Dis-N-Gaged

Almost exactly seven years ago, before the launch of Apple’s iPhone and the ubiquity of the App Store, Nokia launched the N-Gage. The N-Gage was a combination mobile phone and gaming device that was intended to take on Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance.

The N-Gage (mk1 pictured below) was pretty much the first gaming phone and should really be considered a failed yet bold attempt to kick-start what is now a huge multi-billion dollar business globally. The N-Gage didn’t get the kind of success Nokia really hoped for despite the many millions invested in marketing. I actually liked this phone and did happily use it as both a phone and gaming device, although admittedly the main game I played was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater! Combining a gadget with skateboarding is a sure way to catch my eye.

Sidetalkin’

The most obvious quirk of the phone’s design was that you had to hold the thin edge of it to your head to make calls, so it looked pretty comical! (Check out http://sidetalking.com/ !) Nokia subsequently brought out the ‘N-Gage QD’ which removed the side-talking feature and added a backlight and made it a bit smaller, as well as putting the game card slot on the outside instead of inside behind the battery!

The demise of the N-Gage started back in 2005 when the N-Gage as a hardware device ceased production leaving only N-Gage as a software component on various Nokia devices. However, September last year marked the final nail in the coffin (N-Gage 2003-2009: An Obituary) of the N-Gage when it was finished off completely.

As quirky as it looked, I think the N-Gage was an interesting concept which was ahead of its time – location-based multi-player networked gaming via bluetooth or over the internet via mobile-phone networks? Back in 2003? Who would ever be able to afford the data fees that the carriers would have charged you back then?!! Nokia spent a lot of money trying to make it a success, but the timing just wasn’t right for a device with those capabilities.

Nokia are really up against the wall these days with Apple’s iOS platform and the Android platform pushing the bar in both hardware and software capabilities. Although I’m a hardcore iPhone user I used to be a very happy Nokia user, the Symbian S60 OS integrated pretty well with my Mac. Once I got an iPhone of course that all ended, but I’ve still enjoyed using my various Nokia handsets such as the N80 and N95.

Pushin’ the envelope

Nokia do seem to be trying to find their feet in this changing mobile device landscape, certainly the Nokia N8 device has some great features, especially the 12MP camera which seems to produce some pretty spectacular photography.

Innovation like Nokia’s Push project also seems to demonstrate some of the same pioneering spirit behind the N-Gage, breaking new ground by exploring the use of mobile devices as part of our physical activities – of particular interest to me are the skateboarding and snowboarding prototypes (as I said earlier, a sure way to get me interested is to combine gadgets with skateboarding!).

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of these initiatives (I’d like to get my hands on either the skate or snow prototypes to play around with them!). For now I’ll just end with saying farewell to the Nokia N-Gage!

iTunes 9 and other wonders…

Apple’s 09/09/09 Media event introduced some new things both expected and unexpected, many expected an iPod touch with a camera but instead there was an iPod nano with not only a camera but FM radio and a built-in pedometer! I was surprised about the FM radio as I never expected that to be added to an iPod. Here’s a few of the things Apple introduced today along with some thoughts / notes etc:

iPod shuffles – shiny rainbows

Now in multiple colours as well as a special edition stainless steel model. There were rumours that this tiny little iPod was going to be ditched but that didn’t happen. They also announced a new 2GB model along with shuffle-compatible third party headphones and controller peripherals. I’m not sure how much smaller you could make an iPod shuffle really. (iPod shuffle ?)

iPod nano – complete with camera

At first I didn’t think an iPod nano with a camera was that big a deal but after watching one of the video clips demoing the video features I found myself wanting one to carry around so that I could film things again. I’ve missed being able to film stuff since getting my iPhone 3G, however, there’s no way I’m buying yet another iPod so I’ll just have to look into getting an iPhone 3GS at christmas time instead! The nano’s video format is 640×480 pixel h.264 video and looks to be pretty good quality, it almost makes me wish Apple would just make a dedicated camera but I don’t think that will happen. (iPod nano ?)

iPod classic – memory bump

There’s nothing that different in store for the iPod classic, just a simple storage bump from 120GB to 160GB instead. I still like the classic iPod and the scroll wheel, it’s a great interface for accessing files. The iPhone / iPod touch’s touch screen is great but the scroll wheel is still very efficient I think. I wonder though how much time is left for these iPods? Probably still a fair bit, but once flash memory gets into at least 128GB sizes I think the iPod classic will be assigned to the history books. (iPod classic ?)

iPod touch – 64GB model and price drop

There was no rumoured iPod touch-with-camera announced, just a price drop on the existing model as well as a 64GB model announced. I think a new version with a camera is in the works, it just doesn’t make sense for the nano to have it and not the touch. Also the lineup is now 8GB, 32GB and 64GB, I’d expect to see it become 16GB, 32GB and 64GB when the new model is announced. That’s just my speculation though. Update: This press release from Apple about the new iPod touch updates paints a slightly different picture though, it indicates that the 32GB and 64GB iPod touches have the same internals as the iPhone 3GS, “The 32GB and 64GB models also include up to 50 percent faster performance and support for even better graphics with Open GL ES 2.0“. Interesting. (iPod touch ?)

iTunes 9

An expected announcement and one that took up the majority of the media event. iTunes 9 introduced a revamped interface (with it’s usual introduction of unusual / new interface aesthetics!) and a few other new features. One thing that’s disappeared though is the shopping cart feature, now you have to either add it to the also newly added Wish List feature or you have to use 1-Click purchasing! That’s a little bit scary.

There’s now also the option to share items on the store to either Facebook or Twitter, I was hoping for more integration with social networks, particularly last.fm but alas it’s not to be. One other thing I noticed is that iTunes now finally behaves like all other good Mac apps and will actually maximise when you click the maximise button! Previously this would toggle iTunes into it’s Mini Player mode, I’m really glad they’ve changed this.

Here’s a rundown of some of the new features of iTunes 9:

  • iTunes LP – Intended to introduce the digital equivalent of album covers complete with liner notes, lyric, videos etc. This is something that is long overdue, I look forward to checking out some of these. Another question though is how are these made? I’m pretty sure they won’t involve Flash but I’ll be keen to find out how they’re produced.
  • Home sharing – This basically allows you to easily share tracks between up-to five machines that you can authorise to play back songs. This seems really handy for households with more than one computer, drag and drop songs between shared libraries.
  • Redesigned iTunes Store – Improved navigation is one of the main tweaks, it now seems more like a web page with consistent navigation along the top of the window. You can also set an option in the preferences to use the full window when browsing the store, this basically gets rid of the list of options on the left hand side. It’s quite handy to get a bit more space when browsing the store.
  • iTunes Extras – Another long overdue feature! I’m not that impressed with the iTunes store’s video offerings, many movies are not available to rent until long after many other rental stores have had them. So these movies are only available to purchase, what’s more they’re a bit expensive too compared to picking them up in DVD format from somewhere like play.com or even at your local Tesco supermarket. Ok, rant over. iTunes Extras basically adds a bit more value by including the special features that you’d get on your regular (and cheaper!) DVD purchase. I’m a tiny little bit more likely to buy one now (I still probably won’t though).
  • Genius mixes – An interesting new feature, it finds songs that go well together and automatically makes mixes out of them. One thing to point out though is at first I couldn’t see where this feature was, you need to choose ‘Update Genius’ from the Store menu in iTunes in order to update and activate the feature.
  • Improved syncing – Undoubtedly one of the most sought after features by anyone who owns an iPhone or iPod touch and has a lot of applications on it, you can now organise the layout of all of your apps inside iTunes itself. It’s not quite how I’d proposed it but close ;)

iPhone OS 3.1

iPhone OS 3.1 for iPhone (and 3.1.1 for iPod touch) were announced too. It introduces a few new features that tie in with iTunes 9’s new features, nothing massively new but then again it is a point update. Amongst the various features shown on the iPhone OS software update page a couple of little tweaks caught my eye:

  • Remotely lock iPhone with a passcode via MobileMe
  • Warn when visiting fraudulent websites in Safari (anti-phishing)

Being able to lock an iPhone remotely enhances the already brilliant MobileMe feature of locating your iPhone via GPS and also remotely wiping a lost iPhone. Anti-phishing support in Mobile Safari is a great feature too, something all browsers need these days.

Anyway, enough writing about it all, I’m going to go and re-organise my iPhone apps :)

Touchgrind (A short history of skateboarding games)

Anyone who is into skateboarding and owns a games console has no doubt played at least one of the many games in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. This game defined the genre for several years and had no equal. In recent years EA’s Skate presented the first game to seriously challenge its place at the top. One of the things that set Skate apart from the Tony Hawk games was that there was a learning curve more closely resembling the real skate experience. Skate was also helped by the capabilities of next generation consoles like the Playstation 3 and the XBox 360 which offered amazing graphics.

In the area of hand-held consoles however, the Tony Hawk franchise offered the only skateboarding games for Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS. Skate was never released for either of these hand-held devices perhaps largely due to the selling point of their high-end graphics. The sequel, Skate 2, will also only be available for the PS3 and XBox 360.

Nintendo’s DS and Wii consoles represented a new approach to gaming. Instead of focusing on photo-realistic graphics like the PS3 and XBox 360 these consoles used a combination of unusual interfaces and input devices to create a unique and new gaming experience. The release of these consoles brought a slew of games making use of the DS’s two screen / stylus input and the Wii’s highly-physical Wiimote / accelerometer based controls. A follow-up title ‘Skate It’ brings the gameplay of Skate to these consoles, although it’s not so much a sequel to Skate but more of a game in its own right. ‘Skate It’ for the DS and Wii makes use of the unique controls of these consoles to offer something even more akin to the real skating. The Wii in particular offers something new with gameplay being controlled with the Wiimote, nunchuk and also the Wii Balance Board enabling game control with hands and feet.

In regards to hand-held consoles the DS is the only platform offering the mixture of unusual interface / input and the unique game play of the Skate It games, although the Tony Hawk franchise is currently regrouping and planning a new wave of games to make use of these types of unique interface so presumably this will include the DS.

However there is also one other unique gaming platform on the scene, one which has kind of slowly crept in under the radar without, intially at least, any kind of fanfare or hyped launch as a gaming platform:

Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch: a gaming platform

The iPhone and iPod touch platform offers an awesome touch screen interface allowing input such as an onscreen keyboard and finger gestures for scrolling and resizing. Since the launch of Apple’s App Store third party developers have been launching games by the thousands making the iPhone platform a hugely popular and financially successful platform for many game developers both small and large.

As I said before Apple really seemed to kind of just sneak in with the iPhone as a gaming platform, although many saw the potential of the iPhone as a platform for mobile applications I don’t think many realised just how capable the platform was especially in the area of graphics performance on such a small device.

Interestingly this isn’t the first time Apple has considered developing a gaming platform, the Pippin console had limited release back in the 90’s but was eventually shelved. Since then many people, including myself, have pondered as to whether Apple, like Microsoft, might make a new attempt to enter the gaming market.

The iPhone and iPod touch are the proof that Apple have indeed entered the gaming market, but like they have done before it is on Apple’s own terms by creating a unique platform unlike anything else on the market.

iPhone + skateboarding = Touchgrind

Ok, we’re up to date with the history lesson. As you might expect such a powerful hand-held gaming platform as the iPhone / iPod touch has some great games available for it, Super Monkey Ball, Crash Cart Bandicoot, Cro-Mag Rally to name a few. But, what about skateboarding games?

There have actually been two skateboarding games to date, the first to launch was called iSkate (iTunes Store Link) but wasn’t really much more than a proof of concept, it lacked any real game play and was poorly received (especially as people paid for it).

Touchgrind (iTunes Store link) by illusionlabs however is a different story. Built on the same basic principle of iSkate, the idea is that you see the skateboard from a top-down view and you control the board with two fingers. A combination of finger gestures allows you to flip the board in various ways. It’s a bit like playing with a virtual fingerboard, and if you’ve ever messed around with one of those you’ll know it’s hard to do tricks with your fingers!

The interface for Touchgrind is nice, you spin a skateboard wheel and choose from one of six sections on the wheel: Options, About, How To, Warm Up, Jam Session and Competition. Options lets you switch off sound effects and About gives you a link to the developer’s website. The next option gets you into the nitty gritty, How To is the first thing you need to check out when you first try out Touchgrind as it explains the concepts of how to maneuver the board and do tricks.

Warning: Learning curve ahead

I have to admit that when I first tried it I found it pretty hard, like the Skate and Skate It games I mentioned before there’s actually a fair bit of a learning curve in getting the techniques down. At first it was a bit frustrating and I ended up coming back to it a few times before it really clicked with me. That element of frustration is actually quite cool though as it’s a pretty realistic skateboarding learning curve, it’s not uncommon to experience frustration learning tricks for real!

After working your way through the How To section and you’ve managed to get to grips with the basic controls then the next section to check out is the Warm Up. This section lets you just go and cruise around, there’s a few ramps and a rail that you can try and grind. There’s not that much to skate but the point is just to get familiar with skating around, trying out the various tricks on some real obstacles as well as in the large amount of empty space around the obstacles.

It soon becomes apparent that with the top-down view that Touchgrind uses it’s quite hard to see where you’re going. Because of this there are icons that indicate what type of obstacles you are near and which direction they are in. This at least gives you some indication of what’s near you and allows you to steer in the right direction. However, it’s still a little tricky knowing exactly when you’re going to be near enough to an obstacle to jump on to it.

To help you know how near you are to obstacles there is also the ability to zoom out by clicking on the magnifying glass in the lower-right hand corner. The view then zooms out and you can see a larger area of the park, not the entire park but a larger section so you can get a better idea of what you’re trying to skate towards.

You can drag around with your finger to see all available obstacles (or in the case of the Warm Up park lots of empty space!). This certainly helps when you’re trying to line up for an obstacle, and is especially useful when trying to gauge how far away from an obstacle you are.

Warmed up? Let’s jam…

After the Warm Up section you can then move onto the Jam Session where you get to use the full skatepark with a lot more obstacles. The main object of the Jam Session is to see how high a score you can get with a single trick or combination of tricks on an obstacle, there’s no time limit so you can just skate around for as long as you want trying to get that flip-to-grind flip-out combo down perfectly!

Competition is the final section and this gives you a 100 second time limit in which to skate around and build up as many points as possible. As you get higher scores new boards are unlocked which can be selected when starting the Competition or Warm Up sections. I’ve managed to get to over 400,000 points so far but still have a way to go to get over 1,500,000 points to get the highest board! I’ll need to practice a bit more :)

Finishing off… Last run…

So, that’s my quick-ish overview of how Touchgrind works, the best thing to do though is go ahead and buy Touchgrind yourself and check it out. It’s only £2.99 from the App store but the quality of the gameplay in Touchgrind, like many of the apps in the app store, is worth more than its price tag. The developers of the game, Illusion Labs are keen to get feedback from users so try it out and tell them how you think it could be improved. I’m sure some kind of multi-player mode is likely to be added in future, playing over wifi could be an interesting experience although I’m not quite sure how that will work due to the challenges already present with the top-down UI that Touchgrind uses.

I think Touchgrind is a great example of how powerful a platform the iPhone / iPod touch is, the touch screen interface offers a completely new control interface for a skateboarding game. As yet Touchgrind doesn’t make use of the accelerometer in the iPhone / iPod touch, perhaps this could be made use of in a future version? Or perhaps in some other skateboarding game?

I’ve included a few more screenshots from the game just to give a bit more of a taste of how it looks, go ahead and check it out.


Goodbye N95, Hello iPhone

It’s been 18 months since I got my Nokia N95 and I’ve enjoyed using it, the combination of a phone with a good quality still camera and also pretty good video camera along with wifi access has been great to use.

Since getting an iPod touch last christmas it was pretty much inevitable that once my phone contract was up that I would switch to an iPhone. Although the N95’s killer app is a great camera, the array of applications for the Nokia N95 pales in comparison to what is available for the iPhone and iPod touch.

In contrast to the N95 the iPhone’s biggest weakness is its camera, much lower resolution stills and no video support at all. However, overall the iPhone is a much better device so I will live with the camera as it is and will probably keep a pay as you go sim in my N95 and still make use of it for filming and photos. The iPhone’s killer app is the fact that there are many killer apps available for it due to the success of Apple’s App Store.

When I got the N95 back in June 2007 I called it my iPhone substitute, it’s served me well but I’m enjoying using my iPhone a lot. It’s sure to be the subject of a few blog posts in the months to come.

~Rick

iPod Touch 2.2 firmware update breaks BBC iPlayer (Fixed!)

The recent 2.2 firmware update for iPhone and iPod Touch brought some great new features but also an annoying glitch, it breaks the ability to play content on the BBC’s iPod / iPhone version of the iPlayer site!!!

If you try to playback something on the iPlayer site you get a message saying "Sorry, programmes can only be accessed over a wifi connection". For some reason the BBC site thinks that I’m accessing it via a 3G connection, which isn’t allowed for the iPlayer site!

As it turns out this problem only affects iPod Touch users and not iPhone users, and the problem seems to be down to the detection script that the iPlayer site uses so it will require the BBC to make a fix to their code to resolve the issue, so hopefully it won’t take them long!

UPDATE
The problem has been fixed! Access to the iPlayer on the iPod Touch has been restored :)

New features in the iPod Touch / iPhone update

Update All in App Store iPhone firmware 2.2The update did bring some cool new features though, you can now download podcasts directly within the iTunes store application and there’s also an ‘Update All’ button in the App Store application, very useful when you’ve got a bunch of apps with updates. Safari has also had a revamp to its interface which makes better use of space by placing the search and address bars on the same line, each one expands to fill the whole line when you click into it. However, not all features are available on the iPod Touch.

No Street View in Maps for iPod Touch users

Typo in the iTunes Podcast section in iPhone Firmware 2.2One new feature that I was looking forward to checking out was Street View in the Google Maps application, but alas it turns out this is only available in the iPhone update and not the iPod Touch update. I’m not sure if this is intentional, perhaps due to the accounting differences between the iPod Touch and iPhone.

Usually when there are features added that require an additional fee for the upgrade it’s for completely new apps, not just for upgrades. Applying the same logic you’d expect to pay for the ability to download podcasts too. So I’m left wondering why Street View is missing in the iPod Touch update, maybe it’s just a mistake? There were a few other issues that got in there, such as a typo in the iTunes app Podcast section and a photo-resizing bug.

~Rick

Update:

Users with jailbroken iPod Touches have been able to turn on Street View on the iPod Touch, so I’m wondering more if this was an accidental omission in the 2.2 update.

Adobe Open Screen: Will Apple make their own Flash Player for the iPhone?

Adobe recently announced the ‘Open Screen‘ initiative which further opens up the SWF format along with the FLV / F4V video specifications along with . The Open Screen FAQ explains the core deal:

  • Removing restrictions on use of the SWF and FLV/F4V specifications
  • Publishing the device porting layer APIs for Adobe Flash Player
  • Publishing the Adobe Flash® Cast? protocol and the AMF protocol for robust data services
  • Removing licensing fees ? making next major releases of Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR for devices free

The FAQ also explains why Adobe is opening up these specifications:

Publication of an unrestricted SWF file format has long been requested by the Adobe Flash developer community. The longstanding publication of the SWF specification has fostered a vibrant ecosystem of companies and developers who create experiences with Adobe Flash technology and by removing the SWF licensing restrictions we are allowing that growing ecosystem to use the file format for any purpose, including the ability to playback SWF content

Additionally, Adobe intends to make Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR for devices free, starting with the next major releases for devices, along with publishing the device porting layer APIs. As a result of these moves, OEMs, software developers, and content owners will be able to deliver content and applications built with Adobe Flash and Adobe AIR technologies without concerns about device restrictions. By removing the licensing cost and restrictions, as well as opening up the protocols and porting layer, Adobe is making it easier for developers and partners to deliver more engaging experiences to more of their customers, and ensuring that audiences can engage with content no matter what device or medium they use.

So, with that background detail out of the way I’ll get onto my main question:

Will Apple get involved in the Open Screen project and provide support for Flash, or at least Flash video, on the iPhone / iPod Touch?

Steve Jobs was recently asked about Flash support on the iPhone by saying ?there?s this missing product in the middle?. What he was referring to is that you’ve got the full Flash Player which is very processor intensive and best suited for desktop PCs and laptops and then you’ve got the streamlined Flash Lite intended for mobile devices. Steve Jobs’ opinion is that the full version is too intense for the iPhone whilst Flash Lite lacks a lot of important functionality.

Could Apple provide at least some form of Flash support on the iPhone / iPod Touch by getting involved in Adobe’s Open Screen initiative and implementing only the parts they wish to have for Flash playback but all within the confines of the Quicktime framework itself I can see how this could fit in on regular Mac OSX as well as on the iPhone / iPod Touch too. I think it presents a really interesting possibility.

I have another reservation about Apple’s willingness to support Flash though, perhaps it’s not in Apple’s interest to further the spread of Adobe’s Flash platform? Apple certainly don’t intend to allow companies to develop runtime environments of their own for use on the iPhone / iPod Touch as the terms of the iPhone SDK specifically state:

"No interpreted code may be downloaded and used in an Application except for code that is interpreted and run by Apple?s Published APIs and builtin interpreter(s)…"

So, that certainly seems to close the door for Java, Flash, Silverlight, etc, etc. Despite this possible reason I still think it is possible that Apple could provide native support for Flash video playback, at the very least, on the iPhone / iPod Touch.

~Rick

MWSF 2008: Why is Apple charging for iPod Touch application updates?

Well Macworld San Francisco was upon us again, as usual Apple didn’t disappoint in delivering some cool things.

MacBook Air, iTunes video rentals, Apple TV V2, Time Capsule WIFI backup drive to name a few. There was also an update for applications for the iPhone and new applications for the iPod Touch. The update for the iPod Touch brings Mail, Weather, Maps, Notes and Stocks apps to iPod Touch users, however there was a slight sting in the tail for existing iPod Touch users as the update will cost you £12.99 / $20!!! Ouch.

As annoying as this is (especially as these can be had for free if you jailbreak your iPod Touch!) I’m wondering if this is not just a matter of accounting requirements on Apple’s part?

A while back Apple introduced new MacBook Pros which had support for the new 802.11n WiFi networking but which wasn’t enabled to begin with. Apple then brought out new Airport Extreme base stations which supported 802.11n, anyone who had one of the new MacBook Pros had to pay a small fee for a bit of software to enable this functionality. I wonder if the upgrade charge for the iPod Touch applications is down to the same GAAP accounting policy that was at the heart of the 802.11N WiFi enabler? It seems odd to charge existing users for this but give it free to new purchasers otherwise.

As far as the iPhone app updates are concerned they are free as the iPhone purchases are accounted in a subscription method so these kind of updates can be provided free of charge. So, good news for iPhone users but slightly annoying for people like me who have an iPod Touch!