Category: Mobile Apps

It's time for Apple to bring Automator to iOS

Have you noticed that, for the first time in recent memory, Apple seems to have pulled back on its blistering rate of new, innovative product launches?

Consider the fact that although the company refreshed virtually every product in their line-up this year, and even introduced a new, smaller iPad, not one of these products is an innovation in the market. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

This innovation “lull” comes at a dangerous time for Apple. Its core product lines: the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac (including desktop and laptop models) are under the kind of competitive pressure that hasn’t been seen in years. Android as a mobile OS has finally come in to its own, and is seeing huge success, especially in its Samsung Galaxy SIII guise which, for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, has outsold Apple’s flagship.

At the same time, Microsoft is taking the enormous gamble of leap-frogging Apple in the desktop OS market with Windows 8 – an OS that fuses touch-based computing and classic mouse-and-keyboard computing into a single experience.

Some might say that this situation is a natural part of the technology life-cycle. Product innovation happens in waves, especially at the hardware level. Perhaps we’re simply in the trough of a hardware innovation wave.

That being the case, the obvious place for Apple to try differentiating itself (until its next revolutionary product) is with software. The company already enjoys an enviable ecosystem where hardware and software are designed in lock-step, ensuring that the one always complements the other. But it’s time to do more.

Apple seems to have overlooked one of the most promising areas of mobile computing: contextual task automation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that they’ve missed this boat. After all, Mac OS X has some of the most powerful automation tools of any OS: AppleScript and Automator.

Between these two tools, users can exercise almost any level of control they desire over the functions of their Macs. Automator provides a graphical way of doing so, and requires no programming knowledge whatsoever. AppleScript can fill in the blanks, giving power-users even greater control.

If you’ve never heard of these tools, or you have but have never used them, there’s a good reason: task automation on computers is largely used by professionals to speed up workflows by having the computer complete certain repetitive tasks. But its power is limited by the number of contexts users find themselves in. Given that the average PC, whether desktop or laptop, has no GPS, accelerometer, compass, barometer, phone or proximity sensors, it’s almost deaf, dumb and blind compared to a smartphone (bad analogy given that all PCs have webcams, mics and speakers, but bear with me).

But mobile devices are a different story. They’re with us wherever we go and connect us to every type of information imaginable. Best of all, they have a high degree of contextual awareness thanks to the various sensors mentioned above. This fact has not been lost on the Android camp.

Recently, two examples of contextual automation have caught my attention. The first is the Motorola ATRIX HD LTE, an Android smartphone that Motorola has customized with various options including something they call Smart Actions. At their core, Smart Actions are simply a way for a user to create “if/then” conditions for just about any situation s/he can think of. One fabulous example: IF I’m driving and someone texts me THEN send the following automatic reply “Thanks for your text. I’m currently driving and will respond when it’s safe to do so.”

There are dozens of such useful conditions that users can customize (the phone ships with several pre-programmed options).

The other example was demo’d for me last week: Sony’s new “Bond Phone”, the Xperia T, comes with Smart Connect, a free Sony app that can be installed on any Android 4.0 device. Much like Smart Actions, Smart Connect lets you script trigger events in addition to managing certain external devices like Bluetooth headsets.

So why then, has Apple ignored such a fantastic opportunity to be the dominant player in contextual automation?

Not only does the Cupertino juggernaut have a wealth of experience in this area, they have a uniquely synchronized set of hardware, software and services. Imagine the possibilities for a customer who is fully committed to Apple’s ecosystem and owns an iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV and several AirPlay-compatible speaker systems.

Here’s just one scenario…

Our happy-go-lucky Apple user is strolling home after getting off the bus/streetcar/subway, while listening to her favourite podcast on her iPhone. But as she arrives at her front door, the podcast still has 10 minutes left. As soon as she unplugs her EarPods, her iPhone automatically routes the podcast over AirPlay to her speakers in the living room. A text message is sent to her boyfriend who is working abroad, letting him know she’s home if he wants to FaceTime before he turns in for the night. Because the time is now 5:30 p.m., her notifications preferences switch so that new emails from work no longer trigger sounds or vibrations, but personal emails still do.

Needless to say, that was the best I could do off the top of my head, but clearly the possibilities are endless. But there’s no reason why Automator for iOS shouldn’t be social too. I could see an entire scene developing around such an app, with users sharing their favourite scripted events and even in-app purchases, so that developers with a knack for AppleScript could sell advanced Automator processes designed for professionals of all stripes.

So readers, what say you? Would Automator for iOS be the kind of thing you’d like to play with? Or are you content with the existing automatic processes within iOS? Or does Siri do all of your bidding?

Let us know!

Apple's new iPhone 5 and iPods: First impressions

Today, Apple unveiled what will no doubt be its bread-and-butter products for the all-important holiday season and into 2013: an all-new iPhone 5 and revamped versions of the iPod nano and iPod Touch.

Thanks to the many leaked photos and generally accurate rumours, the iPhone 5 introduced by Phil Schiller and Tim Cook was almost exactly what we were expecting: A thinner, lighter, faster, taller and LTE-enabled smartphone. About the only feature that didn’t make it from rumour-mill to reality was the inclusion of NFC (Near Field Communication) which would have enabled the contactless-payment scheme that is currently being pursued by Google and others. For an explanation on why Apple left this and wireless charging out, see this interview with Phil Schiller.

Apple iPhone 5

In typical Apple fashion, the new iPhone has given potential buyers just enough to feel that it’s a worthy upgrade over devices that are now two generations old, yet not so much innovation that iPhone 4S owners will be left weeping over their now-obsolete cellphone. I call it the “leap-frog” approach to Apple’s product marketing and so far, it has held true for every new version of the iPhone.

But many argue that especially in today’s super-heated competitive market, “just enough” just isn’t enough. Samsung, Nokia, HTC and others have all made enormous leaps of their own, with many bringing features to the smartphone game that eclipse what Apple has offered. The big question is: Can the iPhone 5 compete against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III, Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC One X?

My take on this is unchanged from yesterday. While Apple’s Android and Windows 8 Mobile-based competitors are giving consumers more choice than ever, Apple’s formula is still rock-solid. If you are an existing Apple iPhone user – and millions of you are – the iPhone 5 is a logical and satisfying upgrade. Here’s why:

  • You get a larger screen without needing to carry a device that feels chunkier. Thanks to Apple’s decision to preserve the iPhone 4’s width, while shrinking the thickness down to an impressively thin 7.6mm, the iPhone 5 will look and behave like a larger phone without feeling like one
  • With LTE on-board, the iPhone 5 is now just as fast – perhaps even faster – than any other 4G/LTE handset on the market
  • Improvements to the two cameras means that the iPhone 5 maintains its position as arguably the best mobile phone for taking photos and video
  • None of these improvements will hurt battery life. In fact, if you have an older iPhone, it might be a bit better
  • Improvements to the primary CPU – now an A6 chip – will make the iPhone 5 feel downright zippy
  • Price: Starting at $199 for the 16GB model (on contract) means that it costs no more to get a brand new iPhone than it did two or even three years ago if it’s time to renew.

If you aren’t already an iPhone user, these features make a good argument for becoming one. But not an airtight argument. As Reuters has pointed out, the iPhone 5 is impressive in many ways, yet lacks a “wow” factor. Unlike the iPhone 4 with its dazzling Retina display, or the 4S, which brought Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” Siri to life, the latest iPhone is an attempt to prove that if you take an already successful phone and optimize every aspect of it, you have a compelling new product. For some, that attempt may seem lacking.

Meanwhile, if you feel that bigger is better when it comes to screen size, there are several Android-based models that offer larger views of your content, the web, etc. They may not have a higher resolution than the iPhone, but sometimes there’s no substitute for square inches. Likewise, if you think a smartphone ought to come with a stylus for taking notes, interacting with the screen and getting finer control for tasks like painting/drawing, the Samsung Galaxy Note which appeared earlier this year, is still a great choice.

Apple iPod Touch, 5th generation

In addition to the iPhone 5, Apple also updated two of their iPod models. New for 2012 are the iPod Touch, which benefits from many hand-me down iPhone technologies such as a larger screen, thinner body, better cameras and a faster chip, while the biggest surprise of the day went to the new iPod nano which has actually gone up in size.

Apparently the diminutive square design of the previous nano didn’t work out as well as Apple had hoped, and proving once again that they’re prepared to get rid of something that isn’t working, they have re-imagined the  nano as a larger, multi-touch device that once again has the ability to play video – a feature that was dropped in the last generation. Also new to the nano is Bluetooth – something that fitness-addicts have been begging for in order to free themselves from the inevitable tangle that results from working out with wired earbuds.

Yet while Blutooth is great for the gym, so was the built-in clip that the older generation included, but that feature has been axed, sending future iPod nano owners back to third-party accessories if they want to keep their music players within easy reach.

Apple iPod nano

I think the decision to reformulate the iPod nano is a good one. They’ve given the popular media player some great new (er, old) features. But best of all is the price: unchanged at $149, which by the way, is for a 16GB model – the only memory option now for the nano.

And while I’m equally excited to see the iPod Touch pick up some very welcome improvements – especially the camera, which now has an LED flash and 5MP sensor – the price point is a big disappointment. Gone are the 8GB and 16GB options and gone too is the $199 entry-point price. Instead, the cheapest redesigned iPod Touch now starts at a heart-stopping $299 for 32GB.

Yes, they did drop the price on the older, 4th gen iPod Touch 16GB to $199, and yes, the new model gets Siri (the first WiFi-only device to do so) but that’s cold-comfort for those who have been waiting for a new iPod Touch redesign.

$299 is simply too high a price for a product that has become the go-to alternative to portable game systems like the Nintendo DSi/3DS or Sony PS Vita, both of which sell for less than the new iPod Touch. Even $249 would have been easier to swallow.

I would have preferred that Apple have discontinued the older iPod Touch completely, and offer up a 16GB (new) iPod Touch for $199 rather than this two-model, two-price points strategy.

Okay readers, that’s my take. What do you make of all of the Apple hoopla from today’s event? Excited for the new gadgets or feeling a little let down?

Why the Apple iPhone 5 might ditch the dock connector

The iPhone 4/4S as it might look with a Micro-USB port instead of the usual 30-pin Dock Connector

On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”

Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.

Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.

How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?

So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to –  would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.

But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.

First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.

Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.

Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:

  • Recharge
  • Sync data
  • Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)

All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.

If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord  – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.

In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.”  AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.

AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch  – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.

Could Apple be planning an AirPlay adapter for older speaker docks? (click for larger image)

I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…

I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.

I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!

So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?

Dear Siri, what's the best smartphone?

Easter Eggs” is the term used to describe hidden little features or extras that a programmer includes in software, game discs, on a DVD or Blu-ray or online. If you Google almost any digital title plus the term easter egg, you’ll likely find something you didn’t know was hiding in your favourite product.

Today, that term might be extended to include unlikely or surprising answers given by voice-recognition system’s such as Apple’s much-publicized Siri, found on their flagship smarthphone, the iPhone 4S.

Here’s the game: Ask Siri the question “What’s the best smartphone ever?”

Normally one would expect Siri’s trademark dry wit with a response somewhere along the lines of “I think you know that already.”

And yet, that is not what Siri is producing – a least not at the moment.

Instead, Apple’s popular digital companion is doing its due diligence by consulting the Wolfram Alpha search algorithm and coming up with a surprising answer:

The Nokia Lumia 900. Yes, a non-Apple smartphone running Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system.

Why the seemingly traitorous response? It turns out that, for the time being, the Nokia Lumia 900 has a higher satisfaction rating amongst users in the U.S. who have rated it, than any other handset and that’s how Wolfram Alpha’s algorithm picks a winner.

If you want to learn more about the various ways Siri can amuse you and make your life easier, be sure to check out Marc Saltzman’s new book: Siri For Dummies.

[Source: The Next Web]


Update, May 14th: Well, well. It looks like even intelligent personal assistants are allowed to change their mind. Today, if you were to ask Siri the same question she has a decidedly different (and far more politically correct) answer (see image at right).

Update May 15th: Who’d have thought the robotic replies of a smartphone would be so controversial? According to CNET, Nokia is taking offense at Siri’s change of heart on the topic of which smartphone is best. A Nokia spokesperson was quoted as saying that “clearly if [Apple doesn’t] like the answer, they override the software.”

So the saga continues and though we don’t really expect Apple to respond to these charges, we’ll let you know if they do.

Sony Xperia S: A step in the right direction for mobile gaming

Perhaps more than any other company in the consumer electronics industry, Sony has repeatedly baffled customers and analysts alike with its product strategies. Music players that could only playback proprietary formats, cameras that could only use proprietary memory cards, a tablet that could control your entire home theatre but not your Sony PS3, an iPod-competitor that isn’t PlayStation-certified, and phones that could provide a great mobile gaming experience but couldn’t display those games on your TV.

That’s just a short list.

Much of these decisions can be attributed to Sony’s desire to exert the kind of control over user experiences that Apple is famous for. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio even lends credence to the idea that Apple learned this lesson from Sony. The other explanation is that Sony is a company divided. With interests in consumer electronics and media publishing, the fabled Japanese tech giant has been fighting for harmony amongst its divisions for decades, with few visible successes.

But this might be changing.

Consider the new Xperia S, the first Sony smartphone in Canada to ditch the old Sony-Ericsson branding. It’s a dual-core, HD smarpthone running Google’s Android 2.3 OS (upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich later this year) and like it’s predecessor, the Sony-Ericsson Xperia Play, it’s PlayStation Certified which means you can enjoy a catalog of games from Sony including older PlayStation 2 titles that have been optimized for the mobile device.

Unlike the Xperia Play, these games are no longer confined to the phone’s 4.3″ touchscreen. Equipped with a micro-HDMI port, the Xperia S lets you enjoy video and gaming on your HDTV.

Sounds like a solid feature right? Well, yes and no. Yes, the ability to view your mobile games on the big screen makes a ton of sense. Not only will they look better on an HDTV, but friends and family can watch the action without having to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with you. But there’s a down-side too. The Xperia S, unlike the Play, is a touch-screen only device. There is no slide-out set of physical buttons (the Play’s slider featured a PSP Go layout). So while you’ll be able to view games on your TV, it will likely be impossible to control the gameplay without looking down at the phone to make sure you’re swiping and tapping the control areas accurately.

Let’s hope that Sony brings back the Play’s slider form-factor on their next model so gamers can really harness the HDMI-out feature to its full extent.

The Xperia S also features a 12.1-megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p video along with NFC (Near Field Communication) – a technology that will enable everything from mobile payments via Google Wallet to content sharing between compatible devices, so gaming isn’t the only reason to consider this smartphone.

Pricing has been set at a very reasonable $99 on a 3-year phone & data package from Rogers Wireless. The Xperia S will be available exclusively through Sony Stores when it launches April 17th.

RIM intros BlackBerry Mini Keyboard for PlayBook

Now that RIM has managed to sell a decent amount of their BlackBerry PlayBook tablets, it’s time for something a little different.

Check out their newest addition to the PlayBook line of accessories: the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard. It’s roughly the same size as the PlayBook itself, it has a 30-day battery life and can be recharged from any Micro-USB connection including the one that shipped with the PlayBook, and it connects via Bluetooth.

And none of those specs are a reason to buy this $119 keyboard, which by the way, ships with that stylish case pictured above.

No, the real reason you’re going to want this keyboard is the integrated touchpad placed right below the space bar. This one feature not only make using the PlayBook for productivity much better than the tablet on its own, it might just make it the PlayBook the best productivity tablet on the market, period. I say this of course without every having tried the device, but if the description from RIM is accurate, this is the rare exception when an accessory dramatically improves the functionality of the original device.

Consider: The touch pad enables full mouse control when using an app called Citrix Receiver – designed to connect you to a remote Windows machine so you can have complete remote-control of that desktop. This means you can move the PC’s cursor, click by tapping, right-click by two-finger tapping and scroll vertically by swiping up and down on the pad with two fingers.

The result is that, unlike using bluetooth keyboards with the iPad, you no longer have to reach for the PlayBook’s screen when you want to interact with an on-screen element. Basically, it turns the PlayBook into a proper laptop replacement, at least from an ergonomics point of view. The trackpad even works when navigating the PlayBook’s homescreens and apps.

The  BlackBerry Mini Keyboard goes on sale next month for $119, but you can pre-order it now from The Source and save yourself $20.

Pre-orders for the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 in Canada start today

Have I shared with you my enthusiasm for remote-controlled helis and their quad-rotor brethren?

No? Well I love ’em.

I’m 42-years-old and there’s just something about these little indoor choppers that fulfils a boyhood dream which I’ve apparently been harbouring for a long time.

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 pictured without its optional indoor hulls

Whatever the reason, I think these things are awesome so I was delighted to learn that the coolest remote-controlled toy on the planet, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 will be up for pre-order at The Source starting March 9th. General release for the device is May of this year.

What’s this? You’ve never heard of the AR.Drone? Allow me to introduce you: The Parrot AR.Drone is remote-controlled quadrocopter (4 rotors instead of the usual 1) that can be controlled via your iOS or Android device of choice over Wi-Fi and comes equipped with 2 on-board cameras – one that looks forward, the other looks straight down.

The latest version (2.0) of the AR.Drone lets you watch the feed from the forward-facing cam on your controlling device in real-time to give you a “pilot’s eye-view” of the action, but you can also record this video feed for acquiring the bragging rights to an especially impressive flight. These videos can be recorded to your smartphone/tablet’s memory or saved via the built-in USB port on the AR.Drone.

We got a chance to see the AR.Drone 2.0 in action at CES 2012 this year and their demo was impressive.

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Of course, the original intent behind the cameras was to enable AR gaming (thus the AR or Augmented Reality in the AR.Drone’s name) is still very much the focus of this craft, and with the optional game downloads you can engage in air-to-air combat with other AR.Drone pilots.

Just like the original AR.Drone, version 2.0 comes with a removable set of indoor “hulls” – basically styrofoam bumpers that surround the blades of each of the four rotors. You can keep these on when flying outdoors for greater crash protection, but the vehicle will be much less stable in windy conditions.

Until now, the only Canadian retailer who carried the AR.Drone was BestBuy, but it seems Parrot has established a slightly larger distribution network for the 2.0 release of the product by partnering with The Source. This move makes tons of sense. Not only are there way more The Source locations in Canada (over 700) but The Source is already the go-to shop for RC enthusiasts. I doubt there is another bricks and mortar retailer with a greater selection of RC toys and the AR.Drone is the perfect complement to that collection. The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 will be $329 when it goes on sale later this year.