Category Archives: 13721

Podcast apps on Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7 has native support for audio and video podcasts, and frankly it would totally remove the need for 3rd party podcast client apps if it didn’t require new episodes to be downloaded via the Zune software on a PC and synched to the phone. Microsoft know that people want to be able to access podcasts over the air (it has been mentioned on the Windows Phone podcast that they are looking at it as a possible future development), but until they do something about it, there is a market for app developers to do something to alleviate the frustrations of avid podcast consumers.


These are three such examples of podcast apps. I’ve used all of them for enough time to be able to share my opinions of them. One slight disclaimer: if you’re reading this very long after I’ve written it, it’s entirely likely that the applications will have been updated and the functionality changed.


 


PODCASTS!



Free
(Marketplace link)


This was the first general podcast streaming app that I found on WP7 and it’s not terrible considering it’s a free app, but it’s not wonderful either.


It certainly looks quite nice and it has some positive features like the ability to save favourite podcasts from their directory, a recently played list and a featured podcast, helping you discover new shows. Sadly that’s where the good news ends.



The included podcast directory isn’t comprehensive – there were some shows that I searched for that just weren’t present and there’s no way to add an RSS feed for a show they don’t list. I couldn’t find a way to provide feedback to request additions to the directory either; searching the web didn’t find me a website for the app or developer (admittedly I didn’t search too hard, but I shouldn’t have had to). Of the podcasts that are in the directory, some of the descriptions are out of date, and some aren’t in a format that PODCASTS! supports, so can’t be played. Add to that a lack of decent playback controls (no fast forward or rewind) and no bookmarking of your playback position when you have to leave the app, and really it’s a good job that this is a free app.


 



Podceiver 



£1.99 / $1.99
(Marketplace link)


Although this app isn’t free, it offers significant advantages over PODCASTS! which led me to pay the money and use this as a replacement.


A lot of the things that are missing from PODCASTS! are present in Podceiver. You can fast forward and rewind by swiping left or right, and when you pause it remembers your position in the podcast and even integrates with the Music & Videos hub, so you can jump right back to the same place from there (just like you can with Zune content and YouTube). The directory in Podceiver had all of the podcasts that I found missing from PODCASTS! and allows you to add an RSS feed for any that aren’t in there. It also refines your directory search as you type, which is helpful. While PODCASTS! features a single podcast, Podceiver has a list of highlighted podcasts, so it’s even better for discovery.


Nothing is perfect, however, and I have experienced a couple of instances when the phone became totally unresponsive during playback. I’ve been using the app enough to be able to say that this is very rare, and it hasn’t happened enough for me to even tell if there was some kind of pattern of behaviour on my part that caused it. While the playback controls are workable, it would be nice to have fine scrubbing control. On the subject of the player aspect of the app, it doesn’t have a horizontal display mode for audio content (the screen just goes black when you turn it), and when vertical it doesn’t make great use of the screen real estate for audio (it could display the episode notes in the space reserved for video).


It would be great to be able to cache episodes while on wifi, but again this app just does streaming – more on that later. It would also be nice to have a recently player list in the app, since items may disappear from the History in the Music & Videos hub quickly if you’re consuming media in other ways on the device. I’m really nit-picking here, but it would be nice to be able to re-order your favourites, and I know that some people will be upset that there are still ads present in the paid version (although it doesn’t bother me personally).


Something that does stick in the throat a bit is that this app suffers from Microsoft’s dodgy practice of making up exchange rates for pricing outside the USA. $1 does not, and should not equate to £1. That said, I think that the £1.99 I paid for Podceiver is perfectly reasonable, but if you want to try it out without paying that, there is a free trial that is only limited in the number of podcasts you can save as favourites (3). For the foreseeable future, this app is pinned to my home screen. 


 


TWiT



Free
(Marketplace link


There are a few apps that just support specific podcasts; they’re all a bit too niche to bother mentioning here, with the exception of Dmitry Lyalin’s app for Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network. If you’re into tech and podcasts then there’s little chance you haven’t heard of This Week In Tech or one of the other shows under the TWiT banner (Windows Weekly and Tech News Today are the other shows that I keep up with most of the time).


The TWiT app was the first app I saw (from anyone other than a big player like YouTube) that featured really nice integration into the Music & Videos hub. In fact I still think that this app does a better job of that than Podceiver because it handily overlays the episode number on the thumbnail in the recently played History. The app also has a live tile which shows the two most recently released shows on the network.


There are a couple of things that this app does in terms of playback that are better than the others too. There’s a button to skip back 30 seconds, which I’ve found very useful. For those times when you’re distracted by the phone ringing, or when you just want to check if you heard what you think you heard, this is a great feature that I think should be present on all podcast and audiobook players. Add to that the fact that the timeline doubles as a scrubbing control and I think this is as good a 3rd party media player as you’ll find on WP7 today. I’d love to be able to use it for shows outside of the TWiT network (and I’ve already said as much to Dmitry in an email).


 


Unfortunately none of these applications have playback controls as good as the built-in Zune podcast setup, but that fails to meet all the requirements as a mobile podcast client because of this annoying need to sync with the Zune desktop software. This is a smartphone, for goodness sake – it shouldn’t need to talk to a computer to be able to download a media file from a feed, and don’t get me started on the lack of international access to the Zune podcast directory!


Sadly it appears that limitations placed on developers for Windows Phone 7 mean that we aren’t going to get better than streaming for podcasts for now (although it’s rumoured that there may be better API support as early as February which would allow applications to save content locally). Ideally I’d like to see Microsoft make over-the-air support for podcasts native to the OS, but I’m not holding my breath.


The other limitation of the platform as it stands today is that you can only stream podcasts while the app is running in the foreground (with the caveat that they will continue playing behind the lock screen). Just as people cried out for 3rd party background apps on the iPhone for things like Pandora, it’s also desperately needed here. At the moment you could argue that what these apps do isn’t a whole lot better than opening a podcast’s website in the browser and launching an episode from there (which is what I was doing with ESPN Radio’s Scott Van Pelt Show, which wasn’t in the directory in PODCASTS!, but is present in Podceiver).


For now it seems that a podcast solution as neatly integrated and truly portable as Google’s Listen app on Android (which cleverly uses Google Reader as it’s back end database for feeds and tracking which episodes have been played), is a long way away.


p.s. When I wrote this, there was another dedicated podcast app in the marketplace called PodCaster which I ignored based on the reviews in the Marketplace. Some feed reader apps also claim to work as podcast clients, but I think that it’s sensible to keep your podcasts and other RSS feeds separate, not least because it would sometimes be nice to be able to listen and read at the same time, so you don’t want to tie the app up with one or the other. I don’t want to wrap this up without mentioning the NPR Listener app. It may be pretty basic, but it is a quick route to some excellent NPR audio content.

Open, Closed, Fragmented – Fun and Games in the Mobile Space

This week Apple CEO, Steve Jobs – you know, the guy famous for sending brand new iPods to the rescued Chilean miners – took advantage of having an audience for their quarterly earnings call to have a good dig at Google and their Android OS. I’ve been an Android user in a love/hate relationship with Android for a while, but I’ve also had plenty experience with iOS and I’ve been keeping a very close eye on the development of Windows Phone 7. I’ve been meaning to do an opinion piece for a while on the state of the mobile market, and a lot of it can be fairly well summed up in terms of how much I agree/disagree with what Steve said, so here’s a transcript of some of his tirade along with my commentary and further comments…


“Google loves to characterize Android as open, and iOS and iPhone as closed. We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we hear the word “open” is Windows which is available on a variety of devices. Unlike Windows, however, where most pc’s have the same user interface and run the same app, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The users will have to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same.”


I didn’t really want to start this by going off on a tangent, but I do wonder which “most of us” think of Windows as open? It’s not the people who call Android open in the sense of “open source”. In fact if Steve thinks that people are referring to Android and iOS as open and closed in some other sense, then I think he’s missed the point. Unless of course we’re talking about open and closed in terms of getting apps on the platform, but that would be totally out of context.


He also talks about Windows being open in terms of being able to run the same app across PCs, yet he then goes on to talk about OEM custom skins on top of Android, which don’t affect whether apps work or not; rather how you launch them. So basically that whole paragraph is an attempt to spread FUD.


“Twitter client, Twitter Deck [actually Tweetdeck], recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than 100 different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge. Many Android apps work only on selected Android handsets running selected Android versions. And this is for handsets that have been shipped less than 12 months ago. Compare this with iPhone, where there are two versions of the software, the current and the most recent predecessor to test against.”


This is where I agree that Android fragmentation is an issue. Both of the Android handsets that I’ve used to date have had delays in getting upgrades to newer versions of the operating system because the OEM has been trying to make all their extra “value-add” crap work. I definitely know this to be true of my Dell Streak because a single amateur developer who lives 20 minutes down the road from me has managed to get a stock version of Froyo (Android 2.2) working on he device, while the might of Dell is still targeting a release sometime before the end of the year, having already screwed up an update to 2.1 that was semi-released and then scrapped.


As I write this, the Android ecosystem is populated by large numbers of devices running versions 1.6, 2.1 and 2.1 of the OS, with handfuls of other versions still kicking about as well. That can’t be helpful to developers, and the variety of hardware, even if it’s just a different screen resolution, has got to cause a lot of headaches.


Indeed the Android version of Tweetdeck (which is fully wonderful, by the way, and may be subject of another post here very shortly because I’m so impressed with it) does work fine on my Streak, provided I don’t want to use any of the homescreen widgets, which are “optimized for Android 2.1+”. The message goes on to suggest that you upgrade to a newer version, which would be good advice if it were possible.


Incidentally, I’ve just noticed that Tweetdeck say it wasn’t all that bad, but I know first hand from the consumer end, that it’s not a wonderful story.


“In addition to Google’s own app marketplace, Amazon, Horizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must search among to find the app they want and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid. This is going to be a mess for both users and developers. Contrast this with Apple’s integrated App Store, which offers users the easiest-to-use largest app store in the world, preloaded on every iPhone. Apple’s App Store has over three times as many apps as Google’s marketplace and offers developers’ one-stop shopping to get their apps to market easily and to get paid swiftly.”


Ok, so everyone and his wife are going to be running their own app marketplace. I’m not sure that I agree with His Steveness that it’s better for customers to only have one place to go. I don’t think it’s necessarily better for developers too. It’s undoubtedly better for Apple, but that’s not the same thing.


Part of the reason that the smartphone market is so exciting right now is that there is genuine competition. It’s not good enough to sit on a successful platform anymore, because as Microsoft found out with Windows Mobile, you’ll soon become irrelevant. I’m not suggesting that competition in app marketplaces will necessarily drive innovation as much as it does in mobile hardware and software – a shopping process can only be refined to a certain point – but what it can do is drive down the price that the consumer pays, and drive up the percentage that the developer receives. I think that kind of competition would be great; I’m guessing Steve, less so.


People are used to shopping around, and on Android, where the app Market app has only just improved beyond its terrible beginnings, 3rd parties have filled the gap and spread the word about the apps. Let’s face it, I don’t imagine that music can only be successful if it’s “featured” in iTunes, and I don’t believe that being “featured” guarantees success, so there will always be room and a requirement to have something beyond that single marketplace.


Personally, if I could buy everything from Amazon, I would. But that’s just me.


“Even if Google were right, and the real issue is closed versus open, it is worthwhile to remember that open systems don’t always win. Take Microsoft’s PlaysForSure music strategy, which use the PC model, which Android uses as well, of separating the software components from the hardware components. Even Microsoft finally abandoned this open strategy in favor of copying Apple’s integrated approach with their Zune Player, unfortunately leaving their OEMs empty-handed in the process. Google flirted with this integrated approach with their Nexus One phone.”


Open systems don’t always win. Closed systems don’t always win either. Best systems don’t always win. Nor do cheapest systems always win. I don’t really know what Steve was trying to say there, unless he just saw a window of opportunity to have a dig at Microsoft too.


“In reality, we think the open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is, what’s best for the customer, fragmented versus integrated. We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day. And as you know, Apple’s provides with the integrated model so that the user isn’t forced to be the systems integrator.”


I would say that there are pros and cons to both approaches. People who want someone to hold their hand are probably better off with iOS. Android offers more rope with which people may be able to hang themselves. The fact of the matter though is that a lot of the iPhone’s biggest fans, especially the tech-savvy ones, are jailbreaking their devices to get more functionality. One of the first things that they do in fact is install another marketplace (so stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Steve!).


Windows Phone 7 is taking a more Apple-like approach (although it looks to be positioning itself somewhere between Android and iOS is a number of ways). Microsoft are restricting what developers can do with the platform in order to ensure a good experience for the user, but time and time again I see developers screaming that they don’t want to be restricted to the managed code environment that is available to write software to the device. None of the approaches keep everybody happy.


“We see tremendous value in having Apple rather than our users’ be the systems integrator. We think this is a huge strength of our approach compared to Google’s. When selling to users who want their devices to just work, we believe Integrated will triumph Fragmented every time. And we also think our developers can be more innovative if they can target a singular platform rather than a hundred variants. They can put their time into innovative new features rather than testing on hundreds of different handsets.”


Indeed. This is why I’m beginning to doubt how successful Android will ultimately be as a platform for apps, having previously thought that developers would end up choosing to write code for Android first since it will most likely have the biggest install-base. I don’t doubt that there will be more Android devices than any other mobile OS in the next 5 years, but in terms of app development, it’s not like writing for a single target.


Mind you, “singular platform” is a bit rich coming from Apple, who already have two screen resolutions on iPhones as well as the iPad which benefits from specifically targeted applications. If at some point they start having iOS apps on the Apple TV then it might not be as diverse as Android, but it’s hardly singular.


When the launch devices were announced for Windows Phone 7 I was personally a bit disappointed because they were largely all the same, and basically lacking a bit in wow-factor. It’s clear that there’s essentially a reference platform for developers to target and the device manufacturers don’t have much flexibility to delight. That’s fine, because I think the OS will be good enough, but since I wasn’t expecting it, it was a touch disappointing. (I’m still quite excited about Windows Phone 7 – more on that later.)


“So we are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as closed. And we are confident that it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as open.”


My biggest problem with the integrated approach that Apple takes, and I expect I may have some similar issues with Windows Phone 7, is that the devices are designed to be a companion piece to the computer. Or to put it another way, they aren’t fully functional without a computer. One of the good things I can say about Android is that I’ve never needed to hook it up to a PC. If it wasn’t for the fact that I sometimes transfer big files to it over USB (rather than using a separate flash drive, then I could’ve survived with only ever plugging it in to a wall socket to charge.


I know that could be considered petty, but let me put this another way – if the device is so damn smart, why the hell does it need to be hooked up to a more powerful computer for anything? A computer that needs some specific software to be installed at that. These devices are computers, and they talk quite happily to the cloud by themselves. I’ve had somebody argue to me that you don’t want to be downloading big media files straight to the phone. Over 3G, you’re right, but you can’t tell me that downloading something on a mobile device over wifi is worse than downloading it to a PC and then transferring it to the phone over USB – are you nuts?!


Changing tack, I’m very pleased to see Microsoft re-entering this fray with the availability of Windows Phone 7 just two days away here in the UK. Well it’s two days if you listen to Microsoft – people working for the mobile networks don’t seem to know. One of the reasons that the iPhone isn’t for me is that I like my device to have glanceable data, and the live tiles on Windows Phone 7 looks like it’ll suit me pretty well. There’s also the Xbox Live integration, which I’m very much looking forward to because I like that service a lot – there’s a healthy competition going on between a bunch of my friends for the highest gamerscore (or maybe that’s an unhealthy competition). I also like the Microsoft are retaining control over the updates for Windows Phone 7, and they’re already teasing the first update early in 2011. If the device makers had a free reign to do what they want with the platform, then that wouldn’t be possible, so being tied down to this extent is a good thing in my view.


If it sounds like I’m planning to jump ship from Android to Windows Mobile 7, that’s not exactly true. I got the Dell Streak with a view to keeping it as an Android tablet even if/when I got a WP7 device, so I’ll continue to use both platforms. I guess that puts me well outside of the target market for Steve’s singular platform. That doesn’t mean I hate it. It benefits all of us if all of these platforms are good.


Oh, and in other news, Nokia still make phones. Apparently.

What’s on my Android (part 1)

I regularly get people, who have recently got an Android phone, asking me what apps I’m running on my HTC Hero. Having recently done a cull of apps that I don’t use, I thought it was worth posting a list on here of what I use now, on Android 1.5, and why.


News:


News Buzz Widget
Tech Buzz Widget
Mobile Buzz Widget
Gaming Buzz Widget


- I’ll cover those four together since they’re basically the same, just with different news feeds. When I find myself with a moment to glance at the news, these widgets are really handy. I have the regular News on my main home screen and the other three off a couple of pages away. Each of these is a bit configurable in terms of the content they cover and how often they refresh; they’ll typically hold the latest 20 stories for you to browse through.


Engadget


- This is a really nice representation of the stories from Engadget.com, Engadget HD and Engadget Mobile



Digg


- The official Android app from Digg.com. To be honest it’s usually the last of the news apps that I check since I tend to get the news from Twitter rather than Digg these days (or even Digg on Twitter), but it’s not a bad app.


Social:


Facebook for Android


- The official Facebook app. It is lacking in some ways, when it just redirects you to the site, but they are actively developing it.


Seesmic for Twitter


- I’ve tried many Twitter apps over many mobile platforms and this is as good as any, and better even than many paid apps. I would like to try the official Twitter app when HTC eventually release the upgrade to Android 2.1, but that doesn’t have bit.ly API support, so I would likely stick with Seesmic anyway.


 


Skype on 3


- This has specifically been co-developed by Skype and the 3 network in the UK. It doesn’t work over wifi and may only work on the 3 network, so I don’t know how much use that might be to you if you’re on another network.


Location / Navigation / Augmented Reality:


Gowalla
Foursquare


- When I’m out and about I tend to check-in to both Gowalla and Foursquare, but as things stand Gowalla has the much nicer app and I actually prefer the service’s functionality generally. Even though I know Foursquare had a headstart and more users, of the places that I’ve travelled to, Gowalla tends to have more places added.


CoPilot Live


- This is the most expensive app that I’ve purchased for a mobile device ever, especially since I got EU and US maps. The fact that I’ve never had a problem with how much I paid for it is about as good as a recommendation gets. I’ve used this to drive around the UK and Florida, and on foot in Amsterdam and Washington State – I’ve rarely had any issues with it.


Google Maps


- Technically it came with the phone, but I’ve subsequently updated it, so it counts for this list. Again, I’m looking forward to the newer versions of Android to be able to use new features in this app, such as turn-by-turn navigation. I doubt that it would replace CoPilot, which still has the advantage of offline maps, but it may be enough for some people.


TripIt


- I don’t really go on enough trips to make it worth using TripIt, but the fact that lets me very simply add and keep track of an itinerary makes it worth having on the phone.


Aloqa
Google Places Directory


- These two apps tell you about businesses and places of interest in your vicinity. Aloqa handily lists coupons that are valid at places, like restaurants, near you too.


Layar Reality Browser
Wikitude World Browser


- These two also provide information about places and things around your current location, but do so in a snazzy augmented reality style. Impress your friends by using your phone as a heads-up display, until you walk into a lamp post.


Google Sky Map


- A work of sheer genius and a must have for any Android user. If you aren’t into astronomy, it doesn’t matter; get this free app anyway.