Thursday, December 29, 2011

Buying a Smartphone

Smartphones are spreading like wild fire these days.  What was once a novelty for a few is now mainstream with over 1/2 of new cellular phone purchases being smartphones.  Right now there are 4 main competitors in the smartphone platform space: Android, iOS, Blackberry, and Windows.  By far the dominant players are Android and iOS.  Android is the number one in activation rate and is now dominating the market. 

I happen to be one of those Android fans.  I bought the first Droid the day it was out on the market.  I have since upgraded to a Droid 3 but I have 2 Bionics and a Droid 2 in the family as well.  To be honest my first week with Droid 1 was disappointing in some ways. It had Android 2.0 which did not support voice dialing over Bluetooth, one of my critical requirements.  I have Bluetooth in all of my cars.  I also use the Bluetooth A2DP music streaming.  That first week when I found out about these missing features, I was shocked.  I was planning to return the device until a friend convinced me that the software was still quite new and these features would be added very soon.  Of course he was right.  By the release of Android 2.2, my features were all there, and then some.

As I said I use Bluetooth hands free and stereo streaming (A2DP) in my cars.  I use the voice dialing and voice commands so I keep the device in my pocket at all times when driving.  There were a few issues with doing this on most devices including Android.  The A2DP stream is attenuated via the volume.  This is needed on some devices as they don't always have their own volume controls.  However, in the car, the Bluetooth car systems need the stream to not be attenuated so the volume can instead be controlled by the car stereo system.  To fix this issue I wrote my first Android application called A2DP Volume.  It is free on Android Market and is open source (http://code.google.com/p/a2dpvolume/).  I am a hobby programmer.  I had a year of C/C++ in college as well as FORTRAN.  I dabble with C# and now Java for Android.  After programming in C#, Java is very simple to learn.  There are many similarities.

 Some have asked when this app will be available for iOS.  The answer to this is never, and here's why.   In order to develop for iOS I would need to learn Apple's special programming language, buy an Apple PC, and acquire an Apple device to test it on.  This would cost about $3k according to experts.  Then I would have to pay $100 per year so I could publish to the Apple App Store, which is the only way to distribute iOS apps.  In the end, I would not get any use from it, since I use Android and all my PCs are Windows based.  The problem with Apple is they tend to force you to use only their products and services.  Their business model is about making a profit from hardware and services so they charge accordingly for it.  Because they don't sell their OS to anyone else, you must buy their hardware and use only their services.  If you decide to go with the Apple ecosystem, you need all Apple stuff to work with it.  I much prefer the open source world.  As a developer, there are no unanswered questions with Android.  If I need to know how to integrate a feature with the OS, I can just look at the OS source code.  With Apple they heavily limit what a developer can see and do.  Often in these cases a little reverse engineering is needed to figure it out.

There are many other reasons I don't like Apple.  The iPhone has a tiny 3.5" screen and very limited controls.  The iPad is also smaller than many Android counterparts.  I don't like iTunes at all.  It works terribly on the PC platform.  It is more like a virus than usable software.  You have to pay to get decent voice navigation.  You are married to Apple to buy music, apps, videos, etc and you pay accordingly.  You do what Apple wants you to do, and nothing else.  The Apple video formats don't work on most devices and must be converted.  I have a Kodak camera that shoots video in .MOV format and it has been a serious pain because of this.  Never again will I buy a device that uses Apple's formats.  Apple does not even support many Bluetooth devices.  For instance, you can't get a Bluetooth OBD scan tool that works with iOS.  I can get an ELM327 based Bluetooth scan tool for my Android that costs about $25 on eBay and the basic Android software is free.  With that I can read and clear OBD codes, read powertrain data, etc.  I can't do any of that with iStuff. Want to expand memory, not with iPod, iPad, or iPhone.  No SD slot on these devices.  Battery getting weak?  Send your iPhone back to Apple to replace it, and pay what they want to charge you.  Want an extended battery? Tough luck.  How about a physical keyboard?  No luck there either. 

Smartphone users know that the real power of the device is found using apps.  Both Apple and Android have huge app stores.  However, the apps for Apple tend to cost much more.  I have only bought a couple apps for Android.  Nearly everything I want is available for free.  Not so much with Apple.  Their business model is about making money from you directly.  Google is in the advertising business.  Android is just a tool to allow more advertising.  They give everything away for free and make their money from advertisers. Because of this, Google is very open and they try to integrate with everything whereas Apple try to close out everything except Apple.  Microsoft falls right in between.  They want to be on every device.  Since Microsoft does not really make devices, they try to integrate with others.

The open source software community is highly innovative.  They develop numerous creative things we can do with our devices.  Becoming an Android developer involves downloading a free software development kit (SDK).  My favorite is Motodev Studio.  It comes complete with the Android SDK and the correct version of Eclipse.  If you want to publish to the Android Market, it will cost you a one time fee of $25.  Publishing an app is quick and easy.  You can find all the details here: http://developer.android.com/index.html

Apple was smart to push the envelope with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.  They deserve credit for doing that.  Others quickly followed that success with competing products.  Apple's answer to competition is to lawyer up and sue everyone.  OK, now it's time to step up on my soap box to whine about the patent system.

There are serious issues with the current worldwide patent system.  It is getting even worse.  The winners of this are the worlds richest companies.  The losers are us, the consumers, and individuals or small companies that invent.  Today you can patent nearly anything, locking out the competitors.  Very silly simple things are granted patents.  As an engineer this is obvious to me but it is much less obvious to most others.  For instance, the idea of being able to click on a phone number to dial it seems common sense but that is patented.  The idea to swipe across the touch screen to unlock the device is also obvious, but that too is patented.  The list goes on and on.  This year our government eliminated the need to prove there was no prior work before granting patents.  Now it is first to file.  This just made it far worse.  Microsoft now makes more money from patent royalties off of Android based phones than it does from its own mobile OS.  We as consumers pay for that.  Our money goes to one of the richest companies in the world for work given away for free.  Google spent the money to create Android (after buying the business) but Microsoft makes a profit from Google work.  It amazes me that we put up with this!  Our patent system needs a serious overhaul.  There needs to be a sanity check up front.  Here is my suggestion.  If you pose the problem that the patent solves to a group of students in the field of study (say engineers) and at least one of them solves it with the approach proposed in the patent, then it gets thrown out as common sense.  I suspect that would eliminate about 2/3's of the patents.  This would likely save consumers billions every year.  The little guy does not stand a chance.  Say you invent something and you spend the money to patent it.  Now a big company decides they want to use that patent.  They can just patent you into a box where you could never use your own patent.  Its a matter of who has the most money to lawyer up.  The big company can always outspend you and crush you like a bug.  And they will.

Back to smartphones.  Let's talk about listening to music.  You may notice that there are many devices out there that are iPod compatible.  They have a proprietary dock and connector to connect to your iStuff and control it.  Because of this you may think that you need iStuff so you can listen to your music, in which case you would be mistaken.  The wave of the future is in Bluetooth and WiFi streaming (DLNA).  Rather than purchasing a special piece of hardware, you can just get a device that supports DLNA or Bluetooth A2DP.  These are industry standards that everyone can use.  You can get a LG TV, Panasonic Blue-ray player, and a Samsung smartphone and it can all share music, video, and photos.  Then you don't need to put your device in that clunky dock.  Instead, you can take it with you and use it to control the media.  Now you can use any brand and it will work.  It even works on iStuff.  I bought an $18 Bluetooth A2DP receiver for my daughter.  It has a 3.5mm stereo jack to connect to any stereo system.  She uses it with a boom box.  Works fantastic.  I can use media from any of my Android devices and stream it to my TV using DLNA.  You can find more information on DLNA here: http://www.dlna.org/home.

If you are interested in Bluetooth music streaming I posted details of my installations on the Motorola support forum here: https://forums.motorola.com/posts/95de7ae497.  If you can't access that, I have details of the installation in our 1998 Jaguar XJR here: http://jimroal.com/cars/X308Bluetooth.pdf.  I have some more information here: http://code.google.com/p/a2dpvolume/wiki/Devices.  Some new vehicles (later models) support it already.  For instance, the Ford Sync supports it.  You can also get devices that don't require installation.  Some use a 3.5mm stereo plug so your car stereo will need to have that.  Others rebroadcast over FM.  The hard wired or integrated solutions are always the best way to go.

More to come later...
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