Tuesday, 10 January 2012

My Dream In-car Smartphone

While hardware-wise absolutely capable of but still no smart phone has been able to provide a solution for a complete in-car companion device. You usually use your smart phone for 3 main purposes in your car: 

1. Making/receiving calls 
2. GPS Navigation 
3. Playing music

You want your phone to provide these services at the same time and when they overlap it should take into account the priority. The priority of engaging the display and voice channel. For example you want the GPS navigator always have the priority of engaging the display but can be overridden by calls in terms of voice channel. Music has the lowest priority in both display and sound. When a new call comes in first of all I don't want it to take up the whole screen when GPS navigation is on and also it would be nice if I could take/reject it by voice. I want to have access to main music controls of the default player like next/prev/stop from GPS navigation screen and not to have to switch the app to do such things. Of course I can choose to have the GPS navigation working in silent mode when the music is playing. 

Smart phones are getting armed with virtual assistants that could take voice commands but the problem is that you need to use your hands and run the app to make it ready to take your commands something that you don't want to do in you car, so my ideal smart phone will always be listening for a special voice command while working in "car mode"  to get the virtual assistant activated just like normal assistants that wait for their name to be called to serve you! This feature is implemented in Vlingo for Android, you can say "Hey Vlingo" and then give your command but it doesn't work if another app like GPS navigation is running in the forground. 

While GPS navigation is on most of the time while driving, I may decide to navigate to a different location, listen to a different play list or call someone which for all of them I have a shortcut in my 'Car Home' so another requirement would be smooth and quick switching between GSP navigation and Car Home. 

If you have any idea/need from your experience of using your smart phone in your car put it in the comments.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Cloudy Android

Many of us access content and data from different devices. Cloud services store your content, like photos, music, documents, bookmarks, contacts and calendar, and make them accessible from all of your devices like PC, mobile, laptop, tablet and eBook reader. So you don't have to email yourself anything and you can access the latest update/synced version of them everywhere. The side benefit of cloud services is that your stuff is backed up in the cloud so you don't have to worry about failure of one or even all of your devices.

Usually for each Cloud service you expect at least a web UI and a mobile application. If the web UI is not rich enough then OS-specific clients for major OS's are needed too. Apple has introduced iCloud in iOS5 which will sync all of your apple devices with your cloud space. Microsoft's cloud solution is a part of Windows Live platform and obviously syncs all of your devices running Windows operating system.

Google's set of cloud services don't have a specific name like the other two. That's not the problem! The problem is that some of the services are still in beta version and are not available for everyone or don't have any official Android app from Google, so as an Android user I had to look into other alternatives. Let's see how you can complete your own cloud on your Android devices until Google releases a better set of cloud services which are more integrated with each other, with Android and with other Google services.

Contacts and Calendar
You get out of the box sync with Google Contacts and Google Calendar on your Android device. Most of the third party contacts and calendar applications support integration to them as well. To get the most out of your Google Contacts sync capability, you need to create all of your contacts not on your phone or SIM but in your Google account. In this way you'll also get web access to them through Contacts stand alone page in your Google account. Any change in one will be synced to the other.

I assume you already know about Google Docs. In the early years of Android you had to rely on a mobile version of a web site to access your documents on your Android device but last year an Android app was released which does a good job for managing and updating your documents on the go. Documents, Contacts and Calendar are examples of what I expect from my Android device in terms of cloud services and I wish I could get the same quality in other areas as well but unfortunately that's not the case most of time. Please read on.

Well I know that you can create notes in Google Docs, but if I have given it a separate title it's because of this amazing application called Evernote. Evernote focuses on being very quick and handy in all of its application for taking any kind of note such as text, audio, image, or a scrap of a web page. These capabilities have made it a very useful and totally different solution to Google Docs. It has a feature-full web application, rich clients for Windows and Mac  and quality apps for Android and iOS.

Picasa Web Albums (soon to be called Google Photos) has been Google's photos solutions for years and has been popular among many. It has a web UI and PC client. Since Android 2.1+ Google has added a feature called "Sync with Picasa Web Album" which is accessible through Android settings. It's supposed to keep the gallery on your phone in sync with Picasa Web Albums. Some people including me have problems with this feature. If that's the case for you too, you can use applications like Gallery 3D or Just Pictures to sync your photos with Picasa. You can also use the Instant Photo Upload feature of Google+ app. You can manage your photos and albums from Google Mobile Web Picasa on your mobile but there is no official Picasa Android app from Google but Picazza is a simple and basic third party option. Interestingly, there is an official Picasa Web Albums app for iPhone but none for Android. Seems like Google discriminates against Android users in favour of apple users!

I personally don't see the point in keeping my music collection in the cloud. As storage in portable music players is getting cheaper and cheaper these days I don't know why you'd want to stay dependent on your net connection to access your music archive. If it's just about having a backup, an online file storage would be enough. Anyway if you want to have your music collection in the cloud then you should know that Google's music solution is called Music Beta and it's in beta version (surprised?) and only available in the US at the moment. If you live there you also have the option of using Amazon's new service called Cloud Drive otherwise mSpot Music sounds like a good option. Of course all of these services have Android apps.

File Storage
GDrive was a dream that never came true as expected, instead it turned out to be just 1GB of free space in Google Docs for files not converted to one of Google Docs formats. A far cry from what you can get from 3rd party providers. DropBox and SugarSync are two amazing and really useful cloud storage providers with free plans and solid Android apps. I like SugarSync's app better because it also gives you folder Sync on your phone, something that DropBox app fails to do. There are other differences between the two services as well and most people prefer one over the other but I don't think there is any harm in using both unless you want to go for the paid version of one.

Browser Bookmarks
At the moment most websites don't have a proper mobile version and among those that do few of them manage to provide the same URL for the same content on mobile and desktop browsers. For example the URL for the home page of mobile version of BBC website is (http://www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/i/) and if you enter the normal URL on your mobile browser you don't even get redirected to the mobile version (at least I didn't) but if you hit this link from tripadvisor web site either on your mobile or your desktop browser you will see the page in proper format based on the browser you use. So maybe it's still too soon to keep our mobile browser and desktop browser bookmarks in the same place, but even if you are happy to keep your mobile browser bookmarks separately in the cloud, Android default browser does not give much (and it's a crap browser anyway). What you could create is an account in Dolphin browser (my favorite) and it will keep your bookmarks synced across all devices that use Dolphin. If you want to keep all of your bookmarks in the same place somewhere in the cloud then you are in trouble! Google Bookmarks is Google's old solution for keeping bookmarks in the cloud, but Google hates it most! When Chrome browser was released it disappointed many by its lack of Google Bookmarks integration. The same story happened with the release of Android. I couldn't find any app/solution which syncs Android or a third party browser's bookmarks with Google Bookmarks or any other cloud bookmarking services like Delicious or Diigo (which are much better than Google Bookmarks anyway!). The most you get is the ability to add a bookmark to the cloud by 'sharing' the URL with a 3rd party app on your phone (too much to do for a lazy person like me) and accessing your cloud bookmarks through a separate app (come on!) But if you are not-lazy enough to go this path (in which case I'm sorry for you) Power Note by Diigo and Andricious for Delicious are good options.

Map Bookmarks
I'm not really sure if this could be categorized as a cloud service but Google My Places is a little nice feature of Google maps that could save a lot of hassle. It's very simple and all you have to do is tick the little star on any location's pop-up window on your browser and it will be quickly accessible by Google map through menu->My places.

So only 3 out of 8 cloud areas discussed, (contacts & calendar, documents and Map bookmarks) are really all set without any help from 3rd party applications/services, while for the rest of them you probably have to install a third party app and/or create and maintain some extra accounts which is of course an extra effort.

It seems the future will be cloud and the technology war over it has just started. Here is a comparison of what Google provides compared to the other two giant competitors. Apple iOS5 is not released yet and I've never been a Windows Live user so please correct me if you see something that's not correct):

Google Android App Microsoft Widnoes Live Apple (iOS5) My 3rd Party Choice for Android Comments
Contacts & Calendar Contacts Stock Contacts & Calendar apps Office Web Apps iCloud Business Calendar if you want more features
Documents Google Docs Google Docs Office Web Apps iWork -
Notes - - Microsoft OneNote - Evernote
Photos Picasa - Gallery Photo Stream Gallery 3D , Just Pictures Could use Android Gallery Integration & G+ Instant upload
Music Music Beta Music Beta - iTunes mSpot Music / SugarSync Google Music is beta and only available to US users
Files - - SkyDirve + Mesh - DropBox / SugarSync
Bookmarks Google Bookmarks - Live Mesh iCloud Andricious / Power Note

Well as you can see, if Google wants to win this war it will have a lot to do to catch up with the other competitors. The first basic things that come to mind are:
  1. Fill the gaps properly and free the Android users from 3rd party apps like a quick notes solution, a file sync/storage solution, integration of Google Bookmarks with Android (and Chrome in case you've forgotten!) and of course a Picasa Android app.
  2. Release the final version of music solution to all users globally.
  3. A better marketing campaign. All the services should be put under the same umbrella and given a shared (generous!) space and managed from the same area on the web. They need consistent PC clients and Android apps. It will make them easier to manage, easier to understand for average users and more appealing to use
  4. Last but not the least, don't forget about Linux users please!