Navigation apps on the Verizon iPhone

February 18, 2011

The best part of being on the Sprint Network is having lots a cool features and services included in the basic monthly cell phone charges. So for a low cost plan you have access to unlimited free phone calls to any other cell phone (regardless of their network) and unlimited text messaging, and unlimited data. Another free service that I really like is the Sprint Navigation app on my Palm Pixi WebOS phone, which I use frequently when driving out of town on a business trip.

This app is very well written, and works great on my Palm Pixi smartphone. Even with the tiny screen on my Pixi, I can still clearly see the roads and upcoming turns, etc. and the voice turn-by-turn directions are wonderfully clear and and timed well.

So of course for my new Verizon iPhone, I was expecting to find a similar navigation app available. Now, Verizon does have a very similar navigation app (called VZ Naviator), but they charge an extra $4.99 per month to use the service. So I decided to look at alternative free apps and found two: Mapquest and NavFree.

I tested Mapquest on a recent drive down to a destination about 40 miles from my home in the city. After using the Sprint Navigator app for over a year, I have to say that Mapquest is very limited and not very user-friendly. The displayed maps look like a 2D google map and are very hard to view while driving. There is no remaining time or distance info displayed, and the “next turn” info is very tiny and hard to read. Also, the turn-by-turn voice directions are very short and hard to hear. The timing of these voice directions are off and you’re only told once the name of the next turn. As such, I dismissed using Mapquest on the iPhone for any real navigating.

On the way back home I decided to use Verizon’s VZ Navigator app which turned out to be very similar to Sprint’s equivalent app. VZ Navigator’s displayed map was very clear and large, with great icons and direction indicators. Info such as remaining time/distance and next turn were also very clearly displayed, and the turn-by-turn directions worked fantastically. In the end, I was very pleased with VZ Navigator but it does come with with the extra monthly charge.

I didn’t have a change to use NavFree, but it seemed to have better features than Mapquest. The maps looked good (in 3D) and all of the options looked good, but I’ll need to really give it a good testing to see how well it works against VZ Navigator. Since NavFree seems to be a grass-roots effort, the mapping data might be a bit questionable.

I’m a new Verizon iPhone owner

February 18, 2011

For the last year and a half I’ve been using a Sprint Palm Pixi WebOS smartphone as my daily companion.  As a WebOS developer, I understand the internal workings of the Palm Pixi and really like a lot of its features. For my primary day job, my employer recently upgraded my cell phone to a Verizon iPhone which I gladly accepted. I’ve owned a iPod Touch for the last year and really like it, so I pretty much knew what to expect in a iPhone. Here are some quick observations:

In my opinion, WebOS is a more “polished” OS for smartphone users as it has a lot of small useful features. For example, in WebOS you can define multiple email accounts in the built-in mail app each of which can have a unique signature text block. On the iPhone, you can only have one signature block used for all email accounts.

WebOS has a very nice notification system where incoming emails, phone calls, messages, etc. are displayed in a small strip at the bottom of the screen. So, you can quickly at a glance identify when you have any new messaging. With the iPhone, you don’t have such a notification area except for a popup dialog window in the center of the screen as a message comes in.

When the screen is blank (or turned off) in WebOS, I am notified of new messages by a small flashing light. There is no such thing on the iPhone when the screen is turned off or blank. To check for new messages on the iPhone, you need to turn on the screen, unlock it, then look at the Email icon to see if there are any new messages (displayed as a number on the icon indicating the number of unread messages).

I sorely miss true multitasking with my WebOS phone. Being able to minimize a running app in the background and fire up another app is a great thing. The iPhone supposedly has “multitasking” but who knows what that really means. Does the app continue to run in the background, or is it suspended until you fire it up again?

So after beating up the iPhone, what do I like about it? First, there’s tons and tons of great apps written for the device. For business travel, I’m using one called TripTracker by PageOnce which is an excellent app for tracking all your travel reservations. I’ve got a lot of news-related apps (e.g., USA Today, Engadget, Macworld, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC News) which come in handy for keeping me busy in-between appointments. Of course there’s Pandora for listening to free Internet radio stations, and Netflix video streaming.

Since I have an EyeTV HD device connected to my iMac for recording TV shows, I can use the associated iPhone app called EyeTV which allows me to fully control the EyeTV HD hardware remotely as well as stream recordings (and live TV) to my iPhone.

Of course, I have the ability to play music and videos through synced files from iTunes. So in all, I’m happy with my iPhone and think it will be a great business companion but I do miss some of the small features found in WebOS.

HP/Palm Bombshell

February 17, 2011

After the big HP/Palm shindig on Feb 9th, it seems that HP has been cooking up a few new devices for the masses. They announced a few new WebOS smartphones as well as the Touchpad device. Although the new smartphones still look like slight variations to the original Palm Pre phone, they do offer some interesting features. The HP Pre Veer is an incredibly tiny smartphone but seems to run very fast with a quicker processor and updated OS. The HP Pre 3 is the bigger cousin to the Palm Pre, with a larger screen and improved OS speed.

Finally, the Touchpad is HP/Palm’s entry into the growing world of tablet devices, and I think they have the best shot at competing with the Apple iPad. Sure, there’s numerous Android Honeycomb OS tablets about to be released, but I think the Touchpad running an improved WebOS (Enyo) is going to be a real winner. Of course, Apple isn’t sitting still and I’ve read rumors of the impending release of the iPad 2 and future developments on the iPad 3.

In my opinion, pricing is a big deciding factor in what devices a consumer purchases. A lot of the announced tablet devices are prices well over the current price of an Apple iPad, which I think is ridiculous. Are these competing devices better than the iPad? I can’t imagine that they are, so how are they going to get people to spend the extra money for them? In my view, the Apple iPad is a great product and the incumbent tablet to beat in this industry. So, it will be interesting to see what HP charges for their Pre and Touchpad devices.

HP hasn’t announced any firm release dates for any of these products, so we can assume they’ll be out sometime after the summer 2011. Also, I’m curious to the battery life of these smartphones and tablet device as that is a big factor in deciding what device to purchase. Apple has been really awesome with battery life for their MacBooks,  iPhones, iPods, and iPads so they are stiff competition in this area. We’ll have to wait and see what HP can offer.

The wonderful world of eBay bidding

February 17, 2011

Since branching off into Microsoft Windows Phone 7 app development, I needed to purchase a handset device for testing purposes. The supplied software emulator works fine, but you always need to test on a handset before app deployment (especially if you’re using hardware-specific features such as GPS).

Buying a WP7 handset off-contract is pretty pricey, costing around $600 or more. Normally I’d buy a handset to be used as my personal cell phone, but since Sprint doesn’t carry any WP7 phones that isn’t an option for me. So my only really option at the moment is to buy a used WP7 handset off eBay at a reduced rate. So I began searching the eBay listings for WP7 phones and was surprised to find most of them going for over $320 US (which I guess isn’t too bad if new ones cost $600 US). Because I plan to use the handset only for testing purposes (no cell activation) I wanted to keep the cost as low as possible.

So as I watched what was available and began bidding on items, I’ve learned a few basic lessons:

  1. When bidding on an item, make sure you read the entire description of the product. You can’t assume that it will come with accessories unless it is written in the description. For example, I noticed that one phone did not come with a battery charger so that would have been an added expense.
  2. Don’t bid too early on an item. If you do so, you could drive the price up with a “bidding frenzy”.
  3. Wait until the very last few seconds to make your bid. I lost a bid on an item by someone who waited until the last 10 seconds before the auction ended to make his final bid. I learned from this lesson on my next bid attempt, waiting until the last few seconds before pressing the “bid” button.
  4. After you “win” an auction, you’ll need to pay using a PayPal account. So make sure you have one already established with a valid credit card already verified by PayPal. Otherwise, your purchase can be delayed which will results in you getting your “prize” later than you expected.
  5. Also, some buyers expect payment immediately after the auction is over, so be prepared ahead of time.

I was able to “win” a HTC 7 Pro WP7 handset for a price of around $200 US so that should suffice for my testing needs. Now I just have to wait for the seller to ship off my won product and hope that it works as advertised.

What’s up with Palm WebOS?

February 5, 2011

Since HP started the process of acquiring Palm, there has been little activity in the release of new Palm smartphones. Palm came out with the Palm Pre and later the Palm Pixi, but the next few releases were just enhancements of those two models. More memory, slightly faster processor, the inclusion of WiFi is nice, but users want NEW handsets released on a regular basis. Six to eight months seems to be the usual life cycle for smartphones these days, and Palm is way behind in that respect.

What’s even worse, is that the big cell phone carriers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T) have all but stopped selling the Palm WebOS smartphones (no doubt, because they are “old” in the consumer’s eyes). Sure, Palm has release the Palm Pre 2 to some carriers, but that phone is just a slight variation of the original Palm Pre.

As a developer, I find that I want to write apps for the smartphone platform that I currently own and carry around with me. For the last year and a half that would be the Palm Pixi smartphone. But I’m coming up on my 2-year contract date and will need to decide what to do. At this moment, I’m waiting for Microsoft to release versions of the Windows Phone 7 smartphones on the Sprint network (CDMA). The WP7 OS looks really fresh to me, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity in selling apps for that platform. Microsoft announced last month that CDMA versions of their WM7 phones will be out sometime in  the “first half of 2011”, and I’m hoping it will be sooner rather than later.

The big red herring is what HP/Palm will be announcing next week on February 9th. They have some big news they plan to release, which has been speculated as new smartphone handsets and/or WebOS tablets. The HP CEO stated that people will “drop their iPhones and iPads” when they hear the big announcement, so we shall see. I’m hoping they don’t simply announce a WebOS tablet since that is something every electronics company has already announced and would be a big disappointment. Nor, do they announce another WebOS smartphone which is simply a repackaged Palm Pre design. If they come out with some revolutionary, new hardware with a revamped WebOS that would really catch my attention. Especially if they have plans to sell the hardware through several different cell phone carriers and within 4 weeks of the announcement. That, would be truly remarkable.

App developer’s dilemma

February 5, 2011

I’ve been a mobile app developer since the early Microsoft Pocket PC days (circa 2001) and I’m amazed at the selection of smartphones currently available. You have the Apple iPhone, Google Android OS, Palm WebOS, Blackberry RIM, and Microsoft Windows Phone 7 OS devices as the big players. So as a developer, which platform should you choose to develop apps for?

You really can’t developer for all of the platforms, since coding for one usually isn’t easily transportable to another. For example, the Apple iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) use Apple’s Objective-C programming language for app development (which you need an Apple computer also). The Android OS requires the Java language, and the Palm WebOS requires Javascript (or C++ for games). Microsoft WP7 requires Microsoft’s own programming language (C# (or Visual Basic) and Silverlight), so as you can see you would need to be trained and skilled in many, many different languages for creating apps for multiple platforms.

So as a developer, you need to make some tough decisions if you want to create apps to sell for a smartphone device. In most cases your time is valuable, so you want to minimize your efforts and maximize your profits and results. I have been in such a dilemma, and here are my thoughts:

For all of the platforms, the Apple iPhone definitely has the biggest online app store. They have tens of thousands of apps available, free and paid. In my opinion, a new developer creating apps for the iPhone would easily be lost in this sea of apps, and the prospect of making a decent return on investment is quite slim. In addition, you need to own an Apple Mac to do such development and also learn the Objective-C language. Developing iOS apps has a steep learning curve and something I’m not willing to do at this moment for the possible return.

The Android OS is in a similar position as the Apple iOS, in that there’s thousands of apps already available. Most ideas for apps you might come up with have already been created. Java is a very popular language and if you already know it, then you’re more than half way there. Android developers use the Eclipse IDE (which is free) and it runs on many different computer platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux). I’ve found that the Android development tools are not the easiest to work with, but they are all free and readily available from the Internet. I’ve opted to not pursue developing Android apps since I don’t know Java and it would be a huge effort to get up to speed in that language. Now, I have not excluded writing Android apps, but at the moment I’m holding off any serious development effort with that platform.

I’ve spent the last year or so developing apps for the Palm WebOS devices, and I find it very easy to do. If you’re a web site developer and know HTML, CSS, Javascript you can create WebOS apps. Palm uses the Eclipse IDE and it’s fairly easy to code up your apps. As with the Android, you can do your development on a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine and all the development tools are free.

The biggest issue I have with WebOS app development, is with Palm. Palm has been very supportive of their developers, but it’s been over 8 months without them releasing any new smartphone devices. Since the acquisition of Palm by HP, handset releases have been non-existant. Sure, Palm release the Palm Pre 2, but that’s basically the same design as the Palm Pre. In fact, a lot of cell phone carriers have dropped selling WebOS smartphones so a developer must question if it makes sense to begin or continue developing for WebOS devices.

Microsoft released their Windows Phone 7 OS devices last year, refreshing their old Windows Mobile OS to something that is comparable to the iPhone, Android, and WebOS touch-screen devices. Amazingly, a lot of pundits like the new look of the WP7 OS (including me). Even though there’s not many WP7 smartphones on the market (GSM version only available), I believe Microsoft will throw lots of money at the WP7 project and won’t give up until they grab a big part of the smartphone market segment. As such, the total number of WP7 apps currently available is the smallest of the smartphone group, which in my opinion is a good thing for developers. This means more opportunity to create useful apps and games that will be noticed in the online catalog. Once you’ve established yourself and have good ratings, you will be in a good position to make considerable profit as more WP7 handsets are sold.

So do you develop apps for the iPhone, Android, WebOS, or Microsoft WP7 smartphones? Which platform will give you the biggest profits? If you have a “killer app” (like Angry Birds) I’d say go with the iPhone and/or Android since they have the biggest user base. If you’re a Java programmer, then go for the Android OS. If what you really know is HTML/CSS/Javascript, then dive into WebOS app development. Finally, if you know C#, Silverlight, or Visual Basic then check out the WP7 platform.

What am I planning to do? That’s a tough question to answer at the moment. I’ve pretty much decided to focus on two platforms: WebOS and WP7 since I already have apps selling on both platforms. I’m concentrating my efforts for the moment on WP7 since it seems to be an easy platform for creating nice looking apps, and their app store is low in quantity of good apps. But, I’m keeping my eye on what HP/Palm will be announcing next week on February 9th. If they announce some incredible hardware and the release of new app SDKs then I may drift back to that platform.

The smartphone industry is quite dynamic at the moment, so a developer needs to stay alert and keep all their avenues open.