Software

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Friendfeed invades metaspark

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Metaspark.net has just been redesigned to reflect my friendfeed addiction. If you had been following metaspark as a way to stay current on all things Sparky will likely find this to be a much more complete feed. If you want to see the old version it’s still available at http://sparktography.tumblr.com/.

If you follow metaspark via RSS you will want to move your subscription over to this new feed.

iPhone 3G initial experiences

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Now that I’ve officially had my iPhone 3G for 2 days I thought I would write up some of my experiences and impressions on it. As with any consumer product the retail purchasing experience is an integral part of the device. As previously posted I went a little gonzo and showed up 12 hours before the Apple store opened and managed to snag myself the 1st spot in line. In true Apple style every single one of the employees in the Apple store at the Alderwood Mall in Lynwood was ecstatic to see me, and seemed genuinely thrilled that their line had started. They even came out to pose for a picture with the head of their soon to be lengthy line.

First in the iLine

Shortly after taking that photo the Apple store closed to transform it into an iPhone 3G store. The first step was the erection of a large black velour curtain of mystery to shroud the store and prevent prying eyes from glimpsing the goodness being assembled inside. Other than the occasionally Apple employee emerging from the curtain to go home and sleep (lucky them) the velour curtain of mystery was the only thing to be seen until 8am graced the Pacific time zone.

Waiting in line
The 12 hours in line actually wasn’t so bad. Much to the horror of the Apple Store the Alderwood Mall Security and Administration announced that folding chairs, sleeping bags, tents, and in general having fun were forbidden on property. They seemed to think that even allowing us to be on the property after the malls 10pm closing time was a special treat and yes, could we ask for another cup of porridge sir?

Aside from having to choose between sitting on the cold outdoor concrete and standing all evening we had a blast. The Gear Live crew came out in force to film the event and do some product giveaways for some iPhone cases and accessories. The night passed relatively quickly bringing us to 8am with a line of 250+ excited people iWaiting for the iPhone 3G.

The curtain drops
The velour curtain of mystery dropped and the doors flung open to an Apple store filled with excited Apple employees clapping and cheering us on. Being first in line provided a larger thrill than I expected – leaving my heart racing as I walked through their gauntlet of proffered high-5′s, cheering iAcolytes, and my own sleep-starved imaginations addition of a glowing visage of his holiness Jobs floating in the middle of the store looking down upon his dedicated flock.

The thrill was unfortunately short lived – the internet had indicated prior to opening that system problems had been making the launch difficult for those in time zones ahead of PST. Those problems had far from been worked out by the time us on the west coast were blessed with the coming of 8am. Due to the glitches it was roughly 45 minutes from the time I entered the store until I had been able to successfully purchased my 16GB white iPhone 3G. Even after the purchase the in store activation failed completely leaving me with a sleek and sexy hunk of plastic, plaintively begging to be plugged into iTunes for activation.

Time passes, the 30 minute drive home ensues…

The first several hours home were bittersweet. On the up side I was home and able to shower and sit on comfortable furniture. On the down side I was iPhone-less. Due to a glitch (which has been dubbed the iPocalypse by our beloved main stream media) everyone transitioning from a 1st generation iPhone to an iPhone 3G had their 1st generation iPhone deactivated during the process, so due to the unavailability of the Apple activation server neither the old nor new iPhone would work as a phone leaving me (and 100′s of thousands of others) phone-less and unable to make or receive calls.

While catching back up on work mail remotely I was forced to repeatedly plug my pearly white new toy into my iMac to wait several minutes for the dreaded timeout dialog to inform me that no, I couldn’t use my new toy, and no I couldn’t have a pony either.

An iBrick 3G waiting for activation

After begging use of a neighbors condo and phone line for a few conference calls my precious toy suddenly popped to life upon one of my connection attempts to iTunes. The server-gerbils must have finally gotten their second wind as my iPhone 3G activated, and the sync process begun to restore all of my settings, applications, and media.

Lunch with a friend ensues during the <1 hour sync…

Finally home, and with a working iPhone 3G in hand the process of playing with my precious new toy could begin. Although a little rough around the edges (more on that in a minute) the experience is overall very positive. The 3G antenna provides fast data – combining the stunning software functionality of the iPhone with WiFi like internet access anywhere in a major city makes for a highly functional and productive experience. The two big new software features – Microsoft Exchange support and the iTunes App Store – add significant functionality and usability for both business and consumer users of the iPhone alike.

Although highly subjective I would venture to say that the iPhone 3G feels faster than the first generation iPhone. I’m unaware of if the processor it utilizes is any faster, or if this is merely a psychosomatic effect, but many tasks seem to execute faster. On the flip side a few of the new features seem to have regressed performance – the contacts application now takes several seconds to load as opposed to the nearly instant launch on my old iPhone. Also in the subjective category the iPhone’s virtual keyboard seems improved, although I would be hard pressed to put my finger on exactly how. The keyboard just seems more accurate and easier to use with the new phone.

Another highly subjective trait of the iPhone 3G is it’s sleekness. While the iPhone 3G is actually a millimeter thicker than it’s 1st generation predecessor it feels significantly slimmer and more comfortable in the hand. Much like it’s big brother the Macbook Air the use of organically curving sides hides it’s true heft and girth from the users perception.

Microsoft Exchange support
Exchange support is baked in to the iPhone 2.0 firmware. This feature is available to first generation iPhones and the iPhone 3G alike. After entering your email address, domain account, and password directly into your iPhone and accepting any domain policies (such as a PIN lock) from the Exchange Server you are set to go. Email, contacts, and calendar updates push to the iPhone from your Exchange Server as advertised keeping any business user in touch with their work. Full Microsoft Office support has also been added allowing the reading and review of all Microsoft Office formats including Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents.

The iTunes App store
The App Store provides the other killer feature – or is that features. While many have decried the iPhone previously for missing various functions those naysayers have been silenced through the ad-hoc addition of functionality. The App Store allows for the browsing, downloading, and updating of applications over WiFi or the cellular network and brings a host of more than 500 new applications to the iPhone. While many of these applications lack the polish of the Apple built applications a few do have that level of sophistication and as time goes on and the iPhone platform gains momentum the signal to noise ratio will surely get better and a plentitude of stunning and functional applications filling any hole left by the Cupertino designers.

Several of the highly polished apps that have impressed me are Twitterrific, Loopt, and Remote. I also downloaded a few games and was impressed by the general level of polish, however as a general rule I don’t engage in mobile gaming so I’m mostly ignoring them for now. I have a few loaded onto my iPhone should I ever find myself with a few spare moments to burn and no productive tasks I can accomplish (unlikely with an iPhone in hand).

Location based services
While the built in A-GPS service was far from my most anticipated feature of the iPhone 3G it’s instantly grown on me. I had thought of the GPS capabilities primarily in turns of mapping and turn by turn directions, however the iPhone 2.0 firmware and the iTunes App Store have proved me wrong: location based services can be so much more.

A rash of location based applications have sprung up, and to my surprise they are all amazingly useful. Loopt provides a service similar to Dodgeball or BrightKite allowing users to check in with their friends and see what’s up but it improves upon it’s predecessors by being entirely automatic. Users can set up contacts and determine what level of location awareness they want to grant to each of these contacts and then view the location of their friends on a Microsoft Virtual Earth powered map. By updating your location without having to search for a location or manually enter one in the use of Loopt can be quick and simple – open the app, check what’s up, and get on with your day.

Other less flashy uses of the location services on the iPhone 3G don’t fail to impress. Even something as simple as a weather location can be improved by automatically knowing where you are. After getting used to weather applications, restaurant review sites, and other miscellaneous applications starting up defaulted to showing me information contextually relevant to my current location I’m struck by how “dumb” the non-location aware web is. Somehow it now seems downright primitive to have to enter my zip code into a web form to view movie times.

The downside to the iPhone 3G
While the App Store, Exchange Support, and location based services are impressive the new iPhone 3G and iPhone 2.0 firmware still have their less rosy facets. The 2.0 firmware lacks the rock solid stability of the 1.1.4 firmware I had been using previously. My iPhone has randomly rebooted 4 times in the last two days – usually in association with one of the App store downloaded applications. Luckily this is likely just some growing pains with the new 2.0 firmware and hopefully a patch will be delivered soon which resolves the stability issues I’m seeing.

In addition to the crashes the iPhone 3G has a fraction of the battery life that the 1st generation iPhone had. This is undoubtedly the fault of the addition of 3G and GPS. I’ll have a more complete idea of how big the impact is after a few more days of usage, but I certainly have seen a reduction. Yesterday while out and about I was torturing my iPhone with 3G data and GPS usage tacking our groups progress through downtown and Greenlake using the Google Maps application. In less than 2 hours I had lost 60% of my battery life.

I’ll be the first to admit that using both the 3G and GPS radios simultaneously is likely the worst case scenario but it’s frustrating to see the battery drop so quickly given the stellar battery of the 1st generation iPhone. Luckily if it gets to be more of a problem than 3G is worth I can turn off the 3G radio and push mail to theoretically get the same or better battery life that I’m used to in exchange for losing out on the increased speed.

Final thoughts
While Apple and AT&T faltered with a very rough launch with activation server failures the iPhone 3G hardware combined with the iPhone 2.0 software make for a very big change to the mobile market as a whole. Apples vision of the iPhone being the personal computer of tomorrow is starting to show through the smoke and mirrors. The iTunes App Store will allow developers freedom to create amazing new experiences, and the well implemented support for Microsoft Exchange will help the iPhone venture into the enterprise and tap the booming market for business-oriented smartphones.

How to make great iPhone wallpaper

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Being an ADHD design nerd (or is that Apple fanboy) I’m frequently changing up the wallpaper on my iPhone. As a some of the wallpapers I published in an earlier post have crept up to some of my most frequently viewed Flickr photos I thought I would post a quick write up on how I select and make my oft-changed iPhone wallpapers.

I primarily use Photoshop for my image editing work and this process will be easy if you have Photoshop and are comfortable using it. It’s a very simple process and could be completed with virtually any image editor, although ones that can read Photoshop (PSD) files will make it easier to import the template discussed below. If you don’t want to spend money on a photo editing application GIMP is a free option that offers a decent interface and lots of tools to experiment with.

The first step of the process lies ahead: selecting the image to use. Ideally images should fit into one of two categories. These images have either a uniform simplicity, or a design flow that works with the iPhones overlaid controls.

The first type of image that works well has a uniformity to it. Because of the user interface controls partially obscuring the locked iPhone wallpaper images that focus on color or texture will work very well for this as obscuring a part of this kind of image does not hide key aesthetic elements. This kind of image is great for capturing a favorite color or surface while not adding distraction to Apple’s clean and minimalistic design.

Contrail to God iPhone wallpaper
A simplistic background

The second type of image that works well are images with a central focal point that is well buffered by simplicity. As the top and bottom of the iPhone are obscured by the overlaid controls having an image which can appreciated from the lower than center portion of the viewport on the lock screen, and with a background or less important top and bottom that are not critical to the aesthetic appeal of the image.

When taking photos for use as an iPhone wallpaper consider using a very narrow depth of field to direct interest to the center area of a vertical shot. Alternatively for a bolder look consider incorporating strong design elements such as bright angular sections of color. Remember that although the top and bottom will be obscured the image will still bleed through the overlay and provide some visual impact.

Sunlit frond iPhone wallpaper
A more visually complicated sweet spot

Once an image is selected I use the iPhone template pictured below to help me compose it for the iPhone. I found this template on the Mac Rumors forum in this thread. Full credit goes to TheSpaz who created the awesome resource and shared it with the world.

The template is free to download and comes in the form of a PSD template with each element set up in a separate layer with the correct opacity. This template makes it easy to drop an image into the background layer and compose it to look its best on the iPhone.

As your source image is likely much larger than 320×480 pixels you will have to transform the image down to size. By using Photoshop’s free transform option on the layer you can adjust both the scaling of the image, as well as drag it around to ensure that the portion of the image you want visible is perfectly framed by the overlays.

The shot being used in this particular tutorial was taken with a Lensbaby, a lens that adds a significant amount of blur and vignetting away from the center of the screen. This effect helps draw the eye into a subject and simplify the background making it ideal for use in creating iPhone wallpapers. If you have an image you really like, but that does not work well with the overlays due to visual distractions consider vignetting the image in photoshop by gently blurring or darkening the top and bottom edges to draw the eye to the center of the composition.

Because the iPhone displays bright colors so well I usually find that bumping up the saturation of an image 4-8% adds a bit of pop to the wallpaper. A slight bit of sharpening with the unsharp mask filter often helps more detailed images retain clarity on the iPhone’s densely packed pixels. Both of these steps also help make the image look it’s best once it is saved out of the Photoshop format and into either a JPEG or PNG image.

Once you are happy with how your image looks within the preview offered by the template you are ready to save the image and put it on your iPhone. For this process you don’t want the templates overlays added so hide all of the overlay layers leaving your resized and cropped photo and any adjustment layers as your final image. From the file menu select ‘Save for Web & Devices’ to compress your final wallpaper down. I usually save my wallpapers as 32bit PNG images, however JPEG format backgrounds will work just as well.

Save the wallpaper with a recognizable name into the location where you have iTunes set to sync photos from. The next time you sync your iPhone the image will be synced into the iPhone’s library. From there you can view the image with the Photos application and then click the export scarab at the bottom of the screen to select that image for use as your wallpaper.

If you are interested in the image above the version saved without the overlays suitable for immediate iPhone use is here. You can also get the original PSD file here including all the layers, adjustments, and overlays used to create this.

Firefox zen

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Download DayAs I’ve mentioned here and there on Twitter I’m super impressed with the latest Firefox 3 Release Candidate – it’s a fantastic browser. The memory utilization is far more reasonable than with Firefox 2, and the new address bar and bookmarking system has changed the way I interact with browsers for the better.

See something I like and think I might someday want to return? Click the star to bookmark it, and forget about it. If it’s something I’m likely to use frequently then another click of the star lets me add a few appropriate tags to speed up the search.

No longer do I have an organized collection of bookmarks, and a bookmarks bar crammed with common links and folders of bookmarks. With the ability to search my history and bookmarks from the address bar an entirely keyboard and search based browsing habit has evolved. A few Quicksilvr like keystrokes reveal an impressively accurate and intuitive list of what I want, culled from the URLs, tags, and titles of the visited pages.

The Firefox user interface has become minimal, The address and search bar, a list of my open tabs, and nothing else. Pure efficiency and elegance in internet consumption. I have achieved Firefox zen:

Interestingly enough it would seem that my visitors have as well. A quick look at the last few months of visitors shows that over half of my visitors have selected Firefox as their browser of choice with Internet Explorer coming in 2nd and Safari trailing in 3rd.

With the Mozilla Foundation putting so much effort into setting download records at the release of Firefox 3 I wonder how that percentage will grow in coming months both on Futurist Now as well as the internet as a whole.

Side note: yes, I see the irony in cheering for Firefox given where I work. I don’t actually see a problem with that – I think Firefox has given Internet Explorer a lot and the more recent versions of Internet Explorer have been better for the competition that Firefox and Opera have provided. I strongly believe that competition is the key to any successful market and am always happy to see multiple contenders reaching for the stars – the biggest winners in this kind of technology arms race are almost always the consumers.

Catchup post: Memorial Day edition

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

I’ve been busy the last week and haven’t been doing much long form writing and Futurist Now has suffered for it. What’s been keeping me busy?

My new EeePC
I picked up one of Asus’s delightfully tiny new netbooks, the EeePC. A netbook is a new category of sub-notebook device with low end specs designed primarily for browsing the web. The EeePC clocks in at a measly 900Mz, but at 9″ and under 3 lbs it’s easy to forgive it’s specs in lieu of it’s ultimate portability. So far I’m finding it an ideal email machine for use at meetings at work, and as a great bedroom/couch machine for keeping an eye on the tubes while relaxing or watching movies.

Being entirely solid state (the EeePC 900 series comes with 12GB of flash memory rather than a hard drive with spinning platters) it’s shock resistant, and gets surprisingly good performance for it’s diminutive specs. Due to the random access nature of flash memory the EeePC boots quickly and gets great battery life (3 hours of real use). While solid state drive (SSD) technology is still not competitive in price or storage capacity to typical hard drive (HDD) technology I can see the potential and am starting to get excited about the predictions that in 2011 or so SSD will all but completely replace HDD technology in notebooks and desktops.

While the EeePC 900 I picked up came pre-loaded with Windows XP I’ve done some experimentation with putting Ubuntu on it. As with my typical annual cycle I attempt to put some variant of Linux on my computers to see how the OS X/Windows competition is doing. This time however I was surprised – the latest Hardy Heron (8.04) release of Ubuntu is slick, polished, and works ‘out of the box’ on all the hardware I had laying around. While Ubuntu might be getting attention as a decent desktop alternative where I think it really shines is on a low end PC like the EeePC – it’s limited feature set and lean architecture work perfectly on a device with CPU and memory constraints.

Movies
Being a 3 day weekend I took the opportunity to see a couple of movies with Brien and Brian. We saw both Indiana Jones 4: The Crystal Skull, and Iron Man. Both movies were excellent (if not over the top) and fun movies to see while on holiday. I was never the hardcore fan of the Indy series that Brien was, and much to his horror I actually liked the newest one best from the series. It captured the fun essence of the earlier flicks while maintaining a fresh and modern feel even while being set in not so modern times.

Iron man also kept a modern feel, although it did so with a very modern setting. Having never read the comic book I assume I missed out on a lot of the back story, but still found the story presented in the movie touching and engaging. Having grown up idolizing gadget superhero (Hello, Inspector Gadget) it’s nice to see a modern take on a technological super-hero. Final note on the movie: I need a flying metal suit, that looks fun!

Lensbabied sneaker opus
Last but not least, a quick shot I took with my Lensbaby 2G while out on a photo walk on Saturday. I’ve been using my 18mm and 50mm primes a lot and decided to take the Lensbaby out and go for a stroll. I’m certainly glad I did as one of the resulting shots is a clear winner in my odd little abstract world.

Footwear abstract

A little housekeeping

Monday, May 19th, 2008

As per my usual 6-12 month cycle I have tired of the old presentation of Futurist Now and have thus abandoned the old look and feel for something fresh. Thanks to the high degree of flexibility afforded by WordPress the whole affair took less than an hour and aside from a few things moving around a bit there should be no impact to Futurist Now readers. Let me know if you see anything broken.

Well, carry on then.

Twitter is down again

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Is it just me or is Twitter down almost as much as it’s up these days? I realize they have a very difficult technical challenge presented to provide a service like Twitter, but I mean ultimately if IRC has been able to do basically the same thing for the last 20 years why can’t they?

Metaspark

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Or: Further experimentation with personal aggregation services

After my initial experimentations with personal aggregation basically failed I’ve decided to take another stab at it, but this time with a DIY bent. I registered metaspark.net and am working a complicated series of WordPress plugins to attempt to create the functionality I want.

Unfortunately it’s not entirely baked yet, but keep your eye on that domain – once I get a few RSS aggregation, twitter update, and posting date issues sorted out it should be ready to go fully live, and with style no less.

Stay tuned!

And it was good

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Today marked my first day on the new product management job and man was it excellent. I’ve never done a transition like this where I already knew my co-workers and I have to say it makes a big difference. I hit the ground running, like the people I work with, and in general feel like I’m ready to start kicking some serious butt already.

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