May 18, 2011

Since I’ve been working for Canonical for the past six months and have only been active with Symbian as a user, I’ve decided I probably won’t be blogging here much anymore and will instead by doing my blogging on here:

This will be related to my Ubuntu and other Linux activities, so apologies to anyone who read this blog looking for Symbian related stuff. Hopefully you love Ubuntu too and want to hear what I’m up to there!


Trying Qt Quick on the N8

November 3, 2010

Nokia have recently announced that Qt Quick is the future for Nokia device UI’s – an extremely wise move considering the sheer power of this technology. It makes creating great looking UI’s with all of the transitions and animations expected in a ‘modern’ UI extremely simple. I’m not going into too much detail about Qt Quick here because there’s loads of info out there. What I want to do is show how you can run some Qt Quick examples on your N8 right now. This is in response to some concerns by some people about how ‘future-proof’ the N8 is, i.e. will the future UI implemented in Qt Quick be able to be handled by the N8 smoothly. Why not judge for yourself?

The first thing that needs to be done is actually installing Qt 4.7 on your N8. I have no doubt that it’s a priority for Nokia to get the in-built version updated ASAP, but for now you can simply install it yourself. Follow the instructions here, paying attention to the note I’ve given below:

Note: Preferably install on C: – I haven’t tried on E:. You can, but it might not work. The qmlviewer SIS complains of a missing dependency – ignore it, you can just install it afterwards. Finally, the *plugin SIS files say the are ‘not compatible’. This is erroneous, again ignore it.

Once you’re done with that you’ll notice a new folder called ‘QtExamples’ in the Menu, which contains ‘qmlviewer’. This launches a file browser type UI (which is actually itself implemented in Qt Quick!) which you will use to find and open the examples. To get some nice examples you should download the Qt 4.7 SDK (it doesn’t need to even be the Symbian version – though that one is smaller to download). Here’s a link to the SDK download page: (may need to click on ‘Go LGPL’)

After you do that, the examples will be in e.g. ‘C:\Qt\4.7.0\examples\declarative’ and demos will be in ‘C:\Qt\4.7.0\demos\declarative’. I would just copy both of these directories en masse to your E: drive in a new directory called something like ‘QML’. There’s no ‘install’ necessary – the QML files are simply loaded by the viewer.

Let’s try one out. After copying all of ‘demos\declarative’ to ‘E:\QML’ launch ‘qmlviewer’ and browse through the filesystem to ‘E:\QML\demos\declarative’ (or wherever you put it) and then into ‘samegame’ and open ‘samegame.qml’. And there it is. I’m not going to spoil the moment by posting a screenshot :-).

Some tips: If you want to make QML run full screen that’s in ‘Options > Settings > Full Screen’, but there’s no way to leave fullscreen (except bring up the task switcher and close qmlviewer). The ‘qmlviewer’ is actually what’s running when you hit ‘samegame.qml’, not a different app so if you exit then you’ll be thrown back to the Menu and need to browse back through again. And of course there are still some bugs so demos like ‘webbrowser’ (!!) won’t work properly it seems.

Well, I hope anyone who a) has an N8 and b) read this will give it a try. You’ll be pleased by Qt Quick and it’s performance on the N8, no doubt.

Any Q’s just pop a comment or catch me on Twitter…

My experience with Android & the Motorola Droid/Milestone

February 13, 2010

As some of you already know, I’ve been trialing a Motorola Milestone for the past two weeks. It was lent to me by Scott Weiss, the UI Technology Manager here at the Symbian Foundation (thanks Scott, if you’re reading this). Being a Test Engineer by trade I was interested to see how it matches up with Symbian in terms of quality. Lately the reputation of Symbian in this area hasn’t been so great. I know in my heart that this is little to do with the OS itself and primarily down to the Build & Test practices of the handset manufacturers, i.e. they aren’t up to scratch. The quality of Android as a platform never seems to get disparaged in the same way though, so I was curious to see if it’s as rock solid as Internet sentiment seems to suggest. I will of course talk about other aspects of the device in general, and the Android platform.

I obviously began with getting the device set up for communication. Since both my email accounts are GMail this was absolutely seamless, as expected. I can’t even get my work email on to my Symbian phone using anything other than Mail for Exchange or the built in client, both of which are extremely ugly. Though vastly superior to the solution on Symbian at the moment (it’s something we’re addressing), I was surprised to find a couple of flaws. One was that the attachment recognition is limited, so sending a vCard by email didn’t work. The other was that the reply options are just links at the bottom of the thread like in GMail. It’s pretty annoying to have to scroll down to the end of the mail to reach such a frequently used button.

One of my most used apps on my Symbian device(s) is Spotify, the music streaming service, and this was the first thing I downloaded from the Android Marketplace. I didn’t last very long in using this though for reasons which I tweeted about and which David Wood blogged about. To summarise, Spotify is basically impossible to use in combination with most other ‘intensive’ tasks on Android. Trying to shoot a photo causes it to skip (and affects the flash on the camera too, making it go out of sync) and playing a game such as the (admittedly entertaining) Robo Defense is impossible due to huge slowdown. Eventually I got some of my favourite tracks into the builtin media player and the situation (mostly) improved.

The second thing that I use my phone for is Twitter and I opted for Seesmic as my client of choice. It’s quite good, as easy to use as Gravity on Symbian but with fewer features. All in all Seesmic provided solid and reliable, which is pretty much what I want to see.

One of the most interesting episodes in actually getting myself set up with the Droid was trying to get my contacts on to the device. Coming from Symbian my most familiar way of doing this is with vCards via Bluetooth OPP. To my surprise this didn’t seem to be supported at all in Android. I then tried emailing vCards. As I mentioned before, Android doesn’t recognize these as an attachment. Finally, after asking someone who had borrowed it before, I was told that if I synced my contacts to my work GMail using Mail for Exchange on the Symbian device then Android would populate my phonebook with those contacts. It worked perfectly for me, a very pleasing experience, BUT what if I didn’t have this setup already? What if I’m migrating from a feature phone? I think it’s pretty dumb of Android not to support such basic protocols as OPP. But then I’m a huge Bluetooth geek so maybe it’s just me?

Speaking of contacts I was very pleased, considering my day job, to find a bona-fide bug in Android 2.0. If you’re editing a contact and typing into a text field using the portrait mode keyboard, and then decide to use the physical keyboard – turning the Droid sideways to do so – you’re all of a sudden back at the first field (i.e. the First Name field)! Despite all of the reboots and hanging that Symbian falls prone to, I’ve yet to come across such an issue.

The Droid hardware itself is pretty poor. Capacitive touchscreens (I thought) were designed to be sensitive. That’s the point – you lose the ability to use it with gloves/stylus in exchange for superior response. I can’t honestly say that the screen on the Droid was more responsive than that on my 5800 though. A big let-down. What’s more, the thing doesn’t seem to be calibrated right – I always needed to press a few millimetres higher than the thing I wanted to hit. This was especially annoying in the browser when trying to click text links. The camera is shocking – I could give an example but I forgot to keep a copy of the photos I took before wiping the SD card (which is NOT hot-swappable)! Really for the price of the Droid I’d want Motorola to be using better parts.  Finally, the slide out keyboard was flat and had two empty spaces in the corners.

My original intent in borrowing the device was to look at the stability in terms of how often it reset, how often it hung and so on. One thing I will give it credit for is that it never locked up like Symbian phones can do (where even pressing the power button does nothing). That’s a frustrating experience and I hope that it’s something that is being addressed. However, it did reset a number of times. In the first 3-4 days when I was using Spotify it reset at least 3 times while I was using it. It also, over the course of two weeks, reset a number of times when it was just sitting on my desk (including twice in about ten minutes once). I would have thought that considering how tightly Google control this software it would have been more stable.

I really have nothing major to say about the Android UI itself. It is quite clearly designed as a touch interface from the ground up, with not even a smidgin of consideration for a 12-key interface. This is good, and combined with the fact that uses transition effects and buffering to manage everything it seems a lot more clean than Avkon. I’m hoping that the NGA in Symbian^3 will bring our UI up to this level, maybe even better. To be honest, how the UI looks is not something I’m greatly concerned about. I did like fact that the options are kept hidden until you press the standard ‘options’ key to make them appear – it leaves a lot more screen real estate.

To finish off, there were some random things that bothered me. There was no notepad application included by default, so I did have to go and get (a free) one from the Android Marketplace. No wonder they’re doing so well if every user who wants to make a note needs to download an application! Staying on the skewing of statistics, I had to get a 3rd party application to do mass photo transfer between devices. This app was free, but this was because it contained ads provided by (you guessed it) AdMob. No Symbian application that I’ve ever used contains such ads, so it’s little wonder that Symbian is falling in this ‘key’ statistic (sarcasm). Finally, I would really like to have included some screens from the Droid in this review, but apparently it needs to be rooted to do that! Since it wasn’t mine I didn’t want to tamper with it. Very annoying.

So that concludes my thoughts on the Droid. Overall, I have to say that I haven’t missed it even a tiny bit since giving it back. The hardware was poor and while there were things to like about Android, there were also things to hate about it too (just as it seems there is for any smartphone platform these days). It has made me want for a (decent) QWERTY slider, but if this is the best option Android has in that department and the N97 is the best Symbian has in that department then I may need to keep looking (I haven’t tried the N900 yet for any decent amount of time).

The hidden smartphone demographic

February 11, 2010

Last night, while I was showing my  wife some of the bugs I’d found in the Droid I’m trialling at the moment (a blog post on that will come later for sure), she said something very insightful. She pointed out that of all the phones she had used over the years, the only ones she ever liked were Nokia. She went from S40 phone, to Samsung feature phone, to the superb N82 and currently she’s using the Satio which I talked about  in a previous blog post.

Now let’s remember something. Mobile phones are one of the most truly democratic pieces of technology in history. Everyone needs one, women just as much as men. That’s why the number of subscriptions runs in the billions – approaching the overall world population.

In the smartphone geek circle we have a fundamental problem though – we’re almost exclusively male. Being generous I’d estimate the split at 95%/5% (I’d love to see some real figures if anyone’s willing). While the split between the rich western world and the emerging markets is oft-documented in the blogosphere, the split between arguably a more widely differentiated demographic is hardly ever talked about. The split between male and female.

I’m going to refuse the temptation to hypothesise about the difference in tastes here, because I’d probably be wrong, and that’s not my point. It’s merely that this split should be recognised. Surely women don’t want precisely the same things from their smartphones as men do?

So some questions:

  1. Though the blogosphere is extremely biased towards male smartphone users, what is the demographic split for actual smarphone use?
  2. What are the preferences of female phone users? (I said ‘phone’ here because the tastes of smartphone users often don’t reflect overall tastes)

As I said before, I don’t propose to have the answers to these questions, but I do think they need to be answered in order to better understand the future of the smartphone market.

Change of Tack

February 2, 2010

I’ve decided that I need to change the focus of this blog to more work related stuff. Any time I try to sit down and write about something that interests me I end up rambling, and therefore never publish the post. I must have half a dozen unpublished posts sitting in my account! Anyway, as I mentioned in my first posting I’m a test engineer at the Symbian Foundation and it’s my job to work on the small test infrastructure that the Symbian Foundation maintains to keep itself independent from the big players in terms of quality. At the moment we’re very much in the bringup stage (similar to Symbian in general) but with a few strokes of luck we should get chugging along nicely soon. I’ll blog this weekend about the challenge(s) we’re currently facing, so look out for it.

Capacitive vs. Resistive

January 6, 2010

While I’m trying to figure out how to get screen captures of the Satio for the next part of the review (the graphics chip interferes with Best ScreenSnap and I’m not well versed enough in photography to avoid the awful glare off the screen), I’m going to diverge into some other topics that, while not extremely current, keep drawing my attention.

One of these is the debate on capacitive vs resistive touch screens on mobile phones. The de facto standard in touch for years was resistive. UI designers for touch screen UI’s such as Windows Mobile and UIQ just couldn’t seem to avoid the ‘need’ for a stylus. Then Apple came along and all of a sudden it seems that capacitive technology is a ‘must have’ for phone geeks everywhere, particularly in the US. Anything resistive is roundly criticised with claims that you need to ‘practically hit the button with a hammer’ to paraphrase some idiot.

I doubt very much that anyone who has found this blog will not know the difference but I’ll give a quick explanation for convenience. Capacitive screens work by detecting the small electrical charge that comes off your fingertip. Resistive screens work through the simple mechanism of pressure. At the moment, capacitive screens provide the most ‘intuitive’ experience (depending on your interpretation of intuitive) and if you can feel the glass on your fingertip then you’ll almost certainly get a response out of the hardware. Resistive screens work more on the same principle as physical hardware keys and you need to give them a very slight tap to elicit a response.

In my personal opinion (any iPhone fans reading), I have found the capacitive screens (and the iPhone is the only one I’ve tried, and yes it was the 3GS) to be too sensitive. I have slightly shaky fingers sometimes and more than once I found myself entering the same letter three  times in a row purely by accident. Apparently this is something that can be gotten used to quickly so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. I do get the suspicion however that those who describe their experience with resistive screens in such a negative light are people who have gotten used to the highly sensitive iPhone screen. In fact, I’m probably expressing the opposite bias right now towards resistive screens.

However, there remains an undeniable physical fact about capacitive screens which means they are probably not the future. They need that electrical charge. This means that you can’t use them with gloves (unless they’re magic gloves) and in order to use them with a stylus a special ‘active’ stylus is required. Multi-touch technology is not possible with current resistive technology though and this is one of the most sought after pieces of functionality in the touchscreen world.

So what is the future then? I saw it at SEE2009, where a company called Stantum had a booth showcasing their ‘Unlimited Multitouch’ technology. I was blown away. They literally have the perfect screen. It’s sensitive, but not too sensitive. It accepts up to 10 touches at once (maybe not enough for some, but that’s a very niche market) and can detect the exact pressure of the touch. And it’s (ostensibly) resistive, so you can use gloved hands, stlyi, cheese, whatever. The most impressive example of this was when the rep handed me a paintbrush and asked me to paint on the screen. It was if the thing was a piece of paper, echoing the depth of the stroke exactly. Mind blowing. But don’t take my word for it, have a look.

The only thing I’m not sure about is the immediate viability of this technology – the rep wouldn’t give me a price and even if he did, I don’t work in supply chain management so I’d have no idea if it was good or not. Who knows when we’ll see it in phones. But I’m looking forward to that day. In the meanwhile, Symbian^3 is going to be introducing support for multi-touch gestures and I’m wondering will Nokia be switching to capacitive for their whole touchscreen line? I think it might offend some users if they know that multi-touch is in Symbian^3 but they buy a device with a resistive screen unknowingly. At the same time, Nokia’s strength is in the global market and if they use capacitive do they have a solution to take care of the input needs of Asian consumers? Do they have the Stantum technology at the ready? Are they planning to release capacitive and resistive models of each device (I imagine that would be a total nightmare logistically). We’ll have to wait and see.

The real contest of 2010…

December 31, 2009

In my travels around various blog postings and articles related to Symbian, I recently came across this one on IntoMobile; Maemo, Symbian and Qt are facing internal strife; what was supposed to bind them is tearing them apart.

The article concerns a recent missive by my colleague Mark Wilcox on the forums regarding his concerns about what seems to be a divergence by the Maemo and Symbian camps in creating the UI layers for the next iterations of their respective OS’es. One comment in the IntoMobile article which struck me was the suggestion that:

What we’re seeing here is different parts of the organization struggle to prove that they’re right and the other one is wrong

Personally, I think this is a bit inaccurate since the Symbian Foundation doesn’t represent Nokia. Of course, they could be referring to the overall scenario but that’s not the impression I got. As I understand it, Marks point of view is that of any sane user or developer, and me as well! It’s that a unified UI would be good for everyone involved (expect it seems for those involved in creating UI frameworks).

As usual with any article about Symbian, the comments section easily slipped into demands that Nokia continue with Maemo only and just get rid of Symbian. One commentor posted:

As a long time Symbian user it was a breath of fresh air when I got my N900. To me the N900 and Maemo is 1000 miles ahead of what Symbian in its’ current 5th edition form has to offer.

Now, I think there’s a very good reason why Maemo 5 appears slicker, more well thought through and less of a rush job than S60 5th edition. It’s because it wasn’t a rush job. Maemo’s Hildon UI has been touch based since the beginning. For years it’s been a little side-project at Nokia, slowly working it’s way to maturity. Then the N900 gets released in ‘selected markets’. The N97 on the other hand (and Symbian in general) are the centrepiece of Nokia’s smartphone strategy. This brings with it hard deadlines, and the need to get the devices distributed worldwide.

S60 5th edition was a project to turn D-pad based UI into a touchscreen UI. That’s a big ask, but I’m not excusing Nokia. They just felt that they needed a touchscreen S60 device out soon in order to challenge Apple. It didn’t quite work out like they planned, I’m sure they would have preferred it if they could have created something really great in the time alloted, but they couldn’t quite do it.

The new challenge, and an easier one if you ask me, is to make the next iteration of the UI better. I think that Symbians other qualities do differentiate it from Maemo, in a good way. If the UI makeover is done properly than Symbian will remain a force to be reckoned with.

All the debate around which OS Nokia should use (as if they can’t use both) seem to pit Maemo 5 against S60 5th edition. This is not the contest (if you could call it that) which will take place. Rather it will be between Maemo 6 and the as yet unseen revamped Symbian UI.