The HTML 5 <video> tag and H.264

The new HTML5 standard’s most prominently mentioned new feature is undoubtedly the video tag – this tag enables all compliant browsers to play video embedded in a site with no additional plugins

The only problem? The organizations responsible for choosing a video format are undecided. In one corner is H.264, used everywhere from Blu-Ray disc to military applications due to its tremendous efficiency, and in the other is Ogg Theora.

Ogg Theora is known to be less suitable for content delivery. It requires higher bandwidth to deliver quality similar to that of H.264, which will increase infrastructure costs noticeably if universally adopted.

So why Ogg?

A common argument is patent encumbrance. H.264, while an international standard, is a creation of the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG), an organization known for their propensity to charge royalty fees to makers of DVD playback hardware and software. If the MPEG folks were to start asking for royalties from the Mozilla organization, for example, the latter would find itself in quite a dire financial position. This fear is borne out by prior attempts of large patent-holders to begin profiting from a wide deployment of their intellectual property, such as the Compuserve GIF format.

However, these past encounters with patent law also illustrate the impracticality, and indeed futility of these money making attempts. Neither GIF nor any other patented format has succeeded in exacting fees from end users or distributors of the mechanisms used to display or output these formats. MP3, a standard of the MPEG group as old as the laserdisc, remains cheap to implement.

The Motion Picture Experts Group has shown itself to be a responsible steward of international standards, reducing the concerns and possible benefits surrounding the Ogg format or other open-source codecs like it. As soon as H.264 is universally adopted, people everywhere can begin taking advantage of video as ubiquitously as they can view web pages. No plugins, no addons, no special devices, no more concern around compatibility.

Will it play anywhere? Yes. That’s a big deal, and it’s why H.264 should be accepted by everyone.

Getting poor call reception on your iPhone 3G? Turn off 3G.

Here’s a good tip for you iPhone 3G users: 3G network coverage in many parts of North America is quite poor, even though coverage maps may indicate otherwise. While 3G is the big hype, especially since the release of Apple’s 3G handset came out, its deployment in the New World (and even some parts of Europe) isn’t sufficient to support largescale use of network intensive devices like the iPhone.

So: If you’re finding really poor call quality, dropped calls and generally poor data performance on your iPhone 3G, go into Settings > General > Network and turn off 3G Networking. You may be surprised to see your bars jump up and your call quality increase.

3G may be a big deal someday in parts of the world other than Japan and California. But not today.

WordPress for iPhone

This is my first post from the iPhone. It’s been a long time in coming, and there have been several hangups.

The 2.0 iPhone firmware presented me with the App Store, and the WordPress iPhone app appeared shortly afterward. Thing is, the app crashes repeatedly when I enter my login info. Once I’ve figured out why, I’ll update this post.

Meantime, I’ve upgraded to WordPress 2.6 and am using the WPhone plugin. Working very nicely so far – it lacks the image uploading feature I wanted in the native app, but it’ll do for now.

EDIT 2008-07-25: Actually the WordPress upgrade nuked my Categories. Argh. I’m rebuilding them manually.

iPhone native apps

Evidently the intention has been to allow third party apps on the iPhone all along. This is good news – while the current selection of web apps are higher in quality and usefulness than the unofficial native apps, official support will result in some vendors stepping up and creating some good stuff (and as mentioned, a lot of other vendors stepping up and writing crap – caveat emptor).

Quoted from apple.com/hotnews/:

Third Party Applications on the iPhone

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

It will take until February to release an SDK because we’re trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc. This is no easy task. Some claim that viruses and malware are not a problem on mobile phones—this is simply not true. There have been serious viruses on other mobile phones already, including some that silently spread from phone to phone over the cell network. As our phones become more powerful, these malicious programs will become more dangerous. And since the iPhone is the most advanced phone ever, it will be a highly visible target.

Some companies are already taking action. Nokia, for example, is not allowing any applications to be loaded onto some of their newest phones unless they have a digital signature that can be traced back to a known developer. While this makes such a phone less than “totally open,” we believe it is a step in the right direction. We are working on an advanced system which will offer developers broad access to natively program the iPhone’s amazing software platform while at the same time protecting users from malicious programs.

We think a few months of patience now will be rewarded by many years of great third party applications running on safe and reliable iPhones.

Steve

P.S.: The SDK will also allow developers to create applications for iPod touch. [Oct 17, 2007]

(This’ll be the last iPhone related post, I promise).

iPhone – Part Deux

There’s been a lot of overreaction in the press regarding the latest iPhone firmware. Thankfully it’s beginning to die down as reporters are realizing they’re standing up for hackers and unlockers, and people who generally aren’t interested in supporting the corporate interests of their sponsors, but I digress.

Lots of articles were published slamming Apple for “bricking” iPhones that have been modified. The reality of the situation is quite different. Apple issued a press release announcing their concerns about third party SIM unlocks; they created unmanageable incompatibilities and issues with the firmware upgrade process. Nowhere did they say they were going to intentionally disable iPhones.

When you’re about to update your firmware, you receive a confirmation dialog with the following warning:

 

111

 

So if you managed to “brick” your iPhone with the latest firmware update, you should consider three things.

  1. You were warned about the modifications you made creating compatibility issues Apple can’t support
  2. If you know how to modify your iPhone such that you can unlock it, you should know enough to wait on updates until there are known methods of unlocking _them_ or known methods of safely updating.
  3. Your iPhone is not bricked. If you knew how to unlock the iPhone you should know how to restore it to working condition. If you don’t, you shouldn’t have tried unlocking it. Welcome to being “on your own”.

The update also removes all your custom apps. I’ve learned a couple of things about the custom apps, and have come to some conclusions about custom apps for mobile devices in general.

  • The RSS reader is useless. No documentation in the world will explain how to get it to import an RSS feed. The fact that it can’t get them out of Safari is bad enough.
  • Both the IM and IRC clients succeed only in disconnecting all the time or crashing the iPhone outright.
  • I haven’t found a practical use for the file manager, as it doesn’t do anything meaningful except let you look at the filesystem contents. You can’t use it to copy files onto or off of the device.
  • The eBook reader only takes plaintext.
  • The VNC client is useless, not sending mouse events properly or at all.
  • The UNIX and OpenSSH stuff is pretty cool and useful for exploring but that’s about it.

Basically, all the custom apps are crap so far. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as there’s no official support or documentation. But it does raise another interesting point.

Interestingly, almost all the third party apps for other mobile operating systems are crap too, even with documentation and developer support. On Windows Mobile for example, you can’t get away with installing more than maybe 3 apps before the system is so starved for resources and destabilized that you need to restore the device. I bought “Agile Messenger”, an IM client for Windows Mobile for the hefty sum of about $65 as it was the best IM client I could find, and it caused me to have to reboot Windows daily, would interrupt calls by crashing the handset, you name it. Money well wasted.

As I mentioned in my last post, Palm has nothing innovative to offer. It and all its custom apps are out of the running (though some of Palm’s custom apps were nice, considering the devices have the capabilities of a computer from the late 80’s).

Blackberry has a similarly small selection of decent software. Everyone will want to reply to this with their pet app, but remember, run your app in combination with everyone else’s pet app and your blackberry will become a brick too.

Basically, only a select few of the thousands of custom applications for every mobile device are worth using. I usually settled on 2 or 3 apps that didn’t crash my device and whose clumsiness I could put up with when I owned Palms, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices.

Not to mention, the majority of blackberry users (a large demographic of non-geek users) don’t even care about custom apps. The functionality built into the device is just fine with them (and the iPhone possesses almost all of this).

Apple has been very insistent on web apps being the preferred direction for application development on the iPhone. So far I’ve replaced 2/3 of the custom applications with web based ones and have actually gained extra functionality as a result.

So my opinion on custom apps on the iPhone is changing. It’s meant to be used with unlimited data plans, so it’s designed to be practical for use with web apps.

Man Up

This is a shout out to all you geeks and tech press editors whining that Apple bricked your iPhone. Man up, you were warned about the incompatibilities you introduced. Don’t blame Apple for a situation you created.

What, the iPhone was designed to be used with AT&T, and now that you tried to change that fundamental aspect it won’t work anywhere? Shucks. Better get to fixing that.

And to everyone (including myself a few days ago) who think the ability to install custom software is the key to the iPhone’s future success, I no longer agree. Check out some of the high-quality web apps out there before jumping to conclusions.

iPhone.

iPhone

So I got an iPhone last week, after having read enough reports of successful unlocks and an increasingly long list of custom applications. I saw one in person for the first time just prior, and was basically sold.

My current smartphone is an HTC Mogul, known in Canada as the P4000 from Telus. I evaluated the uses I put it to and set my criteria for the iPhone as simply as follows:

Can I get it to do the same things?

The list:

  1. Casual web browsing (news sites)
  2. Mail
  3. Instant Messaging
  4. Calendar sync (preferably over the Internet)
  5. Contacts sync
  6. Note taking

Along with random poking around.

Out Of The Box Impressions

Out of the box, I had to run an activation crack (which I won’t describe here, sorry folks) to get it to do anything other than insist that I connect it to iTunes. Once this was done, the iPhone accomplished #1 and 2, and 4-6 with its built-in Safari, Mail, Calendar and embedded contacts storage. There’s no support to sync calendar and contacts wirelessly, but no standard exists for this and it’s therefore not surprising. The closest extant standard is Microsoft ActiveSync, which isn’t available. For now, I’ll have to go back to syncing those items through my laptop as I had done before Windows Mobile and Exchange Server. Hopefully either Apple or a third party will develop support for this.

Aside from that one setback, the phone blows away my previous handsets. Setup was very slick. Upon syncing with iTunes, not only did it suck in my calendar, contacts, e-mail, podcasts, videos and music, it also configured the iPhone to be able to check my email accounts and imported my Safari bookmarks. The user interface is every bit as slick as the press reports – clearly a huge amount of effort was devoted to designing a user interface that would make a mobile device an easy, almost instinctive process.

Like MacOS on Apple’s desktop computers, metaphors are preserved across all applications. Flick to scroll, pinch to zoom, double tap to overview, and so on. Consistency in a user interface is as key as attractiveness, and the phone doesn’t let you down there.

The selection of third-party applications, which are developed with no support or documentation from Apple, are beautiful as they use the functionality exposed by the phone to the programmers doing this work. That means, both the apps that come with the phone and the third party ones are all of exceptionally high quality. I was able to install:

  • Multi Protocol IM
  • IRC Chat
  • RSS Feed Reader
  • File Manager
  • Wireless Network Scanner
  • VNC Client
  • eBook Reader
  • UNIX Utilities and a Shell
  • OpenSSH for remote access

And this is just a subset of the selection of apps that are available for it already.

The experience of using the device is far better than fumbling around with the blackberry wheel/ball or dealing with the widget-of-the-week, “oh crap it’s been a day I have to reset it” experience of using a Windows Mobile device, and Palm is basically out of the game as far as innovation goes.

Sound quality on calls is good. I haven’t tried it in high wind yet, that’s usually my benchmark for “really good”.

Picking Away Criticisms

A fair number of techies criticize the iPhone for perceived shortcomings. Many of the criticisms I’ve read and heard seem to stem from a lack of understanding of practical value, for example:

Camera

A common critique concerns the 2MP camera in the iPhone.

2 MegaPixels (1280×720 resolution) is a good quality camera for a phone to have, and while many naysayers point out 3.5MP cameras in competing phones, these are fresh, new additions to the market. Additionally, phone cameras remain a suboptimal method for serious photography. You won’t be capturing family memories on a mobile phone even if it had a 6MP camera. It just won’t have the capabilities of a nice dedicated Nikon.

Media Playback

DiVX and Windows Media support seem to be in huge demand, and the belief exists among many that MPEG-4 and H.264 are somehow proprietary Apple formats.

Quite the opposite. DiVX and Windows Media is a proprietary version of the MPEG-4 video codecs available in the early 2000’s, while MPEG-4 and H.264 themselves are the current worldwide standards for broadcast and digital video. These are well established technologies that quite frankly walk all over DiVX, XViD and the like in terms of quality. People should be looking at such forward looking format support and wondering why the competition doesn’t play H.264 as readily (does the Zune play H.264? I know the Xbox360 has adopted it, and the PSP has as well, how about other digital jukeboxes and smartphones though? Fragmented market at best). And can you really tell me people demand Windows Media format support? I’ve only read about that particular critique from Microsoft sponsored publications.

Flash Plugin

No smartphone has a decent flash plugin. I don’t even know why people moan about this.

No Stylus or Keyboard

The design of the user interface doesn’t require a stylus (and a stylus would slow you down anyway, as the phone expects to be used by multiple fingers, hence “multi-touch”), and the keyboard is surprisingly good. I’ve handed the phone to long-time Palm and Windows Mobile users in the past few days and they’ve been able to type on the thing so quickly it surprised them. Everyone’s different though, so your mileage may vary.

Valid Concerns

3G

A common criticism of the iPhone by the tech press and as a result the consumer base at large is the lack of 3G support. As a north American I can’t say this bothers me, as our 3G coverage is pretty poor as compared to other standards — although a handset like this would have gone far to promote 3G wireless. Now that iPhone is out in Europe that’s something they’ll need to resolve in that market.

Customizability and Provider Lock-In

This I think is the most grave concern.

All competing smartphones (and let’s be clear, the iPhone is a smartphone, in the same category with BlackBerry, Palm and Windows Mobile whether the competition admits it or not) are customizable to a greater or lesser extent. This is in contrast with competing MP3 / Media jukebox players, which are typically less customizable and require a full OS replacement if one wants to change the way it works.

However, Apple are taking the Media Jukebox route with the iPhone and have demonstrated a fair degree of disinterest in allowing third party software to run on the device. This may work for the iPod, which does 2 or 3 things well, but the iPhone is in a class of devices that customers expect can be made to do anything. Apple must change their point of view on this, and not only sanction existing third party applications without the constant threat of removal, but provide better developer tools to developers and companies who could take the iPhone to new heights.

An iPhone with ActiveSync support, even from a third party, would walk all over Research in Motion’s best BlackBerry model for business use.

All this may stem from vendor Lock-In – Apple has aligned itself with AT&T, which may well have made many stipulations in their contract regarding end-user functionality in the device. The fear may have been that the network would be overrun by high-end bandwidth usage, or something to that effect. Or, maybe AT&T’s always wanted a handset maker to bow to their demand to provide a locked down device, and maybe Apple were naive enough to have thought it wouldn’t be a big deal.

It is.

I can say with confidence that the iPhone would not be a useful device to me if I were not able to install my own applications on it, and enhance it to suit my purposes. If Apple chooses to force me to remove these applications, the iPhone will cease to be useful to me.

I and other Canadians can’t even officially buy an iPhone, as no deal has been made with a Canadian wireless provider (only one exists that supports the GSM technology used in the iPhone – our other major provider uses the older CDMA). This means I had to import the device and subsequently flash its transceiver in order to force it to allow me to use it here. I believe this is a mistake.

Selling the iPhone as an unlocked device you can pop a SIM card into and get to work would have been terrific. BlackBerry has had great success selling their device through numerous providers. There was no reason to lock in with AT&T. This can’t be changed for the next few years, but I hope Apple takes this time to take heed and free the device subsequently.

Summing Up

The iPhone is a great device for me. It does everything I need and have gotten used to from previous PDA’s and smartphones. The interactive, tactile experience of using it is discoverable even for someone who’s never used a cellphone before, and certainly easier to figure out than a MOTORAZR, BlackBerry or Pocket PC for a new user.

The iPhone is geared to the consumer market, and not really the techie or the businessman. Even so, its popularity is huge; everyone knows about them, and most people want one – not because it’s a hyped up fad, but because it does things no other device previous or contemporary has done for them. Worked simply, worked well, and surpassed expectations for functionality.

This is a message to Apple Inc.: It doesn’t have to stop here.

iPhone has potential for a dramatic upsurge in its already impressive popularity in two areas; availability on multiple cellular networks, and official sanction for third party apps. If these two things changed, iPhone would quickly dominate the cellphone/smartphone field as the iPod dominated MP3 players before it.