will pay for phone access vs desktop and Hulu is looking for ways to monetize.   Furthermore, given that Skyfire uses a proxy architecture, I suspect they are violating Hulu’s EULA.    That architecture also makes it very easy for Hulu to block them, just like they do for non-US proxy sites.

Here’s to hoping that Hulu goes for a Netflix subscription model which will give you access anywhere.   I suspect that’s a pipe dream as well…

Update: 7/13/09 There’s now a thread on the Skyfire forum, with Skyfire folks saying complain to Hulu.   Note that fancast and other sites still work fine.

06.23.09

Skyfire for Windows Mobile Phones

Posted in Mobile at 10:20 pm by mike

I’ve had a Samsung Blackjack for sometime now which I’ve been pretty happy with.    Been thinking it would be nice to have Wi-Fi support, but the Windows Mobile 6.1 web browser pretty much sucks, so instead, I use my wife’s IPhone to surf the web.     I just discovered Skyfire and life is suddenly so much better.   Not only can I now surf the web with a sane interface, I can also watch Hulu from the phone, which Steve Jobs sayeth is not allowed on your IPhone…    Time to seriously consider the Propel Pro or HT Fuze.