Posts from the iPhone category

Mobile Platform Integration

The line between native and Web apps is beginning to disappear.

iPhoneThis is part of a series of posts about the Apple iPhone and the future of the mobile Web. With regard to the upcoming release of an iPhone SDK for native, third-party apps: keep in mind that Web apps are growing in popularity and functionality.  Many predict web apps will one day render the desktop tower more or less obsolete.  As apps like Google Mail/Reader/Docs/Calendar, Basecamp, Todoist and the rest become more ubiquitous, online file storage like .Mac and become cheaper/easier/faster, and bandwidth pipes become less of an issue, the day will come when files and applications are all run online, and users log in through a thin client OR EVEN A MOBILE DEVICE to establish their identity and to operate the data and applications.  Google is banking on this.  You can bet that Microsoft is working to create Web-app versions of their software.  Apple seemed to be on the same page with the original, abandoned Safari SDK, and with the Google Maps and Search integration on the iPhone. What happened?  Some have suggested that the problems involved got too complicated just to fix them instead of working around them. I don't know if that's true, but  Apple has certainly been mum about it.  In any case there is no denying that Web apps will certainly play a large part in the next generation of computing. There will clearly need to be further integration of the two platforms (web and native).  Many of Apple's most useful apps are already integrating into a blend of desktop app that uses online services...and what's really beautiful about them is the way that they run transparently in the background without making a big deal of their online tasks. iPhone/mobile apps should really attempt to emulate this. Internet-dependent processes should happen quietly, when the iPhone has bandwidth and battery power to use for these tasks. The user shouldn't have to monitor or adjust or push too many buttons to make these things happen. Most apps are used for repetitive tasks.  As such they should be streamlined as much as possible.  Mobile apps should have ten times the amount of streamlining, both due to slower bandwidth and processor speeds, and to the fact that they are mobile "on-the-go" pieces of software that should allow you to enjoy you life and take part in the world around you instead of standing around pushing buttons. In our world, reliable and ubiquitous wi-fi is not a reality yet.  Even cell/EDGE service is not available constantly.  (Think airplane.)  The iPhone should be a tool that is adapted to that fact - when internet or EDGE connections are unavailable, data that might be needed later should be stored natively. Services that require real-time information from the web should use the web.  The difference is simple, yet the tools have not been created for the development community yet.  As bandwidth and connectivity cease to be an issue, more of the iPhone's computing can rely on services "from the cloud".  In this kind of environment, the line between Web app and native app will begin to disappear. So although there are some who say that Apple is missing the boat by not sticking with a Web-only platform, I say, for the good of the iPhone and mobile computing, use whatever it takes to get the job done...but use your platforms to the fullest of their capabilities instead of allowing them to be crippled by technical restraints that, ultimately, can be overcome.  Not by third-rate hacks or Band-Aid workarounds, but by matured, full-fledged development environments that can be programmed to do the repetitive tasks for you while you get on with participating in real life.  Bottom line: Don't forget to consider the technology available to the world you're in right now while you plan for the possibilities of the future. This is part of a series of posts about the Apple iPhone and the future of the mobile Web. Stay tuned. Next up: my iPhone wish list...

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Safari SDK Snafu

Was the failure of the Safari SDK anticipated by Apple?

In my last post I wrote about mobile application design and how form should disappear in the face of function.  The implementation of MobileSafari on the iPhone comes so very close to giving developers a toolkit to accomplish this with pizazz, but there are a couple issues holding it back from its full potential:
The "dev kit" that Apple offers doesn't allow access to the phone's features. This was covered in my last post. Lack of access to the camera, microphone, speaker, alerts etc. hinder iPhone apps from being fully effective. MobileSafari's support for Web standards is subpar.  The implementation of the Web standards that Apple touted as an application development platform are disappointing.  Javascript behavior is slow and unreliable, and even some CSS properties do not behave according to the Web standards that Apple touted as the future of the iPhone.
This may have come as a surprise to Apple.  As far as I know they have never said outright that the Safari browser and its Mobile counterpart can behave like two different animals, but as someone who spends a lot of time with both, I know it to be true.  This is something that I had considered worth overlooking for a while as the platform was improved on; but rather than fixing the current problems and bringing MobileSafari up to speed with JavaScript handling, iframe display, and the rest, Apple seems to be applying Band-Aid fixes instead, by using custom CSS and Javascript events that work around existing limitations. At the VON conference this fall, I heard the claim that Apple never second-guesses themselves, that every move is planned well in advance.  While I don't doubt that this is true, this claim was accompanied by the assertion that Apple never makes a mistake.  That the 3rd-party SDK later release was intentional. That the sucky Safari SDK was never intended to be the "real" platform for the iPhone.  Even that the $100 early-adopter rebate was all planned from the beginning. I don't really agree with this stance; I obsessively read everything iPhone-related that I could get my hands on for MONTHS, and I follow Apple pretty closely.  While it's true that they haven't taken many false steps since Jobs came back on board with the launch of the original iMac and the iPod, there have been a few recent products that weren't exactly flops, but I'm sure they didn't go the way Apple planned them to. Part of the reason I would hate to think that Apple made no mistakes is this: if the whole Safari SDK - price drop/refund - 3rd-party app saga was all part of some grand scheme on Apple's part, that would qualify in my book as majorly planned obsolescence.  More than I'm comfortable with, in fact.  Especially as a Web developer - so what, was Apple just messing with my mind?  I don't my (imaginary) type of relationship with Steve Jobs is Walt Disney exactly, but I don't think it's Ike Turner either. The idea that everything Mac is orchestrated perfectly from on high might work somehow...except for the fact that some things with the iPhone haven't gone as initially (publicly) planned.  And the planned obsolescence angle just doesn't fit the company's profile.  Sure, tech stuff (and especially gadgets) improves in leaps and bounds.  I spend thousands of dollars every year chasing the newest carrot that technology dangles in front of me; I'm a total sucker for that.  But I think this is just a little too off-track to be intentional.  Apple has been plenty cool about people hacking their iPhones, and I don't doubt that they are working as hard as possible to achieve maximum development AND maximum profit at the same time.  So I disagree that the whole thing was planned from the start; I'm chalking it up to "bumps in the road" that will one day lead us to the modern mobile Internet that I envision. I am, of course, interested in your opinion.  Do YOU think the whole iPhone timeline has been completely engineered?  Let's talk about it in the comments of this post. This is the second part of a series of posts, starting with the present and leading us into the future of the mobile Web. Stay tuned. Next up: Integration of mobile app platforms...

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iPhone Apps Should Disappear

Lack of Web app integration prevents digital transparency.

iPhone with transparent screen
When I imagine a "digital lifestyle", it is long on "lifestyle" and short on "digital". I picture a level of integration between tech (iPhone, home computer, web applications and services), life (home, family, travel, friends) and the digital tracings of my life (photos, video, music, design, blog/microblog/ tumblelog) that allows me to enjoy what I'm doing without thinking about transferring from real life to digital.  It just happens, at least it does in my mind's eye. The advent of the iPhone had made it seem like the "digital lifestyle" was ready to integrate in this way.  Unfortunately, the actual product and process has fallen short of this mark. Apple's announcement that they are releasing a "real" iPhone SDK for native third-party applications is good news for the iPhone.  Applications so far, whether they were Safari Web apps or hacked native apps, have been restricted to a fairly primitive set of features. The main reason for this: no integration with the features that should make the iPhone a mobile wonder: camera, microphone, speaker, accelerometer on the hardware side, and Address Book, Calculator and Clock on the software side.
A good mobile app should be as transparent as possible while allowing you to complete the intended function.  They should take little energy and attention to operate. Save that for desktop apps - when I'm using my mobile the last thing I want is to be "that guy" who spends the entire time at a social event tapping away at his phone. Here's an example: since I'm always Twittering from my iPhone, I often get people wanting to see pictures of something I'm doing, while it's happening.  So I will post to my tumblelog, or to my flickr account, and then direct them to that location via my iPhone's Twitter client.
It takes 15 button presses to shoot and email one of my photos. FIFTEEN!  I won't be tiresome and list each one, but that's what I came up with.  This could easily be streamlined by an app with access to the iPhone's camera AND the Web.
I can only share the photo's address via a general URL.  Since there is no copy/paste on the iPhone, once I've uploaded my photo and I want to share it, I might Twitter/text/etc. a link to the general location: "Check out my photo on Flickr, I'm colbyworld" or "Photo on my tumblelog at".  This doesn't provide a link that people can save or share, once I've uploaded a new set of photos the one I'm trying to share will be buried.  I know there is a remarkable Flickr-to-Twitter service available...but what if I want my photo to go to Facebook or Tumblr? How about all four? Not to mention other sites like Radar, MobyPicture and the rest. There are methods of emailing photos to upload to these services, but no standardized method of tagging/titling/commenting.  This could be handled by an app that stored prefs and login/API information for the different services.
At this point, I'm fussing with the iPhone when I should be doing something fun. If I wasn't doing anything exciting I wouldn't want to share a picture, right? About the time I get to step 8 and I'm fumbling with tags and deleting my signature from the email so it doesn't appear in the Flickr comments, my fiancee is frowning, my baby is squirming, and my Twitterpals still have no picture. A fully integrated app could slim this down to only four steps:
  1. Open the app.
  2. Take picture.
  3. Select options: take more pics, review/tag/edit, upload to (flickr, tumblr, blog, select socnets you want), post to (twitter, jaiku, pownce, tumblr, facebook etc). Most of these will be pre-set as preferences, so no selection would be necessary.
  4. Press "Done".
The app would perform basic enhancements (this is something else conspicuously missing from the iPhone), tag, upload the picture, then post a link to it on your Twitter/Flickr/Tumblr/Facebook/etc. account.  Unfortunately this just isn't possible yet with the tools that Apple has given us.  Cookies aren't stored reliably, there is no place or method for storing local data, and there are NO ways to access the cool features of the iPhone that could transform it from an Internet-capable device to a true multimedia wonder.  This keeps us coming up with workarounds and hacks, and expending more effort than we should have to in order to maintain the "digital lifestyle" that Apple has been selling us.
A primary goal for mobile apps should be TRANSPARENCY.  Hopefully with the release of a proper SDK, iPhone apps can help us slim down the button-pushing and get on with the fun. This is the first part of a series of posts, starting with the present and leading us into the future of the mobile Web. Stay tuned. Next up: Was the failure of the Safari SDK anticipated by Apple?

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