Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.
Easy-to-use business expense tracker for Android.
It’s been a long time since my last post, with the birth of our daughter taking up all of my nonworking time. I have however purchased a Nexus 7, now being able to see how the 7″ tablet running android compares to the playbook.
I haven’t yet tried travelling with the tablet, but for use at home, it blows away the playbook for usefulness. The experience is not perfect by any stretch. The BBC are yet to provide an iPlayer app that works without flash, so you have to use workarounds to watch TV. The Economist, fantastic publication though it is, have produced a rubbish android app that doesn’t support ICS, never mind Jelly Bean.
Putting to one side these niggles, most of the important apps are there and work well. The chrome web browser provides a good experience, with rendering much faster than the playbook. Games play fluidly on the Tegra 3 powered machine, with the vibrant screen providing an almost SciFi feel in such a slim form factor.
The keyboard is good, certainly the best soft keyboard I’ve used. It is a little sluggish at times, with some key taps not registering as well as you would hope. Strangely tapping quickly seems to work better than trying for accuracy.
While the bundled Transformers movie is a terrible film, it does show off the tablet to good effect, with the movie streamed in HD, and looking very crisp on the high resolution screen. It also further justifies having an unlimited broadband package as the one film weighed in at over 5GB of streamed data. Uploading my own DVDs was fiddly from Linux, but should be straightforward from windows or Mac OS.
In conclusion, while the Nexus 7 may not be a substitute for a laptop in the way that an Asus Transformer could be, it makes a great content consumption device. If the alternative for content creation is your phone, the 7 inch screen works far better, while retaining a lot of portability that a large device sacrifices.
The killer feature for me is the weight. Holding the tablet for extended periods is as comfortable as holding a paperback book, possibly more so. The Nexus is the first device for which I reach for most online tasks, with the desktop relegated to development and photo editing.
I’ve recently acquired a blackberry playbook by porting ExpenseClam to this platform. The physical format of a 7 inch tablet seems to work very well. It is still small enough that carrying the device around is very easy, and holding it in one hand is entirely comfortable. Meanwhile the screen is just large enough that websites can be viewed in their desktop format, without having to zoom in and scroll.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the quality of available apps is very low. Most of the big name apps are missing (e.g. no Skype). There are many ported Android apps, but these work only partially. Native Android features are missing and they have a tenancy to hang.
Native apps that I have found suffer from a clunky keyboard implementation, and flaky UI widgets. The Web browser is reasonable, but occasionally suffers from unresponsive UI elements.
My overall impression is that the tablet would be far more useful and interesting if it was running Android ice cream sandwich. This leaves me wondering whether I want to get either a 10 inch tablet our something around the 7 inch mark.
To sum up: when writing this post, I started on the tablet, but the application hung, and I ended up retyping it on my phone. It is hard to see the playbook platform being a success given it’s current state.
The Android Market continues to struggle in providing a great end user experience. To illustrate, here’s what I went through when purchasing Carcassonne tonight:
It’s fairly amazing that my own app (ExpenseClam) receives any purchases at all given the difficulty involved!
I should add that it was worth persevering – the game is rather good!
Yesterday I released ExpeneseClam, a business expenses tracking app for Android. Recording expenses on a smartphone can be a painful experience, typos are common, expense claims are not always made in chronological order, and there is usually little time to note down how much a taxi cost. ExpenseClam has a number of features to help make this easier. Simple things like auto-suggesting expense descriptions based on the amount entered can make it much quicker to record common recurring expenses.
One of the niftiest features in ExpenseClam is something that you will only stumble across if you travel a lot: it auto selects the default currency for a new expense based on the country you are in. This is done without needing user permission to determine location, carry out reverse geocoding or even internet access.
The secret sauce is Android’s TelephonyManager and it’s method getNetworkCountryIso(). This method returns the ISO code given by the mobile operator for the network that you are connected to (the Mobile Country Code). From this a Locale object can be created, which then allows the Currency instance to be created. None of this requires network traffic and it takes very little processing power to complete.
Changes in the default currency only happens when the country changes. This is to avoid frustrating users who have to enter expenses in a different currency to this default. The country derived currency is however prioritised in the list of currencies to make selection easier for what is likely to be a common choice.
Does the “Android Monopoly” really provide a challenge to the traditional OEMs? Is the answer to use virtualisation on the handset and put Android in a virtual machine sandbox while the OEM’s own O/S runs underneath it? That’s Andreas Constantinou’s proposal in his latest blog post at VisionMobile. I’m not so sure. Firstly let’s take a brief look at the history of the OEMs he identifies as losing out due to the success of Android: Motorola and Sony Ericsson.
Motorola’s success story pre-Android was the Razr. This was a huge phone in 2005 and dragged Motorola into second place behind Nokia. The success of the Razr had little to do with the software that it ran, and a lot to do with the very distinctive and stylish design. Motorola failed to innovate effectively off the back of this however, resulting in a whole series of similar phones and declining market share. It is only with their adoption of Android that Motorola has been able to rescue themselves from terminal decline in the mobile market. The Droid series of phones built for Verizon have been very successful for them, bringing the company (now split off as Motorola Mobility) back from the brink.
Sony Ericsson’s history contains more highlights than Motorola’s, but is also a mixed record. They have used a number of operating systems over the years, with Symbian (using the UIQ interface) and Windows Mobile both playing a part. Sony Ericsson has been able to differentiate with their Walkman and Cyber-shot brands, both of which relied more on innovation in hardware than software. Sony Ericsson have produced a range of Android smart phones, which has done much to restore their financial health (to the tune of €1.1bn).
Hardware has always been a major differentiator between mobile OEMs, marking a significant difference between the mobile and personal computing industry. This traditional strength is not undermined by Google being the driving force behind Android. OEMs adopting Android get for free the things they have traditionally struggled with: a best-in-class smart phone O/S, app store and cloud services. This allows them to focus on the part of the equation where they have seen past successes and that aligns to their core competencies.
The announcements coming out of Mobile World Congress this year (and CES before it) shows that there is plenty of room for innovation in hardware and software:
If Google is restricting what OEMs can do on the hardware and software front, I don’t see much evidence of it in the products that they are announcing, or an opportunity to do more by using virtualisation.
Two weeks ago I published my first application to the Android Market. LibraryThingScanner is an extremely simple application that speeds up adding books to LibraryThing. The app launches the Barcode Scanner application to scan the ISBN, followed by the web browser to bring up the relevant LibraryThing search page. The app does so little I’ve been in two minds as to whether it was worth publishing at all, especially as the LibraryThing website does not work particularly well on an Android phone (for example continuously popping up the virtual keyboard).
Once I’d coughed up the required $25 for the privilege of publishing to the market I found the process very straight forward. There are certainly some quirks, such as being able to upload two screen shots or no screen shots, but the level of information required was very low. It’s peculiar that I find uploading my software to the internet at large, with a potential audience of nearly two billion people, a minor step, whereas publishing onto the market felt like a more significant thing, despite the comparatively small potential audience of a few million.
I’m glad that I did take the plunge. There was an initial spike in downloads as soon as I published the application, reaching 126 downloads and 97 active installs in a matter of a few hours. Since then things have levelled off and the application is averaging 17 new active installs per day out of 35 new downloads. I don’t know how accurate the statistics are for Android market application installs, but they are much more useful than any number of downloads for other software I’ve published online.
Seeing the number of active installs slowly creeping up, seeing the ratings (very slowly) coming in and now receiving my first comment (thankfully positive) makes the feedback loop from users much more satisfying than the very occasional email I receive regarding my other software. It’ll be interesting to see how things carry on longer term and what kind of reaction anything else I may publish receives.
There have been a lot of articles recently accusing Google of dropping the ball with Android by creating “fragmentation” within the Android platform. This references either the number of base O/S versions (currently three versions make up 99.5% of active Android phones) or the fact that HTC, Motorola, Sony and others often put some of their own software on top of Android.
This trend of complaining about fragmentation has now extended as far as complaining about the iPhone OS (recently re-branded as iOS). This new complaint is that Apple has also somehow fragmented their platform by introducing new devices with different hardware capabilities, in particular screen resolutions and densities (think iPad versus iPhone 4).
While it makes developer’s lives easier to have a single hardware platform to target, it’s also something that we are not used to. From the earliest days of home computers there has been a huge variety of hardware and software to contend with. Today’s desktop landscape is no different – developers need to decide which basic platform (Windows, MacOS, Linux) and what versions (Windows XP, Vista, 7?) of those platforms they are willing to support.
The development of larger and higher resolution screens isn’t fragmentation – it’s progress. The Android platform provides a set of easy to use mechanisms that mostly make the extra size and screen density transparent to the developer. Similarly the SDK makes it easy to know when you are using a feature that does not exist on earlier versions of the platform. You can then either make it optional, or if you truly need such a feature, drop support for older phones and be glad that Google’s rapid pace of development makes your application possible at all.
When considering the mobile application environment today I think there are far more pressing issues than additional phone screen sizes to be concerned about. The 30% cut that Apple and Google take from every application sold, Apple’s active censorship of artists and arbitrary banning of applications are far bigger and more pressing issues.
In some respects I’m rather late to the Android / smart phone game. Many of my colleagues carry an iPhone, with a small (but growing) number carrying an Android phone some sort. After the first few weeks of using the HTC desire I can now say that I would struggle to go back to a normal phone.
The killer app for me is not the broad selection of applications, many of which fail to live up to their initial promise, but rather those few applications that keep me in better touch with the world. From news applications for the New York Times, Evening Standard and Guardian through Facebook, Twitter and email it’s much easier to keep up with the world as well as friends. When sharing a photo with the world is two taps away the barrier to doing so is hugely reduced in comparison to the desktop experience of going home, plugging in the camera, finding the right photo and finally uploading it.
The software on the desire has a few glitches on occasion, but for such a young platform with such grand ambitions, it is very usable and achieves a great deal. For example the automatic synchronisation of phone numbers from Facebook into the phone provides a huge amount of value. The amount of alternative software available for core functionality is less surprising than how well it integrates with the overall platform. It’s only rarely (and usually from HTC’s customization) that new software fails to fully integrate with existing apps.
In summary I’m extremely pleased to have caught up with the world and joined the throngs of start phone toting individuals.
Copyright 2009 Colin Stewart