My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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4/16/2009

2 weeks in - a google phone review

So I was at a funeral 2 weeks ago, and feeling pretty sad and in need of distraction. Also while at the funeral, my phone broke, so the next day I went down the road and spent a good hour telling all my life and family data to the sales guy, who then signed my life off in blood for the next 18 months on this planet. Midlife crisis?

T-Mobile says it's £30 a month for a famous "Google Phone" or G1, but actually this works out at 45 for most people if you throw in the data plan (which for a G1 makes little sense without), and the 10 pound insurance the phone shop was very very into flogging to me. I declined, saying they should seek alternate revenue than insurance - I see that as a dead market in these times. They should concentrate on providing services like repair or home made application development. Much more money in that, and value to building a community of phone users around a shop etc etc... But I didn't waste too much time telling him that.

Rooting it up

After 2 weeks using this, I've found out that it really makes sense to "root" it. This is UNIX speak for gaining all the administrative privileges to the backbone of the phone - a task usually reserved for ultra geeks, but something you can also do for a fee nowadays in most phone repair shops. T-Mobile have been very nice with this so far, and it looks like rooting doesn't invalidate your warranty, unlike Apple, which has sometimes resorted to "bricking" people's iPhones when they tampered similarly with them. As various forums list - the main benefit is you can "tether" your phone to your PC - and use it's unlimited data plan instead of shelling out on a virgin media plan (yet another contract with the monthly fees devil). Another reason is that after just 4 days of downloading various free apps from the android market, my phone was packed full and complaining about lack of space. So rooting also helps here because you can then install applications on the 2GB SD card that comes with the T-Mobile package.

On the Case

Another mishap on the journey is that as we were arriving in Bristol from the funeral, my daughter had a stomach upset, all over the bus, and somewhere in there was the phone's slender sock that had also come with the t-mobile package. So it's still there somewhere, and as we cleaned the seat and gathered belongings, I somehow lost it. But a plethora of much more usable cases already exist - some simple, plastic and protective, others leather and very business-like, but few that actually fit around the phone and it's opening keyboard, protecting the big touch screen as needed, when in the hands of someone like me, who invariably will drop or mess up a phone if left long enough with it.

Film Programming

Then it was Easter, and one night I realised it was probably my only available night to actually get into some android programming. After about 3 hours faffing and reading, downloading eclipse and looking up existing android code from the various open source app projects on code.google.com, I managed to produce a Maya Deren application. All it does is show a picture, and a bit of text, and it's little more than a hello world app - although I see a vague market for it - a personalised obituary service. But in the spirit of Ms Deren and her early experiments with film, I plan to continue by using the camera preview API - a basic way of showing video and related effects on the phone, before the new version of android comes out - with much improved video recording and display capabilities.

Programming was much like modern web design and programming: the layout was held in XML files, and the programming code separate, and even the code itself, when working with the android API, is incredibly high level, making it easy to, for example, save some data to a database, take a picture from the camera or choose a colour from a colour picker and feed the result back in to a function in just a couple of lines of code. This is probably why the android application landscape today is very similar to pre-1995 java applets - where you could typically wait 15 minutes for someone's homepage to download a gnome picking it's nose.

Zombie Borg Circus

There are some brilliantly geeky applications on the market. Firstly, the ones that let you play games - I wish other people I knew had this phone so we could all go out and play Zombie Run for example - brilliantly simple: it tracks your location and some (hopefully) imaginary zombies on a google map and you have to outrun them around the town... Would be good in connection with the AK-47 App...

The creator of Audacity now works for Google, which can account for the brilliance of the ringdroid application: it can record any sound - from the phone's microphone or anything being played from inside another application. So I can record Last FM streams for example, or voice diaries/comments, and chop them up to size for use as ringtones or to export from the SD onto other media. Sadly though, no improvements have been made to this since October.

My daughter (the one with the stomach upset, much better now thanks) really likes the speaking capabilites of the phone. A linux text-to-voice library was ported to the android platform some time last year, and now there are reams of applications using it. In the one she uses, she can type a word, and it will speak it back to her. A variant does this in other languages too. This keeps her amused for many fruitful 30 minute periods, only slightly alarming when she waves it around with glee from the absurdly robotic pronounciations.


But a more advanced use of this TTL library is certainly the "The vOICe" application - I have no idea where or why this came about, but it is billed as an "augmented reality application for the visually impaired" and it converts input from the phone's camera, into sound, as well as speaking out GPS locations and other robotic data. Now I know what to choose as an eye implant if the world of City of Lost Children ever comes together or the borg have to cut back in the face of the intergalactic credit crunch. It is the single most geeky application I have ever seen in my life.

I also found so many comics. It looks like a big screen touchscreen phone may be the short form media place of choice in future. Some comics incorporate simple animations and sound to replace talk bubbles, others are just a slideshow of images scanned from print based comics, but all of them allow you to read the first issue for free, and charge you for the next one. All but one, a CC licensed remix of a Cory Doctorow story, which could be the future of CC licensed media... If anyone has a comic in mind, I'll be happy to score it with my local improvising orchestra and release it as CC for you! Enquire within: http://orchestra.cubecinema.com


Soundcasting

So where next with android? First step will be rooting it, installing the next version of it's SDK and firmware when it's (imminently) released, and then getting to work on a soundcasting application - this is so that when you are walking around and hear nice sounds you want to share (the birds in the park, your footsteps in the snow), you can stream them out to a slightly annoyed audience as you would a twitter message, but in the form of background or unintended noise only. Much more like the twitter of real birds.

Oh, one gripe with the phone. It's quite hard to actually figure out how to make calls!! A couple of times in the first week I had the phone, I couldn't get apps to close in time to make important calls, but now I'm getting the hang of the idea that you can't ever actually close applications - they just go to the background and maybe die later if the phone things they aren't doing anything useful. Also the touch screen system, whereby a different function is called if you press for a bit longer, rather than a single tap, was hard to get used to, a bit like learning to click the blue underlined words if it's your first time on the web. Battery usage varies wildly depending on what apps are running or services you are using (GPS is a good way to drain it all in an hour).

And the whole UI sometimes feels like a messily put together collection of bits and pieces - for example it should be easy for it to pick up phone numbers in any application and have a standard list of things to do with them - save to contacts, call, sms etc - but actually this kind of thing is not yet there. So let's say, for an IT person like me, it's great, and a really addictive gadget to have, but it's really not grandma-ready yet.

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