Friday, 30 April 2010

iPhone travel coolness

During a recent visit to the Czech Republic, I put my iPhone 3GS to good use as a general tool for blogging, notetaking, translation and navigation. Some of these uses are obvious; the compass is invaluable for getting your bearings when lost in Prague's maze of tiny streets, and the Maps application is very useful as long as you have connectivity.

Unfortunately, there is no Orange service in the Czech Republic so I had to rely on the numerous wifi hotspots located around Prague city centre. Fortunately most of these are genuinely free, and do not require the user to log in to a service. Just connect and go.

For translation, I used iSpeak Czech. The translation engine is Google Translate, so real-time translation without a network connection is impossible. There is facility to perform translations and save them, though, and the speech synthesis requires no network connection. In fact, it's possible to just type phrases into the relevent text box and press the speech button to hear an excellent synthesised voice that takes account of proper pronunciation rules. Every time I used it, the pronunciation used by the program was identical to that spoken by locals.

Of course, typing the words to translate was something of an issue. This is where the iPhone international keyboard comes in. When more than one language is enabled, a globe button appears by the space key to quickly switch between languages. Switching the keyboard language also switches the autosuggest and this works as well as expected.

Another nice feature of the iPhone keyboard is that it adds all the accents and special characters to the other keyboards too. This is very handy when typing, for example, a single Czech word into an otherwise English blog post.

For blogging purposes I use Blogpress, for reasons detailed in older posts about iPhone blog clients. It has the easiest image addition UI of all the apps, and will upload photos and even video to a Picasa or Youtube account of your choice. The offline drafts mode means that writing on the go and uploading once a hotspot is found is very easy. There are a couple of niggly bugs but nothing I can't live with.

Finally, for currency calculation I use the offical app. This has online exchange rate updates, but will use a cached value when no network is available. Quick and easy, as it should be.

So for a pocket-sized travel companion, the iPhone is ideal. Install the apps you need before you travel, and even without a network you should be able to make good use of it. Just don't forget the charger!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Statistically oblivious

The Liberal Democrats are popular at the moment. Whether it's for their policies, or just because the people tire of the Labour/Tory tug-o-war that's being going on for over 6 decades, there's something in the air this election.

Unfortunately a basic grasp of voting seems to still elude the bovine masses. Yougov released an article on the growing popularity of the LibDems. In it, voters intending to vote LibDem are reported to be 33% which is a sizeable amount, but not enough for an absolute majority. The scary part is in the next sentence.
Just under half the country (49%) would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they were seen to have a reasonable chance of winning.

So let me get this straight; people would vote for the LibDems if they thought they were going to win, but against them if not? The wrong-headedness of this behaviour boggles my mind. I honestly cannot fathom this line of thinking at all.

If they like LibDem and want their policies, how on earth is voting against them going to help? And what does it gain you, the voter? The smug knowledge that you voted for the party that "won"?

Politics is not like football. You can't just support the team at the top of the championship and then proudly claim "We won!" when they take home the FA cup. You didn't win anything. It's vicarious success at its worst. And when you apply this reasoning to politics, you lose. And so does everyone else.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The world feels much bigger today

Since most European airspace has been shut down due to the giant ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull the world has started to feel much bigger. I'm supposed to be flying out to Prague next week. I might be able to, or I might not. There's no way of knowing.

It sounds like something out of a speculative SF story; a natural occurence renders the technology humans rely on for everything from food transportation to holidays useless. The vast distances travelled on a daily basis by thousands upon thousands of people suddenly comes into sharp relief.

Of course, there are alternative ways to get places in the world. Europe is accessible by ferry, train and even by car. It would be possible to get to Prague in a few days by taking the ferry and driving through Belgium and Germany, but it's a far cry from the couple of hours it would take to fly there. The "long haul" 12 hour flight to California suddenly becomes a week long expedition.

When the main obstacle to international travel is expense, the world feels very small. Sure, you may fly cattle class in a £25 seat or in the lap of luxury seat for whatever you can afford to pay, but fundamentally there is little stopping the man in the street from being a "jet setter" in his own time.

So now we're tasting a little of what it's like to lose something that we've all grown so very used to. Even those who don't fly themselves rely on easy, and fast, international travel for so many things. When there are no planes in the sky, a 2 day business trip to India suddenly doesn't seem so viable. And I don't know of many English banana plantations.

Of course, many things rely on air transport purely because of it's convenience. Because we can fly to anywhere in the world at short notice, we do, and that rapidly becomes the norm. Now we can't imagine conducting business without seeing each other face to face. We can't imagine foreign holidays being anything more complex than a minor inconvenience at the check-in desk.

So on the one hand, there's very much a sense of "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." But at the same time, I get another feeling of serenity. The skies are clear blue for the first time in decades. Many people are rediscovering the joys to be had in their home countries rather than jetting off around the world seeking the exotic. And barbecue season is upon us.

So I might get to see Prague next week. Hell, I've been waiting for years to get a chance as it's somewhere I'd love to visit. But if the worst comes to the worst, I'll stay in good old Blighty, maybe set up a tent somewhere rural and drink some fine English ales. And if that's the worst, then that suits me fine.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Something is afoot - Opera Mini on iPhone

Strange things are afoot. 20 days ago, Opera submitted the iPhone version of Opera Mini, their mobile browser, to the Apple AppStore. 20 days later, it was actually approved, despite previous browser technologies and the like being rejected for "duplicating iPhone functionality". Strange indeed.

Having used Opera Mini before on many different devices, both touchscreen and traditional keypad based, I have long appreciated its raw speed, excellent rendering engine and intuitive navigation controls. But can it stand up to Safari on iPhone for browsing excellence? The answer: sort of.

The Good

Like its predecessors, Opera Mini for iPhone is blazingly fast. Using Opera's own proxies, web content is compressed to within an inch of its life to reduce bandwidth requirements, and the browser itself renders what it downloads so fast that the likes of Safari just can't keep up. Even on a GPRS only connection it is almost as fast as Safari on 3G for largely text based pages.

There are some other niceties to go with this incredible speed. The now ubiquitous, oft replicated Opera dashboard being one. Having all your favourite sites pop up at startup, or in new tabs, is a great way to get past the rather utilitarian interface of Safari and make it into an efficient web browsing product.

A new full screen mode is available that strips away the toolbars, leaving just the content. This is very useful because Opera Mini does take up somewhat more screen real estate than Safari due to the way the page titles and URL bar are rendered.

Another throwback to previous incarnations of the browser is the "small screen" rendering mode. This attempts to interpret and convert the HTML to prevent space hogging sites from scrolling off the sides of the device. It works relatively well, although sites with side bars can end up requiring a lot of scrolling to get to the content when there are a mass of links at the top of the document. Theoretically, though, this mode should be pretty much obsolete. The zoomable, multi-directional scrollable, large screen interface of the iPhone should make large pages easy to navigate, right?

The Bad

The famous Opera rendering engine looks very nice. When it's zoomed to 100% size. Small than that, though, and it's quite literally an unreadable mass of roughly text-shaped blobs. Compare the BBC News homepage on Safari and Opera when zoomed out to show the whole page. Safari has readable headlines and, if not readable, then at least recognisable subheadings. It makes an effort to render actual text. Opera, on the other hand, does not. It replaces all text with fuzzy blobs, making navigating the page impossible until you zoom right in.

And zoom right in is all you can do. Even the multitouch pinch-zoom doesn't work as expected. There are exactly 2 zoom levels. Entire page, or full size. Full size looks nice, but there's just not enough of the page visible to make it possible to navigate around. It's like trying to navigate a complex maze while looking through a toilet roll tube. Suppose we want to zoom in on just the central column on content to be able to read the text without necessarily committing to any one small area of the page.

The iPhone handles this nicely. A double-tap to zoom in, and a bit of pinch zoom to reveal the exact area required. Perfectly readable. Opera, we pinch-zoom and ... oh. Well, we can see part of the text, but now we have to scroll around to see what we're looking at.

An interesting thing to notice is that the two browsers have different content, despite being loaded at pretty much the same time. This is because the Safari version of BBC News is the UK page, whereas Opera got the "international" version because the proxy is located in the US. Location aware apps (even Google, which tries to give you local results) will be affected by this rather subtle oversight.

The Ugly

There are some other UI nasties in there to get you. Elastic scroll is simply not implemented, so scrolling quickly to the top of the page just stops dead without the characteristic "bounce" implemented in the iPhone SDK. Kinetic scrolling also uses Opera's own UI toolkit so feels subtley different to every other iPhone app. Flicking the page to scroll fast feels "muddy" somehow. It scrolls fast, but stops too quickly and too suddenly. Scrolling large pages takes far more "flicks" than in other apps.

Tabbed browsing is implemented in a pretty nice way, with a preview-based tab bar popping up at the bottom of the screen and giving and almost CoverFlow like view of the open tabs. Unfortunately, I have got quite used to the full screen previews presented by Safari which I find more like turning pages in a book than switching between tabs. Opera only shows a preview of the top left corner of the screen. It's nice, and feels quick in use, although I get the impression that it's a perception rather than any real speed increase over Safari's method due to the UI's immediacy.


So in the end, how does Opera stack up as the iPhone's second browser? Pretty well, if you consider it as an alternative to, rather than a replacement of, Safari. The browsing experience of Safari is far and away better than that of Opera, but Opera has it beat on raw speed. If I want to search for something, look something up, or just idle my time away while stuck somewhere that doesn't have a decent 3G signal, Opera Mini is there to help. For everything else, there's Safari.