Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Goodbye iPhone 1.x, Hello 2.0!

Everybody and their dog around here seems to know about the iPhone being officially launched in Canada, which has kind of surprised me actually, considering I haven't really seen any mass media advertising. (Ok, I haven't been watching TV much lately, and there are almost no billboards in Victoria, but still...). But for those of us who have the "classic" hardware, the big news is the release of the 2.0 OS, which allows for Apple-sanctioned third-party applications (created via the iPhone SDK) and a few other goodies.

So, how do folks in my situation (unlocked, jailbroken firstgen hardware) get to 2.0? In my case, I had unlocked/activated/jailbroken my 1.1.4 iPhone using ZiPhone 2.something back in April, which was a breeze. Since then, most of the buzz on the iPhone hacking front seems to have been around PwnageTool. PwnageTool is a native Mac app that essentially builds a custom firmware for you that has some voodoo applied to it to deal with unlocking/activation/jailbreakage. Once you have built a custom firmware with the app, you actually load it onto your phone via iTunes, as if you were restoring to factory settings or whatever. This had become a pretty popular tool for 1.x iPhones and the iPhone dev team stepped up to the plate to make it work with the 2.0 firmware.

PwnageTool 2.0.1 was just released (something like 11 days after iPhone OS 2.x!) and I wasn't quite sure what the correct steps were to migrate from a ZiPhoned 1.x device to a Pwned 2.0 device, but I (perhaps unwisely) decided to go ahead anyway, since I was quite keen to get going with OmniFocus and Evernote for iPhone (which are only available through the AppStore). I don't think it could have been much simpler. I more or less followed the instructions here and after 10 minutes or so, I had a 2.0 phone. Woot! FYI - I did not restore prior to running PwnageTool, nor did I Pwn before using the custom firmware. (some 1.x instructions seemed to indicated these steps were required, but apparently no longer)

After the pwnage process, the third-party apps I had installed with Installer were all toast, but resoring from a backup via iTunes, followed by a Sync got all my settings and media back on the phone. BTW - getting 1k tracks onto a phone over USB is not quick!

The phone works really well and seems zippier. Joining WiFi networks seems faster, as does swtiching apps. There are also more "location-aware" capabilities, even though my "vintage" iPhone doesn't have GPS like the new-fangled ones. When the OS wants to do something with your location (like geocode a photo) it will prompt to ask if it's ok. There's probably a setting to tell it to stop doing that, but for now, it makes me feel like I got my money's worth. As for the AppStore, I've downloaded a couple of apps and the process is much slicker than with Installer. "Unsanctioned" third-party apps can still be installed via Cydia (apparently the heir to Installer) but it seems like there are way fewer apps at this point.

Anyway, so far so good and I am glad that I did this, although I have to say I was a little worried when flashing of something or other that was supposed to take "up to 2 minutes" according to the dialog on my phone took a bit longer without feedback, but my concern was unfounded.

Now we'll see about getting a data plan...I am currently on Rogers PayGo and "fly by WiFi" when I can, but it definitely would be nice to have data access all the time, even it is only EDGE. I am generally allergic to cell phone contracts, but I think I can get a month-to-month data plan for $30/mo, as long as I also pay for a voice package. After all is said and done, I think it will be something like $75/month, which is about triple what I pay now...hmmm...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

iPhone available in Canada - great news, but...

Ok, so we now know for sure that there will be new iPhone firmware and hardware on July 11. We also know that Rogers and Fido (almost the same thing) will be offering the iPhone to Canadians. Also, the price will be $199 for 8GB and $299 for 16GB. No word on service plans and costs yet. except that the $199/$299 prices will be based upon a 3 year contract. I had to dig into the Investor Relations area of Rogers' site to find this, which seems to be the only specific mention of iPhone on the whole site. There is a teaser Flash ad on their main site, but it doesn't go anywhere or provide any details. Even searching their site for iPhone returns nothing. There is no mention on the Fido site that I could find. Kind of weird, considering both Rogers' and Fido's sites were completely hammered around the time of the Apple WWDC keynote yesterday, presumably with Canucks with their credit cards out wanting to find out details on the companies' iPhone options. I am left wondering a few things:

  • Do Rogers/Fido really get it? Will they just do the minimum or will they really commit to iPhone? Sure, there is a huge amount of pent-up demand for the iPhone in Canada and Rogers/Fido will make gobs of money in spite of themselves. Apple has already created the awareness and will certainly continue to advertise like crazy. Even if Rogers/Fido just follow through on providing the device and offer some sort of service (for less than $100/mo), they will probably sell iPhones by the boatload. I would like to see them visibly promoting the iPhone (and not just in the murky bucket of smartphones) and come up with service offerings that match how people will want to use it.

  • Why didn't Apple create a private branded mobile service, at least for the consumer market? Surely dealing with dozens of carriers across the planet has been an excruciating process that has slowed down the rollout and has probably harmed Apple's reputation due to frustrated customers. With the initial US AT&T launch, things were not too bad since AT&T was on board and created specific plans and marketing for the iPhone. With the latest iPhone release, AT&T seems to be backing off on this a bit. Apparently new iPhone customers won't have the simple set of service choices that made the initial iPhone purchase and activation process pretty simple for customers and was good value. If Apple had done a private branded thing, they would have been able to establish a set of offerings appropriate to the iPhone, and not had any of the brand dilution (and resulting customer confusion/dissatisfaction) caused by co-marketing with all the different carriers. In a way, this would be consistent with what Apple does via the iTunes store (sort of a common marketing/sales front end for multiple content providers).

  • Why are the phones now subsidized? Didn't they sell well enough when they weren't? I realize that the subsidies are what is allowing the price to drop, but it seems to me it puts more control in the hands of the carriers, and less in the hands of Apple and its customers. Specifically, the carriers can decide what the terms of the service agreement are, which determine the effective price of the iPhone. Even if the "price" is $199, the details of the service offering could make it more or less affordable. It seems like the assumption is that people think of an iPhone just like any other mobile device and will expect to buy and pay for it the same way. I'm not convinced that this is the case, and I think carriers should approach it differently. The purchase of an iPhone has as much in common with fashion accessories and high-end personal electronics as it does with buying a BlackBerry. Personally, I would rather pay $500 for an unsubsidized phone that I own outright without a contract than $199 for a subsidized one. I may be able to buy one this way, but, unfortunately, I would probably have to settle for a crappier plan.

  • What will the Rogers/Fido service plans look like? My current iPhone is on a Rogers PayAsYouGo account, which is fine since I don't really make that many calls. Also, I am happy enough using WiFi for data. It would be nice to have EDGE, but the cost goes up so much (I currently pay $20-30/month) that I haven't taken the plunge. I would end up paying extra for things that I get for free with PayAsYouGo. At the end of it all, to get a plan that includes everything I have now and a reasonable amount of data could be over $100/mo. If they can come up with a monthly plan for ~$60 all-in (taxes, access fees, levies, etc.) with maybe 500MB of 3G data/month, I would probably go for it. I won't hold my breath, but I'm curious to see what they come up with.

So, in conclusion, I am thrilled that iPhone is officially coming to Canada and I am looking forward to the new features of the 2.0 firmware, as well as the new hardware (especially GPS), but the jury's still out what the experience of new Canadian iPhone customers will be.

Update: The Roger press release is now linked to from their Flash ad and there is something similar on the Fido site. It still drives me nuts that they are not providing details of the plan(s) they will be offering. IMHO, people will want to give some thought to this in advance, so they are not forced to make a decision on the spot that they may be locked into for 3 yrs. For that reason, it would make sense to me that they would pre-announce the details of the plans so the people lined up on July 11 will know exactly what they want to buy.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Book Review: The Rules of Wealth

The Rules of Wealth is part of Richard Templar's series of "Rules" books. Other topics in the series include life, work, management, parenting, each with a corresponding title. Judging from how often I run into this series, it seems to have been very successful. It certainly has an appealing format - essentially a series of numbered "rules" with supporting discussion for each. This structure makes the book terrific for short bursts of reading (on the bus, during commercials, in the bathroom, etc.), or for folks with short attention spans (who seem to be growing in number).

The subtitle of the book is "A personal code for prosperity", which accurately represents the theme of the book. Essentially, the rules are short statements or pointers that can supposedly help a reader to become and stay wealthy. An example of a rule (and one of the better ones, IMHO) is "Always ask what's in it for them" (#71). Most of the rules are general in nature and are not specific tactics or concrete investment strategies. There are 100 rules in all, presented in five sections - Thinking Wealthy, Getting Wealthy, Get Even Wealthier, Staying Wealthy, and Sharing Your Wealth.

The book is quite enjoyable to read - in part because of the accessible structure and in part because Templar's style is entertaining. However, it seemed to me that the essential content could have been conveyed in far fewer rules, or perhaps, as even fewer general concepts (I'm into that learning to fish thing...). In fact, the most important ideas probably could be communicated in less than 50 pages. By about halfway through the book, I felt like I had the idea and was ready to be done with it. Here's my attempt at passing on some of the most important bits:

  • you must define wealth for yourself and know why you want it

  • becoming wealthy may require a change in mindset and shedding assumptions you have about money

  • "If you don't trust someone, don't do business with them"

  • "Small economies won't make you wealthy, but they will make you miserable"

  • you need a plan

  • think long term

  • don't piss your money away (eg. don't buy stupid stuff)

  • buy quality

  • don't invest in things you don't understand

  • minimize the amount of interest you pay

  • there's a good chance you'll need to make deals, negotiate, and/or sell stuff to become wealthy

  • don't spend it unless you have it

  • nobody owes you anything

  • don't be evil

  • stay on top of your finances

In summary, I do recommend the book and I may well check out other titles in the series, but I will more than likely be skimming them, or possibly choosing the audio book version.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Month with my iPhone

So it's been a month or so since I got my iPhone. I know - I'm late to the party, I know, but I'm in Canada for one, and secondly, it seemed like an extravagance until I started to think about the possibilities for developing and marketing apps for. Based on the second point, I was able to justify it as a "business expense". But that's not what this post is about...This post is about my experience with my iPhone so far.

First Impressions

Overall, I was just as impressed with the iPhone as I was when I first had a chance to play with one 6 months or so ago. It still feels so different than a typical phone or computer. Like other Apple gear, you want to use it, so you do - a lot.

There were a couple of things that I was kind of surprised at, although nothing that makes me unhappy with my choice:

  • no user manual - there is no manual provided with the iPhone, with the exception of a leaflet that has tips and tricks. This is fine for me, but I wonder what less technical users would think.

  • contacts are only accessible from within Mail and Phone applications

  • cellular data seems to be EDGE only. On my old phone, I was able to browse over GPRS (not that I ever did with the puny screen, etc.), but on my iPhone, I get an "E" indicating that EDGE is available, but whenever it tries to connect it displays a message saying that I am not subscribed. I guess this is true, since my PayGo arrangement must not provide access to EDGE. This is actually fine since it guarantees I won't accidentally get huge data charges on my Rogers bill.

  • limited Bluetooth profiles. This is widely described elsewhere, but the iPhone only supports the "hands-free" (HFP) and "headset" (HSP) profiles. I have a Nokia music phone that also supports AVRCP and A2DP, as well as a bunch of others, so I was it surprised that the iPhone doesn't. I can take and make call on the iPhone through my Bluetooth car stereo, but I can't stream music to the stereo, as this required A2DP and AVRCP. I am hopeful that additional profiles will become available with future firmware updates, but this is not a showstopper either way.

  • No syncing of notes to your Mac. The iPhone has a Notes app, but this doesn't sync to your Mac in any way. Kind of annoying.

  • No support for different calendars from iCal - you just get a flat view of all your events.

  • No support for to-do lists from iCal. I was hoping that I could get my iGTD tasks into my iPhone by syncing iGTD with iCal and iCal to my phone, but no dice since to-do's aren't synced.

  • Screen locks when some 3rd-party apps are still active. An example of this is using VNote, a voice recording app - I was in the middle of recording a voice note and the screen went blank and I was suddenly talking to myself. This behaviour will probably improve once 3rd party apps are deveopled using the official Apple toolchain since they should be able to interact with the power management function and suspend this if desired. In the meantime, it means I have to explicitly touch the screen when I am using some apps that otherwise don't require it.

  • Very easy to cover the speakers when holding the phone. If you hold the phone from the bottom, you will cover the speakers and audio is hugely muted. No biggie, but it does give a weird impression depending what you are doing.

In terms of nice surprises, or things that I was especially impressed with, there were several:

  • UI of built-in apps is terrific; the phone application in particular is really great, especially compared to other cell phones, which generally are a horror show of unusability. I recently tried an HTC touch and I couldn't figure out how to answer or make a call on it with all the crap on the screen.

  • I like accessing GMail on the iPhone better than through Mail on my Mac. Go figure.

  • headphones have tiny integrated microphone that is also a switch that allows you to take a call by clicking, or pause or skip tracks

  • web clips are cool - basically you can designate any web page you visit in Safari to appear with its own icon in the main interface, just like an application. Some sites such as Facebook have their own icons so the experience is very close to a native application. Some people have suggested that the iPhone is really a lot like the OS X Dashboard, which I think is true - it gives you quick access to very specialized, simple little apps, whether they are webapps or native apps.

  • Huge array of third-party apps, although the quality ranges from really impressive to very poor. I'm really excited to see what apps start to roll out when the 2.0 firmware becomes generally available and Apple start distributing apps through its App Store.

  • Battery life is impressive.

  • 3.5" is totally big enough to watch video. No kidding.

Other thoughts

Using the iPhone for a month has made me think about some other things:

  • Browsing the web on other mobile devices (except maybe a Nokia tablet thingy) kind of sucks. Basically, things are so dumbed down, that the content is unappealing and the functionality is often knee-capped. I recently tried Opera Mini and was wholly underwhelmed.

  • Having a "grown-up" browser on the iPhone is terrific since it means that you can view pretty well any website with it as it was intended. However, the fact is that it's still a 3.5" screen, which means that you have to move around and zoom in and out to see bits of a page.

  • Based on the above two points, I think we might start seeing a new type of mobile web applications that fall somewhere in between the crappy WAP-optimized stuff and full blown apps that really only work when you have more screen real estate. Some companies have iPhone-optimized versions of their sites (notably Facebook) that are different from their standard "mobile" versions and I suspect more will follow. Another interesting angle on this is that "in-between" apps that are designed for the iPhone will also play really nicely on other Smart phones, as well as Wii's, PSP, XBoxen, etc. Sooo...what's the hold up? Maybe the iPhone buzz will get things rolling in that direction.

  • There are a lot of things I could do on my iPhone instead of my Mac, but I need to find the right tools and get into the habit of using them. Some of the tools might not exist yet. Maybe I need to build some of them.

Book Review: Eccentric Cubicle

Ok, so it's been a long time since my last review. Good thing Manfred doesn't take books back that don't get reviewed in a reasonable time...Anyway here goes - my review of Eccentric Cubicle by Kaden Harris.

This is the second book in the O'Reilly MAKE series that I have reviewed and I have to say this one doesn't disappoint, although for different reasons than Making Things Talk.

When I heard about Eccentric Cubicle, I assumed it was all about projects/hacks for cubicle dwellers to make their work environments more fun. However, that's not really the case, since deploying most of the projects in Eccentric Cubicle in a corporate environment would result in an unsolicited appointment with the HR department. To be honest, I'm not really sure who the target audience is for the book, but I enjoyed every page of it.

Making Things Talk is a terrific primer for anyone wanting to get into microcontroller/ubiquitous computing development, while Eccentric Cubicle is mostly about building various contraptions out of wood, metal, plastic...whatever, really. Most of the projects seem pretty complex to build and possibly beyond the skills/patience of many readers, but, unlike Making Things Talk, they are pretty "low-tech". I doubt that I will ever build anything from Eccentric Cubicle, (I mean - really - when would I need to build a missile launcher for paper messages or a carrot-scaled (or finger) guillotine), but I sure had fun reading about all of them. The projects are all clever and a bit whacky and many describe techniques, materials, or designs that would be applicable to other things., which I think is one of the main values of the book.

I get the impression that Harris is a politically incorrect, punk rock, danger-loving DIYer but I mean that in the nicest way possible. It doesn't hurt that he's a West Coast Canuck like me! The language and style of the book keeps things interesting and the projects in the book are like small-scale, surrealist, post-modern monster garage builds, some of them well into the dangerous category. Regardless, there is incredible attention to detail and Harris is obviously a talented craftsman who seems to like doing things "because he can" (or because he really shouldn't).

Despite the fact that I probably won't build any of the projects from the book, there are loads of techniques, tactics, tips, and small hacks that I will use whenever possible. Specifically, use (and abuse) of tools, sourcing materials, and project design.

In summary, if you are a "MAKER" or wannabe/poseur (like me), you will want want to read this book.

About the wombat

Victoria, BC, Canada
This is our travel blog for our summer 2010 trip to France and the UK.