iPhone OS 3.0

Mar 21 2009 Published by under Apple,iPhone

Development progress has been a little slow over the last couple of weeks due to a lack of free time. I’ll get back to the iPhone development this week hopefully. In the meantime I’ve got my hands on iPhone OS 3.0 – I spent the money on joining the developer program so I may as well do something with it. I give you a preview of the new features I’ve been able to try out so far.

First impressions – not all good

It’s quite laggy. The iPod app takes forever to load, switch between categories (podcasts to videos, for example). The same goes for the Messages app, which is the new name for SMS. Obviously this is beta software so I don’t expect the performance to be this bad for the stable release – in fact I’d be quite pissed off if it was.

Safari seems to be much less stable than it had been in the recent main releases. This is surprising as not much has changed on the surface. However, I’m aware that there are quite a lot of new features for web developers (access to the GPS sensor on the phone for example). Again – beta software – but it’s a step backwards from the big improvements in speed and stability that came through with the OS 2.0 patches.

O2 – who are the sole mobile network contracted to sell iPhones in the UK – have disabled MMS on iPhone¬†tariffs. Obviously this made little difference until now, as the iPhone couldn’t do MMS, but why bother even disabling a feature that couldn’t be accessed? I doubt Apple will let the situation remain this way as the Summer release of new features approaches, but it’s still annoying.

Spotlight

Spotlight searches are very useful

Spotlight searches are very useful

Spotlight is the funky built-in search function on all Mac OS computers. It’s like Google Desktop Search on Windows, in that it provides really quick searching of all the files on the computer. This includes e-mail, web history, and the contents of standard stuff like Office files. Spotlight is a step-up from this in that it also lets you search menu options on running apps, as well as the application itself. If you’ve got a lot of applications installed it’s often quicker to just start typing the app’s name into the Spotlight box and start it that way.

The best thing about iPhone 3.0 is that Spotlight is now part of the iPhone OS. This provides built-in searching of pretty much everything on the phone – although I’ve noticed that SMS is not included in the search for some reason. I’m not entirely sure but, given how good the SDK is overall, third-party applications will probably be able to hook into this search facility. Once you get to 4 or 5 pages of apps installed on the phone, it will be quicker to just type an application name into Spotlight rather than hunt through pages of icons.

I think, really, the Spotlight function is the only standout-amazing new feature I’ve used so far. There are lots of good little tweaks – things like auto-filling forms in Safari, or switching off the annoying beeping every 2 minutes once you have an unread text. A lot of the features are currently out of reach, since they enable new capabilities in third-party applications – which will not be available from the App Store until the actual release of the software.

Copy and paste is a little awkward from within Safari

Copy and paste is a little awkward from within Safari

Cut, Copy and Paste

This is one of those things that everyone carps on about, but how much do you really use copy and paste on your phone? If you could attach a full-size keyboard via Bluetooth then this might be more useful, but then it would need to support keyboard shortcuts and the like. Anyway, it’s a nice feature to have and no doubt I’ll use it now it’s there.

My one gripe is that the whole double-tapping gesture doesn’t seem to be picked up very well. Safari is the worst offender, as it already uses double-tapping for zoom (a more precise gesture than ‘pinch’, since it automatically sizes the view to the paragraph width). To get copy and paste to trigger, I seemed to need a very slow tap-then-tap-and-hold. However, now that I have the knack for this, I can get it to trigger most of the time.

Things I’m looking forward to

It will be sweet to have a proper IM application running on the phone. I use Google Talk (through various different clients) for both work and home accounts so hopefully something will be released that deals with the Jabber protocol on multiple accounts – Meebo demoed their app during the OS 3.0 launch, and their website already does this, so that will do. This will be dealt with using the push notification features to tell you about new messages, which will be awesome for things like Facebook, Twitter and sport scores too.

2-player gaming. My girlfriend has an iPhone too, and she loves the simple puzzle games – of which there are many on the App Store. It will be wicked to be able to do live 2-player gaming between our phones.

Tethering. I recently took my MacBook down to London for a day working on-site with our customers – it was so frustrating to have a fully-functional internet connection on the iPhone but be unable to share it with the MacBook (this was on the train – we have a mobile broadband dongle to use on-site, but it’s always kept on-site). For occasional use, I wouldn’t mind paying as I use the feature. I don’t think I’d get enough use to justify paying extra money every month though.

Turn-by-turn GPS. Being able to get a Tom-Tom or Garmin app for the phone will also be really useful for drivers. I don’t even drive but I could imagine myself paying for something like this just for the coolness of plucking out my phone in someone else’s car to get directions. Hopefully, the rumours of Apple banning the apps from talking to you while you’re driving are just rumours.

Conclusions

Obviously as a developer I’m very excited about what these new features allow me to do. I also realise that this is the reason for the preview coming so far in advance of the release: it gives developers a chance to ready applications for launch day so that people will be eager to upgrade their software. I think some of the really exciting stuff as far as new features hasn’t even been revealed yet – but that’s because it will require the new hardware. Rumours indicate as many as 4 new iPod touch and iPhone models this summer (as well as a possible tablet/netbook device) – video recording, high-quality photos, improved graphics and higher 3G speeds are all touted as incoming features that would require new hardware.

Even without new hardware, these new software features will be really useful come launch day. They address a lot of long-standing criticisms while increasing the possibilities for third-party developers. I doubt Apple could have foreseen what a success the App Store would be – much the same as iTunes before it – but now that it is a success, they will really want to keep everyone using their stuff. That is exactly what these new features will do.

The new software lacks polish at the moment, which is understandable with 3 or 4 months until the main release. If we assume that the speed and stability will be the main focus of the development work between now and launch-day then this will be another great update for the iPhone.

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New App

Mar 03 2009 Published by under Apple,iPhone,TouchWheel

The renovation of TouchWheel is on hold after some inspiring conversations with friends at the weekend. It’s tough to imagine how to make something which is essentially a joke about Apple (and specifically iPods), not look like an iPod…

The follow-up application is no less retarded in concept, but has a much more extensive feature list. Let’s think of it as an interesting social experiment. That’s how they described Big Brother when it started, and there are some parallels. Watch this space.

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Rejection

Feb 27 2009 Published by under Apple,TouchWheel

An hour or so after publishing my last post, I got the rejection letter from the App Store. Now I know how all the wannabe authors feel… or maybe not.

The rejection cited the use of a trademark image. I guess the question is: how can I make an input device designed around the iPod, look different to the iPod?

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My First iPhone App

Feb 26 2009 Published by under Apple,iPhone,Mac OS X,TouchWheel

Another benefit of moving to Mac OS X has been the chance to learn how to write applications for my iPhone. Since getting my iPhone last July (I think?) I’ve been pretty much welded to the thing, it’s very convenient to have the Internets in your pocket!

While faffing around looking for Mac software I noticed that Apple give away an IDE capable of writing both native Mac apps and iPhone apps. It’s not exactly free to write iPhone apps, you have to pay 60 quid for the right to load them onto the actual phone and/or submit them to iTunes – but this didn’t really hinder my surge of enthusiasm. All in all, this is quite a good deal – it’s no wonder so many people have started writing apps for the iPhone.

I’ve now got a list of potential apps I could be working on, but decided to go with the most simple one first. If you head over to The Onion, you’ll find this video, which formed the basis of the idea. I also quite liked the idea of my first submission to the App Store being a mild piss-take of Apple.

Touch Wheel ScreenshotI’ve translated it into my first app, Touch Wheel.

I’m pretty sure you can tell how it works by just by looking at it (the interface is so intuitive after all!) – you scroll through letters by sliding your finger around the wheel. Pressing the centre circle adds the letter to your message. The forward and back arrows add spaces or delete characters respectively. The up arrow switches between upper and lower case. When you’re done, pressing the Mail button puts your message into an email and transfers you over to the email app on the phone so you can send your masterpiece to the world!

Obviously this is all quite simple but it let me get my head round a lot of things in Objective-C and Cocoa Touch – I had no experience with either prior to this. As a Java programmer, a lot of the OO ideas are quite familiar but there are a few real pains – some are because I’m so accustomed to Java, others just seem deliberately broken. Examples of both:

  • Pointers – these make no sense to me at the moment. In Java everything is a pointer, when an object is not referenced by any pointers then it’s gone and the memory it occupies is freed up. I’m starting to get to grips with the alloc/retain/(auto)release stuff but I’m still not completely clear on when to use/avoid pointers. Sometimes the compiler complains if I get it wrong, but I guess there must be times when you have the option? Am I safe to just use pointers all the time, making it a pseudo-Java language (with the added complexity of deliberately managing your own memory)?
  • Strings. What a hassle! Making/concatenating strings is so painful. Why can’t they have ‘+’ work with Strings? Why do you need to start a constant string with @” instead of just “?

When I get some time I’ll make a start on my next app, which should be more complex, but I also have some ideas for the upgrade to Touch Wheel. This upgrade could happen in one of two ways: either Touch Wheel appears on iTunes and I can start work on the update, or it gets rejected (which, let’s face it, is more likely) and I have to add stuff to make it more useful. There is also the possibility it will get rejected for imitating a famous Apple device, in which case a more fundamental re-think will be required.

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