Google Currents

At first blush I didn’t know what to make of Google’s new iOS and Android app, Currents, other than it is an almost infinitely better way to consume The Guardian than their own Android app.

After a few hours I’ve got a much better idea, and broadly, I’m not impressed. No URLs, No view-source and half the content I’ve read seems to be partial with a link through to the source website, but within the app so still no URLs or view-source. Very unsatisfactory.

When the iPad came out it got slated for being a consumption device and nothing more. That’s been shown to be false, but Currents takes that thought and runs with it. It’s the antithesis of what reading on the web should be about.

Kindle browsing

The Kindle Touch 3G is the only new Kindle with 3G available and you won’t be able to access anything except the Kindle Store and Wikipedia with it.

My Kindle Keyboard has 3G and I’ve used it, in the case of flat-phone-battery-syndrome, when out and about, to send emails to my family to let them know where I am, that I’m goin to be late, and more. I’ve used it to go on Facebook, and to read Hacker News (via http://ihackernews.com/). I think that yes, OK, it’s a shame that the absence of wikitravel means that this xkcd is no longer accurate, but the loss is greater than that – having such a cheap device with unfettered access to the internet is A Good Thing – I guess Amazon decided the bills just weren’t worth it.

In case of theft

In the last few months, several of my friends have had either their laptops or phones stolen.

It’s only after I really thought what that would mean to me that I realised how serious this would be.

It used to be that if my phone got stolen then I would lose my address book and my text messages; if it gets stolen now then I lose a device which has full access to my Google account, is signed into more than a dozen other web services and has “remember my password” for the others.

If my laptop was stolen it would be a similar effect.

I am a very very happy user of Dropbox and use it to store my documents, photos, and so on. The Dropbox website allows me to remotely remove computers from the list of machines that sync, which is useful, but there’s still no way of then pulling all those files off of that machine.

There are quite a few apps in the Android Market that allow you to back up and then remotely wipe your phone (as well as do other things like lock the install/uninstall process, report GPS position etc.), but I haven’t been able to find something similar for laptops – I could encrypt my hard drive, but would the hit to performance be worth it? I’ve tried setting up Prey, but although it installs on my phone, it chokes on my laptop!

Android apps I have paid for

Droidbox pro (a dropbox client that came out months before the official one, and still seems better)

Jewellust (a bejeweled clone)

BeyondPod (a podcatcher. I have stopped using this since I realised it was trashing filenames)

Reddit is fun (because the author deserved my $1)

Other than BeyondPod, I recommend these paid-for apps. BeyondPod may have fixed my bug, I haven’t checked.

The other 50 or so apps I have are free. I am very much hoping that froyo (android 2.2) comes to the motorola milestone so that I can install apps to the sd card – I keep running out of internal memory!

Adding a bookmark to an Android Home screen

It’s easy to add a link to a URL to the home screen on the iPhone. When you’re looking at a web page, just hit “+” and select “Add to Home Screen”. On Android it’s slightly more involved:

  • Bookmark the page you want to add to a home screen
  • Go to the home screen you want to add the link to
  • long-press in an empty space to bring up the “Add to Home Screen” menu
  • select “Shortcuts”
  • select “Bookmark”
  • choose your bookmark!

The icon you get will be the standard bookmark image with a small overlay of the site’s favicon. If the site provides <link rel="apple-touch-icon-precomposed" href="blah" /> in the <head> then that will be used in preference. Both the iPhone and Android support the apple-touch-icon-precomposed link rel-type so it’s the preferred way of setting a custom icon for your webpage.

Update: I should mention that the resolution of the image you link to shouldn’t be too important but that the Android Icon Guidelines say it should be a 48×48 transparent PNG. I ignored that and used an icon I had lying around that was 256×256 and the OS scaled it just fine. Google themselves use this technique and their image is 57×57. You can find lots of good, free icons for your apps on Smashing Magazine.

Update 2: As rblon says in the comments, there is another way of doing this:

  1. Bookmark the page you want to add to a Home screen
  2. Open the browser “bookmarks” screen
  3. Long-press the bookmark you want
  4. Select “Add to Home screen”

tada!

Sending files to Ubuntu Intrepid over bluetooth

Out of the box you cannot send files over bluetooth to a computer running the latest stable version of Ubuntu, Intrepid Ibex, 8.10.

This is a bit of a problem for me since my main camera is my trusty Nokia N95. What you can do is send files to your phone, and browse its filesystem, just not receive. As you can imagine, there are some open bugs about this. The seemingly recommended solution of installing gnome-obex-server also installs apache2 and sendmail, which seems like a bit of overkill to me.

Enter Blueman. Just add these lines to your repositories config (you can follow these instructions)

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/blueman/ppa/ubuntu intrepid main
deb-src http://ppa.launchpad.net/blueman/ppa/ubuntu intrepid main

and then sudo apt-get install blueman.

A quick click on System -> Preferences -> Bluetooth manager (it took a few minutes for the icon cache to update for me) and you have the new manager for your bluetooth devices. You don’t need to do anything special to be able to send files to Ubuntu now, just click “send” on your phone and you’ll be asked if you want to accept the file being sent. By default the files will be saved into your home directory. There’s more information on the site and in the forums. Have fun, kids!

Symbian to go open source

Nokia have said that once they own the controlling stake (or all) of Symbian, they’ll make it open source within two years under the Eclipse license (see the white paper for more details, PDF).

To my naive and shallow mind, this just leaves games consoles as the major consumer device which doesn’t have an open source operating system on at least one of the major competitors in the market.

N95 on v20 firmware

I think this is an excellent move by Nokia and I look forward to the reaction from the other companies in the mobile device market. It has always seemed insane to me that almost all of the handsets run different operating systems, built from the ground up by the same company that produces the device itself (there are some exceptions around Windows Mobile and UIQ). This seems to be compounded by the fact that almost all the phones on sale compete not on the features of the operating system but on the physical features of the device such as a better camera, GPS, USB connection, build quality, keypad layout and so on. As far as I can tell, the operating systems on all the phones are at a rough parity, and the only thing keeping people locked in to a single vendor is the migration tool that each vendor supplies for moving your data from your old device to your new device. Vendors may like to call this “loyalty”, but I’d really like to see what could happen to the market if customers were no longer locked in by an arbitrary upgrade process and the OS features were equal amongst all phones but they suddenly had to compete by innovation in both hardware and user interface to those features.

I can’t wait for mobile user interfaces to improve, at the moment the devices are massively powerful but we’re constantly hampered by how difficult they are to use (yes, I’m including the iPhone); I don’t think there’s another type of regular HCI that is quite so difficult as that of using a mobile phone.

There’s also now a pretty big question about what they’re going to do with the GNOME-based Maemo platform and UIQ. Maemo will presumably get retired off in favour of the Symbian Touch OS, and with 200 employees of UIQ being laid off, I think we can safely say that that will die too.

I can hardly wait to see a better user interface on mobile phones, and I really hope that this is the kick up the bum the industry needs to see that we get it!

Upgrade Nokia N95 to v20 firmware

After waiting for ages, I have just upgraded my 3-branded N95 (3 are a UK provider) to an unbranded v20 firmware. I think this means I’ve lost some of the X-Series stuff that 3 bundled, but I never used any of it, so I don’t really care.

I also came very very close to bricking the phone a number of times, which will teach me not to try it at 2am without planning in advance. However, this is roughly the process I took. It’s not perfect, I probably do Very Bad Things, but I’m 95% satisfied with the outcome.

N95 on v20 firmware

The instructions I followed were these (there are even some screenshots, unlike this wodge of text), but they don’t apply perfectly to the v12 -> v20 upgrade, although I am going to quote something, as it applies here:

Before I continue: a disclaimer: this is not supported by Nokia or by your service provider. The following procedure is undertaken entirely at your own risk and I take no responsibility if your phone ends up as a rather expensive doorstop.

Some rules (the last one won’t make any sense yet):

  • Once you upgrade, you can not go back to an earlier firmware.
  • Backups made when running the old firmware (e.g. v12) can not be restored onto the same phone with newer firmware (e.g. v20) regardless of whether they were made using “Backup to memory card” or the PC Suite Content Copier, and trying may toast your phone
  • If you care about any of your data you will make a backup using the PC Suite immediately after installing the new firmware and returning the product code to its previous value

The steps:

  • Make sure your phone is fully charged or plugged in to the mains
  • Make a list of software you’ve installed on your phone in case you fry it
  • Sync all your calendar and contact information to Outlook or equivalent (I’m on Vista and selected something like “Windows Contacts and Windows Calendar” from the select box)
  • Run a PC Suite Content Copier backup of your messages and bookmarks – contrary to the rules above, I believe these *can* be restored successfully from a v12 firmware backup to a running v20 firmware
  • Remove memory card (just to speed up the process during the firmware upgrade)
  • Download Nemesis Service Suite
  • Extract existing product code and write it down
    • Load NSS
    • Click the magnifying glass in the top-right
    • Click the “Phone Info” tab
    • On the far right, click the “Read” button and note down your Product Code
  • Update product code to an unbranded version
    • Check the “Enable” box next to Product code
    • Enter your new product code (I used 0536062 which is the code for Euro-1)
    • Click the “Write” button
    • Click the “Read” button to make sure your product code was set correctly
    • Close NSS
  • Run PC Suite Software Update (this is the bit which will update your firmware), your phone may restart several times during this process
  • You are now on v20 firmware
  • Run Nemesis Service Suite and set the product code to the value you wrote down earlier
  • Run PC Suite Content Copier restore to put your messages and bookmarks back
  • Sync your phone to Outlook or whatever to get your contacts and calendar back

The next time you put your memory card in it will attempt to initialise any applications you might have installed on it. They won’t all work. You will probably end up with some weirdly named installer files like 0000ards.sis – you should be able to delete them using the Application Manager.

The outcome:

Your N95 now runs v20 firmware. The benefits are a much, much faster camera, faster GPS, assisted-GPS, better memory management, auto-lock when you close the slider, good integrated search of all your content, better podcast integration with the music player, music player resumes a track from the position when you exited it last, and probably lots more that I haven’t noticed yet.

Also, I obviously messed something up because my SMS were previously stored on my memory card, but they’re now on the phone memory, with no apparent way of moving them back (s60v3 no longer has the C:SystemMail which you used to be able to just copy to E:System). Also I lost my podcast subscriptions (although not the mp3s), so it’s lucky I blogged about them recently.

The danger:

If you get a “Phone startup failed – contact the retailer” message after doing a restore of any part of your data, all is not lost, it just means that you restored some data which is not compatible with this firmware (you have, however, probably lost that data forever). Do this:

  1. Turn the phone OFF
  2. Press the Green call answer button, the * button, and the ’3′ button together.
  3. Whilst holding them, then press the power button, and keep holding the other 3 buttons.
  4. Wait till the phone reboots.

many thanks to Google and “floatlite” for that tidbit.

This was the first time I’d done a firmware upgrade on a phone. It did not go smoothly, and I wouldn’t expect it to go smoothly next time either. My best advice is to make sure that any critical data is backup up separately on your PC in a plain-text format if possible (not just via PC Suite backup – this is a black hole from which you cannot retrieve data whenever you like).

Joel is old

I almost feel bad about this, but it seems like this sacred cow is more like Shambo.

sometimes the elders are right, and the youngsters really are too young to know the history of the idea they think that they’ve just invented.

Unfortunately for Joel, QR codes have been around for over a decade and work very, very well (they’re most well-known in Japan where they appear on virtually every item you can buy, but when British tabloid newspapers like The Sun are starting to run them, you know they’re making inroads in the UK too).The QR code for this blog

Given that he’s talking about mobile phones, and that he says typing URLs is not hard, I can only imagine that he’s never actually done it. Typing URLs on a mobile phone keyboard is an awful, awful experience. If it’s anything other than a simple www.something.com you may as well not even bother, because you’ll probably make a typo anyway. Why do you think there are so many “text us this word on this number and we’ll send you the URL” services?

Unluckily for the consumers who are expected to install new software on their phones line, he also doesn’t seem to realise that some phones do now come with QR code readers built in. Oh dear.

From my point of view, where I’ve been watching QR codes for about seven years, they’ve always seemed like a good idea, but the mobile technology in the West has just been too poor to be able to use them. Now that every man and his dog has a phone which incorporates a 2MP camera and a fully-featured web browser (none of this WAP rubbish) it’s easy to see them becoming more and more popular.

This blogger thinks that Joel should stick to commenting on software, and leave the mobile tech world well alone.

You can generate your own QR codes on kaywa.com.

Listening to podcasts

I do not listen to many podcasts. This is mainly because I used to have trouble syncing a subscription list across multiple PCs. Now I have a Nokia N95 I use that as my primary client. It works well and I have started adding some feeds.

I don’t listen to music podcasts though – I’ve tried and they are almost always too long and players don’t allow me to add a bookmark a place in the hour-long mp3 where I actually liked a song and want to look it up later, or mark a point where someone mentions a URL or whatever.

Also the default media player won’t store information for submission to Last.fm. I also use Symbian OggPlay, an open source C++ app which I’m tempted to see if I build a binary from and add played items storage (although it might just be easier to write from from scratch in Python if all my podcasts are mp3s).

This means the core of my subscriptions are these:

The BBC’s new musc podcasts are all under 15 minutes (AFAIK), which makes them easily searchable and I’ve subscribed to these:

I just about manage to listen to all of these in a week, but I do feel like I’m missing out on some “new music revelation” by not having an adequate player for long music podcasts like those that Alf recommends. Is there anything out there?