iCloud

Jul. 8th, 2011 12:39 pm
Finally got bored enough to watch/listen-to the WWDC keynote from last month yesterday.

There's been lots of press coverage of iTunes Match and the music portion of the iCloud offering, but just in case you've been living under a rock for the past month: music purchased from iTunes will get the same treatment as iOS apps. Buy once, download to any (supported) device as many times as you need to.

iTumes Match is the bit which meant they needed to go negotiate new license terms with the record labels. The deal is that you pay Apple $25/year (if the service is available in your area) and iTunes will check through your library and upload the metadata to iCloud. Any song that matches what they already have in the iTunes catalogue becomes available to you on all your (supported) devices, whether you bought it from iTunes or not. Songs that aren't available from iTunes get uploaded to iCloud.

As a quick aside: Google and Amazon arguably don't need (new) licenses to provide their services, as they're essentially just providing online storage for whatever bytes you care to throw at them. They may well be doing something funky with block-level de-duplication on their end, but it's not the same as what Apple is doing.

The more interesting -- to my mind -- features of iCloud are the bits that aren't getting much press so far. The first is called "Photo Stream", and the deal is that when you take a photo with your iPhone or import a photo into iPhoto on your Mac, it's automatically uploaded to the cloud and synced back down to your other registered devices. Computers (Mac and Windows) keep everything, iOS devices keep the last 1000 photos, and the cloud keeps a rolling 30-day window. To hang on to a specific photo from the photo stream you just move it to an on-device album.

Now, if you've gone all-Apple and are happy taking photos with your iPhone -- which if the Flickr stats Jobs presented are accurate is true for a lot of people -- then this looks like a fantastic deal. No more worrying about backing up your photos or having to copy them around the place to display or edit on other devices. The storage used for this isn't included in the per-user quota.

The other neat-o whizzy feature is document/data storage and sync. The demo case for this is Pages on iOS: make a change to a Pages document on your iPad, the change is automatically pushed to the cloud and synced back to your other registered devices. Open the document on your iPhone (for example) and you go right back to where you were last time you were editing.

They're providing API support for both documents and key/value pairs, so it'll be interesting to see what developers come up with. It seems kind of obvious that almost anything which stores data locally could benefit from this.

So long as you're happy with Apple having access to your data, of course...

This is unlikely to get corporate use, but it does look pretty nifty for individuals and small businesses who don't have any regulatory issues to deal with.

How it handles conflicts and devices going offline remains to be seen. An obvious case would be that you make some edits to a document while you're out of cell coverage. Presumably it queues the uploads for later, but what happens if (say) you turn the phone off because the battery is running low, then make some edits on your iPad before the iPhone has had a chance to push its changes?
Been reading up on the new stuff in iOS 5. A few comments.

The notification centre is of course basically a copy of what Android has been doing from the start. That's okay, it seems to be the best way to handle notifications, and they've improved on it a little with the widgets.

The lock-screen notifications are much better than I've seen on any Android devices. The typical lock-screen notification arrangement on Android is an icon in the notification bar and maybe a flashing LED. None of that is interactive -- you unlock the phone and then pull down the notification area.

Reader mode in Mobile Safari is a nice touch. I'll be curious to see just how large a font it really allows, but at least the UI is not indicating an arbitrary three or four sizes. Combined with the existing inverse-mode display this could be very nice for people with shonky vision.

The handling of apps and syncing via iCloud looks good. How much of that functionality will be available outside the US is another question though. Wait and see, I guess.

Using the volume key as a shutter key in the Camera app is encouraging. Maybe they'll include a proper shutter key on the next hardware revision?

I'll most likely be sticking with Android in the longer term, but interesting and useful new things in iOS helps everybody, just like interesting and new things in Android and WP7 helps iOS users.

It's also heartening to see Apple has backed down on the in-app purchasing debacle.
I've had this thing for two days now. Not enough time to be claiming a deep understanding but enough to make some initial comments. The primary comparison will be to the phone it's replacing, a 16GB iPhone 3G, but I'll try not to repeat too much of the obvious stuff every random reviewer mentions.

I have not used any Android device before, so I'm going to comment on the overall "HTC Desire experience" without trying to draw too many distinctions between what's part of this device and the HTC Sense overlay, and what's part of Android proper.

Physically it feels pretty good to hold. Enough heft to feel solid. And it looks very shiny, have had quite a few comments about that at work from people randomly passing my desk.

Hard-button-wise, there's the power button at the top, volume rocker on the left side, the four "standard" Android keys at the bottom, and an optical trackball in the lower-middle. Those "standard" keys are "home", "menu", "back", and "search". They do what you would expect pretty much everywhere, so for example in any application where search is a relevant function you hit the search button and off you go.

For those who've never touched one of these devices before, the home screens (there are seven on the Desire) are a four-by-four grid. Widgets can use more than one square, of course, but they all fit into this format. So, for example, my "home" home screen has a four-by-two clock showing the current location's time and weather at the top, a pair of two-by-one digital clocks showing the time in Hong Kong and New York immediately below, and then a four-by-one calendar widget showing the next item.

Generally tapping on a widget will take you into the application it relates to. A few are very single-purpose -- toggling a phone setting like WiFi -- so they just do whatever it is they're supposed to do when tapped. It's reasonably intuitive.

The web browser is, for my purposes, better than mobile Safari. It does the double-tap-to-zoom thing, but if you zoom further it makes the text larger and reflows it. I cannot being to describe how helpful that is with sub-par vision. Otherwise it's basically just a browser, it does what you'd expect it to do and works just like every other half-decent mobile browser.

The Mail application -- as distinct from the GMail application -- is both more flexible and frustratingly dodgy than the iPhone equivalent. The message-viewer has the same nice reflow as the browser, and lets you set a default font size which is large enough for me to read without my glasses. Which is lovely.

It also has a relatively sophisticated set of options for polling and notifications. Each account can have a peak/off-peak schedule, independently setting how often to poll. So, for example, I've got it configured to automatically check my personal email every half hour from 8AM to midnight, and it'll go off and check it outside those hours if I open the app.

But then it goes and muffs it by not having any way to set the IMAP folders to be used for drafts, sent-mail, and such. Instead it just goes off and creates "[Imap]/Sent" and so on. This while talking to GMail as a backend.

Still, it works pretty nicely. It's also handling my work Exchange mail via OMA quite handily.

The less said about the GMail application the better. It's there, it provides an interface a little more like GMail proper, but it has pretty much no useful options to tweak and presents everything in the tiniest font imaginable. Can't pinch-zoom in the message view.

The calendar app does what you'd expect, I haven't had any trouble with it. It's quite happily syncing both my personal calendars from Google and my work calendars from Exchange via OMA. The last time I tried to make my iPhone do this -- about a year ago -- it wasn't very good at it, but this Just Works.

Exchange support in general was a complete non-problem to get going. Answer a few questions -- the most tricky for most users being the name of the OMA server -- and off it went.

The Music application works as expected. It's fairly similar to the iPod app on an iPhone. One nice touch is that if the phone is locked you can press the power key and the music player interface immediately appears -- no unlocking required. This is particularly helpful when you've set a security code and need to stop playback right now.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. The HTC Clock widget has some views that look very nice, but they want a four-by-three space. With the city tag turned off they only actually occupy four-by-two. Given that the weather data is from the ironically-named AccuWeather it's not very useful, so a two-by-four view of one of those lovely Bell & Ross knockoff faces would be a great choice, except for the dead space.

I'd like some way to quickly switch keyboards without digging into the settings. There's a key to go into the input settings menu, which is fine, but I'd rather it just gave a popup with all the installed keyboards listed plus an item to go into the broader input settings. A bit like -- gods help me -- Windows Mobile circa 2004.

The battery burns down pretty quickly. Yesterday I got it below 10% with about half an hour on the phone, half an hour of music, and an awful lot of poking at the sheer novelty of the thing. Granted I have the screen brightness maxed out, so a more "normal" user who can actually read the thing on a lower brightness will have an easier time battery-wise. And it is very much in the shiny-new-fiddle stage.

There is an Accessibility menu in the settings area, but I have no idea what it might do as it contains just one item -- a toggle labelled "Accessibility" -- which is unchecked and greyed-out. No idea if this is the usual for Android or because there's some component missing or because it's got HTC Sense running. Google is not being my friend here as "htc desire accessibility" simply returns lots of pages about "access", which is a rather less useful term when we're talking mobile phone networks.

Ultimately the biggest advantage Android has over the iPhone for an end-user is, in my view, the way apps can hook into just about anything and one can replace parts that don't perform the way one wants. I have, for example, installed a replacement SMS tool (chompSMS) because the built-in one doesn't offer any options for larger fonts. On the iPhone I'd just squint and occasionally grouch.

This has the potential for trouble, too, so it may perhaps require more sophistication from the user than the iPhone approach. But there's no particular reason why most people would need to replace the built-in components so it isn't demanding that the user know how to do this stuff, it just provides the option.

Anyway, so far so good. The only functions I haven't been able to migrate off the iPhone are audiobooks and ebooks -- Audible and Kindle respectively. Amazon has said in both cases that work is underway on Android clients, so that is hopefully only a matter of time. For now, I'll move audiobooks over to my Kindle, and forget about the extra-portable ebooks for a while.

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