what about where i am?

Just stumbled on a very cool iPhone application called HearPlanet. Based on your current location it generates a collection of informative audio tours explaining the  things around you.

As you can see from the attached screen shot, it found quite a bit of information about the Horse. That seemed surprising until I understood how it works.

The first thing HearPlanet does it identify your location by using the iPhone’s built in GPS. Then the app draws down information through the internet from Wikipedia articles about locations nearby you. A built in text-to-speech engine reads the words out loud.

Quite a simple premise, but very well executed and easy to use. It seems like a cool app to travel with and keep yourself informed about each locale you visit. 

Normally $4, HearPlanet is free on the iTunes Store right now.


apple’s software deal strikes at microsoft’s foundation

Mac OS X, iLife, and iWorkThose who claim that Macs are more expensive than PCs should reconsider their position. Hardware product costs are roughly equivalent, but software costs are far, far lower.

At the MacWorld keynote yesterday Phil Schiller revealed a package deal for the Mac operating system (Mac OS X Leopard), its suite of consumer media production tools (iLife 09, which includes iPhoto, iDVD, Garage Band, and iWeb), and its professional office suite (iWork, which includes Keynote, Pages, and Numbers). Purchased as a package, these three products cost a measly $169 USD.

That’s an insane value.

Compare that to what you’d blow on Microsoft product. I checked out the prices on Future Shop:

Future Shop Shopping CartAfter I convert the cost of Apple’s package to Canadian dollars, there’s a whopping difference of $600. You could almost buy a brand new Mac Mini for that, or three iPod nanos, or three months worth of groceries.

But don’t let the prices fool you. iWork is every bit as good as, if not better than, Microsoft Office. And iLife, well, Microsoft’s competing fare can’t hold a candle to this brilliant suite of easy-to-use media tools. And as for the Mac OS versus Windows? That debate will rage for ages to come. But you know where I stand.

Apple is striking at Microsoft’s bread and butter with this package deal. The Redmond behemoth will live and die on its Office suite and Windows revenues. If Apple begins to start having an effect on their market share with a comparable set of tools at far lower prices, that’s going to effect Microsoft’s bottom line.

But it’s not just Apple going after Microsoft here. Sun, Google, and Corel all have competing sets of free and low-cost office productivity software that are grinding away at Microsoft’s dominance.

typepad iphone client shortcomings

 typepad-logoIt turns out the first version of the Typepad iPhone client has two major shortcomings. They’re enough to prevent me from using the client; instead, I’m sticking to email posts.

Both issues centre on photos. First, if you use the Typepad client to capture a photo for a post, it’s only captured for the purposes of the post. After you upload the image, the Typepad client deletes it from your iPhone. That sucks. I’d rather it be saved to the camera’s library so that I could sync it into my iPhoto library later. 

I happened to get a really nice shot of Cole the other day with the Typepad client, but couldn’t do anything more with it than post it to the moblog.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if the Typepad client didn’t have another major problem: it reduces posted images to useless proportions.

The iPhone captures images at a resolution of 1600×1200. The Typepad client crops and reduces these to 320×320 before it posts them. So, even if you get a nice shot that is removed from your iPhone, you can’t salvage it from you moblog.

Here’s hoping Typepad adjusts this behaviour very soon.

GPS: From Tragedy to Frivolity

spac_gps_navstar_iia_iir_iif_constellation_lgGlobal Positioning System (GPS for short) is a satellite-based way to locate yourself on the face of the earth.

Back in the early nineties I used a GPS unit for some mining exploration field work I was performing as a summer student.

It was massive, heavy, and highly inaccurate. We carried it around the bush like a crown jewel in an awkward plastic Pelican case. After all, it had cost the company more than a car. 

We didn’t need that coming out of our pay.

So it still amazes me that both my Blackberry Curve and my iPhone pack GPS capabilities that can pinpoint my location to within a few feet.

Like many technologies we enjoy today, GPS was designed by the US military.

You might think, then, that GPS’ development was driven by a mindset of fear and animosity.

In fact, GPS has evolved more as a technology of public safety.

In 1983, the civilian Korean Airlines flight KAL007 strayed into Soviet airspace as a result of a navigational error.

 The Soviet government, however, considered this passage a deliberate and  provocative test of its military response capabilities.

So they shot the plane down, killing all 269 people on board.

At this time, GPS was still little more than a concept.

Still, to try and prevent future disasters such as KAL007, US President Ronald Reagan promised to make it available as an operational system to civilians.

That happened ten years later, in April 1995, when testing on a network of 24 satellites was finally completed. 

(There are now about 31 up there.)

GPS is still an American system managed by its air force. Every other major government in the world, including China, the European Union, and Russia, have plans for similar systems.

However, only GPS is full operational.

GPS, as a consumer product, is well known as a personal navigation system.

GPS can track an individual’s whereabouts and offer guidance on arriving at a specific destination.

When coupled with a software mapping system, it can offer real-time, turn-by-turn directions.

Many cars now have GPS capabilities that promise to replace paper maps.

So, in a sense, GPS is a system developed to help protect the male ego. 

(There’s that great line from Cars, when the lost van says to his wife: “I don’t need a map! I have the GPS. Never need a map again, thank you.”)

My Blackberry has this capability built-in.

The last time we were in Vancouver, I let my 4-year-old son navigate us from one side of the city to the other with it.

Other than a brief detour to a Dairy Queen, he got us to our destination without incident.

I was pretty excited about this. But the glow wore off quickly when I realized I didn’t really need turn-by-turn directions in a city like Whitehorse.

It seems that RIM has unfortunately limited the Blackberry’s GPS capabilities to its own navigational software.

My Curve doesn’t even automatically “geotag” photos with the location at which they are taken. (Although, I could kind of hack the device to make this happen.)

So it’s very exciting that Apple has opened up the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to any developer writing software for the platform.

Now some really interesting GPS-based software is starting to appear.

I’ve tried Nearby, a social network application that displays a map of your whereabouts in relationship to your friends’.

It also allows you to mark locations on a map that can be shared with others.

Another social application, Twinkle, combines GPS with the geek social network Twitter.

This is sort of silly, though, since I don’t think people who Twitter every really engage with one another in real life. So location in Twitter is somewhat superfluous.

Another cool, if frivolous, application is Graffitio. As its name suggests, you can virtually graffiti any GPS-based location on earth.

Another iPhone user who happens upon that spot will be able to view what you’ve left behind.

Interesting uses for this, obviously, are fun things like scavenger hunts.

Quite possibly the best use of GPS on the iPhone, however, is urbanspoon.

Like a Magic 8-Ball, you can shake your iPhone and it will randomly find you a nearby restaurant.

This is accomplished by comparing your GPS location to the database of eateries at urbanspoon.com.

If you have a craving or a budget, you can specify a set of parameters such as cuisine and price, to narrow the results.

Once you choose a place to go, urbanspoon generates a map-based set of directions to get you there.

Current implementations of GPS on the iPhone are cool, and represent the dawning of the age of Relationship Technology.

But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. 

Once developers get past the fun aspect of location, they’ll slowly start to integrate the experience of GPS into the more utilitarian needs of a user’s mobile computing experience as it relates to all the data they need to engage with.

Then, like a 5-pound GPS unit in a Pelican case, we’ll all be able to leave our desktop computers behind to collect dust.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 8, 2008.

top ten crap software: simply accounting

Simply Accounting Premium 2008Since I took over at the day care, I’ve been basically forced to start engaging with what I now consider to be one of the worst excuses for a professional software application ever: Simply Accounting Premium 2008. Every time I use this application there is a problem that costs me time and, therefore, my organization money.

Like, just yesterday, we were doing payroll. Already a time-consuming task, even without problems, Simply decided to make it worse. With no changes made by myself or my colleague, our printing settings for cheques were suddenly different. We had it set up to print in a specific format to pre-printed cheques in duplicate. Simply didn’t want to do this anymore. It chose a new form, apparently deleted our old form, and quit doing duplicates. Continue reading

near-moblog-bliss

 Ever since the Facebook client on my Curve inexplicably quit posting images a month or so back, I’ve been on the hunt for a real moblog client.

I tried the Typepad Blackberry client for a while but was underwhelmed. It’s slow and failure-prone. Plus, the interface uses some ugly font that doesn’t even make an effort to anti-alias. Like, ew.

One of the first things I did when I got my iPhone, then, was snag the Typepad client for my new favourite platform. One word: sweet. Now this is moblogging, baby.

I really recognized how near-perfect a moblog client that Typepad for iPhone was when, just for kicks, I downloaded its WordPress competitor

What a crummy implementation. The interface is all wrong and some of its most basic functions are masked in obtuse metaphors. Like, you have to change the status of an entry to get it to post. What? Why not just put a big, fat “POST” button on the screen?That’s what Typepad does and, heck, it makes sense.

But that’s just one complaint. I got tons more, but I won’t bore you.

In the end, I might be willing to blow a few bucks a month on a Typepad account just for the killer iPhone moblog client.

Plus, in a pinch, I can fall back on the rather yucky Blackberry iteration. Yeah, I wear pinstripe ginch.

Then again, how hard is it to just email posts to an account here at Bad Robot? Hmmmm….

VOIP 101: How to Make Free Phone Calls

It should have been a video game that pegged a platoon of starving Space Marines lost on a craggy planet just south of the Crab Nebula against a ferocious, if somewhat flabby, horde of alien lizard space creatures fighting to protect the last bastion of lunar cheese in the known galaxy.

Instead, it’s a way to make phone calls over the internet.

Boooring.

VOIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a method of, well, making phone calls on the internet.

And you don’t need a phone company to do it. Continue reading

falling in love all over again

 As I search for a cross-platform and iPhone-friendly groupware platform on which to operate the communications and sharing operations of the day care I’m currently running, I find myself falling in love with Yahoo’s Zimbra again.

I tried it once before and, while I liked it, it didn’t suit my purpose at the time (not to mention it didn’t support Safari back then). Plus, I find that it’s everything I’d hoped for in Apple’s MobileMe service, and so much more.

Zimbra’s web interface, unlike MobileMe, is one only a geek could love, but it exceptional functionality more than makes up for that blasé look and feel. (Zimbra’s web-based iPhone interface is killer, though.) And after my preferred Zimbra provider, 01.com, upgrades to Zimbra 5.0.8 this weekend, their service will have more push-appeal than Apple can ever hope to muster.

I like it so much, in fact, that I’ve turfed the free Google Apps in favour of Zimbra. The IMAP implementation is way better and the overall level of integration between the various services (contacts, calendar, email, and documents) is vastly superior. Well worth the $4-odd per month per account.