Category Archives: iphone

BBC News app arrives on iPhone

Today the BBC received approval from the BBC Trust to create apps for mobile devices such as Apple iPhone/iPad and Google Android. Wasting no time, the corporation published a BBC News App on the App Store today.   

But what is the point? Is this really better than simply going to the web site:


It is worse in some ways, because there is a disconnect between content locked in an app, and content on the world web web where it can be linked and searched. There is also an argument over whether the publicly funded BBC creating apps for luxury mobile devices, instead of investing in more public content, though I’d imagine that the cost of creating the app is small relative to the cost of producing the content. The BBC no doubt feels under pressure to keep up with competitors such as Sky News, which already has an app available.

The BBC app becomes more interesting if you click the Live button, though you need a good connection, preferably wi-fi:


The app becomes a news-dedicated iPlayer for iPhone; a full iPlayer is also promised. A nice feature; though even this can be done on the web as long as you use Apple’s QuickTime format rather than not-invented-here Adobe Flash.

Dysfunctional Microsoft?

Microsoft watchers have been scrutinising the fascinating Mini-Microsoft post on the Kin smartphone debacle and what it says about the company. If it is even slightly accurate, it is pretty bad; and it must be somewhat accurate since we know that the hopeless Kin launch happened and that the product was killed shortly afterwards. Of course it would have been better to kill the project before rather than after the launch; the negative PR impact has affected the strategically important Windows Phone 7 launch.

Handsome profits from Windows and Office have enabled Microsoft to survive and even prosper despite mistakes like Kin, or the Xbox 360 “red ring of death”, or the Vista reset and related problems – mistakes on a scale that would sink many companies.

I see frequent complaints about excessively bureaucratic management with too many layers, and a tendency towards perplexing, ineffective but expensive advertising campaigns.

There are also questions about CEO Steve Ballmer’s suitability for the task. He nearly indulged in a disastrously over-priced takeover of Yahoo, saved only by the obstinacy of the target company’s leadership. He habitually dismisses the competition, such as Apple’s iPhone, and is proved wrong by the market. He failed to see the importance of cloud computing, and even now that the company is at least partially converted he does not set the right tone on the subject. I watched his keynote at the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) where he sounded as if he were trying unsuccessfully to imitate Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff from ten years’ ago. Microsoft needs to present a nuanced message about its cloud initiative, not someone shouting “oh cloud oh cloud oh cloud”.

Microsoft is also copying its competition as never before. Bing has a few innovations, but is essentially a recognition that Google got it right and an attempt to muscle in with a copy of its business model – search, advertising and data mining. Windows Phone 7 occupies a similar position with respect to Apple’s iPhone and App Store. Windows 8 also seems to borrow ideas from Apple.

Nevertheless, Microsoft is not yet a dying company, and it would be a mistake to base too much analysis of the company on something like comments to Mini-Microsoft’s blog – good though it is – since it is a magnet for disaffected employees.

While Ballmer’s effort at the WPC was poor, he was followed by Bob Muglia, president of server and tools, who was excellent. Windows Azure has come on remarkably since its half-hearted preview at PDC 2008; and Muglia comes over as someone who knows what he is trying to achieve and how he intends to get there. The Azure “Appliance” idea, shipping a pre-baked cloud infrastructure to Enterprise customers, is a clever way to exploit the demand for a cloud application model but on hardware owned by the customer.

The eBay announcement at WPC was also quite a coup. eBay will “incorporate the Windows Azure platform appliance into two of its datacenters” later this year; and while it is not clear exactly how much of eBay will run on Azure, these appliance kits represent significant hardware.

We’ve seen other strong releases from Microsoft – server 2008 R2, Exchange 2010, SQL Server 2008 R2, SharePoint 2010 which whatever you think of SharePoint is a solid advance on its predecessor, and of course Windows 7 which has done a lot to rescue Microsoft’s performance and reputation after the Vista disappointment.

I also continue to be impressed by Visual Studio 2010, which is a huge release and works pretty well in my experience.

What about Windows Phone 7? With the market focused on iPhone vs Android, clearly it is in a tough market. If there is something slightly wrong with it on launch, instability or some serious hardware or software flaw, it might never recover. Nevertheless, I do not write it off. I think the design effort is intelligent and focused, and that the Silverlight/XNA/.NET development platform along with Visual Studio is an attractive one, especially for Microsoft Platform developers. VP Scott Guthrie describes the latest SDK here. People still switch phones frequently – something I dislike from an environmental point of view, but which works in favour of new entrants to the market. If Windows Phone 7 is a decent device, it can succeed; I’d rate its long-term chances ahead of HP WebOS, for example, and will be keen to try it when it becomes available.


Is there a lot wrong with Microsoft? Yes. Does it need a fresh approach at the very top? Probably. Nevertheless, parts of the company still seem to deliver; and even the Windows Phone 7 team could be among them.

iTunes hacks: whose fault are they?

A big story today concerns irregular activity on Apple’s iTunes store, the one and only means of purchasing applications for iPhone and iPad and central to the company’s strategy. The reports allege that developers are hacking iTunes accounts to purchase and give favourable review to their apps – which can only be a short term strategy since you would imagine that such activity would soon be detected and the perpetrators traced through the payment system.

As it happens I’d been meaning to post about iTunes security in any case. I blogged about an incident just over a month ago, since when there have been a steady stream of comments from other users who say that their iTunes accounts were hacked and fraudulent purchases made.

A recent comment refers to this thread, started over a year ago and now with over 200 comments from similarly afflicted users.

Despite the number of reported incidents, there is no reason to suppose that Apple’s servers have been broken into. Several other mechanisms are more likely, including malware-infected computers on which users may have stored passwords, or have keystrokes logged; or successful attempts to guess passwords or the answer to so-called “security questions” which also give access to account details.

Such questions should be called insecurity questions, since they are really designed to reduce the burden on helpdesks from users who have lost passwords or access to obsolete email accounts. Since they allow access to accounts without knowing the password, they reduce security, and even more so when the questions are for semi-public information like mother’s maiden name, which is commonly used.

Given the number of iTunes accounts, it is not surprising that there are numerous successful hacks, whether or not there is some issue (other than the insecurity questions) with iTunes or Apple’s servers.

That said, there is a consistent theme running through all these threads, which is that Apple’s customer service towards victims of hacking seems poor. Contact is email-only, users are simply referred to their banks, Apple promises further contact within 24 hours that is often not forthcoming, and there are reports of users losing access to credit or previous purchases. It was an instance of the latter which prompted my earlier post.

Apple therefore should fix its customer service, even if its servers are watertight. I’d like to see it lose the insecurity questions too.


iPhone 4 Antenna: Apple wrongly calls it a software problem – but it is easily fixed with a case

Apple is sufficiently bothered by criticism of the iPhone 4 antenna, an external band around the device whose reception is poor when held in the normal way, that it has posted a letter on the subject:

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.

Apple’s reasoning is that because the range of values displayed by its signal bars is smaller than it should be, users can see a signal drop of two or three bars when the real drop is only a small one. So it’s apologised … for its software error:

For those who have had concerns, we apologize for any anxiety we may have caused.

However, users are not primarily concerned about the number of bars. They are concerned about calls dropping, or even being unable to make calls. The best article I have seen on the matter is Anandtech’s detailed review which has the measurements: the iPhone 4’s signal attenuation when “holding naturally” is 19.8dB, nearly twice as severe as an HTC Nexus One at 1.9dB, and ten times worse than an iPhone 3GS at 1.9dB.

It is disappointing that Apple will not own up to the problem, or do anything about it for existing customers – though you can bet that future iterations of iPhone 4 will fix the issue.

Still, there is one thing in Apple’s letter that I agree with:

As a reminder, if you are not fully satisfied, you can return your undamaged iPhone to any Apple Retail Store or the online Apple Store within 30 days of purchase for a full refund.

The antenna problem is a fault and a return is justified. That said, you can fix the problem by buying a case – yes, Apple should pay, but it seems determined to avoid doing so. Since iPhone 4 is still in high demand, my assumption is that most customers feel it is worth having despite its flaw.

Apple iPhone 4 photo quality for a point-and-shoot snapper

Is the photo quality on Apple’s iPhone 4 good enough that I could leave my Canon IXUS 801S at home?

Unfortunately I think not. At least, that was my impression after taking a few snaps today.

Here’s the Canon:


and the iPhone 4:


With the iPhone 4 you tap to focus. I took multiple shots of this flower from various distances, trying to focus it correctly, but it has a tendency to do a better job on the background foliage.

Next, a snap of a record sleeve. Better for the iPhone, but still not great. Here’s the Canon:


and the iPhone:


It’s not surprising that a dedicated camera takes better snaps than one built into a phone; and I still think the iPhone camera is excellent. But I’ll keep packing the Canon in my bag.

Two days with Apple iPhone 4

I’ve been trying out iPhone 4 since its launch on Thursday this week. My main interest is software development, and I have a couple of ideas for apps. Apple’s platform is annoying in several respects, especially the App Store lock-in and the Apple tax, but it is unavoidable. Unfortunately when a company gets the idea that it should support the fast-growing mobile device sector with an app, the iPhone is the one they think of first, and iPad follows. Google Android is coming up fast, thank goodness, but has nothing like the mindshare or market share of Apple’s device platform.


Software developers have another reason to study the iPhone, which is as a case study in software design and usability. After using iPhone 4 for a couple of days, and watching friends try it even if they have not used one before, I am full of admiration for what Apple has achieved. There are a few basic concepts to grasp – home button, breadcrumbs, swipe and multi-touch – after which it is mostly delightful. There is hardly any documentation in the box – though there is a downloadable manual – just a brief leaflet describing a few essentials, but discoverability is good, especially with a little help from Google.

Need a screen grab, for example? Press and hold home and tap the top button. The grab turns up in the camera roll. It’s not something you would find out by chance, but only a search away.

Text input is a big deal for me. I am much faster on a real keyboard, but the iPhone is as good as many thumb keyboards. Again, there are things you have to discover. There are no cursor keys, but if you hold down an area of text a bubble appears, and sliding your finger left and right moves the cursor so you can easily correct an error.


The Exchange support, by the way, is excellent. I put in the settings for Outlook over HTTP; the iPhone complained briefly about my self-generated digital certificate and then connected without any hassles. The device picks up all the folders in the inbox without any additional configuration. The one feature I would like to add is the ability to select a different sending email address; if anyone knows a way to do this, let me know.

I am also impressed by iPhone Safari. After struggling with an old Windows Mobile browser, it is a relief to have a proper web browser restricted only by its small screen; pinch and zoom copes with most problems though it is always going to be a limitation; sites optimised for mobile work better.

Google Maps is great too. The GPS works well, and finding your way around is a snap.

The high resolution screen is lovely of course, and the camera is superb. I will do some comparisons against my Canon Ixus, but if I keep the phone it might save me the need to carry a separate camera when out and about, at least until the lens gets scratched.

Anything not to like? A few things. The price, for one, especially when supplemented by whatever scheme your mobile operator devises to separate you from your money. Many schemes offer only 500MB per month data allowance; not enough, especially as data usage can only increase.

There’s also the iTunes problem. I know others like it, but I personally don’t get on well with iTunes, finding it bloated and annoying. I don’t allow it on a PC, but keep a Mac Mini handy for when I need to do the Apple thing. It is absurd though that you cannot use an iPhone without activating it first via iTunes. What happens when a user decides that iPad plus iPhone plus cloud is all they need? I can’t help wondering if Apple simply wants to ensure that as many people as possible install its online store.

Whenever I connect the iPhone, iPhoto pops up and wants to import photos, even the ones that I’ve already imported. I have to check the option not to bother with duplicates every time. There must be a way of avoiding this annoyance, but I’ve not spotted it yet.

Then there’s the reception issue. It’s well known that many, possibly all iPhone 4 models have a bug where if you hold it in the normal way, your hand bridges a gap in the external antennas and damages reception. Steve Jobs says that reception issues when holding a phone in a certain way is “a fact of life for every wireless phone”; this is arrogant spin and I hope Apple gets lots of returns or at least hands out for free the bumper cases that apparently resolve the issue.

That said, my iPhone is on O2 and at home the reception is terrible however I hold the phone, even though I am in a high coverage area according to O2. At my desk I get only one bar and calls are not always possible – which means I will have to cancel the contract.


I did manage to fit the micro sim into my old Windows Mobile phone to see if it is just an iPhone problem. It was just about as bad, so no, it is O2. In general I’ve not been impressed with the O2 reception in my part of the world, though it is excellent in our local O2 shop; perhaps they have a booster under the desk.

There are little niggles elsewhere too. I tried Voice Control, for example, and found it useless; perhaps I have the wrong kind of voice.


If I speak to play a song, there is 25% chance that it plays, 50% chance that I get a “no match” error message, and 25% chance that it dials a random person in my address book. A hidden social media function?

A number of negatives then; but the iPhone contrives to be good enough that users overlook any faults because they like it so much. It’s certainly a better experience than the last Android device I tried; though that is well out of date now, and I intend to look closely at Android 2.2 “Froyo” as soon as the phones become available.

Update: As far as I can tell, if you buy your iPhone at a store it will be activated for you, so you don’t need iTunes to get started. However iTunes is necessary if you receive your iPhone by post and activate it yourself.

Adobe’s campaign against Apple misses the target

Nothing better demonstrates Adobe’s concern about being locked out of Apple’s mobile platform than a huge advertising campaign attempting, one assumes, to win public support and pressure Apple into yielding ground.

Still, if you are going to run a big PR campaign it helps to be right. But Adobe seems to be arguing that Flash support is essential to an open web, which is incorrect.

We believe that consumers should be able to freely access their favorite content and applications, regardless of what computer they have, what browser they like, or what device suits their needs. No company — no matter how big or how creative — should dictate what you can create, how you create it, or what you can experience on the web. … In the end, we believe the question is really this: Who controls the World Wide Web? And we believe the answer is: nobody — and everybody, but certainly not a single company.

says the open letter from Adobe founders Churck Geschke and John Warnock.

Very good, but this is not an argument in favour of Flash. Flash is not part of HTML, Flash is not a standard, and Flash is not open – the specification for the player is published, but what goes into that specification is controlled solely by Adobe, and its player implementation is not open source. Flash is a proprietary plug-in. Are Geschke and Warnock arguing that all browsers on all devices should allow all plug-ins to be installed – including Silverlight, Java, ActiveX, and anything else you can think of? Or are they arguing that Adobe Flash is a special case? It is certainly a special case for Adobe, but any company will argue in favour of its own stuff.

The full-page advertisement that I’ve seen in various newspapers is not much better. Adobe’s pitch is that Apple is:

taking away your freedom to choose what you create, how you create it, and what you experience on the web

This again is incorrect. Apple has an excellent mobile browser based on WebKit, as also used by Google, Adobe and others. You can do what you want on the Web, but if you use Flash it won’t render on Apple’s mobile devices. All that means is that Apple has chosen not to support Adobe’s plug-in. It is not an issue of freedom.

Personally I don’t like Apple’s approach. I’d prefer it to support the leading plug-ins (not only Flash); I don’t like the appification of the web -  dubbed the splinternet, or splintered web, by some. And I particularly object to Apple’s clause 3.3.1 in its new developer agreement, which blocks apps that are created with cross-platform tools, no matter how well they perform or how good they look. That, it seems to me, is anti-competitive in spirit.

I think Adobe should make more of clause 3.3.1, rather than indulging in special pleading for its plug-in. And if I were Adobe, I wouldn’t be whinging about Flash being blocked. Rather, I’d be highlighting all the great things Flash can do, and all the content you will miss without it. My full-page ad would say, “Mr Jobs, your iPhone is broken”, and extol the merits of Android and other devices that will run Flash.

I’d also be working on the technical arguments, that Flash is unstable, insecure and resource-hungry. Is it Apple’s fault? Is it because of poorly coded SWFs, and if so what is Adobe doing about that? And how will Adobe improve Flash so that it behaves better in future, and not be perceived as the new Vista?

Maybe next time round?image

Adobe’s Kevin Lynch: we’re focusing on everybody else

I enjoyed this interview with Adobe’s Kevin Lynch from Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, where he talks about the Apple problem. Adobe has created a compiler for Flash that creates a native code iPhone application, but Apple’s latest developer agreement prohibits its use.

Lynch presents it as a matter of freedom. Software developers should be allowed to target multiple operating systems with one code base; and developers should be allowed to deploy applications without needing permission from a company.

“We’re focusing on everybody else” he says, talking about forthcoming devices that will support Flash and the Flash-based Open Screen Project. “All the variety and the innovation that happening with all hese other companies is going to dwarf what’s happening from one company,” he says. “We’re at the beginning of the game not the end of the game.”

The snag is that Apple’s devices are the most attractive market for applications, thanks to smooth deployment via the App Store and the higher than average wealth of Apple’s customers. It’s a matter of which is more true: that Flash is marginalising iPhone and iPad, or that iPhone and iPad are marginalising Flash.

I’d also suggest that having Adobe control the platform for the Open Screen Project is not ideal, if we are going to talk about software freedom. If you listen to the interview, notice how Lynch tries to avoid mentioning Flash in the same breath as the Open Screen Project. It’s really the Adobe Flash Screen Project, but you wouldn’t know from what he says.

Nevertheless I agree with both his points. Both the App Store and Apple’s new restrictive developer agreement are bad for competition and I dislike them. That said, I doubt that the existence of a few upset developers will have any noticeable impact on Apple’s success. What will make a difference is if the “variety and innovation” which Lynch talks about produces devices that are better than Apple’s offerings.

Steve Jobs saying Flash is bad does not make it so

I’ve mulled over the statement by Apple CEO Steve Jobs on why he hates Flash. It’s been picked over by many, so there’s little point in analysing it line by line, spotting what’s true, what’s false, what’s twisted. It doesn’t matter. What counts is that Jobs is disallowing Flash and attacking Adobe – he’s decided it should get out of the runtime business and just do tools for HTML5:

Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future

Apple is a powerful enemy; and what I’ve found alarming watching the reaction is the extent to which Jobs saying “Flash is bad” has lowered the reputation of Flash; it’s as if all the great things which it has enabled – web video that works, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a web browser, an entire industry of casual gaming – has been forgotten because one charismatic and influential individual has called it old stuff that crashes Macs.

The army of enthusiasts which leaps to the defence of all things Apple both amuses and disturbs me. I understand some of the reasons. People warm to Apple because the company has improved their lives, in computing, in music, in mobile phones – especially in contrast to the efforts of Microsoft and its partners who have all too often made computers and mobile devices that are hostile and unpleasant to use. This last factor is not Apple’s fault; and without Apple it might not now be changing. Apple deserves our thanks for that.

That doesn’t make Jobs or his followers right about Flash, which is a magical piece of technology. Yes, it’s been widely abused to make annoying ads and animations; yes, it crashes the browser sometimes; yes, both HTML5 and Microsoft Silverlight are encroaching on Flash territory.

Still, Flash is never going to be allowed on Apple’s new wave of personal computing devices, which by the looks of things it intends to form the core of its business. Nor can we write for Flash and compile for Apple; it’s not allowed.

This is the new model of computing: the web if you want open, or humbly seek permission from the device overlords if you want a local application install, at least on Apple’s platform; and Microsoft is headed in the same direction with Windows Mobile 7. It’s not a model I like; but the trend is unmistakeable.

Apple locks down its platform just a little bit more

How much money is enough? “Just a little bit more”, said J D Rockefeller; and Apple is taking a similar line with respect to control of its mobile platform. It is no longer enough that all apps are approved by Apple, sold by Apple, and that a slice of any sales goes to Apple. It now wants to control how you make that app as well, stipulating the tools you use and prohibiting use of others:

Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine.

On the face of it, bad news for third-party companies like Adobe, whose Flash to iPhone compiler is released tomorrow, Novell’s Monotouch, or Unity3D:

JavaScript and C# scripts are compiled to native ARM assembler code during the build process. This gives an average performance increase of 20-40 times over interpreted languages.

What is interesting is not only the issue itself, but the way debate is being conducted. I don’t know how Novell is getting on in “reaching out to Apple” concerning Monotouch, but as far as I can tell Apple introduced the restriction by revising a clause in a contract shown only to paid-up iPhone developers and possibly under NDA, then seeing if anyone would notice. Now that sparks are flying, CEO Steve Jobs is participating by one-line emails to a blogger referencing a post by another blogger, John Gruber.

Further, his responses do not altogether make sense. Gruber’s post is long – does Jobs agree with all of it? Gruber says that Apple wants the lock-in:

So what Apple does not want is for some other company to establish a de facto standard software platform on top of Cocoa Touch. Not Adobe’s Flash. Not .NET (through MonoTouch). If that were to happen, there’s no lock-in advantage.

Probably true, but not the usual PR message, as lock-in is bad for customers. How much are inkjet cartridges? I suspect Jobs was thinking more of this part:

Cross-platform software toolkits have never — ever — produced top-notch native apps for Apple platforms. Not for the classic Mac OS, not for Mac OS X, and not for iPhone OS. Such apps generally have been downright crummy.

As it happens, I think Gruber, and by extension Jobs, is wrong about this; though it all depends what you mean by the output of a cross-platform toolkit. Firefox? NeoOffice? WebKit, as found in Safari? Jobs says:

We’ve been there before, and intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform.

Well, we know he does not like Java – “this big heavyweight ball and chain” – but there are many approaches to cross-platform. In fact, I’m not even sure whether Jobs means technical layers or political layers. As Gruber says:

Consider a world where some other company’s cross-platform toolkit proved wildly popular. Then Apple releases major new features to iPhone OS, and that other company’s toolkit is slow to adopt them. At that point, it’s the other company that controls when third-party apps can make use of these features.

The point is: we don’t know what Jobs means. We might not know until apps hit the app store and are approved or not approved. It is a poor way to treat third parties who are investing in your platform; and that was one part of the reason for my initial reaction: it stinks.

The other reason is that I enjoy the freedom a personal computer gives you, to install what you want, from whomever you want, and the creativity that this inspires. At the same time, I can see the problems this has caused, for security, for technical stability, and for user experience. Personal computing seems to be transitioning to a model that gives us less control over the devices we use, and which makes a few privileged intermediaries more powerful and wealthy than anything we have seen before.

In the end, it is Apple’s platform. Apple does not yet monopolise the market – though my local supermarket has iPods in all sorts of colours but no other portable music player on sale – and the short answer is that if you don’t like the terms, don’t buy (or develop for) the product.

As Apple’s market share grows, the acceptability of its terms will lessen, and protests will grow louder, just as they did for Microsoft – though I hesitate to make that comparison because of the many differences between the two companies and their business models. Having said which, looking at Zune and Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seems to like Apple’s business model enough to imitate it.