Category Archives: Gadgets

Unifying the mobile platform: why the iPhone is really important

The reason why the iPhone is an important phone is not because of its shiny gadgetness or its touch interface. It’s not even important because it’s the first serious media player to be combined with a phone.

It’s important because of its web-based approach to application development. I believe this approach will spawn other manufactures to follow suit and in turn we will find ourselves with a truly unified development platform not owned by any single vendor or manufacturer.

Right now developing applications for mobile phones is a pain with no single way of rolling out an application to every phone (or even the majority of phones) on the market. Sun’s J2ME was supposed to solve all this but instead we still have a chaotic environment of different MIDP profiles, screensizes, capabilities and even carriers who prevent unsigned (read: non-rev-shared) java applets from running on some of their phones.

This is kind of what the world of computing was like before the Internet – when Macs wouldn’t read files created on PC’s and vice-versa. The internet came along and a common set of standards were created that allowed documents to be interchanged between any computer. Later on we managed to coerce those standards into lightweight applications that more often than not provide all the functionality we needed.

I believe we are finally going to see this happen on the mobile phone. Apple is leading the way by promoting the iPhone’s Safari browser as the development environment for the iPhone – but there is no reason why this can’t be emulated on other phones too.

Apple is setting the bar for future high end phones and the way to achieve the kind of features they are offering on other platforms is to also go the browser-orientated route too. That’s what will convince phone manufactures like Nokia and Sony Ericsson to focus on the browser in their future phones and in turn unify the platform for all of us.

The other ingredients are in place too. Opera is a great little browser on the phone and until today’s iPhone release was by far the most advanced mobile browser for javascript and early-ajax functionality. I’m sure they’ll be looking to partner with (or even sell to) a major manufacture to continue it’s development. Microsoft is already investigating this area with DeepFish, although it’s not current available for general use.

Google’s significant backing of Firefox development and its interest in the mobile space must also guarantee something is going on with Firefox. However we in the community need to make sure that the Mozilla/Firefox engine doesn’t get 0wned by Google solely for their benefit in the Google phone.

But not going to get one today…
So I swung by the Apple store in downtown San Francisco to check out the scrum just as they opened their doors at 6pm to start selling the iPhone.

It was chaos and there’s no way in the world I’d have wanted to spend more than a few hours in that environment – certainly not a 24hrs+ in line.

Most of the people queuing up wanted it because it’s the latest cool shiny gadget – and that’s fine, but it doesn’t float my boat. But it was interesting to spot a few interesting faces in the line, such as Netvibe’s Tariq Krim, who were buying it “solely for the API”. Tariq doesn’t even live in the US but can see the benefit of having one to build out Netvibes onto.

Personally, I’d love one for development but I have no interest in it as a consumer phone nor do I wish to be an AT&T Mobile customer.

Today it’s all about the “I have it first” crowd – and that’s not a head space I think is all that positive. I certainly don’t want to be part of it, but it’s one that Apple feeds off with great success. “A marketer’s wet dream” as my wife described it.

I look forward to reading the inevitable technical reviews of the phone and the official development documentation to grok when I need to build something for it. I also want to see what Blackberry, Nokia, Microsoft and Sony Ericsson have in the works in response.

(disclosure: Orange France Telecom is currently a significant client of mine, although I do not work in any mobile-related area for them. I do work on a project that is a competitor to Netvibes, mentioned in this article.)

Something *big* from Steve Jobs next week?

If Apple have decided to announce the new upgrades to the MacBookPro line up a week before the WWDC then one can only presume that Steve must have something really big for his keynote.

Apple announced mostly ho-hum upgrades to the range, so maybe not Job Key-Note worthy on first glance… However all-new LCD backlit screens in the 15″ MacBookPro were part of the announcement, and I’m surprised the environmental PR of this wasn’t capitalized upon in a keynote setting.

(MBP’s are now one of the first mercury free laptop ranges available – which is good for the environment. Apparently.)

OT: $30-off Apple Store coupon going spare

Sorry, this is a little off topic, but I just got an email informing me I won a runners-up prize in a sweepstakes I entered at a conference.

MacBook Pro

Sadly, I’ve won a $30 off coupon for the online Apple Store (catch being you have to be spending more than $400). I say ‘sadly’ because as regular readers will know, I don’t use nasty proprietary and DRM-laced Apple products.

However, I know many of you worship like Apple so if you’re due to make a purchase before the 24th of Feb, please feel free to use this code:

Through an exclusive arrangement with Apple Store we are please to send you the enclosed coupon code for $30 off a purchase of $400 or more. The codes is good through midnight 2/24/2007 so don’t delay. When you get to the “Payment” page in the checkout process simply enter the following code AFFT3HNNZE in the “Promo Savings” section and select the “Apply Promo” button to deduct the $30 from your order.

I’m guessing it will only work once, so once it’s gone: it’s gone. If you do successfully use it please can you leave a comment so that everyone else knows and I can clear the post!

Update: This is not an affiliate link/code, I’m not going to profit in any way from the use of this code – I just thought I’d share it because it’s of no value to me.

Do WiFi-based VoIP phones really scale?

Over on GigaOm blog, Om Malik notes the sudden discussion/hype of WiFi VoIP handsets, making particular reference to today’s New York Times article on the subject.

(One should note that Belkin just released a WiFi Skype handset, just behind similar offerings from Netgear and SMC… So similar in fact, they are probably all from the same OEM)

SMC Skype WiFi handset

One of the aspects people don’t seem to be talking about is how ‘aggressively’ the phones automatically connect to open WiFi. Frankly, there are issues both ways, regardless of whether they connect to anything available or only when one explicity tells the unit to connect to a given base station.

As a consumer, I would expect that any such device (whilst sitting in my pocket) would be constantly monitoring the available wifi access points and connecting to the best open wifi coverage accordingly – unless a known private hotspot was in range. This is what I mean by ‘aggressively connecting’ – and is essentially the same method cell phones use to ensure they are constantly online.

I’m yet to get my hands on a NetGear/Belkin/SMC skype phone but I’m lead to believe that they don’t do this. I’ve had a go of the Sony Mylo and was disappointed to see that it needed to be instructed on which base stations to connect to. It wouldn’t just conncect automatically to anything going.

This seems to really miss the point. How can I receive incoming calls via a SkypeIn number if the phone is not online unless I tell it to connect when I’m about to make an outgoing call?

The reasons I’ve heard for this decision include:

  1. Device makers removing any liability. If you explicitly connected to an open wifi node, then you are liable for any legal issues that raises. If the phone auto-connects than the device manufacture is. It’s a grey area, of course, as to whether connecting and using someone else’s WiFi connection without their permission is really legal or not.
  2. Pressure by Skype on not having to process a constant flow of reconnects as you pass between coverage. Skype is a propriatary application, of course, so Skype could easily stipulate such functionality as part of any agreement with the OEM.

    BTW, it’s alleged this is one of the reasons why using mobile phones in airplanes is banned – over land your phone would be constantly negotiating with base stations due to the speed of the aircraft – increasing the load on the mobile network.

  3. The possibility that the idea doesn’t scale… if you lived in an urban area with an open WiFi node, and everyone had auto-connecting phones you could suddenly find your base station having to deal with a constant flow of say 20 or 30+ connections at any time. This would reduce performance and over time lead to more people taking their WiFi private. With fewer and fewer open WiFi nodes, much of the selling point of these phones is thereby removed.

As much as I am excited by the possibility these phones raise, the last point seems particularly valid.

As the prevalence of WiFi devices increases, esp into second-tier usage like phones, surely we can only expect a dilution of open WiFi nodes?

People offer open WiFi for different reasons: out of kindness, out of service and out of ignorance.

Kindness only goes so far, and if that kindness is abused then the availability is simply taken away. So many devices connecting to poor Joe Brown’s WiFi router is only going to abuse that kindness – and perhaps lead to it’s closure.

Service, such as coffee shops, is slowly closing up too. I’ve noticed recently many places are now only giving out WEP/WPA keys on request (so no auto-connect on your phone if you don’t know the code) to prevent those from accessing who are not customers. There’s also a lot of discussion, especially here in San Francisco, as to whether coffee shops should remove Internet access altogether, to stem the tide of such establishments becoming nomadic offices for Web2.0 startups, etc.

And ignorance is slowly changing – many routers now come closed by default and people are understanding more about the equipment they are buying… perhaps that’s a good thing as I do feel it unfair to use someone’s internet connection if they didn’t knowingly intend for it to be used publicly.

So I still don’t know what to make of these phones. If they don’t auto-connect then they seem a bit pointless.

But if they do auto-connect, and loads of people have them, then the additional load on people’s WiFi may ultimately have a negative effect on the availability of open hotspots. And that would have an adverse effect on all of us laptop users, not just VoIP WiFi handset owners.

iDon’ Part I: an poor response to an important issue

For those who have missed it, SanDisk have launchediDon’“, a propaganda site with the following call-to-action:

Calling all free thinkers, contrarian’s and malcontents. The time has come to rise up against the iTatorship To resist the monotony of white earbuds and reject the oppressive forces of culture conformity.

(BTW: someone should tell SanDisk that using apostrophes in urls that are not actually valid is a very bad idea)


iDon’’s aim is clearly to persuade people to consider buying MP3 players other than Applei iPods. However the site falls short of any ‘fact’-orientated reasons why non-iPod units should be considered. Instead SanDisk duck-out by linking to third party sites to do “the dirty work”.

Aside from parody sites the best SanDisk can come up with is, which highlights the problem with iPod batteries often only lasting 18 months and being hard/expensive to replace. I’m not a big fan of iPods, but even I have to admit that I believe this issue has been resolved in more recent iPod generations.

Other than that, the site seems to be light of any facts, and somewhat perversely relies on the same kind of “pseudo-slick marketing” that they themselves have a problem with Apple using.

This is post could also be titled “How not to run a ‘skunkworks’/’blackops’ site”.

  1. Don’t get your corporate marketing department to build the site. This site reeks of it!
  2. Harness the power of the blogosphere. This site has done nothing to get itself part of the blogosphere. It’s got a blog but it’s hidden and under-used
  3. Don’t use Flash. How can bloggers (or anyone else) link to key parts of your site? Also, if you want to be “dahn wit’ da kidz” AJAX is the way to go. This site could certainly have been built with AJAX if they had found the right design team
  4. Get your facts right Have facts. Get some balls and take on the real issues like DRM. These types of sites are aimed at a highly discerning and cynical crowd. Don’t treat them like idiots.
  5. If you’re not going to “implicate” your company by mentioning it at all on the site, at least register the domain such that the whois doesn’t say it’s registered to your company!

People who read my blog will know that I hate iPods, both for the fact they’ve become an exclusivity-item (it’s just a bloody music player!) and more importantly the long-term issues of the public’s lack of awareness around the DRM lock-in that the iPod has created.

The latter issue seems such a missed opportunity it makes me want to weep. In Part II I’m going to outline the real issues a secondary MP3 player like SanDisk should be focusing on.

MacBook keyboad really sucks

I’ve just got back from the London Apple Store, having wanted to try out the MacBook for myself.

I’ve got a few notes, but the main headline for me is how much the new keyboard sucked.

MacBook keyboard

The MacBook sports an all-new keyboard consisting of flat, square, widely spaced keys. They look beautiful and minimalistic (AppleInsider has some great shots).

But as soon as I got down to typing on them… eeek! In order to reach the keys it felt like I had to splay my fingers out really widely. Try holding your hands in front of you and splay your fingers so that they are as wide apart from each other. That’s how it feels to type on this keyboard. I don’t have particularly small fingers either.

I was still able to type, but my speed and accuracy was reduced drastically. Aside from the wide spacing, the flat keys offer no tactile confirmation of your finger being on the centre of the key – a really important thing if you’re a touch-type like me. Most keyboards, including my Thinkpad X32, have ridged keys that dip in the middle so you know where the centre lies.

I wasn’t the only person voicing keyboard concerns around the MacBook display either. I wonder whether it’s going to become an issue, especially for those who have ordered online without even trying the new machine out first?

A few other points to note:

Black Casing
I have to say the black casing does look very cool. That’s partly because it’s reminiscent of the old-school black Mac laptops and partly because I’m known for my love of black.

However I’m a bit concerned about the fact it’s matte-black. Those paying the extra $200 for the dark aesthetics may find that their purchase looks dated in a year or so compared to the more time-less white. I think it’s because it’s not glossy-black like the iPod black option.

Glossy screen
The high contrast glossy screen is new for Apple, but has been a feature of many laptops, including Sony VAIO’s, for sometime. However under the bright halogen lights of the Apple store the, the glare was really annoying.

The Apple sales person kept setting the MacBook to show a photo gallery of highly optimised photos (which looked wonderful on the screen). But whilst trying to type on a high contract black-text-on-white-background environment like MS Word, the glare became a little annoying.

I’ve not spent a great deal of time in Apple stores – I went to the one in San Francisco (hey it’s practically a tourist attraction) and I’ve been in the London one once before. However I was really taken aback at the upsell, near-hardsell, I was getting from the Apple staff. (is that normal?)

“Hey, well this is really more for students – you should think about the MacBookPro”

…was the line I got twice from the sales guy. I was really taken aback because he hadn’t really asked me what I was going to use it for so I wasn’t sure how we would know that a MacBookPro would be more appropriate.

He also got really funny about things when I said that I wanted to remove OS X and put just Windows on it “because the MacBook was a good Windows option for for the spec you for the price”.

Clearly I had offended his Apple’y feelings by diss’ing his beloved OS!

So I don’t think I’ll be buying a MacBook. I just can’t get on with the keyboard, and in many regards it’s form-over-function taken too far (IMHO). It’s also given me a reality check as to why I don’t like Apple hardware.

You can check out MacWorld’s review for an alternative perspective.

LG Chocolate phone

Last week LG sent me one of their new “Chocolate” (KG800) mobile phones on loan.

I’m a bit late blogging about it, but rather than immediately blogging “ooh shiny”, I wanted to give it a real trial before reporting back…

For a start, it’s worth pointing out that I tend to hate mobile phones and the mobile phone industry. In particular I’ve discussed before my lack of interest in the “secondary mobile phone company” products, namely the non Nokia/Sony Ericsson phones from companies such as Samsung, Motorola and LG.

The KG800 packaging is practically Apple-like. It resembles a chocolate box (same shape, look/feel, etc) and opens up to reveal different compartments for the charger, USB cable, hands free, etc.

Personally, I’m not fussed either way about packaging, but I’m minded of Joel Spolsky’s Etech05 presentation on the importance of aesthetics and emotion being an important part of people’s perception of a product.

So, look, I’ll admit it – the phone itself is a much prettier and classier designed phone then I expected from a non-European manufacturer. My experience of Asian-manufacturer mobile phones is that they are usually not quite as visually stunning as their European counterparts. In other words, they tend to focus on functionality, or size, instead of the Joel Spoolsky-observed aesthetics/emotion concept.

Some of the things I like about the phone include:

  • Overall design – the all-black shiny body with low-profile screen is v nicely designed
  • Build quality – the slider on the phone feels really solid
  • The touch-sensitive buttons are great
  • The dimensions of the phone, its less than a cm thick
  • The menu system, generally speaking, is as intuitive as a Sony Ericsson T610/K750

However there are a list of things that I was slightly disapointed with:

  • The phone scratches easily (it comes with a little draw-string bag, but it’s quite impractical to keep the phone in there and answer it in time before it diverts to voicemail)
  • The port on the phone to plug in the charger, USB cable and hands-free is really tricky to pull out and I keep thinking I’m going to rip it from the thin bit of plastic it hangs from. Considering the phone needs charging every couple of days, it would have been nice to have had a stand for the KG800 to sit in (and charge from a port in the base of the phone).

The biggest disappointment – or tease at least – has been the hands-free mic which doubles as an mp3-player remote. When I saw it, I thought the phone was going to be an amazing mp3 player. The remote has all the buttons you need in addition to doubling up as a microphone for the hands-free system – it’s pretty cool.

However the KG800 only has 128MB of memory to store MP3’s on – which is practically nothing (maybe 1 or 2 albums max). Sadly there are no slots on the phone to upgrade via external memory cards.

I’m not quite sure why LG released a phone with a really nifty mp3 remote that only contains 128MB of RAM because clearly you aren’t going to have many tracks to warrant a remote control… oh well.

So don’t get me wrong, I do like the phone. But clearly it’s been designed for a particular style-conscious market such as those who currently own Motorola V3 RAZR and SLIVR phones. It’s not for people who want strong personal information management applications, etc.

Even without the sweet little remote the phone stands up as a nicely designed, easy to use, uber-cool mobile.

Of course, if you’re looking to trade in your Crackberry, then this phone is not for you. But if you’re in the market for a style-phone then I’d certainly recommend the LG Chocolate Phone to you.

I give the LG KG800 8/10.

Mobile Phone Moan

The UK mobile phone market is simply uninspiring at the moment. I’ve been looking to get a new phone and calling plan, but having investigated the options I’m deeply disappointed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the poor current choice of phones and payment plans (in the UK at least) are the result of hollow marketing and greedy market distortion.

I need to upgrade my phone as I’m still using an ancient Sony Ericsson P900 that’s on its last legs. But having visited London’s biggest mobile phone shop (and also reviewed several dealer websites), I’ve come away with the view that the current market’s range of phones leave a lot to be desired.

Range of handsets

For a start, there simply aren’t many phones to choose from at the moment. Nokia and Sony Ericsson each seem to have about 4 main phones out at the moment. Combined with a few others from the secondary manufactures (like Motorola, LG, Samsung, etc) you’re left with a realistic choice of abut 15 different phones that are less than a year old. That doesn’t seem too many to me.

Come on, we all know that the likes of Nokia and SE know exactly what phones they’ll be shipping between now and Christmas 2006. What we are seeing on the high street today is the net result of handset manufactures sitting on new models, holding back innovation, whilst they squeeze the last drops from their current ranges.

The other thing that strikes me is most of the current ‘hot phones’ are simply iterations of older models. We’re not even talking evolutions – just iterations:

What’s the point of releasing a new RAZR in hot pink months after the original launch of the phone in black and silver? (It’s been a failure too, shops are discounting them heavily)

Call me a cynic (or naive), but the biggest disappointment was discovering Sony Ericsson’s “Walkman Phone,” the W800i, was nothing more than ‘pimped up’ case for the Sony Ericsson K750i, bundled with a 512MB Memory Stick Duo card (a £20/$40 value). For that you seem to pay the equivalent of twice the street price of the K750i.

The guy in Car Phone Warehouse described it as a “Lifestyle choice”. You can either have the (deliberately designed) ‘boring’ black K750i or go for the “up sell” swinging orange and white W800i. Apparently it’s a ‘lifestyle choice’ as to which suites you best.

And what’s the genuine difference between the Nokia 6680 and the Nokia N70 – other than a minor difference to the case and a better camera (whoo!)?

Really expensive plans

Competition in the market should mean constantly cheaper mobile phone plans. But I’m shocked at how much mobile phone plans have gone up in the past 18 months or so. It seems to me that carriers are not interested in providing plans that cost less than £30 ($60) a month.

They also now want to push you into an 18 month contract, rather than the traditional 12 months. I don’t want to locked down to the same contract for one and a half years – the mobile landscape (hopefully) will look very different in that time and my needs might change between now and then.

I’m also disappointed about the complete lack of viable mobile web tariffs. Paying £2($4) a MB to download data to your phone is still prohibitively expensive (and on 3G that could get dangerous – potentially 50p ($1) a second if you’re streaming something!).

With the announcement of city-wide WiFi coming to London, I think the mobile phone companies are really going to shoot themselves in the foot if they don’t start offering their customers mobile web options very soon.

Some smart phones already have wifi in them (it’s a £10 part to add) and there’s no reason to assume other phones won’t go this way too. Plus, if you carry around a laptop or PSP with you then you arguably already have a better browsing option with you than a mobile phone anyway.


So I’ve come to the conclusion that I am going to opt for the most heavily discounted, shitty basic phone I can find – and use it just for calling and sms. So far that seems to be this deal from Chatterbox – a Nokia 3120 for the equivalent of £2.99 a month on Orange. But don’t take that as a recommendation!

Cool PSP case recommendation (+ giveaway!)

(My apologies, I’m on a bit of a run with PSP blog posts at the moment)

Following on from a recommendation on PSPFanBoy, Sofia and I bought a CoreCase case for each of our PSPs.

We’re both really happy with them, so in the ‘word-of-mouth’ spirit of the blogosphere I thought I would do a short write up here.

The USP of the CoreCase is that it doubles as a nice little stand for your PSP. Lift the flip-up lid over the screen and click it against a small magnet located on the back of the case. Put the opened case on a desk, aeroplane seat tray or other flat surface and the PSP is set at the perfect angle to watch movies on! Sofia mainly uses her PSP solely for watching movies, so for her it’s ideal.

a side-ways look at the core case opened out

The Core Case is made of thin-profile metal aluminium, and feels strong whilst remaining light and non-bulky. The case doesn’t get in the way when playing a game in your hands either – which is obviously important.

It has some nice features – including easy access to the power and ear-phone sockets when the case is closed, and room to store two Memory Stick Duo’s in the inside of the lid.

The only downside is that you can’t change UMD disks whilst the PSP is in the case – but that’s no real biggie as the case slides on and off the PSP with ease (nothing to lock in or screw out).

If you’re in the market for a PSP case, you can’t go wrong at less than US$15 each – and you can get them directly from

BUT I’m pleased to say that I have one up for grabs to give away to a reader of my blog! Corey @ included an extra Core Case in our shipment and so I’m happy to give that away…

All you need to do is leave a comment below and I’ll pick one at random in a weeks time or so… Best of luck.