One Hundred And Sixty

When I first went to university, in 1999, I got my first mobile phone. Back then, messaging features on mobiles were a bit more simplistic than they are today.

For example, phones were only just starting to appear that could handle multi-SMS messages. For those without this feature there was a new skill to be learned.

With practice, we got to be particularly good at cutting out messages down to the requisite number of characters to fit into a single SMS: just 160 characters.

We even learned how to meaningfully split messages in our heads, with indicators (ellipses, or numbers showing message parts), to carry longer concepts. (4/19)

Even when multi-message capable phones came out (I got one in 2000), these skills were still useful. At 10p or 12p per message, you soon learned to be concise.

Nowadays, this skill has lost its value. With more and more people having “unlimited SMS” plans or enormous quantities of credits, there’s no need to be brief.

If you’ve got an iPhone, you don’t even get told how long your message is, I hear. You just keep typing. And that’s not uncommon on other kinds of handset too.

Your phone’s still splitting your message up, in the background. Putting markers in, so that other phones can understand. And these markers are human-readable.

Just in case your message is going to a phone that’s over about 12 years old, your smartphone makes sure that the markers would be understood by humans. (9/19)

So now we’ve got smartphones talking to each other in a language that humans designed to talk to one another in. Does that feel really strange to anybody else?

I looked at my phone while I wrote a message, today. I noticed that number in the corner, that indicated that my message would span 3 texts. And I didn’t care.

Why would I? It’s a vestige of an older form of communication. Someday, it’ll look as primitive as the paintings on the walls of caves, daubed by early humans.

But for now, I remember. And, somehow, the skill I learned all those years ago – a trick that’s alien to almost anybody younger than me – has a new, fresh use.

Twitter. 140 character messages. A little bit less than a text, which seems strange. Are they really trying to make us even more brief than those early phones?

The skill is still the same. Think ahead. Prune. Plan. Snip. And, if you absolutely must span several messages, make it clear to your reader so that they know.

I see a whole new generation of people learning this skill that I once learned. It’s not the same (it never will be): they don’t pay 10p every time they tweet.

But you know what? It’s just as pointless now as it was the first time around. If you want to say something, say it. If 36p is too much, risk a 10-second call!

And in the case of the Twitter generation: if your message doesn’t fit on Twitter, then it probably doesn’t belong on Twitter. I’m a 160-character-or-more man.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for the Twitterverse with its 140-character limits. But it’s nice to remember how to think in 160, just like I have in this blog post.

A New Sensation

I’ve recently gotten a new phone – a HTC Sensation running Android 2.3, and I thought I’d offer up a few thoughts on it. But first…

Hang on: what was wrong with your old phone?

Well-remembered! You’re right, of course, that last year I got a Nokia N900, and that it was the best mobile communications device I’d ever owned. I don’t care so much about a slim profile or an “app store”, but I do care about raw power and geeky hardware features, and the N900 delivers both of those in spades. I’ve had several phones that have, at the time, been the “best phone I’ve ever owned” – my 7110 and my N96 both also earned that distinction, whereas my 7610 and my C550 – the latter of which had only one redeeming feature – fell far short.

Nokia N900 with keyboard extended

Awesome though it is,  with it’s beautiful hardware keyboard, mighty processor, FM receiver and transmitter, Bluetooth and IR, etc., and completely unlocked, tamper-friendly architecture, the N900 suffers from one terrible, terrible flaw: for some reason, the engineers who built it decided to mount the Micro-B USB port (used for charging, tethering, mounting etc. the phone) not to the hard plastic case, but to the fragile inner circuit board. Allow me to illustrate:

A cross-section of a Nokia N900, showing how the USB port is mounted directly to the circuit board, and doesn't touch the hard plastic case.

Why is this a problem? Well, as Katie explained to me at the New Earth housewarming party, most of her other friends who’d had N900s had encountered a problem by now, whereby the USB cable used to charge the device eventually puts a strain on the connection between the port and the board, tearing them apart. “Nope,” I told her, “I’ve never had any such problem with mine.”

A cross-section of a Nokia N900, showing the USB port snapped off by the USB cable.

Looks like I spoke too soon, because that very week, I managed to break my N900 in exactly this way. My theory: that girl is cursed. I shall be attempting to exorcise the anti-technology demons in her the very next time I see her, possibly in some kind of ceremony involving high-voltage direct current. In any case, I found myself with a phone that I couldn’t charge.

So you replaced it?

No, of course not. My N900 remains a fantastic palmtop and a great device. It’s just got a minor problem in that it’s no longer possible to charge or “hard”-tether it to anything any more. The latter problem was an easy one to fix: a separate battery charger (I already carry a spare battery for it, so this was no hardship), bought for about £4 on eBay, made it easy to keep the device rolling. The second problem’s not so much of an issue, because I tend to do all of my synchronisation by Bluetooth and WiFi anyway. But even if these were an issue, it looks like a pretty simple job to re-solder the USB port (and epoxy it to the case, as it should have been to begin with!). I might give it a go, some day, but my current soldering iron is a little big and chunky for such fine and delicate work, and I’m a little out of practice, so I’ll save that project for another day.

The repairing of a Nokia N900 USB port

However, I’m a big believer in the idea that when the Universe wants you to have a new phone, it finds a fault with your current phone. Perhaps this is the geek equivalent of thinking that “When God closes a door, He opens a window”.

So: I’ve got myself a HTC Sensation, which narrowly beat the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc after carefully weighing up the reviews. I’d always planned that I’d try an Android device next, but I’d originally not expected to do so until Ice Cream Sandwich, later this year. But… when the Universe closes your USB Port, it opens a Gingerbread shop… right?

The New Sensation

After a few difficulties relating to my name – it turns out that my mobile phone network has recorded my name correctly in their database, and I can’t change it, but whenever I use their web-based checkout it asks me to enter a longer surname even though I don’t have a surname field to change – I finally received my new phone.

HTC Sensation seen from the back, front, and side.

The first thing one notices about this phone is that it’s fast. Blindingly fast. I’ve used a variety of Android-powered HTC devices before, as well as other modern touchscreen smartphones like the iPhone, and I’m yet to use anything that consistently ramps up high-end graphics and remains slick and responsive like this does. Its mighty dual-core 1.2GHz processor’s the cause of this, little doubt. I originally worried that battery life might be limited as a result – I don’t mind charging my phone every night, but I don’t want to have to charge it during the day too! – but it’s actually been really good. Using WiFi, GPRS, GPS, playing videos, surfing the web, and other “everyday” tasks don’t put a dent in the battery: I’ve only once seen it dip to under 10% battery remaining, and that was after 40 hours of typical use during a recent camping weekend (with no access to electricity).

It’s also been really well-designed from a usability perspective, too. Those familiar with Android would probably just start using it, but I’ve not had so much exposure to the platform and was able to come to it with completely fresh eyes. Between Android 2.3 and HTC Sense 3, there’s a nice suite of “obvious” apps, and I didn’t have any difficulty synchronising my contacts, hooking up my various email accounts, and so on. There are some really nice “smart” touches, like that the phone rings loudly if it thinks it’s in a bag or pocket, more quietly after you pick it up, and silences the ringer completely if you pick it up from a table and flip it from face-up to face-down. These simple gestural touches are a really nice bit of user interface design, and I appreciate the thought that’s gone into them.

Browsing movies for HD streaming on the HTC Sensation.

The Android Marketplace is reasonable, although I feel as though I’ve been spoiled. On the N900, if there was an application I needed, I usually already knew what it was and where I’d find it: then I’d either apt-get it, or download the source and compile it, right there on the device. For somebody who’s already perfectly confident at a *nix command-line, the N900 is fab, and it feels a little restrictive to have to find equivalent apps in a closed-source environment. It’s not that the pricing is unreasonable – most of the applications I’ve wanted have been under a quid, and all have been under £4 – it’s just that I know that there are FOSS alternatives that would have been easy to compile on my old device: I guess it’s just a transition.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of applications so-easily available as the Android Market is staggering. I’ve been filled with app ideas, but every idea I’ve had but one or two already exist and are just waiting to be installed. It’s a little like being a kid in a candy store.

It’s also taking me quite some time to get used to the way that process management works on an Android device. On Android devices, like the iPhone/iPad, returning to the home screen doesn’t (necessarily) close the application, but it might – that’s up to the developer. If it doesn’t, the application will probably be “paused” (unless it’s a media player or it’s downloading or something, then it’ll likely keep going in the background). And when you re-launch the same application, it could be simply unpausing, or perhaps it’s relaunching (in which case it may or may not restore its previous state, depending on the whim of the developer)… You see all of the keywords there: mightprobablylikelycouldperhaps. Great for most users, who don’t want to have to think about what their phone is doing in the background, but it feels like a step backwards to me: I’m used to being able to ALT-TAB between my currently-running applications, to know what’s running, when (and I can always use top and find out exactly what resources a process is eating). Putting all of this process management into the hands of developers feels to me like giving up control of my device, and it’s a challenging change to undergo. Yes: despite the openness of the platform, Android feels just a little out of my control compared to what I’m used to.

Hacker's Keyboard, my preferred keyboard layout for SSH, etc.

Switching from a physical to a virtual keyboard for the first time is a significant change, too, and it’s slowed me down quite a lot, although applications like SwiftKey X – with its incredibly intelligent personalised predictions – and Hacker’s Keyboard – which gives me back some of the keys I was “missing” – have helped to ease the transition a lot.

In summary: the HTC Sensation seems to be a fantastic device, and I’m really enjoying using it. I’ve got a few niggles to contend with, but these are all things that were destined to catch me out upon switching away from a platform as open as the N900, and they’re not severe enough to make me give up and get an N950 instead: I’m reasonably confident that I’ll come to love the Sensation and we’ll go on to be very happy together.

But will it become my latest “best phone ever”? Time will tell, I guess.

× × × × ×

Nokia N900

I’ve just got myself a new mobile phone, and I thought I’d spend a moment to gloat about some of it’s more awesome features (and mutter under my breath about a few of the things that are less-fabulous about it).

So, my new phone is a Nokia N900. You’re not likely to have seen many of these floating around, yet, because they’re new to the UK and they’re currently in somewhat short supply, but thanks to some careful negotiation I’ve gotten my clammy mits on one just a little ahead of the curve.

I’m now loathe to say what I was initially inclined to about it – that it’s quite a remarkable phone – because it’s not really a phone (although it is quite remarkable). As somebody who has always gone for smartphones with heaps of geeky features, I’ve often gone through conversations like the one in the comic, above: where somebody has said “but can it make calls?” These comments tend to come from people who want a phone that makes calls, maybe sends texts, and little else, and often this “purist” view of mobile telephony somebody gives them a strange superiority complex (or perhaps it’s just a backlash against the feature-creep of modern portable devices: who knows). As for me, I don’t care – I want all of those extra features. I couldn’t imagine any more owning a phone without – at least – a fully-featured web browser, camera, bluetooth, wifi, and the capability for me to install (and ideally develop) my own applications onto it, such as connectivity tools, an instant messenger, and so on.

A Nokia N900 on a phone call

However, the Nokia N900 is the first communicator – yes, that’s the word I’m going to use, instead – where I’ve honestly felt that the telephony features “come second”. I suppose it’s the result of the natural progression of Nokia’s Nxxx range of PDAs that this should be the case – the N900 is the first in the series to actually support use of a mobile phone network at all; at least directly. In the device’s default configuration, out-of-the-box, supposing you wanted to make a cellular call, you’d need to:

  1. Switch desktops (by “swiping” one desktop along) or access the applications menu (by tapping the on-screen button for that purpose).
  2. Tap the “Phone” icon, which by default sits in 6th place on the list. Yes, 6th.
  3. Dial the number you wanted to call.

That’s about 66% steps more than just about any other phone ever made. (okay, there’s actually a faster way, but supposing you wanted to exclusively use the touch-screen interface, the above instructions are correct) I know a lot of people who would be put off by that, but I’m not one of them: I’m well past the point where phone calls are the primary thing I use my phone for!

There’s a few things that make the Nokia N900 remarkable by comparison to the phones I’ve had before:

Touchscreen (& hidden keyboard)

Superficially, the major change to my previous phones is the addition of a touchscreen, which seems to be The Thing if you want to make a smartphone these days, thanks to Apple’s innovations in that area. Unusually, the N900 also has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The slide-out keyboard takes some getting used to, because it’s best operated by your thumbs, which isn’t the way I’m used to using a keyboad. It also makes the phone almost twice as thick as the iPhone and slightly thicker than the HTC Magic, which may be a turn-off to those who like their devices skinny (again, not something that’s ever been a concern to me).

I’m quite pleased with the touchscreen. There’s a stylus embedded in the edge of the case (this is a resistive touchscreen, not a capacitative one like the iPhone, so a stylus can be used), which can be good for clicking tiny links on web pages without zooming in, sketching, and so on, but mostly I’ve just been using my big chunky fingers and that’s worked fine. While the hardware’s multitouch-capable, the factory-installed software isn’t (more on that later), presumably to avoid a lawsuit (there are a lot of complicated patents in that area right now), but having never owned a multitouch-capable phone I don’t miss it. Instead, there’s a good deal of standardised gestures – for example, drawing a spiral in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction can be used to zoom in and out.

The keyboard noticibly lacks a tab key, norkies (angle-brackets), and a few other uncommon pieces of punctuation, which is slightly disappointing (for a geek phone!), because acessing these using the alternate method is just slightly slower than would be ideal. Perhaps these could have been supplied as “special” characters on some of the keys which have no alternate function (e.g. the cursor keys): still, it should be reasonably easy to write this kind of functionality.

Operating System & architecture

Maemo OS screenshot

A particularly unusual feature of the Nokia N900 is it’s choice of operating system. It’s not that Linux-based smartphones are particularly rare per se – after all, Google Android is Linux-powered and the iPhone OS is based on a BSD kernel – but the thinking that’s behind the N900 that is unusual. You see, the N900 gives you root as-standard. If you want to install a different Linux distribution or completely change the one that comes with the device, you can – without “jailbreaking” the device or invalidating your warranty. The standard operating system for the N900, Maemo 5, is based on Debian Linux but with Matchbox and Hildon providing the GUI. This means that the entire operating system is open-source and virtually free of patents and restrictions, and the community support is quite significant. Plus, there’s something distinctly sexy about opening up a terminal on your new phone and typing “sudo apt-get install dosbox” onto it, and a few minutes later having a fully-functional DOS emulator running in your pocket.

I suppose you have to be my kind of geek to truly appreciate that.

Fresh from the factory, the N900 comes with the usual selection of tools – phone, SMS (Nokia have finally improved their stone-age predictive text system to a modern one with support for word-completion, Markov chains, and so on), address book, web browser (based on Mozilla Firefox, and with Flash 9.6 support – there’s nothing quite like watching Flash videos on your mobile, stutter-free), etc. There’s quite a lot more reliance on the community than on other devices: for example, despite the inlusion of an FM tuner in the hardware, there’s no software to support it unless you install it yourself. As a Linux geek, that suits me down to the ground, but this isn’t a phone for everybody – it’ll never be popular and it won’t hit the mainstream in the way that the iPhone and Android-powered phones have.

Want support for Ogg Vorbis in your media player (damn right you do): just install a community-supported codec package. Same goes for video formats, whatever applications or games you want, and so on. There’s a package to readily allow plain old Debian repo packages to “just work” on it, too, without recompilation, so there’s an immense number of applications already available without even having to go near the Ovi Store, Nokia’s answer to the Android Marketplace and the Apple App Store.

The hardware

Nokia N900 with keybord extended

If you’re the kind of geek who cares, the hardware for this device is really quite spectacular. But if you’re that kind of geek, you already know where to look it up… and if you’re not, you don’t need me to repeat it. Suffice to say that the N900 is nippy and responsive even when performing intensive tasks (like simultaneously restoring archives from parity files while listening to radio repeats on iPlayer and playing 3D-accelerated video games), thanks to a generous amount of RAM and a good seperation of responsibilities between the three (yes, three) individual processor cores.

This is a geek’s device, and it comes with all kinds of surprising extras for developers to tap into. As well as Bluetooth, the tilt sensors and accelerometers (some idiot has already written an app that detects how high you can throw your N900 based on what planet you’re on and the accelerometer readings – sounds like a quick way to break your new toy, to me!), two cameras (one a 5MP one, like the high-end Nseries phones), it’s even got an infared transmitter, so you’re only a copy of LIRC away from a universal remote, too.

Thanks to last year’s industry standards agreement, the N900 uses the new “standardised” mobile phone charger, so at least you shouldn’t have to throw out your charger ever again (at least, until mobile phones start charging by induction, as standard), and you’ll always be able to charge from USB. But in a genuine bit of Nokia care, the N900 box also contains an adapter that can be used to convert any old-style or even old-old-style Nokia charger into the new standard format, which is a world of awesome (what else was I going to do with my collection of Nokia chargers?). Thanks for thinking of us, Nokia. Oh: and the environment, I guess.

And now, the things I don’t like

It’s not all rainbows and kittens, though. There’s a few things about the N900 that haven’t won all of my praise and support just yet:

  • Why do virtually all of the default apps run exclusively in either “portrait” or “landscape” mode? Some applications will automatically switch when you rotate the phone, but not all of them: personally, I like to be able to browse the web in “portrait” from time to time! I’m sure it’ll be patched soon enough, but it’s a minor annoyance for now.
  • It would have been nice to have a physical “Task Manager” button on the device, for when a full-screen application has made the standard one inaccessible (this isn’t the iPhone – this is a true multitasking machine – so being able to switch apps “fast” would be nice, like we could on Symbian). On the other hand, there’s an app for that.
  • There’s no native A2DP support, so those “next track”/”previous track” buttons on your Bluetooth headset are officially useless. Would this really have been so hard to have in the standard package? Can somebody write it, please?
  • There are a few teething bugs in the first release of the Mail For Exchange package, which I use to synchronise my address book and calendar with my online accounts, resulting in some synchronisations simply failing (although failing-safely, of course: no data was damaged). Considering that Nokia have had working code to do this for several years now, porting it and then testing the port really shouldn’t have been so difficult.

So there we have it

An official thumbs-up from me, so long as you’re a geek and don’t mind the fact that this phone is – for the next month or two, I suspect – going have have the kinds of teething problems I’ve listed above. I’ll reiterate that this isn’t a phone for a regular Joe: if you’re not going to appreciate the freedom you’ve got with a device like this, you’d be better to save your money and get a HTC Nexus One or iPhone 3GS, or hold on for a couple of months and check out the spectacular-looking Sony Ericcson XPERIA X10.

The N900 is a phone for people with balls and a passion for the most open of open-source. And it’s awesome.