An avalanche of innovation?

It seems that, almost in spite of the uncertain times or maybe because of them, it feels like an era of change on the technology front. Computing is the domain of many of the postings on this blog and a hell of a lot seems to be going mobile at the moment. For a good while, I managed to stay clear of the attractions of smartphones until a change of job convinced me that having a BlackBerry was a good idea. Though the small size of the thing really places limitations on the sort of web surfing experience that you can have with it, you can keep an eye on the weather, news, traffic, bus and train times so long as the website in question is built for mobile browsing. Otherwise, it’s more of a nuisance than a patchy phone network (in the U.K., T-Mobile could do better on this score as I have discovered for myself; thankfully, a merger with the Orange network is coming next month).

Speaking of mobile websites, it almost feels as if a free for all has recurred for web designers. Just when the desktop or laptop computing situation had more or less stabilised, along come a whole pile of mobile phone platforms to make things interesting again. Familiar names like Opera, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer are to be found popping up on handheld devices these days along with less familiar ones like Web ‘n’ Walk or BOLT. The operating system choices vary too with iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows and others all competing for attention. It is the sort of flowering of innovation that makes one wonder if a time will come when things begin to consolidate but it doesn’t look like that at the moment.

The transformation of mobile phones into handheld computers isn’t the only big change in computing with the traditional formats of desktop and laptop PC’s being flexed in all sorts of ways. First, there’s the appearance of netbooks and I have succumbed to the idea of owning an Asus Eee. Though you realise that these are not full size laptops, it still didn’t hit me how small these were until I owned one.  They are undeniably portable and tablets look even more interesting in the aftermath of Apple’s iPad. You may call them over-sized mobile photos but the idea of making a touchscreen do the work for you has made the concept fly for many. Even so, I cannot say that I’m overly tempted though I have said that before about other things.

Another area of interest for me is photography and it is around this time of year that all sorts of innovations are revealed to the public. It’s a long way from what we thought was the digital photography revolution when digital imaging sensors started to take the place of camera film in otherwise conventional compact and SLR cameras, making the former far more versatile than they used to be. Now, we have SLD cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that eschew the reflex mirror and prism arrangement of an SLR using digital sensor and electronic viewfinders while offering the possibility of lens interchangeability and better quality than might be expected from such small cameras. In recent months, Sony has offered SLR-style cameras with translucent mirror technology instead of the conventional mirror that is flipped out of the way when a photographic image is captured.  Change doesn’t end there with movie making capabilities being part of the toolset of many a newly launch  compact, SLD and SLR camera. The pixel race also seems to have ended though increases still happen as with the Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 60D (both otherwise conventional offerings that have caught my eye though so much comes on the market at this time of year that waiting is better for the bank balance).

The mention of digital photography brings to mind the subject of digital image processing and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is just announced after Photoshop CS5 appeared earlier this year. It almost feels as if a new version of Photoshop or its consumer cousin are released every year, causing me to skip releases when I don’t see the point. Elements 6 and 8 were such versions for me and I’ll be in no hurry to upgrade to 9 yet either though the prospect of using content aware filling to eradicate unwanted objects from images is tempting. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop anyone trying to exclude them in the first place. In fact, I may need to reduce the overall number of images that I collect in favour of bringing away only good ones. The outstanding question on this is can I slow down and calm my eagerness to bring at least one good image away from an outing by capturing anything that seems promising at the time. Some experimentation but being a little more choosy can  save work later on.

While back on the subject of software, I’ll voyage in to the world of the web before bringing these meanderings to a close. It almost feels as if there is web-based application following web-based application these days when Twitter and Facebook nearly have become household names and cloud computing is a phrase that turns up all over the place.  In fact, the former seems to have encouraged a whole swathe of applications all of itself. Applications written using technologies well used on the web must stuff many a mobile phone app store too and that brings me full circle for it is these that put so much functionality on our handsets with Java seemingly powering those I use on my BlackBerry. Them there’s spat between Apple and Adobe regarding the former’s support for Flash.

To close this mental amble, there may be technologies that didn’t come to mind while I was pondering this piece but they doubtless enliven the technological landscape too. However, what I have described is enough to take me back more than ten years ago when desktop computing and the world of the web were a lot more nascent than is the case today. Then, the changes that were ongoing felt a little exciting now that I look back on them and it does feel as if the same sort of thing is recurring though with things like phones creating the interest in place of new developments in desktop computing such as a new version of Window (though 7 was anticipated after Vista). Web designers may complain about a lack of standardisation and they’re not wrong but this may be an ear of technological change that in time may be remembered with its own fondness too.

Exploring the option of mobile broadband

Last week, I decided to buy and experiment with a Vodafone PAYG mobile broadband dongle (the actual device is a ZTE K3570-Z)) partly as a backup for my usual broadband (it has had its moments recently) and partly to allow me to stay more connected while on the move. Thoughts of blogging and checking up on email or the realtime web while travelling to and from different places must have swayed me.

Hearing that the use of Windows or OS X with the device had me attempting to hook up the device to Windows 7 running within a VirtualBox virtual machine on my main home computer. When that proved too big a request of the software setup, I went googling out of curiosity and found that there was a way to get the thing going with Linux. While I am not so sure that it works with Ubuntu without any further changes, my downloading of a copy of the Sakis3G script was enough to do the needful and I was online from my main OS after all. So much for what is said on the box…

More success was had with Windows 7 as loaded on my Toshiba Equum notebook with setting up and connections being as near to effortless as these things can be. Ubuntu is available on there too, courtesy of Wubi, and the Sakis3G trick didn’t fail for that either.

That’s not to say that mobile broadband doesn’t have its limitations as I found. For instance, Subversion protocols and Wubi installations aren’t supported but that may be a result of non-support of IPv6 than anything else. nevertheless, connection speeds are good as far as I can see though I yet have to test out the persistence of Vodafone’s network while constantly on the move. Having seen how flaky T-Mobile’s network can be in the U.K. as I travel around using my BlackBerry, that is something that needs doing but all seems painless enough so far. However, the fact that Vodafone uses the more usual mobile phone frequency may be a help.

Download Sakis3G

On web browsers for BlackBerry devices

The browser with which my BlackBerry Curve 8520 came is called Web’n’Walk and, while it does have its limitations, it works well enough for much of what I want to do. Many of the sites that I want to visit while away from a PC have mobile versions that are sufficiently functionality for much of what I needed to do. Names like GMail, Google Reader, Met Office and National Rail come to mind here and the first two are regularly visited while on the move. They work well to provide what I need too. Nevertheless, one of the things that I have found with mobile web browsing is that I am less inclined to follow every link that might arouse my interest. Sluggish response times might have something to do with it but navigating the web on a small screen is more work too. Therefore, I have been taking a more functional approach to web usage on the move rather than the more expansive one that tends to happen on a desktop PC.

For those times when the default browser was not up to the task, I installed Opera Mini. It certainly has come in very useful for keeping an the Cheshire East bus tracker and looking at any websites without mobile versions for when I decide to look at such things. Downloading any of these does take time and there’s the reality of navigating a big page on a small screen. However, I have discovered that the browser has an annoying tendency to crash and it did it once while I was awaiting a bus. The usual solution, rightly or wrongly, has been to delete the thing and reinstall it again with the time and device restarts that entails. While I got away with it once, it seems to mean losing whatever bookmarks or favourites that you have set up too, a real nuisance. Because of this, I am not going to depend on it as much any more. Am I alone in experiencing this type of behaviour?

Because of Opera’s instability, I decided on seeking alternative approaches. One of these was to set up bookmarks for the aforementioned bus tracker on Web ‘n’ Web. What is delivered in the WAP version of the site and it’s not that user friendly at all. When it comes to selecting a bus stop to monitor, it asks for a stance number. Only for my nous, I wouldn’t have been able to find the ID’s that I needed. That’s not brilliant but I worked around it to make things work for me. The observation is one for those who design mobile versions of websites for public use.

Another development is the discovery of Bolt Browser and, so far, it seems a worthy alternative to Opera Mini too. There are times when it lives up to the promise of faster web page loading but that is dependent on the strength of the transmission signal. A trial with the Met Office website showed it to be capable though there were occasions when site navigation wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. Up to now, there have been no crashes like what happened to Opera Mini so it looks promising. If there is any criticism, it is that it took me a while to realise how to save favourites (or bookmarks). While the others that I have used have a button on the screen for doing so, Bolt needs you to use the application menu. Other than that, the software seems worthy of further exploration.

All in all, surfing the mobile remains an area of continued exploration for me. Having found my feet with it, I remain on the lookout for other web browsers for the BlackBerry platform. It is true that OS 6 features a Webkit-powered browser but I’m not buying another device to find out how good that is. What I am after are alternatives that work on the device that I have. Porting of Firefox’s mobile edition would be worthwhile but its availability seems to be limited to Nokia’s handsets for now. Only time will reveal where things are going.

Exploring the mobile web

With a change of job ahead of me, I decided to make my web usage a little more mobile. The result was the purchase of a Blackberry 8520 Curve on a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go tariff to complement my existing phone. Part of the attraction was having email on the move and a little web access too. On both accounts it hasn’t though GPRS isn’t the speediest for web browsing and you get to appreciating mobile versions of websites. It’s just as well that this website that you’re reading has a mobile version.

Hooking the Blackberry up to GMail was no problem once I had paid my dues and the necessary set up was done for me; it was only then that the required option was available through the set up screens. RIM’s own web browser may be no slouch when it comes to rendering websites but I put Opera Mini in place as well for those times when the default option could be bettered and they exist too. Speaking of RIM applications, there’s one for Twitter too though I added Übertwitter for sake of greater flexibility (it can handle more than one account at a time, for example). In addition, I have instated applications for WordPress and LinkedIn too and it was then that I stopped myself spending too much time in Blackberry App World. If I was of the Facebook persuasion, I might be interested in the default offering for that as well but I have learnt to contain myself.

Of course, there are limitations to the device’s capabilities with regards to email and web on the move. Long emails still need desktop access (messages can get truncated) and mobile unfriendly websites will take an age to load and explore; a small screen means much more finger work. After all, this is a small device so the observations aren’t really surprising; it’s just that I encounter the reality of life on a small screen now. Nevertheless, useful site like those from Google and the Met Office have a mobile variant though I’d like to see the latter including its rain radar as part of the package.

Speaking of life on a smaller scale, there’s the size of the keyboard to consider too. So far, I haven’t had much practice with it but I am unsure as how some craft longer blog entries with the the tiny keys. Then, there’s the ever-present threat of arm discomfort and RSI that you have to watch. For that reason, I’ll stick with use for an hour at a time rather than going mad altogether. Navigating around the screen using the tiny trackpad is something to which I am adjusting and it works well enough too so long as you’re not looking through long web pages or emails.

To bring this piece to a close, the new gadget has been finding uses and I don’t plan on leaving it idle after paying over £150 for it. Apart from acting as an expensive calculator, it has already travelled abroad with me with roaming not being a problem; I may have failed to get it to work with hotel broadband but there was EDGE availability to keep things connected together. All in all, the device is earning its keep and teaching me a few things about mobile handheld computing with my main website in process of being made more mobile compatible with the front page and the photo gallery gaining versions for handheld devices after the same was done for the outdoors blog earlier this year (might make the design look more like the rest of the site though). Without something on which to do some real testing, that idea may not have become reality like it is. It may be no desktop substitute but that’s never to say that these devices may never get near that situation. After all, there was a time when no one could imagine the same for laptop PC’s and we all know what has happened with them.