Clear for iPhone

Last week a came across an announcement for a new product: Clear for iPhone. From the video it appears that Clear is essentially a to-do list, but it has a very clean, minimalist interface that makes very clever use of gesture-based navigation. It caught my interest immediately, and I’m looking forward to the release of this app.

It’s already getting some buzz around the ‘net:

Ars Technica

Cult of Mac

MobileBurn

TUAW

However, as much as I’d like to take this app for a test drive, something on the company’s website really took me off guard:

It’s that whole “like” on Facebook thing. I understand that Facebook is a cheap and easy way to get some advertising. It’s a good way to do some grass roots marketing. It’s also a good way to communicate with potential customers.

The thing I don’t get is why they want me to “like” it already. There’s really nothing to like except a product announcement and a promo video. The product itself isn’t actually available yet. I WANT to like their product, and I hope I do, but I find this request for “likes” a little premature – it’s akin to asking me if I like . . . well . . . pretty much anything before you’ve let me try it. How do I know?

From watching the video, the UI is going to be pretty cool. But let me at least try it before you ask me to like it.

Open Up the Platform!

News is now spreading across blogs that Apple has finally approved Opera Mini for the iPhone. (Need it? Get it for free in the iTunes store.)

So what does this hold for the future? In the short term, I hope this means Firefox for the iPhone. I like Firefox, and I’ve been hoping to see an iPhone version for some time. For the long term, does this mean that Apple is changing its stance on apps?

For those who don’t know, Apple has officially been opposed to apps that duplicate core iPhone functionality. That has been interpreted to mean that since the iPhone has a built-in e-mail client, you can’t make another one for it. Since the iPhone has a built-in telephone application, you can’t make another one for it. Since the iPhone has a built-in web browser . . . well . . . you get the picture.

Given all that history, the fact that the Opera Mini web browser is now available for the iPhone, could be huge. Or it could be nothing. At the very least, it could be a sign of Apple opening the door for some changes. However, as many developers have experienced, Apple can slam doors just as quickly as it opens them.

I’ve played around with Opera Mini, and I’m not impressed yet even though I like the tabs. Opera Mini actually seems a little slower than Safari on my phone, although others are experiencing better results. Faster or slower though, I hope that Opera’s approval by the App Store reviewers bodes well for things to come.

Evernote and Cloud Data Failure

As a general rule, I don’t like my data in the cloud. Let me go ahead and get that out there so my prejudices are fully disclosed. I use it because I must, but I don’t like it. The primary reason I don’t like it is a practical one: data in the cloud means that you have to be able to connect to the cloud, and far too often, I can’t. Living and traveling in a largely rural area, network coverage is far from ubiquitous. And no network coverage sometimes translates into no data. Setting aside security concerns and the additional hook into my devices that each application seems to want, connectivity is my main concern.

Until recently, that is. Several months ago, a friend recommended Evernote. There are a lot of things I like about Evernote. I like the clipping feature, and I like the IDEA of being able to access my notes from many locations. Unfortunately, I recently lost a lot of data to Evernote. As in POOF – gone forever.

I was recently on vacation, and I started making some travel notes with Evernote. As luck would have it, my vacation area didn’t have great coverage, and Evernote had a lot of trouble every time it tried to sync with the Evernote server.  Initially the result was relatively benign but nevertheless annoying: sections of content would be duplicated several times throughout the document. I had to scroll up and down, find the old stuff, find the new stuff, delete the duplicate stuff, and save it again. Annoying, but doable.

Until the very last day. Over the course of my vacation I spent several hours making notes so that I could remember specific details about the trip. And then the last day everything disappeared. Well . . . almost everything. I still have a blank document with a title, but that’s all. Everything else – all of my CONTENT – is gone. It happened after one of those periods when my local application was trying to phone home. Apparently something went awry, it couldn’t connect properly to the Evernote server, and Evernote inexplicably thought that I wanted to delete all of my content. Grrrrr. Double-grrrrr even.

These were just vacation notes, true. It wasn’t critical work/medical/financial information. But the principle is the same. I relied on the cloud. The cloud ate my data. The cloud failed. The scary thing is that more and more companies are pushing data for mobile devices into the cloud. While the idea is a good one, the execution is everything. If you’re going to eat my data, I really can’t trust your service. Moreover, I can’t in good conscience recommend it to others.

Palm Pre Advertisement on My iPhone

A lot of the “free” apps available for the iPhone are ad-supported, so as you tap away on the device you are confronted by a host of ads with various levels of intrusiveness (depending upon how nice the developer is). I recently downloaded an app called Dots Free. The ads in this one are small text bars that display at the bottom of the screen. Not very intrusive at all really, so it was just kind of happenstance that I noticed one of the ads invited me to check out the new Palm Pre. Right there . . . embedded in my iPhone app . . . a Palm Pre ad. Too funny. Now of course Apple isn’t running this ad, but given the animosity between the two companies, I found this decidedly amusing.

palm_pre_ad

Sometimes you need a little chuckle. And I still think the Pre is a pretty cool device. 😉

A “new” type of privacy problem?

We hear about a lot of different types of computer-related security issues these days – hacking attempts, virus infections, phishing scams and the like. At the recent American Library Association annual conference, I noticed a couple of behaviors that reminded me that not all security breaches are high-tech escapades.

On a couple of different occasions during the conference, I was typing notes into my laptop during a session when the person next to me leaned over, stared at my screen for a few seconds to see what I was typing, and then went back to his/her own notes. I was a little shocked, but probably not as offended as I should have been. I realize that these people were probably just trying to catch a few words that they might have missed during the presentation. I didn’t have any sensitive data on the screen so it shouldn’t have been a big deal . . . but it still feels wrong. Maybe it’s because I was taught that it’s impolite to come up behind someone and read over their shoulder without being invited to do so. Or perhaps it’s because a complete stranger very pointedly read my screen. Whatever.

My next example falls along those lines as well. Think about all of those nice, glossy iPhone screens we’ve all gotten so used to seeing. One thing about them – they’re big – at least compared to a regular cell phone screen, and their size makes them pretty easy to see. A couple of times during the conference I noticed people leaning forward in their seats and staring fixedly at an iPhone in the row in front of them. Now maybe they were just trying to figure out what that cool app was so that they could download it later. Or maybe they just had to know what that person was tweeting or texting. But again, it just feels like a no-no.

It kind of reminds me of those social engineering horror stories in which someone was duped into typing in a password while another person just stood behind them and watched their keystrokes. The big difference though is that there is no duping here. In some cases perhaps people are just being rude while others are being careless. In a lot of meetings it just doesn’t really matter because everyone is busy trying to get the same notes, and their isn’t a security issue at all. But increasingly I see people absolutely buried in their laptops and cell phones, logging into e-mail, Twitter accounts, and all manner of other services without being aware of their surroundings. Let’s just hope none of them are sysadmins with the keys to the kingdom, eh?

Oh, the Irony: eBooks, the iPhone, and mE

<begin rant> Okay there was no reason for writing it as "mE" except that I’m fed up with companies that use funky capitalization to try to make themselves and their products stand out. </end rant>

I’m currently at ALA for the annual conference, and I realized something shocking today. I brought a book with me. A paper book.

Does that sound counter-intuitive – being shocked at the idea of someone taking a book to a library conference of all places? Well it shouldn’t, but for me it is. I’ve owned PDAs and/or smartphones for around 10 years, and one of my very first and very favorite applications was iSilo, a book reader. I’ve upgraded each time iSilo had an upgrade, and it was easily my most heavily-used application. Since I had this great book reader I really liked, when I traveled I just took several eBooks along on my handheld. Less to pack, a variety of books, easy, convenient. I liked it so much and it worked so well for me that I stopped taking books along. Sometimes I would buy a buy while traveling, but I had basically reached the point where I didn’t take them with me anymore.

Enter the iPhone. For various reasons, I just couldn’t stay with the Palm OS any longer. After switching to the iPhone, iSilo was one of the first apps I downloaded. (Incidentally, I was right in the middle of a book when I made the switch.) Unfortunately, I really dislike the iPhone implementation of iSilo’s autoscroll feature. I used it all the time on the Palm. Loved it. iPhone implementation? Not so much. The iPhone’s limited battery life and iSilo’s autoscroll problem have conspired to make me really go easy on actually using the phone. Yeah, that’s right. I’m afraid to use my iPhone too much, because I’m afraid the battery will run down leaving me unable to receive a call or send a text at the end of the day.

So . . . as I was heading out the door for ALA I picked up a paper book I bought in the airport on the way home from my last trip. Totally weird. I bought a new device that I thought would help me enjoy eBooks even more. But the limitations of the device and the program have actually pushed me back to paper. Who would have guessed?

My Love-Hate Relationship with the iPhone

 

So it’s my third week into the iPhone saga, and I’m still wrangling with mixed feelings about it.

 

First the good.

 

The interface is nice.

 

There are a lot of apps. Everyone knows this. Cool apps, useful apps, fun apps, dumb apps. There are a lot of all of them. I’ve installed a number of free and paid apps, and they’re fun to play and experiment with. Take Shazam for example. I really appreciate the fact that people would make such a ridiculously useful application available FOR FREE. SplashID is a particularly good paid app. My old standby, iSilo, is here, but I don’t find the implementation to be quite as useful as it was on the Palm Treo.

 

Now let’s talk bad. I’ve talked about a lot of these before. I was kind of dreading some of these before making the jump to iPhone, so I knew they were there. They weren’t all surprises. I’m going to spend a little time writing about specific things I have encountered as a user.

 

I have to start with battery life. Have. To. I use my phone a lot, and I use it even more at conferences. During times when I can’t get a WiFi connection, I can still check e-mail on my phone. And I do. Regularly. I check my voice mail. I read books. I look up things on the web. I use text messaging a lot. The iPhone’s battery life leave a lot to be desired.

 

I’m currently three days into my first conference with the iPhone, and I find that I’m seriously modifying my behavior to work around the limitations of the device. I’m trying not to make as many calls. I’m definitely looking up far fewer things online. E-mail use is about the same as on my old device, but text messaging is down quite a bit. Seems that such a cool device would compel you to use it MORE, NOT LESS, but the reality is that I have to use it less than my old phone just to make it through the day. On my old phone, if the battery ran low, I just . . . you know . . . swapped it out with another one.

 

How ’bout that GPS? While I’ve been working my way through Chicago for this conference, I’ve turned the GPS on a few times, to check for restaurants, distance to conference hotels, etc. If you’re going to have a GPS, it needs to be least be, oh . . . how ’bout . . . accurate? In my experience, the GPS on the iPhone 3GS is anything but accurate. As I was riding to a conference hotel on the shuttle today, I check my location to see how close I was. My location on the map jumped by several blocks not once, not twice, but repeatedly throughout the trip. Oh, and that GPS really eats the battery.

 

Now let’s talk about syncing the device. I knew it was going to be bad. I didn’t know it was going to be THIS bad. I have a very basic need: I need to be able to sync calendar and contact data across the phone and multiple computers. I did a lot of advance reading, and it sounded like MobileMe was the way to go. I fought with MobileMe for days. I repeatedly wound up with duplicate contacts. As I moved through my circle of computers, by the time I made my way back to the starting point, I was repeatedly cleaning up duplicates. I tried merge, delete, replace . . . nothing seemed to do the trick. MobileMe failing me, I next turned to Google. I tried the calendar sync with some success. I tried the contacts sync and eventually wound up with 4 total contacts for each entry I had started with. Too much cleanup, so I’m back to just calendar sync. Beyond the duplicate data, these sync attempts also randomly deleted data. Sometimes part of a company name would be missing from the contacts list. Sometimes characters were be missing from calendar entries. This experience fails on so many levels that my frustration level has been through the roof. Staying up all night to achieve the most basic of functions isn’t really much fun.

 

Even the data that I can move between computers is at best clunky. I can (somewhat) sync calendars, contacts, and notes by connecting a cable and clicking a button. SplashID data sync requires a convoluted process whereby I have to set up an ad-hoc connection from the host PC and connect to that. iSilo? I have to turn on an internal FTP server to push data across since the hard drive in my iPhone doesn’t really want to act like a hard drive.

 

It’s frustrating that such an elegant and useful device has these shortcomings. I like the iPhone, but I don’t really feel that I’ve made a major leap forward. I feel that it has been primarily a trade-off of one set of shortcomings for another.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of iPhone things.”

Yes, at long last, I’m finally going to bite. I put in my order for an iPhone 3GS, so I should have a new gadget sometime in the next couple of weeks. I’ve arrived at this decision with somewhat mixed emotions. I’ve written before about some of my concerns concerning the iPhone. Apple has addressed some of these, but I still have some concerns:

1) No user-replaceable battery
2) No native sync with Microsoft Outlook Notes
3) No direct sync with multiple computers without paying for Apple’s MobileMe service
4) No currently available version of ListPro for iPhone (one of my most heavily-used applications)

Each of these is a very real and very serious concern for me, but it’s time for a change. For the past couple of years, I’ve been using a Palm Treo 680. I’ve owned a few Palm devices over the years, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of functionality with them. In the rapidly changing network-oriented world though, the 680 is showing its age. The web browser has limitations. The device itself is subject to increasing crashes and random reboots. I’ve started experiencing some data loss. And finally, there just aren’t a lot of cool new applications hitting the Palm OS market.

I’ve watched the news of the new Palm Pre and WebOS very carefully, and it looks promising. However, the device is currently only available on Sprint, and there are no Sprint retailers in my area. There are rumors that AT&T and Verizon will carry it next year, but nothing has been confirmed. I’ve played with a couple of iPhones, and there are a lot of nice features to the device, so I finally decided to give it a try.

However, the number of workarounds I’ll have to employ to achieve my current level of Treo functionality is a little daunting, so I’m starting to compile a sort of checklist to work through once the thing finally arrives.

1) First there is the infamous MobileMe. Why should I have to pay $99 per year just to be able to sync my data with my various computers? Answer: I SHOULDN’T. I’ve been able to do this with every single Palm I’ve ever owned. Every one. all of my data. I frequently find myself in areas where there is no network connection for my computer, so an over-the-air sync just isn’t an option. Besides that, I still don’t want my data to live in the cloud. Apparently though, that’s the Apple way, so I’ll have to sign up for a MobileMe account.

2) Then there is the Chapura sync. For some inexplicable reason, Apple has decided that the iPhone’s notes application shouldn’t sync with Microsoft Outlook’s note, so I’m stuck with another yearly subscription: $9.

3) ListPro. I’ll admit to being pretty stumped with this one. ListPro is a great product, and I’ve used it on my Treo and desktop computer for years. Unfortunately, Ilium Software still hasn’t managed to bring an iPhone version to market even though one is perpetually in the works. I’ve seen a couple of alternatives, but they don’t seem to be as full-featured. I would really hate to think that I have to go back to carrying two devices just so I can have the full PDA functionality that I need.

4) Documents To Go. I use Documents to Go occasionally – not extensively – but often enough that I don’t want to give it up. Strangely enough, the iPhone version just showed up in the App Store a couple of days ago. Strange. Stranger still that you can only edit Word documents. Excel editing will be introduced in some future version. And unfortunately, reviews for the first version are pretty bad.

5) iSilo. iSilo is pretty far down on my list, but it’s actually one of my most-used applications on the Treo. At least that’s ready to go, right? But it’s not without its headaches as well. If you need to transfer several files to the iPhone all at once, you’ll have to activate the program’s internal server! Twelve pages of instructions on how to do this! And this ain’t iSilo’s fault. Come on Apple, can’t you make things just a little easier?

6) SplashId is another heavily-used app in my arsenal. I’m very attached to the Palm version and the associated desktop application. From the documentation I’ve seen online, this looks like it will be the easiest to get up and running, but time will tell.

Switching to a new device always takes some time, and there are always some bumps in the road. Even thought I’m ready to enjoy some new technology, I’m not not looking forward to dealing with quite so many bumps.

Thinking ’bout that cloud thingy

Seems like every couple of days we’re hearing more about data in the cloud. I’ve thought about this one in considering the iPhone, and I’m still thinking about it as I read more about the Palm Pre. One of my biggest gripes about the iPhone has to do with synching data across multiple computers. I do this all the time with my old Palm Treo. I drop it in a cradle attached to my desktop computer, I drop it into a cradle attached to my home desktop, and I connect it to a cable attached to my laptop. The frequency varies, but the long and short of it is that if I’m in a network dead zone and I need to get something from a computer onto my handheld (or vice versa), I can connect a cable, push a button, and I’m done. Not so with the iPhone. If I need to sync data across multiple computers with the iPhone, I have to subscribe to Apple’s $99 per year MobileMe service. Even after subscribing to that service I wouldn’t be able to sync the way I want to: I can’t simply connect the two devices with a cable and push a button. MobileMe depends upon having a network connection so that my data can copy itself to Apple’s server in the cloud. Eventually the updates trickle across the network to the other computers. As I read more about the Palm Pre and Palm’s new WebOS, it seems that this device will follow the same path, and that disappoints me.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I simply may not want some of my data to live in the cloud. Yet I still need to synchronize with multiple computers. What’s a person to do then? But ignoring the fact that I don’t want all of my data to live in the cloud, there are other considerations. I live in an area with MANY network dead zones, so it simply isn’t always even possible to sync data. Let’s think about travelers. Do you really want to pay for an hour’s worth of network time in every airport you pass through just to keep all your data synchronized? Probably not.

I’m trying to keep an open mind about cloud data and apps. Some people love it, and it works well for them. That’s great for those people, but it shouldn’t come at a cost in functionality. If data synchronization with the cloud is just another option, then that’s a good way to go. Nothing wrong with giving people options. But why take away functionality that already works? Don’t do it, Palm!

Kindle 2

After the obligatory period of speculation, Amazon’s Kindle 2 has arrived. It was announced a couple of weeks ago amid much fanfare and hoopla. Initial reviews give it good marks, but time in the hands of actual end-users will tell the tale. It looks like the design has seen some improvements, and I’m glad to see any type of e-book technology make a little headway. Engadget enjoyed a grand unboxing yesterday, so we’re off to the races.

In thinking about e-books, e-book readers, and how libraries might approach this technology, a number of questions come to mind. One question, however, stands out above all others: How do we free licensed e-books from the tethers of vendor web sites? Most of our e-books are viewed through the Adobe Acrobat reader or through some other proprietary format that depends on having a plug-in installed on a desktop computer. While this is sometimes okay for searching technical manuals in the office, this is completely unacceptable for extended reading. Many vendors who peddle e-books to libraries kind of miss the point that THE REST OF OUR BOOKS ARE PORTABLE. If the e-book is tied to a vendor’s server, then users are also tied to that server. That means that the users must have a computer and a persistent network connection to access the content. Even the tiny netbooks out on the market don’t match the portability of a book.

If we can’t get past that question, then the other questions become even more difficult. I’ve read of a number of libraries asking whether they should offer specific devices for accessing their e-book collections. Assuming that they could work out appropriate licensing with a vendor, do libraries really need to get involved in supporting another exotic technology? Maybe – maybe not. Depends on the library, its resources, collections, and the needs of the patron base. Not all patrons will even want to read electronic books, but for those who do, libraries would probably be better served by letting patrons pick their own reading devices. The Kindle 2 and Sony’s Reader are both viable options, but so is the iPhone. As smartphones become smarter, there will be even more options for both hardware and software.

Libraries have enough to do just trying to make sense of the formats. Take a look at NetLibrary’s Full-Text eContent FAQ. In trying to support NetLibrary, libraries are looking at three different plug-ins: Adode Reader (Windows), Schubert-It PDF Viewer (Mac), and DJvu Reader (Windows/Mac). Go to ebrary, and it doesn’t get any better. They have three different versions of a proprietary book reader. Amazon’s Kindle supports Mobipocket books, plain text files, and – you guessed it – Amazon’s own proprietary format. Sony Reader supports PDF, TXT, RTF, SecurePDF, and ePub. Few organizations have the time, inclination, or resources to support so many competing formats.

In spite of all that though, there is a growing market for e-book content. If the publishers could just get together on standards for formatting and server-free licensing, that could do a lot to really help the market take off.