Tag Archives: mobile

Padding your work – the iPad in the office

iPad © by Yagan Kiely
I recently added an iPad to my technology arsenal. I’ve been using a MacBook Air for several years now and I really like the size & weight, but compared to the iPad it’s enormous and has a short battery life. I get a lot of use out of my iPhone, so I know what the iPad can do. Some continue to insist the iPad is just a toy.

For me, the big question mark is the keyboard. If I’m carrying an iPad and a notebook while traveling, it seems a bit ridiculous. If I carry an iPad and a keyboard, isn’t that just a notebook? Is there any real advantage to such a thing? Well I decided to give it a try and see what happens.

I travel a lot, so based on things like email, eBooks, and in-flight entertainment the iPad was a no-brainer, it can do them all very well. But I was wondering how useful I can actually make it in a software company.

If you’re going to try to use the iPad as a replacement device, there are a few categories of apps you’re going to be interested. I’ve broken out a few of these categories and selected some basic apps to see how well they will work. I’ll go into more detail on each after I’ve got some real use.

I checked out a list of 30 Business Apps and while it has some interesting ideas, it didn’t cover some specific software development needs. I’m purposely ignoring the entertainment category such as music, video and games, as it’s well covered in many other places.

Office Tools

I bought a couple of office suites for comparison purposes. I know, this sounds crazy, but it’s still less than the price for Microsoft Office on a desktop. My basic needs are typical word-processing, simple spreadsheet, and presentations. I also have some apps for note-taking and planning.

I happen to be a fan of the Mac office suite with Numbers, Pages, and Keynote. Especially Keynote is a great improvement over PowerPoint. So I bought each of those apps. I had already purchased a Keynote remote app for my iPhone that I haven’t had the chance to tryout yet.

However, our office and clients remain largely Microsoft (MSFT) based, so I bought the QuickOffice apps as well. After initially giving it a pass, I decided to get DocsToGo as well. There are one or two other major office suites for the iPad as well, I may try them at some point, but probably only if I’m missing something. I’ll be shaking them all down as much as I can in the coming weeks and I’ll give the long and short of it here.

There are a few other tools I use frequently in the office, such as a voice recorder to take dictation for creating presentations, training materials, whitepapers, articles, etc. At the moment this is centered heavily around the built-in memo recorder on the iPhone, and possibly Siri will help but I don’t know yet. I’ve also got Dragon Dictation but mostly it’s something I record and then later work from manually. I’ve got a few other audio recording apps as well. I’ll give a full shakedown in the near future.

Another useful office tool is having some kind of scanner software based on using the camera in the iPad. OCR on top of that is really the icing on the cake. I’ve got a couple of these installed, at the moment GeniusScan and JotNot Pro. I’ll see if I can figure out which is best.

For note taking I’ve frequently used simple text editors or a blank page in the word processor. While both work, neither is well-suited to the task. Ideally I should be able to type, write with my finger or stylus, and draw simple things to help illustrate the topic at hand. I should be able to save, edit, and share the document created. With that in mind, I’ve got a few note-takers installed like PenUltimate, but the noe I have high hopes for is Note Taker HD.

I’ve also got an app that lets me try to study/plan/organize based on putting 3×5 cards on a cork-board. It looks really great, but I’m not yet convinced it’s actually useful or sustainable.

Travel Tools

This is a category that some office users won’t need. If you’re an iPad in the office and at home kind of person, you can probably skip this set. My initial set includes the apps for the airlines I use, just in case I need them. I also have the TSA app for airport information. The bulk of my travel information comes from TripIt which I have found very useful on the iPhone.

I also take a GPS on the road with me via my iPhone, so I haven’t listed it as a necessary item for the iPad, even though the bigger screen makes for easy mapping.

File transfer

I also already have some file sharing apps to transfer files on and off my device. Mostly I use iDisk since I have MobileMe but long-term I will be doing something else. I’ve installed Box.net since they have the free 50GB offer running right now. I may get a small DropBox for comparison with that. And my Latest favorite in this area is FileBrowser which let’s me do normal file system browsing on remote computers, such as my desktop.

I’ve got a few others as well, some of which have already been deleted for lack of usefulness.

Development tools

For software development I have a decent Bugzilla client called iBzilla, and nice SVN source control client called CodeViewer 2, and I bought a few code editors I will be trying out, including Textastic, Koder, and of course what computer is complete without VI?

Database

One could argue that database is part of the development tools category, but I think it’s big enough to warrant separate treatment. I do a lot of database work, so again I already had iPhone apps for connection to various DBs such as Oracle and MySQL. I updated them to iPad versions. Mostly I use Navicat. I’ll discuss this in a separate post, but if anyone has suggestions for good DB apps I’d be happy to check them out.

I also have Bento for quick and dirty db stuff, but I currently don’t use it much. If I find a way to leverage it for work I’ll let you know.

Social / Web stuff

For social and web stuff I have the usual suspects, Twitter, WordPress, Polldaddy, LinkedIn, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Instant messengers, etc. This covers blogging, posting info, messaging, as well as video conferencing.

Geek stuff (SysAdmin)

And I had the usual array of geek utilities like DNS tools such as nslookup, VNC for remote login, and a terminal client that includes SSH support. There is some overlap between these so I’ll try to narrow it down to what you actually need with what’s good and bad about each.

Other iPad stuff

There are a few other things that are interesting. For example, I am making more use of the Kindle application now for books. I do have a Kindle and there are times I prefer it, but that’s normally for when I am not carrying the iPad.

I find the Kindle device great for reading, but the larger iPad better for reference books. One other benefit is that most technical manuals are much cheaper on Kindle than in print, and it’s very convenient to have them with you when you need them.

I’m going to assume that at least conceptually all of the ideas here are equally useful for other tablets. This will depend of course on having the apps you need available on the platform of your choice.

I could certainly borrow a tablet from a friend and do a similar experiment, but it’s something that takes time to do in depth, so we’ll see. If any of you are interested in a similar idea, let’s talk.

Updates on real world experience will be coming in the near future as I shake down each category.

A Flash in the Page

For those of you who haven’t been following it (IE people without a smartphone), there has been a little tiff between Apple (AAPL) and Adobe (ADBE) for the last couple of years regarding Flash. I’ll discuss it more in detail shortly, but in brief, Apple decided not to include or even allow Flash to run on it’s IOS devices such as iPad and iPhone, based on their assertion of problems with CPU usage, battery life, security, and general UI issues re Flash on a touch interface. Adobe in turn says the Apple isn’t nice, doesn’t believe in open standards, and is preventing their customers from experiencing what they call the “full web”. Apple responded that Flash isn’t open… lather-rinse-repeat.

HTML5 Logo with words "no flash inside" stamped across it
Image by Josef Dunne via Flickr

The reason I bring it up now, is that Microsoft (MSFT) decided last week that it’s also not going to allow plugins such as Flash in it’s upcoming Metro 8 user interface, opting instead for HTML5 support. This is of course not good new for Adobe.

To understand the whole thing, we need to step back to early times on the web. It used to be that pages were just text and simple pictures. JavaScript was clunky as simplistic, and building full-featured applications and games seemed impossible. Web-browsers were evolving at a rapid pace, frequently without regard to standards or compatibility. Flash came along with nifty little animations and a unified user interface that worked the same regardless of the end-users browser thanks to the Flash runtime. Not coincidentally, the same runtime that allows extra functionality is the runtime that has a reputation for chewing up CPU and battery life.

Now in 2011 Flash is both ubiquitous and superfluous. It hasn’t yet become completely unnecessary, but the handwriting is certainly on the wall with things like HTML5, Ajax, etc. paving the way to the future web. For sake of simplicity, you can consider Flash usage in a few main areas: Video, Games, Ads, and non-structural animation (the ever-present loading animations). More on that later.

So when Steve Jobs wrote his open letter about flash he listed a series of issues he claimed were the reason. Adobe responded with some quasi-answers of their own. Steve Jobs said in his open letter “But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.
The breakdown of issues follows.

Openness

Adobe has a vested interest in maintaining their dominant position in web development tools. They could try to do with by making their tools support HTML5, which seems to be a direction they are now moving in, at least partially. But it’s a much rosier picture for them if they have a monopoly over their view of cross-platform, cross-browser compatibility. That way they, instead of Apple or Google or Microsoft, can get a bite of they pie for all internet games, applications, video, and advertising. Make no mistake about it, Adobe has no interest in open-standards – Flash is completely proprietary.

Apple is a proponent of “web standards” IE HTML5. On the other hand, while being open on the browser, they are completely closed in their application development. Apps for their smartphones are created using a funny language, and access to customers is only through their store, subject to their whims. However, while that all may be true, it doesn’t affect the core “full web” argument that Adobe is making. Apple apps are NOT the same as web browser support.

Apple’s App Store

There are those who think that Apple is only wanting to block Flash because it is costing them money in the app store. This is overly simplistic at best. There are thousands of free games in the app store, if this was simply about app revenue, Apple would block them also. This theory also ignores the real issues of CPU, battery life, and touch UI. Steve Jobs said early on that if Adobe could demonstrate Flash running with good performance on a mobile device they’d be happy to talk.

A variant is that if people can watch free video on flash, they won’t buy video on iTunes. Again, if this was true, then Apple wouldn’t support H.264 video either. So you can ignore such conspiracy theories as being the real issue.

Security

Like everyone else, Adobe has had their own challenges with security, and Flash is certainly on exception. Essentially having a very capable runtime is a double-edged sword. While it has lots of capabilities, it also radically increases the attack surface. This is one of those areas where things will get better and then worse, and then better again. But there is no denying that a browser with a large plugin will always have more vulnerability than one without.

CPU / battery / Performance

Flash performance problems are well documented – if you doubt it just try a web search. Better yet, uninstall Flash or install a Flash control in your browser, especially on a laptop, and see what happens. It’s amazing how much extra battery life you get. In my case, I don’t even watch flash video or play flash games, so essentially it was pointless animations and unwanted ads using my CPU and reducing my battery. I always have a control plugin now so that I only run Flash that I want.

From WWDC 2009 Keynote:
Number one cause of crashes in OS X is browser plug ins (read: Flash)“. This is based on crash logs that Apple receives, at least pre-SnowLeopard. Something to think about.

Why can’t they improve performance? Programmers are getting sloppy with faster CPU’s and more memory available. Programs have grown in capability, and the average size of programs is radically bigger than what it used to be. Battery powered devices may reverse that trend. There is still a lot of room for improvement in battery life, but the reality is that we currently have a situation where people are now setting battery life at a higher premium than typical geek-specs such as CPU clock speed. (As an aside, this is probably a good thing, as raw hardware specs say essentially nothing at all about actual performance. But I’ll leave the topic for another day.)

Touch UI

If we set all other issues aside for a moment, and just look at the UI issues, we’ll find something interesting. It turns out that a mouse is not the same as your fingers. This sounds silly, but it’s critical. Beyond the obvious issue of having one mouse and lots of fingers, there is behavior. From a software perspective, a mouse makes constant movement, IE even if a user picks up a mouse and sets is back down on their desk, the cursor hasn’t moved.

A finger on the other hand is prone to such behavior -making the cursor appear and disappear depending on where you point. One might even say this is desirable behavior. Simply taking a mouse interface and putting it on a touch device is a recipe for frustration. The more interesting (complex) the application, the worse the problem is. This is not easily solved, especially not with a one-size-fits-all methodology, such as Flash.

Is Flash The Full Web

OK, this one is downright silly. Adobe is pushing a phrase they call “The Full Web” – implying that if you don’t have Flash, you’re missing out. I’ve addressed above what this really means, but essentially it depends on your device and on what you happen to use the web for. Not having Flash runs the gamut from “critical problem” to “merely annoying” to “never noticed”.

Not having Flash hasn’t hurt the iPad, nor has using Flash as a differentiator helped other tablet devices.

Old Technology

Apple has a history of getting rid of old technology before others. Somehow they have managed to figure out what items are headed to the technology graveyard. First they killed off floppy drives, , then they started removing CD/DVD drives from the MacBook Air line, and now Flash. If they’re wrong, they can always reverse their choice, but increasingly it looks like they’re right about the long term in this case, again.

Politics

I’ve added this one on my own, but it’s actually one of the core issues. Essentially Adobe claims that it is acting sole in the best interest of people who use the web, while Apple they claim is acting solely in their own self-interest. The truth is of course somewhere in-between. While Adobe has a point that users without flash are missing out on some content, Apple has several technical points that remain outstanding. Clearly part of this is in Apple’s financial interest, and that cannot be discounted, but many of the purely political arguments are simplistic and ridiculous as discussed above. What content you’re actually missing depends on the sites you visit. Increasingly websites have video available outside of flash, and that will continue to grow. Those who like the games available on the web may have an issue, but it depends on the app ecosystem. If you’re favorite game is an app, this isn’t an issue, if it is, this is a deal-breaker for you. For me, the biggest thing I see being blocked on sites I visit is pointless animations (loading…) and unwanted ads. Good riddance from my point of view.

Conclusions about Flash

So what can we learn from all of this as a software development community? Firstly, be careful of putting your eggs in one basket. Especially if that basked is based on a proprietary standard. Big companies will always have disagreements, in the end it matters less who is right or wrong, or even who you agree with, and more about whether you’re lined up to continue to deliver the software you create to your target audience.

Beware technology based on proprietary “standards”. I’m not talking about proprietary software vs open-source, but rather protocols et al that we all rely on. If they’re in the hands of a single company eventually they will be a problem. Use them when you must, but be aware that one day you’ll likely need to migrate.

Stay ahead of performance issues. As hardware gets faster, cheaper, smaller, with more memory, it’s easy to forget about performance issues and simply take advantage of platform improvements. It’s better to take a more proactive approach – spend every 2nd or 3rd release on performance and quality and you’ll find yourself in a much better position, rather than being way late and too big/slow to compete.

[Update 2011-09-22]
Adobe just announced Flash Player 11 and AIR 3. Adobe claims improved performance – we’ll see soon.
[/Update]

[Update 2016-03-12 – Flash is dying quickly these days, and no one cares to defend it anymore. ]

Google and Motorola – What Will Googorola Do?

In case you haven’t followed any tech industry news in the last several days – Google (GOOG) and Motorola Mobility (MMI) have agreed on an acquisition to the tune of .5 billion. Some are calling them Motoroogle, but I prefer Googorola, especially since Google is the one doing the buying – their name should come first.

This is a pretty big step for a company like Google that is essentially a software play. Naturally people are asking what’s it all about. In order to figure out what may come out of this we need to try to understand why Google would buy a mobile hardware company. Unfortunately, the truth is there is no way to really know what Google was thinking. There are a couple of prevailing theories.

Patent Protection

One is that Google sees this as a way to protect Android intellectual property against patent suits, especially from Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT). Larry Page mentioned this in the Official Google Blog on Monday. Many pundits and analysts have lined up behind this theory. In fact it was mentioned by almost every single android manufacturer.

End-to-end Production

The other popular theory is that Google wants to be able to reproduce the capability of full ecosystem offerings like phones from Apple, Rim, and HP. This gives Google the chance to control the hardware, software, user-interface, and in short the complete user experience. This is a straight-on attempt to duplicate the popularity of the iPhone.

Analysis

While I have to agree that the patent protection side is at least part of the reasoning, I am doubtful that it’s the only reason. Recall that during the recent hissy fit between Google and Microsoft re the Nortel patents, it came out that Google had the chance to be part of the winning consortium, but choose against it. Google claimed that it was smoke and mirrors on the part of Microsoft, since if it was part of the group it couldn’t use the patents to protect against a lawsuit by the co-owners of the patents. However, it’s undeniable that they also couldn’t be sued by the co-owners of the patents over the same said patents. Clearly they were after something other than just protecting Android.

In addition, Apple has been moving forward in their suit against Motorola. Florian Mueller has discussed this in depth over at Foss Patents. Obviously if Motorola can’t protect themselves from suits by Apple, they can’t protect Google and Android either.

This leads us to the other alternative – Google wants to build phones. This will be clear to all soon enough. Either Google will divest themselves of the phone-building part of Motorola, while keeping control of the patents, or… they will start building phones. If they divest, then what they claimed was all they’re after, and you can quit reading now. But the interesting part is what happens if they do start building phones.

One can’t deny that Google hasn’t gotten a lot of traction with their Nexus phones. On the other hand, the iPhone is the single most-popular smartphone out there. Anyone who wishes to seriously compete with them needs to take a serious look and try to understand how they’re succeeding. Leaving conspiracy theories about fan-boys etc aside, the conventional wisdom is that Apple’s ability to control the software and hardware gives them a serious edge in end-user experience. Let’s presume for a moment that this is at least part of why Google would spend such a premium on Motorola.

The question then is how does it all work? Google can isolate Motorola, run them as an independent company, and treat them on a level playing field with all other phone vendors. This is what Google is claiming so far. I don’t see it happening – if that’s the plan, why spend so much? This would essentially make it a pure patent play, and in that case the price was simply too high. More likely Google will feed Motorola first, possibly even giving them exclusive access to extra functionality. Given Motorola’s past success with popular phones from the RAZR to the DROID, I expect this could be a pretty big hit. It sounds very interesting to me.

End result then is the next step. What does it mean for android and android customers? Well, if you’re a Samsung or HTC phone fan, you might want to start checking out what Windows has to offer, because I expect both of them will be adding Windows to their stable. I don’t expect they’ll drop Android, but I won’t be surprised to see them pay less attention to it.

If you’re a Droid fan or Nexus fan, lookout. This could be a truly amazing set of phones coming from Google and Motorola working together in an unfragmented way. I’d be pretty happy right now if I was a Droid user.

As for Android itself, well it depends on how it all plays out. If Google starts competing with their hardware partners, then they will look for alternatives. Microsoft has a chance here to really make a great competitive offering at a great price. It might even end up being cheaper to license Windows than to pay royalties on Android. This could be the thing that they need to really finally get Windows Mobile off the ground. Android will survive as long as Google needs it and uses it, but it’s day’s of dominance in the mobile space may be numbered. Ironically, in an attempt to compete, Google may be strengthening a major competitor in Microsoft. Only time will tell.

[Update 2011-08-17]
One other possibility is that Googorola is interested in set-top boxes. It makes sense.
[/Update]

[Update 2011-09-29]
The Justice department is is asking for more info about the Motorola deal. This may or may not mean anything, depending on who you ask. Me, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s overly serious.
[/Update]

[Update 2011-10-06]
So Intellectual Ventures has filed a patent infringement suit against Motorola Mobility. Apparently Motorola’s patents can’t even defend themselves. So much for the “Google only wanted their patents” theories.
[/Update]

[Update 2016-03-12 – Google has long since spun Motorola back out – so their IP play didn’t really work and they never really leveraged the hardware capabilities of Motorola]