Drag and drop app development from Mozilla

zteopenOne of the things we get asked about all the time, whether from artists, community groups or bigger organisations is how to develop apps for mobile.

Usually the answer has to be ‘pay someone to do it’ – even though this can be an expensive process.

There are some do it yourself options – the App Inventor for Android from MIT springs to mind – but it’s fair I think to say that they still aren’t terribly easy to use, and of course in the case of App Inventor, your projects will only work on the Android platform.

Mozilla – the cool folks behind the Firefox web browser amongst other great projects – might just have another option in the works. It’s part of their development of FireFox OS, a competitor to Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. In other words, a smartphone operating system.

The unique thing about FireFox OS is it’s use of web apps rather than native apps. What this means is that instead of having apps that are written specifically for one platform, whether that be iOS or Android or whatever, these apps work through the web, and so can be accessed on any device.

This also means that no one company can control what apps you decide to put on your phone or tablet – as they are all accessed via the web, the user is completely in control.

Mozilla is also aiming this work at emerging markets – in other words, they aren’t necessarily out to steal Apple’s crown. Instead they want to bring the power of mobile computing to those areas of the world where tradition feature phones dominate.

One early example of this endeavour is the ZTE Open, a phone running FireFox OS. You can buy one, completely unlocked, here on ebay for just ¬£60. I have one, and it’s fair to say it won’t be impacting on sales of the iPhone 5s any time soon. It’s closer to the low range Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace range. However, as a cheap, effective and open entry point to smartphones, it’s an interesting device and it will be fascinating to watch how other manufacturers decide to use Firefox OS.

So, how to make apps for this environment? Mozilla is working on that too, with Appmaker. This is at a very early stage in its development, but you can have a play with it. It gives you a drag and drop style interface to build web apps, and seems really easy to use, and could put the power of app development into the hands of pretty much anyone.

Of course, tools like this make developing apps easy, but I suspect developing great apps is still just as hard!

Here’s a video explaining more.

Dumb Store

Apparently, not everyone has a smartphone! News to me.

Anyway, the Dumb Store is potentially very exciting, I think. Apps for ‘dumb’ phones – ie those that have limited ability to access the internet and the web.

They can be interacted with by sending SMS messages or making voice calls.

The SMS option is most interesting as it turns your message into a command line of sorts. So, for the Google Maps directions app, you text something like:

dir High Street, Peterborough to Letsbe Avenue, Dundee

and you then get a text back with the directions. Neato!

Apps are written in Ruby, apparently. Still, a potential step forward for making web services more accessible to folk without the latest mobile kit!

Galaxy Nexus

So, a couple of weeks ago I had an accident* and my iPhone broke for good. I needed a replacement, which gave me a good opportunity to assess the options.

It came down to the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus. I opted for the latter, for reasons I will explain. However, if someone were to ask me which is the best phone, I’d still say it’s the iPhone, hands down. But for my particular circumstances, the Nexus suited me.

So, why choose the Galaxy Nexus (GN from now on)? First of all, it’s the latest flagship phone from Google, designed to show off the Android platform at its best. It’s made by Samsung but to Google’s specification, and also features the latest version of Android, called Ice Cream Sandwich, unadulterated by any other crud that carriers or manufacturers like to install on Android phones.

I’m a heavy Google user, we use it for Kind of Digital’s email and calendaring, etc, and the integration with Android is excellent. The Gmail app on the GN is far better than the iPhone’s default mail app (certainly if you are a Gmail user, anyway). As email is by far and away the most used app on my phone, this is pretty important!

One of the other considerations was cost. I generally prefer to pay for my phones up front rather than get a subsidised phone via contract. By getting an unlocked, sim-free phone, I can shop around and get a better deal for me. I usually manage to make this pay for itself within a year. I managed to get the GN for a smidgeon under £400 Рwhich is considerably less than an new unlocked iPhone 4S would cost.

In terms of apps, the Android platform is still way behind the Apple ecosystem. The market place, now called ‘Google Play’ – perhaps because of the emergence of other market places for Android – is still full of junk, and it’s too hard to find the good stuff. Also quite a few cool apps just aren’t available for Android yet, which is a real shame.

However, for my needs, the main ones are all there. There’s a NatWest app for banking, a rail enquiries app, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Remember the Milk for to do lists, and so on. Pretty much everything I really need is in there.

Some thoughts on having used the phone for a few days:

  • It’s *just* too big. My hand aches if I use it one handed for any length of time
  • It’s thin – but almost too thin. I do worry I might break it
  • It’s light – the iPhone 4 and 4S have real heft. Despite its size, you often forget the GN is in your pocket
  • It’s the best keyboard I’ve ever used on an Android device, by which I mean it’s actually possible to use it without going insane
  • It has a really useful widget on the home screen that lets me switch things like wifi, GPS and 3g on and off as I need them without having to mess around in the settings – dead handy
  • I need to figure out how to get my iTunes library onto it so I can stop carrying my iPod around too

Overall, I’d say that the iPhone is the best handset you can get right now. As much as I like my GN, it’s not as nice to use as an iPhone and it lacks the app ecosystem. However, for my personal circumstances – particularly my reliance on Google’s platform – the GN works pretty well and I’m happy enough with it.

Dan wrote up his views on his Galaxy Nexus on his blog.

* I threw it really hard at the floor after having failed to send a text for the 16th time. I can therefore categorically state that I am worse off financially due to being digitally excluded.

Playing with QR codes

I’ve been looking into QR codes recently – yes, I know, I’m somewhat behind the times – as part of some research I’m doing into how digital engagement can help in planning.

For the uninitiated, QR codes are square barcode-esque looking things, that when scanned, contain data such as a web address or indeed any other text string.

Though there are other ways of accessing QR codes, most people can do it using their smartphones, through an app that uses the phone camera. The app I use on my iPhone is Quickmark – there’s an Android version too.

(This strikes me as being a bit of a barrier to QR code usage, to be honest. Why can’t it be built into phones from the get go? Having to download an app – even a free one – will exclude a lot of people.)

Here’s an example of how I’m using them as a way of helping people get in touch with me. I’ve created a QR code that links to a site I have created with all my contact detail on it.

Here’s the QR code:

Contact Dave

The site it points people to is one I have created using Tumblr – this is because Tumblr automatically generates a nice mobile friendly look and feel if a smartphone is being used to access it – which is most people as I won’t be promoting it other than with the QR code.

I’ve just ordered myself some new business cards, which have the QR code on them – it’ll save people the hassle of typing my phone number in, if nothing else!

QR codes and planning

Anyway, what does this have to do with planning? Well, at LocalGovCamp in Birmingham the other week, there was a lot of talk of using QR codes on planning notices.

The way this works is that on the planning notices – usually attached to lamp posts and similar – people could read about the planning application and then scan the QR code into their phone, which would then bounce them onto the consultation site where they could air their views.

This seems quite a nice easy way of getting people to contribute. However, I suspect that getting people to the consultation site is the easy bit – you’ve also got to make sure that people can easily get involved once they get there.

So, if your planning consultation platform doesn’t play nicely with mobiles, then the whole QR code thing is probably a waste of time. You need to make sure also that what you are asking people to do is simple and suitable for mobile interfaces – making people read long documents or answer hundreds of questions won’t work either!

So, as usual, QR codes aren’t a solution – but I suspect they ought to become part of the answer.

More notes on mobile apps and government

I still haven’t really got my head around mobile apps and their use for government services. However, James Coltham¬†wrote up some excellent notes from a meeting up in Scotland on the subject recently:

There is definitely a groundswell of interest, though, as well as a growing demand from the public, making for interesting times for anyone involved in making sure their services are ready to go mobile.

I wrote a few bits down last August, and if I’m honest my position hasn’t much changed from:

  1. Platform neutral mobile friendly websites are probably a better bet in an age of austerity
  2. App development is probably a job for the private sector, but I’m not convinced there’s an actual market (ie would people pay for an app to access government services?)
  3. Any app that would work for more than one organisation will need open data in a common format which doesn’t yet exist, though it might do soon (LinkedGov, KnowledgeHub, etc)

Also, what are the sorts of things people will want to do with councils or other public services on their phones? I suppose there are two elements to this:

  • Those things you might want which are suited more to a mobile device than anything else: ie, I need this information now, and here. Bus timetables are a good example, perhaps, or something else that can use location data.
  • Everything else, but delivered to a phone because that either where the owner prefers to access information and services, or because it’s their only way of accessing information and services

I think the second point is probably key to winning the argument for whether government organisations should seriously explore delivery via mobile devices. If we come to a point where a lot of people don’t bother with PCs because their phones do want they need them to, then that’s where the focus of electronic delivery probably should be pointed.

In other words, what does e-government look like in a post-PC era?