Saturday, April 24, 2010

Switching to Android: Part 2 - Apps

In the second part of my Switching to Android series, I am going to talk about the apps, including my own (see left - I just uploaded Andro Flubber to the marketplace where people can download it for free).

Apps were probably my biggest hangup with switching to Android, at least now that the hardware is (in the case of the Nexus One at least) slick enough to feel good in use. Apps and the fact that almost every music appliance we have at home has an iPod/iPhone connector on it anyway - more on that particular hangup another time.

So, when I got the Nexus, my first task was to find apps, in some cases equivalents to those I was already using on the iPhone, and in other cases, new apps that you can not get on the iPhone for various reasons (often because Apple doesn't let them through the approvals process).

Let's take a look at some of the app equivalents for those I used heavily on the iPhone first:
  • Music and multimedia apps: I came to rely on music applications like Pandora,, various internet streaming radio and of course the built in music player on the iPhone. Happily there are equivalents for all of these in Android, and they work better (for one thing, they continue to play music when you switch to another application). I currently have installed on Android: (with scrobbling for music you play in other apps too!), Pandora, XiiaLive, Slacker, Listen (for podcasts, includes background downloading), bTunes (a replacement player for music on the SD card) and RadioTime. There are many more, perhaps I am missing some good ones, but these have all my uses covered.

  • Next most used on iPhone was eReaders, in particular Stanza. Sadly there is no direct equivalent for Stanza yet (this is an area where Android is definitely behind right now). Aldiko and WordPlayer are both excellent reading apps, but they don't have the content deals worked out with fictionwise, books on board and others right now to be able to purchase and download books, and as much as I like reading classics, I like reading bestsellers too. lets you buy books and has an application for Android, but it's a bit clunky - nowhere near as slick as Stanza. Kobobooks is looking hopeful too, but their reader is so immature as to be unusable (for example, it goes back to the beginning of the book each time unless you remember to bookmark it before closing the app - heaven help you if a call comes in and you forget). If Aldiko can get some content deals, or Kobobooks can improve their player, or if (as I hope) Stanza gets in on the act, it will be a great solution. For now, Android gets a C+ for effort, but eReading is something I used my iPhone for a great deal. One little bonus though is that WordPlayer will read the books out to you using text to speech - a neat feature, but of course not for best-sellers just yet.

  • Next up in my list of importance is Navigation/Maps. Android is almost universally ahead here. Of course, there is the killer feature - turn-by-turn directions in Google maps (with voice, street view, etc.) but in addition there is Latitude (which was rejected by Apple). Latitude on Android rocks - it updates my position for my friends to see in real-time if I turn it on (on the iPhone, you have to visit the web page to get your position updated). Layar is another great app - overlaying the world with virtual labels for all sorts of data. MultiMap and OruxMaps have great support for OpenStreetMap data (including OpenCycleMap), and finally Google's My Tracks rounds out my favorites - tracking and recording of your rides, runs, hikes, etc. with full altitude profile and trip statistics available. Google places directory gets an honorable mention too - see what's around you - I don't use it much, but it's useful sometimes.

    There are a couple of disappointments though. Surprisingly, Google Earth is better on the iPhone (no reason for it to be that I can tell, it just is - e.g. no tilt with accelerometer support on the Android one), and another app I used a lot on the iPhone - everytrail, lags significantly in features (on the iPhone it lets you search for nearby trails and download them to follow, on Android it is record and upload only!).

  • Communications next - in particular messaging. Google talk is built right in to android and has background notifications, Hi AIM is a free (at least for now) AIM client that has background notifications too, and there are many other options. The GMail app is easily the best mobile gmail application I have seen. Twitter is well served - everyone knows seesmic, but I have actually been using (and slightly preferring) Twicca myself. Google voice is built right in too - wonderful online service and wonderfully integrated into Android (for example, I can choose to have just international calls routed through Google voice automatically, and it also doubles as my visual-voicemail option). Foursquare has an app that is the equivalent of the iPhone one, and the facebook app that comes with Android works just fine. Android is again ahead here in my judgement, just because of background processes and the freedom of applications to make it onto the platform :-).

  • Productivity and other assorted items: the only real hole here for me is, strangely enough, Google tasks. Just like the iPhone there is the online mobile targeted site, and that works fine as long as you are online, but I was surprised there was no local app that your todo list synced to on Android, hopefully it is in the works (as I tend to live and die by gmail, calendar and my tasks list). Calendar is fine (although I feel it could do with a UI makeover), syncing to the google calendar is perfect so far, and as I mentioned above it has the best mobile gmail app I have seen, but the lack of offline tasks, as well as features like location awareness for tasks, is a hole. For notes, there is evernote, wikinotes (I had to mention it) and many others, News and Weather built in options are good, but there is also the Weather Channel app which is worth a look.

    In the other assorted items category, Shazam is available (thank goodness) and works as expected (if you don't know, Shazam listens to music playing somewhere and tells you what it is). The integration with the Amazon music store is good for impulse buys too :-). Google shopper is nice for sanity checks while shopping. Photo management also shines - the ability for new services to register themselves as send options means that you can install flickr uploaders that work with all apps capable of sending a photo, or send it via twitter or IM, etc. Very slick.

  • There are also some apps for which there is simply no equivalent on the iPhone, at least not yet. For example Goggles - which is like Shazam for images (take a picture, tell me what I am looking at). I mentioned My Tracks already, and turn by turn directions in Google maps. Listen - mentioned in multimedia, gives a real podcast client - one that actually just automatically downloads podcasts directly to the phone so that they are available for offline listening whenever you want. SqueezeControl gives me remote control over my squeezebox (there might be something to do this on the iPhone but I didn't think of looking before), and there are neat system features that I didn't have on the iPhone, for example I can see exactly where the power has gone since the last charge (display, apps, phone radio, background file downloading, etc.) and use it to find the battery hogs.

  • I should mention games too. I am not a huge game-player, so this is lower on my list, but it is also a domain where Android is weaker than the iPhone. I was actually quite addicted to Words with Friends while I was using the iPhone, but there is no Android version so I have had to kick the habit. I do have frozen bubble, and a couple of other puzzlers on there, and I also have Shortyz - a kick-ass crossword game written by my friend Robert Cooper, which is slick and almost perfect (will be perfect when it has cryptics available).
So, all in all pretty good, with some concern over gaming - there are good games of every genre to be had, but they are not as numerous as on the iPhone, and many are not as recognizable (you don't see many licensed games, for example Shrek Kart on the iPhone). Perhaps Google should consider some gaming stimulus money, or at the very least a few "gaming on Android" articles to publicize some of the more polished options out there.

However, there are a few things that are not so great with the apps story: 

The top of my list is that you can't install apps onto the SD card still. This was a limitation when I was working as an Android advocate at Google, fully a couple of years ago now, but I can't believe it hasn't been rectified yet. This means you are resource limited by the available main memory on the device, 512 megs in the case of the Nexus. It's pretty easy to fill this up when you like apps as much as I do. Cyanogenmod (which I have now installed) does let you install apps on the SD card, but this is hardly a consumer level operation (rooting and re-flashing your phone is a pretty scary operation when you actually own the phone and have to pay for a new one if you mess things up).

Games seem to be an area where Apple is well ahead. This is less important for me to be sure, but it's going to be a big factor for a lot of people. I think the games situation is complicated by the SD card issue, since games tend to be big, and that will eat up a lot of the available internal memory. Some games designers have worked around this by downloading a big glob of data when you first run it - less than ideal but it works around the limitation. Even so, the glossy games market on the iPhone is a big draw.

The polish is also just a shade less impressive than the iPhone. By way of an example - the headphone remote control (the button on the headphones that can be used to pause, and skip, music playback). It works with other applications, just like on the iPhone, but the whole thing can get a bit confused with multiple music applications running. The way I would expect it to work is that the last music app to play, or the one currently playing, will get the headphone button click event and act on it. In practice, it seems to be a complex enough outcome that it seems kind of random exactly what will happen - instead of the podcast pausing, the music player will start playing over the top, or my audio book will carry on from where I left off. As a programmer, I know these details are a real pain in the butt to get right, but as a consumer I want it to just work. Apple is good at that in spite of (or perhaps because of) their other issues (for example, an over developed sense of control :-) ).

Alright - enough downers, let's get upbeat again.

The biggest plus, and this is huge, for Android applications is that I can write my own. Sure I could theoretically write for the iPhone if I wanted to abide by the following restrictions:
  • Sign up and pay $99 for the privilege (Android market costs $25 to register, but you don't even have to pay that just to write and distribute software unless you want to go through the market)
  • Agree to some truly heinous restrictions about development, like having to use a blessed language (C, C++ or Objective C), Apple having full rights to allow or block anything I write for pretty much any reason they choose (they blocked Latitude and Google Voice apps for reasons yet to be disclosed, etc.)
  • Develop on a Mac. I am a Linux developer, I like it that way, and I like to develop on Linux. Android development just works on Linux, it's dead easy, quick and I can use my existing skills rather than learn a whole new set of stuff which only works on one very close platform
  • Agree not to talk about the Apple developer agreement ever (this is a condition of becoming an iPhone developer). Since I co-host the Java Posse and I hate any attempt to control what I can talk about there, that simply isn't likely to happen
So, since I don't want to do any of these things, I am going to develop for Android, and it's dead easy. I actually just finished my first application for Android in 2 years - Andro Flubber. I actually ported this useful utility to Android when I was at Google, but never completed it and lost the source code in the intervening years, so I sat down and did it again.

It took me about 2.5 hours from new project to running app, and maybe an extra 2 for some polish and extra features (like sound, custom background image, etc.). I have since put the source code up on github, and the application up for free on the Android market. The details are:

Name: Andro Flubber (not the best name, but I had to call it something) - a Flub is a mistake in recording, therefore flubber tracks mistakes, and Andro for Android.

Description: marks mistakes on a timeline while recording a podcast, and then emails you a list of the mistakes in the audacity bookmarks format, so you can see where they are in post-production and edit them out.

Source Code: available from github at, not exemplary yet (I should sprinkle in a comment or two, probably some best practices not being observed), but it works and can be improved on. I chose to theme it with the Java Posse logo and put in some other features specific to the podcast, but you can fork the code and customize it yourself if you desire.

App on Marketplace: You can use the barcode scanner on the 2d barcode above to download it, or just go to or look for Andro Flubber on Android Market from your phone. Right now it requires Android 2.1 - this is just cos I need to download and verify with earlier versions of the API which I will do in due course, but for now I just wanted it to get out there.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ride through Marin Headlands to the Pub

This weekend, I start my 40th circumnavigation of the Sun. To celebrate (in part - still some celebrating to do yet) Jackie and I took the day off work and rode through Golden Gate national recreation area (Marin headlands part) from the visitor center up to the Pelican Inn in Muir beach, had a nice lunch, and then rode back again.

If you haven't been to this amazing area, the mountain bike trails through it are challenging, strenuous and scary in parts, and they are pretty epic. By the end of the day, I was getting pretty good at bunny hopping over smaller ditches (there have been a lot of channels cut by the very wet winter), I must admit that I took the "discretion is the better part of valor" angle with some of the bigger ditches though - I could have probably made it, but failure would have been painful. About half of the ride was on fire roads and half on single track, including a very scenic and pleasant climb back up to the highest point of the ride on the way back from the pub (this particular trail you can only climb, not descend, and when you see it it makes sense why).

The stats on the ride were (for both directions): about 19 miles total, 3300 feet of elevation gain, 3 hours of actual riding time, 4 hours in total out on the trail (yes, we stopped for photo and rest breaks a fair bit).

This was only Jackie's third serious mountain bike ride, and it was pretty tough going (more than I thought it would be) with some downhills that had me a little concerned (it wasn't the hill, it was the huge water runoff channels that had sunk into the trail that made those very steep downhills a bit alarming). The climbs were pretty tough at times as well - 3300 feet is a lot of climbing in one day, at least for us.

For those interested, the pictures taken for this posting were from the Nexus One, which I also used to record the entire trip in both directions using the My Trails application (which worked flawlessly, and the whole 3 hour trail recording used about 25% of the battery in the nexus one, implying to me that I would run out of batteries before the new gizmo did, most likely).

For those interested, the tracks of the ride out and then back again are on my Google maps. If you want to know more about the route, you can download KML files (for Google Earth) right from the trail map pages. We went in and out on the same route for the most part (except from the first climb after lunch at the pub). This was partly because the trails you can bike on are limited in the park (many are hike and/or horse only). In truth, this wasn't really an issue - the trails actually did seem quite different in each direction, perhaps next time we would try and weave Bobcat trail into the return route or something like that though.

The Felt (new mountain bike) performed admirably and demonstrated that the limitation is the rider now and not the bike :-). Jackie did really well considering her husband made her do a pretty serious ride for only her third time really mountain biking. The various devices estimated about 3000 calories burned so we had a damn good meal last night, and a whole bottle of wine between the two of us (plus a couple of glasses at the hotel we stayed at to get the evening going).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Switching to Android: Part 1 - Introduction

The other day I was lucky enough to get a nexus one for gratis. Actually, strictly speaking it was for writing an application for Android called WikiNotes (I wrote it in my spare time while working for Google  as an Android Advocate - it was intended to demonstrate how intents and the android application lifecycle worked, but ended up being a pretty useful app). When I left Google, Dan Morrill kept up the development of the app and submitted it to the android marketplace where (from reports) it has done reasonably well. Anyway, just a few days ago I picked up my shiny new Nexus One - a nice, but unexpected, reward (maybe some karma catchup?).

I decided that I would write up my experiences of switching to it from the iPhone 3G that I have been using for the past 18 months, and I intend to be honest, both with praise and criticism, as I switch to the new device (which I will be doing - I have already decided that much).

The Nexus One came to me at a good time. I have been becoming less and less satisfied with the iPhone, primarily because I use it so much and the seemingly small limitations that Apple imposes on how I may use their device have grown over time into much more serious impediments. I will cover these limitations in detail as this series goes on, and discuss how Android improves on them (or in some cases doesn't! Life is  not perfect in the Android world either, but it is better).

So let's start with a few of the higher level niggles with the iPhone. Of course, top of the list is lack of background applications. For a multimedia device, inability to keep applications like pandora or running in the background is extremely irritating. I jailbroke my iPhone to get around some of this, and could after a fashion listen to Pandora when replying to an SMS for example, but it all relied on me enabling backgrounding for that app, and it was far from a smooth user experience. Apple just announced that backgrounding was being added to the 4.0 iPhone OS, which is great, but apparently not for older devices like mine because they can't do it. Ummm, yeah, actually they can on jailbroken devices, and I am sure apple could make it smooth if they wanted to, regardless - I am out of that scene now.

Another one is that my battery life is nowhere near where it used to be. This is not due to jailbreaking (it has been that way for over a year), but more to do with the service cycle of Li Ion batteries, and the fact that they don't hold their charge in the same way after a year or two. Not a problem in most phones, but of course I can't just take out the battery and replace it with a fresh one. That's just lame, and I didn't realize how annoying it is until now. I could take it into an apple store to get it changed, but really, why? Why can't I just put a new one in myself?

So - enough of the iPhone, for the rest of this blog posting I am going to stick to my first impressions of the Nexus One. More details will be in future postings.

The Nexus One is the first Android phone that (in my opinion) measures up to the build quality and overall slickness of the iPhone (don't get me wrong - control-obsession aside, Apple did put together a marvelous device). The Nexus One is what android devices should have been all along.

The device is slim, slick and feels well built. It has an easily replaced battery, easy access to the SIM card, and a micro SD card slot with a 4G card provided with the device (but capable of taking 16G or maybe even 32G in the future). Easily replaceable storage. A nice feature (especially for large or varied media collections).

The first stumbling block was the connector. I had expected the now-defacto standard mini-USB, but it was something different - what turned out to be a micro-USB. Apparently this is the wave of the future, but the future does not yet seem to be here - a check at Target for example shows a ton of mini-USB chargers and cables, but nothing micro-USB yet. It wasn't hard to find some inexpensive converters at though: so I ordered a couple for all of my power chargers and cables that already use mini-USB.

The battery life is, as everyone seems to say, pretty much the same as the iPhone. The gauge is a little more honest (my iPhone reported itself as fully charged for half of the day, then started dropping quickly, while the Nexus One seems a little more linear in its estimations). One nice thing is that road warriors or power users can put in a double capacity battery (with a bulging battery cover to match). This will spoil the sleek looks, but it's a flexibility that iPhones can only get with awkward external battery pack options.

Here are a few more high-level things I have noticed about the Nexus One compared to the iPhone:

  • Audio quality through the headphones is at least as good as the iPhone, the included headphones sound fine but are a bit less comfortable than the white iPhone standard ones - either way, much higher quality sounding headphones can be found (I like koss personally)
  • Mysteriously, the maximum output from the Nexus is lower than that possible on the iPhone - I am not sure if this is because of some kind of effort to prevent hearing damage. Several third party apps drive the volume much higher, so clearly it is not a hardware limitation
  • The speaker built into the nexus one sounds more tinny than the iPhone - this includes the ringer audio sadly
  • The mic is phenomenal, eliminating almost all background noise, and this translates to much more clarity when speaking to people, and might explain some of the eerily accurate speech recognition that the phone is capable of
  • The animations are slightly more jerky than the iPhone, for example list scrolling or app-starting, but not bad by any means. The overall speed seems much higher than my 3G (although the 3GS is probably as fast). It does feel nice and snappy in use
  • The screen is amazing - high resolution, smooth fonts, vivid colors
  • Multi-touch works well, and typing on the soft keyboard is familiar from the iPhone and just as easy
There is, of course, plenty more to say, but I think that's good for part 1. In the next blog posting, I will take a look at the applications I used most on the iPhone, and their equivalent (or lack thereof) for Android.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The universe and many faces of the Doctor

I have been meaning to write this article for a while now, I was even going to do a lightning talk about it (or something related) at the recent Java Posse Roundup 2010 but I ended up giving up my slot because of the numerous other interesting talks in waiting there. Finally I will get my thoughts out there about Doctor Who. This is a timely blog post because the new Doctor is about to start his journey this weekend.

I initially had the idea to write this during the excellent Codemash conference earlier this year. One of the openspace sessions there was titled something like "Doctor Who: The End of Time - a.k.a. the saddest thing I have ever seen on TV". That got me thinking, there is some kind of disconnect here. Sure, it was sad to see David Tennant's Doctor regenerate, and the whole thing was handled tastefully and sympathetically, but I didn't find it that sad, in fact I look forward to what's next.

I believe the difference is that, being English, I grew up with the Doctor, and not just one Doctor, but many. David Tennant (who did a fantastic job playing the Doctor) is the tenth person to do so:

These are the (now 11) faces of the Doctor. I first started watching the series with Jon Pertwee (the third face here, sort of strict and matter of fact, slightly pompous and very clever) back when he was stranded on earth, the TARDIS couldn't travel, and he had a flying car (he was attached to UNIT as a special advisor during this period of Doctor history). He was replaced by Tom Baker (zany, long scarf and curly hair, and with a love of jelly babies), and for me Tom Baker will always have a special place as "the" doctor, since those were my most formative "doctor" years.

I remember the sadness when Tom Baker regenerated. Time Lords can escape death by regenerating when the damage to their bodies is too great. Regenerating brings a new physical form and a new personality for the Doctor, while retaining all the memories of the former incarnations. This allows the new actors to take the character in different directions, and play to their own strengths and personalities, without which I believe the role would get stale and unpopular with new actors.

Tom Baker though was replaced by Peter Davidson who took the role in a new direction, that of a "very English" cricket loving gentleman who was very caring and somewhat bumbling when it came to technology (like control of the TARDIS for example). It was then that I realized how the changing faces of the Doctor kept the role interesting and the series alive and new. It is not healthy for the same actor to play the Doctor for too long, however much you love their portrayal, because eventually it will harm the story telling.

After a few years, Peter Davidson gave way to Colin Baker, again there was sadness in the transformation, but this time for me there was also curiosity to see where the story would go next. At first I really didn't like Colin Baker in the role - he took a new approach to the doctor, very arrogant and blustering, but he won me over in time and has become a firm favorite (even now in the audio adventures - more on those later). His arrogance was nicely tempered with a tendency to be quite wrong about things, and this brought his portrayal back into the sphere of human fallibility, and made it accessible (yes, I know the Doctor is not human, but in some ways he is a model for the way I wish humanity was).

Colin Baker was then superseded by Silvester McCoy who played the role until (it looked like) the end of the series in 1989. Silvester's portrayal had elements of a kindly but strict wise old grandfather figure, and also a kind of "universe weariness" of seeing too much evil in the universe, but at the same time some incredible understated bravery and some pretty epic decision making.

In 1996, Fox, Universal and the BBC collaborated for a made for TV movie, where the baton was passed to Paul McGann. The TV movie it was hoped would pilot in a new series but this never happened, and most people assume that this was the only outing Paul McGann got in the role. To appeal to a more american audience, McGann's Doctor was a little less thought and a lot more action (at least in the movie), the action vs. thought side has been played down in the Big Finish audio productions, where McGann's Doctor has had some of the most epic adventures of any of the doctors and has been quite prolific. McGann's Doctor is perhaps one of the most admirable and heroic even so, willing to sacrifice everything for what is right, and both thoughtful and non-judgmental. One of my favorite performances.

When the series came back to TV in the mid 2000's, Christopher Eccleston had taken over (we never saw the regeneration of McGann to Eccleston - at least not yet). Chris Eccleston only did one season, but was very memorable and fun in the role. In the intervening time it was revealed that the Doctor had brought about the end of the great time war, eliminating the Daleks but also his own people (the Time Lords) in the process, leaving him with great sadness and personal demons, but continuing to fight the good fight. He made a good doctor, and even better, because we never saw the transition of 8 to 9th Doctors, there is ample chance to fill in that gap - something that is rumored for a big screen movie that may or may not happen - this would give both McGann and Eccleston another outing in the roles, and is something I would love to see).

Then Eccleston's Doctor sacrificed himself to save Rose and David Tennant's Doctor took the helm. Clever, knowledgeable, a bundle of crazy energy, and somewhat judgmental and  even dangerous at times (I was alarmed when, in the Waters of Mars, he proclaimed that he was the winner and could do no wrong, that is very scary to hear from a character that commands the kind of power over the currents of the universe that the Doctor has). David T. has done a brilliant job in moving the Doctor's story forward, and in some ways the end of his regeneration (with the likely path ahead of becoming corrupted from the power of being the last Time Lord standing) is good timing.

The reason for all this explanation, well I hope to convince American viewers who found the Regeneration of Tennant's Doctor as the saddest thing they have seen on TV that this is part of the cycle, and not so sad at all. The 11th Doctor will be taken over by Matt Smith, and I can't wait to see where the character and the story goes next. Another reason I am not sad though, is that the nature of the Doctor is that he lives on in all forms.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the excellent Big Finish Productions continuing audio stories of the Doctor. These currently feature the 5th (Peter Davidson), 6th (Colin Baker), 7th (Sylvester McCoy) and 8th (Paul McGann) and feature the original actors, along with most of the original actors for the various companions through the Doctor's story. These are excellent stories - I can't recommend them highly enough, and as a bonus you can listen to them while you commute, mow the lawn or do other stuff. It's great to hear even more adventures with these Doctors, all of whom seem even more unique and original when hearing their adventures interspersed with each other. It's also great that Paul McGann really got to bring his excellent potential to the role in something more than the one 90 minute outing he had before.

So, in closing, don't be sad for the old Doctor, be happy (and excited) to see what the new one does.

One more thing though - according to the lore of Doctor Who, the Doctor only gets 12 regenerations, so unless something changes, we are getting pretty close to the end of the line now.