the mobile montage

a collection of scattered thoughts on mobile technology and related topics…

Do mobile app stores have a future?

Posted on | October 30, 2009 | 1 Comment

Google Latitude is available on your iPhone via Safari (e.g. a web app) and not as a native app.  The browser requests the user for permission to access the phone's location API.

Google Latitude is available on your iPhone via Safari (e.g. a web app) and not as a native app. The browser requests the user for permission to access the phone's location API.

This morning I came across this interesting and well-written article on the current state of affairs with regard to mobile app stores.   I think the author’s forward looking comments are reasonable if you limit your outlook to a year or two,  but there are a couple of things to consider with regard to app stores in the long term.  First,  the common presupposition made is that app stores will remain a relevant if not primary way users obtain apps for their phone.   From a purely technical perspective  I would suggest we should not ignore the possibility that rich Internet apps eventually begin to displace the need for native app installs, and eventually the need for mobile app stores.  As HTML5 continues to evolve and the underlying mobile platform becomes more accessible to web app developers, what advantage is there in downloading an app, especially when the data seems to suggest that mobile app retention rates are surprising low (25% on average!)?  It seems to me that web-based apps make perfect sense for a very large number of mobile apps that today are typically one-shots from the end user perspective.  Here at MASL our students have already built some very clever iPhone apps entirely in Safari.  Once a shortcut is added to the home screen it is indeed very difficult for the average user to discern whether or not its a native app or a web app. (We intend to do the equivalent of a “Pepsi Challenge” to actually measure this – look for more details in the future.)    Google Latitude on the iPhone is an early example of using the browser as an alternative to iTunes App Store.

That brings us to our second  point.   From a commercial perspective, Google is shaping up to becoming a pivotal stakeholder in the future mobile application ecosystem.   As I pointed out a while back, its raining Androids this Fall.  (For a much more up-to-date and complete listing of confirmed and rumored Android devices see the list that TechCrunch recently compiled.)  Every Android device I’ve used to-date requires you to become a Google citizen (you need to authenticate with a Google account or create one if you don’t have one) before you can use the device, and from that point on your mobile device is very tightly integrated with the Google cloud, and all the data and services you know and love (email, calendar, maps, search, etc.) are accessible from your mobile without the user installing anything.  It makes perfect sense for Google to gradually nudge the mobile application ecosystem towards a model in which the browser is the primary vehicle for third party application providers to access and integrate with Google services and data in the cloud. This also makes a lot of sense for the end user given the current app usage patterns and in the end seems to raise some interesting questions about the long-term viability of the mobile app store model.

Mobile testing madness

Posted on | October 16, 2009 | No Comments

I saw a couple of interesting videos this week that are worth taking a look at. The first one is about testing mobile application. So if you have an app that targets a multiplicity of handsets, all with different form factors, technical specs, and service providers, how can you go about testing your apps? Its simply not feasible to acquire all the phones you need to test on, and even if you could you’d still have to worry about setting up service plans, etc. Worse yet, perhaps you’re targeting a non-local market and want to test your app abroad on a particular carrier, etc.

The MOTODEV guys recently interviewed David Marsyla of DeviceAnywhere.com. David’s company offers the “ultimate mobile application testing platform”. Basically they have a network of over 2000 shared devices world-wide that they make accessible to developers via remote access. So in theory you could test your app on any device, on networks anywhere in the world without leaving your desk.

The second video was posted by Engadget and involves stress testing the actual mobile phones themselves. The video is footage they took in Nokia’s product test lab in California.  You’ll see them inflicting all kinds of serious misuse on the devices using an interesting array of robotic technology and other test apparatuses in an attempt to simulate the sorts of misuse you all inflict on your phones over the course of time. Makes for an interesting video.

The full engadget posting is here.

It’s raining Androids!

Posted on | October 12, 2009 | 2 Comments

Google AndroidToday its not uncommon to run into people who think of human-like robots when you start talking about Android, rather than Google’s cool new mobile phone platform. This is likely to change dramatically between now and Christmas, at least here in the USA. In the past month a number of manufacturers and carriers have announced new Android-powered phones, and there are more to come in the days ahead.

Available today at a store near you …

At present, if you reside in the USA (we’ll have to write the international version of this post later…) your Android options are far and few between. Today you in fact have only three choices:

  • HTC Dream (G1): Actually the first Android phone that became available (October 2008). It has a slide out QWERTY keypad and capacitive touchscreen. Its available on T-Mobile.
  • HTC myTouch3G (Magic): This device became available via T-Mobile this past summer. No QWERTY keypad on this phone.
  • HTC Hero (G2): This phone looks a bit like the G1, only minus the G1′s controversial “chin”. As of this past weekend, it has become available via Sprint Nextel. (October 11).

The other options you have here in the USA is to visit ebay or opt for the unlocked developer phone made available by Google (a G1 I believe…)

Coming soon …

If you can wait a few weeks more, the number of options available to you here in the USA will increase substantially:

  • Motorola CLIQ (aka as DEXT outside the US): The US launch with T-Mobile is supposedly October 19. Its actually the same processor as the original HTC G1, but comes tightly integrated with your favorite social destinations via a layer of software added on top of Android by Motorola (MOTO BLUR).
  • Motorola Sholes/Tao: According to latest rumors, this device will launch with Verizon as soon as October 30, but others indicate an early December launch.
  • HTC Hero/Desire?? In addition to the Motorola android phone, Verizon is to launch a second Android handset from HTC this fall.
  • Samsung Moment (InstinctQ): Originally announced by Samsung last Spring, Sprint Nextel has announced a launch date of November 1.

Coming not so soon …

There are also some more options that are further out that you’ll want to pay attention to if none of the above suit your fancy:

  • Dellroid: a Dell manufactured Android smartphone to be available via ATT?
  • LG GW620: officially announced by LG, this phone will become available sometime in 2010.

In addition to these two, you can be sure that the usual culprits (HTC, Motorola, Samsung) will be shipping a whole raft of new Android phones in 2010. In fact, last week Gartner forecasted that by 2012 Android will be the #2 smartphone, bested only by Symbian.  We’ll need a lot more devices out there than there are today in order for that to happen!

Do let me know if I’ve missed any notables in the first two categories above.

My screencasting experiment…

Posted on | October 5, 2009 | No Comments

This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate CS course that has a weekly two hour lab session. Instead of going the traditional route of making up 4-5 programming assignments and assigning them over the course of the semester, I wanted to try and create a set of weekly labs that encourage the students to tinker and explore the concepts more deeply in an experimental sort of way. That is, I wanted to create a CS lab experience that was sort of like what one experiences in a biology course – start with a hypothesis, do some experimentation/observations and come to valid conclusions.

I initially thought about creating a document for each lab session that spelled out in cookbook style the various “coding” experiments, but the tedium tremors set in just thinking about what a massive effort that would be. What I really wanted is something that met the following criteria:

  • Minimize “production” time: that is, once the basic ideation for a given lab session was complete (e.g. lab objectives identified, and the code “specimens” written/tested) I wanted to be able to produce the final lab “media” in 2 hours or less.
  • Optimize the student experience: I wanted to use something that my students would find interesting and effective, and something they could refer back to after the lab session to review their work.  A thick written “lab manual” with lots of gory details would be dead on arrival.
  • Easy to distribute:  just provide a single link and the students find everything from there, no matter where they are, or what kind of computer they like to use (its a real mixed bag – some kids like Linux, others OS X, and  some have Windows).

In the end, I installed ScreenFlow on my MacBook Pro and use it to create screencasts.   I provide the students with a lab assignment in the form of a PDF document that describes the lab exercise. However, instead of step by step directions written out long hand, I simply refer to a YouTube link of the appropriate screencast. The students are then asked to respond to questions about the screencast and are given the opportunity to modify/rerun the code and observe the results.

So far this seems to be working out quite well.  The students bring their earbuds to the lab sessions and most of the responses so far have been positive.  This is a format that they are already very accustomed to, and the 10 minute length limit in YouTube is a convenient goad in helping me keep each segment focused and to the point. We’re starting to see hits on the videos from various parts of the world along with some comments/ratings, so hopefully others can benefit from this as well!

Production time varies, but I’m definitely in the ballpark. Screenflow works very well for creating the screencasts, and the learning curve was fairly flat. Here’s a sample screencast introducing students to network programming in Java:

I’m linking to my complete set screencasts on my Screencast Tutorial page. In addition to the videos links, I’ve also included download links for the source code used in the screencasts.

I’m interested in comparing notes with others who have used this approach in teaching (CS or areas as well). In particular, let me know what tooling you have found useful for creating/editing screencasts and any other lessons learned.

Mobile Applications & Services Lab Launched at GVSU

Posted on | September 24, 2009 | 2 Comments

MASL is located in C2-217 (second floor of Mackinac Hall in the CIS office suite)

MASL is located in C2-217 (second floor of Mackinac Hall in the CIS office suite)

The Mobile Applications and Services Lab recently held its first research group meeting at GVSU’s School of Computing and Information Systems.  In addition to myself, the group currently consists of five CIS graduate students and two undergraduate researchers. A variety of topics were discussed at the initial meeting, and perhaps most importantly we discussed our mission statement.  We expect this will be subject to some refinement in the months ahead, but this is how it reads at the moment:

“The Mobile Applications and Services Laboratory aims to combine emerging mobile technologies, social media, and pervasive network services in ways that effectively enhance the lives of real people and the communities within which they work, play, and socialize.”

The MASL Research Group meets weekly on Wednesday afternoons to discuss ongoing research projects.

The MASL Research Group meets weekly on Wednesday afternoons to discuss ongoing research projects.

We also discussed a vision statement with regard to who/what we want to become as we successfully execute our mission.

“By contributing original research results, enhanced educational experiences, and entrepreneurial opportunities, MASL aims to become established as a recognized center of excellence in mobile technology, within the GVSU community, the State of Michigan, and beyond.”

Our dedicated laboratory facility is located in C2-217 Mackinac Hall, and consists of new iMac and Dell workstations and a stash of new mobile devices.   There’s been a flurry of activity here in the past couple of weeks as students have begun working on various projects.  A lot of effort has also been put into getting our development environment in place (Thanks John!!)

The "black box" on wheels is the MASL "toy box" - our stash of mobile devices.

The "black box" on wheels is the MASL "toy box" - our stash of mobile devices.

In the months ahead we hope to post details of our progress here on this page.  In the meantime, we’re interested in hearing from you, whether you are part of the GVSU community or beyond.   Do drop us a line.

MASL researcher John Spencer leads a discussion on iPhone development at a weekly group meeting.

MASL researcher John Spencer leads a discussion on iPhone development at a weekly group meeting.

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About

Jonathan Engelsma

Jonathan Engelsma is a computer scientist, programmer, teacher, mobile technology enthusiast, inventor, beekeeper and life long student. He is currently an Associate Professor in GVSU's School of Computing, where he leads the GVSU Mobile Applications and Services Laboratory.

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