Create an iPhone icon

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Ok, it's not as cool as this, but still. (image c/o JD Hancock on Flickr)

You know that when you add a website to the home screen on the iPhone and you get one of those nifty little icons?  Ever wondered how to create one?  Turns out it is dead simple.  Hey, if I can do it anyone can!  It only takes a few steps and, having created one myself, they do look rather nifty.  So, here’s what you do :

1) Create a 45×45 pixel PNG (my version of Photoshop doesn’t allow the creation of a PNG file so I saved it as a BMP, opened it in Paint and then saved it as a PNG file).

2) Save the file using the filename apple-touch-icon.png.

3) Drop the file in the root directory of your website.

That’s it done.  Now if you go to your site, add it to your home screen your icon should magically appear on your iPhone. Easy!

Oh, I’m not sharing mine yet as it is all part of my secret project 🙂

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Turning blogs into apps

There’s been a lot of interesting chatter on the interwebs the past couple of days about a new application for the iPhone that enables you to create an app for your website. Seeing as Ned has already provided an outline of what it does, I won’t writing something detailing the ins and outs.  However, if you are intrigued to know more, Ned summarises it as follows (it is a handy post if you do want to give it a whirl):

The way Bloapp works is that you download the Bloapp app, and then subscribe to blogs within it that have been ‘apped’. (That’s not a real word, I just invented it; I mean registered with bloapp, basically). A bit like the Stitcher radio app works. So, you can download the Bloapp app from iTunes here, and then you can subscribe to this blog either by searching for thewikiman or, more excitingly, scanning this QR code within the app itself! (By the way, if you scan this QR code outside of the app itself, it just takes you to the normal mobile version of this blog).

As someone who plays around with a lot of web tools for Voices for the Library (and someone who is keen to encourage the whole ‘go on, give it a try’ ethos), I always have a bit of interest in the latest developments and try to find ways to use them to the campaign’s advantage, so naturally I was intrigued.

However, whilst I think this is an interesting tool, I’m not sure it really adds anything.  Admittedly, I do use a variety of website type apps on my iPhone (the BBC and Guardian apps to name two) and whilst they are quite good, they are not really satisfactory for seeking out news stories.  The free version of the Guardian app doesn’t allow search which is a real pain in the backside (guess I should upgrade really!) and you can’t even search the BBC app whatsoever (I really don’t like the BBC app, it could be so much better).  And that’s before we get into the whole closed web nature of apps *shiver* (although I guess this issue isn’t really relevant to this particular development to be fair).  Perhaps there is a search functionality on the app so I guess these are kinda moot points.  But, in general, whilst I sometimes use apps as my first point of call, I usually use the browser to poke around (old skool).

That said, I’m not sure of the other advantages.  I’ve bookmarked my blog on  my phone so I can access it quickly and easily.  The mobile version of my blog is also in-keeping with the style of my website so I don’t feel I am missing out on anything there either:

Mobile version of my blog

I can also share blog posts on Twitter/Facebook etc from the site so that’s not really an issue either (but then I think most mobile sites allow that don’t they??).  I know the pointed has been made about the decline in RSS, so I guess this is something where it may have some strengths.  But, well, I am in the unconvinced camp…

This does not mean, however, that I am against libraries making use of apps, quite the opposite (and as I have said before I am all for experimentation – I work on a ‘give it a try if it doesn’t work learn from it’ perspective).  In fact, I am in the process of putting together an event which touches on how apps can be used by libraries (more on that at a later date when things are finalised).  For me, apps should take full advantage of a smartphones capabilities.  As Chad at Hidden Peanuts points out:

Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

That quote is worth including alone for the use of the word ‘doodads’.

I will definitely keep an eye on developments and, should it emerge that there is something I have overlooked or there are some interesting developments, I may well give it a try and Bloapp the Voices website.  Until then, much as it pains me to say it, the jury is out.

Photosynth for iPhone

The past couple of days I have been playing around with a new photographic application for the iPhone.  Called Photosynth, the application allows you to create ‘wraparound panoramas’ without the need for a tripod.  Developed by Microsoft (I kid you not), the application is completely free for the iPhone and I have to say I have been very impressed with the results so far (Microsoft does good shock).

To make the most of the application (ie share with friends etc) you will need to sign up for a Windows Live account (in my case, yet another account to sign up for).  Once you have signed up you can upload images to the Photosynth website and share them via Facebook (no option to share via Twitter or Flickr as yet – I would hope that the latter will enable such panoramas to be uploaded eventually via Photosynth, but given the development of Flickr it is unlikely).  So, how does it work?

Basically you simply manoeuvre your iPhone around the scenery and the application automatically takes the images.  Sometimes you need to tap the screen to capture the image, but the majority of the time it will do so automatically.  All you need to do is make sure that you capture the full scene and there are no ‘black spots’ (areas that you haven’t managed to capture will show up as black spaces on the finished panorama).

Viewfinder on Photosync

So, fairly straightforward and easy to use then.  It certainly beats trying to achieve similar results with a standard camera and a tripod.  But what about the quality of the images?

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.  As the application ‘stitches’ together the panorama I expected the finished results to be of fairly limited quality.  I was wrong, they are really rather good.  I’ve only taken a couple of panoramic shots so far, but they have certainly surpassed my expectations:

Barajas airport

Metropol Parasol

You’ll need to click on the images themselves to get the idea, but as you can see, they are fairly impressive and only took a minute or two to create.  It is certainly a useful application when attempting to capture those large open spaces that normal photos just cannot quite capture.  Sometimes a simple image cannot really give you a great sense of scale or enable the viewer to imagine what it is like to inhabit a particular space.  Personally I think panoramas are a great way of giving the viewer a sense of what it is like to stand within a particular space.  I think certainly in the case of the Metropol, a single photo of the structure would not really do it justice.

For a free piece of photographic software, Photsynth certainly comes up trumps and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone interested in photography.  It’ll certainly get plenty of usage out of me.  Now, if someone could work on sharing via Flickr I would be a very happy man.

The Best and Worst of 2010

Not content with completing a two post review of my blogging year, I thought I’d also look back and reflect on some of the good and not so good products, people, things etc of the past year.  My own little award ceremony if you like.  Although the prizes for each winner are limited to being merely mentioned.  No cash prizes or tasteful little statuettes I’m afraid.  My budget simply doesn’t stretch that far.  So, without further ado (I’ve never used that word in a blog post before and I have now done so twice in a very short space of time….who’d have thunk it?), here are my winners and losers for 2010.

Social Network of the Year – Twitter

ijclarkThere is quite a number of social networks to choose from, with Flickr, LibraryThing and Delicious being other personal favourites of mine.  However, many of the things that I have achieved this year would have been difficult if not impossible without the help of Twitter.  Yes, it has its moments of gremlins and glitches, but it has been genius in so many other ways.  So, despite the odd hiccup, Twitter is without doubt my social network of the year.

Internet Utility of the Year – Dropbox

Dropbox has been a real bonus for me.  Simple to use, it not only ensures access from any PC via the website, you can also download a Dropbox folder onto your laptop or desktop and any file added to it will be synced across your devices (including your smartphone).  So, saving a Word document on my desktop to the Dropbox folder ensures that within minutes I can also access it from a Dropbox folder on my laptop and the Dropbox application on my iPhone.  Brilliant.  The best products are quite often the ones that are clear and simple, Dropbox is no exception.

Tech Product of the Year – iPhone 4

This was up against some stiff competition when compared to other technological toys purchased in the past year, including a Sony HD TV, Blu-Ray player, FreeSat HDR box and the Kodak Zi8 compact camcorder.  Each of these have been fantastic (particularly the FreeSat box), but the iPhone 4 wins out on design, ease of use and just the sheer pleasure you get from using it.  Sure there were some issues with the aerial (which were overblown to be honest), but this does not take away from what a great piece of kit it is.  And I’m no Apple fanboy…..this is the only piece of Apple hardware I own.

It’s also worth mentioning how strong the body is.  Just a couple of days ago I accidentally dropped my iPhone from three feet onto a marble floor.  Not only did it survive, there is no visible evidence that it had even been slightly troubled by the fall.  Pretty impressive, although I won’t be allowing that little impromptu test to happen again.

Book of the Year – Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway

Moving away from techie stuff to other things (although I did read this as an ebook!), and Merchants of Doubt was undoubtedly my favourite book of 2010.  Examining the tobacco industry and the climate change deniers, Oreskes and Conway reveal how a small group of scientists close to both government and industry, ran a campaign of mis-information and ‘doubt’ to create the impression that there was no link between smoking and lung cancer and that the science around global warming is not settled.  It’s a fascinating read and demonstrates how much influence a small group of scientists who (in their eyes) are seeking to defend the capitalist system from malign influences, can have on government policy and society as a whole.  For those of you that are interested in science, government and capitalism, I would heartily recommend that you read this book.

Failing that, read The World That Never Was, another fantastic book published in 2010 and a close second to Merchants of Doubt.  Written by Alex Butterworth, The World…. examines the true story of anarchists and secret agents in the nineteenth century.  Well worth digging around for.

Album of the Year – Heligoland by Massive Attack

To be honest, there weren’t many albums that demanded my attention this year…in fact, it is fair to say that I find this increasingly common as I get older [insert sad smiley face].  However, I really enjoyed this album, particularly Paradise Circus (used as the theme tune for the brilliant Luther), and I think it is up there as one of their best.  It’s a bit odd for me as a grunge fanatic to recommend an album of electronica, but I just have so there you go.

TV Show of the Year – The Trip

Unbelievably for me (I don’t watch huge amounts of TV), there was a lot of quality TV this year.  Luther, the brilliant re-boot of Sherlock, Rev (who’d have thought a comedy about vicars that is actually funny)….all of these were great, but The Trip wins it for being utterly hilarious.  However, not only was it funny, it was also an interesting look at two characters, one happy with his lot and one struggling to come to terms with his.  There was something a bit tragic about it bubbling away under the veneer of comedy.  And, to be frank, the exchange exploring exactly when knights would have gone into battle (“To bed! For tomorrow we rise at 8.30 for 9!”)….had me in stitches.

Film of the Year –

I’m going to leave this blank for now as there are some films from 2010 I have yet to see…well, one in particular anyway…I suspect when I see it I will agree with everyone else.  It shall remain nameless for now though……..

People of the Year – Voices for the Library

Well, it had to be didn’t it?  I am, of course, excluding myself from this!  But I have to say that everyone involved in the campaign deserves a lot of credit for setting up a well supported library campaign (mentioned in The Observer no-less!) in such a short space of time –  it really is quite remarkable.  Yes, there have been hiccups along the way, but I am really proud to be associated with everyone involved in the campaign.  It has been a truly amazing experience.

Chumps of 2010 – Yahoo!

For their unforgiveable cock-up over Delicious.  Should they mess with Flickr they may well be in line for Chumps of the Decade.  What a mess.

Idiot of the Year –

I’ll leave that to your imaginations.  Shouldn’t be too difficult should it? I’ve heard he’s quite well-known in the north-east, but virtually anonymous in the south……..

Google Editions on the way…….

Could Google change the ebook market?

Now, I’m well-known for being a bit of a fan of the Sony Reader and not so keen on the Kindle.  The reason for this?  I think that all the players in the ebook market should gather around ePub as the standard format for ebooks.  Sony has certainly got onboard with this, Apple sort of have, but Amazon so far have not.  The main drawback to being a non-Kindle fan?  The price of compatible ebooks.  Sadly, well for me anyway, Amazon offers fairly good deals on ebooks (although this may come to an end with increased agency pricing – see earlier post).  Owners of Sony Readers on the other hand are stuck with slightly more expensive ebooks via Waterstone’s or WHSmiths.  Although I shouldn’t forget that ePub is also the format that library ebooks are delivered in – that’s quite important! Well, there could be some good news coming after Christmas.

It looks very likely that Google are going to announce details of their (much delayed) Google Editions service after Christmas.  From InformationWeek:

Google Editions are digital books with digital copying restrictions; they look like what’s currently offered through Google Books.

Purchasing a Google Edition will give the buyer the ability to access that book from most devices that support Web browsers and devices offered by an as yet undisclosed set of supported device partners. This marks a significant point of differentiation from Apple and Amazon, which limit purchased e-books to proprietary hardware.

In another departure from what Apple and Amazon are doing, Google is taking a federated approach, allowing Authorized Resellers to sell Google Editions through their own online book selling sites.

Pretty good news, and could almost certainly prove a serious challenge to Amazon if it takes off (Google Wave anyone??).  What makes this all the more exciting is that Google has already done a deal with Sony for its scanned Google Books, and that deal is likely to be extended to Editions too.  This means that Google Editions books may also be downloaded onto a Sony Reader, as well as iPads and iPhones.  Really good news for Sony Reader owners.

Of course, a lot can change between now and the launch, but it is an exciting prospect.  Let’s just hope it isn’t another Google flop akin to Wave.  That would be really disappointing.

Will the iPad Kill the Kindle?

So finally, after months of speculation, Apple’s iPad has finally been unveiled. Although there is much to discuss about Apple’s latest device, the aspect that is most interesting to me is its use as an ereader. What was particularly intriguing about this development was the announcement that the iPad would support the ePub format. This could have massive implications for the ebook market, and is potentially disastrous for one market player in particular.

The iPad - Apple's Kindle Killer?

I have been fairly sceptical about the Kindle for some time. On a number of occasions I have questioned the wisdom of Amazon’s decision to pursue its own format rather than embrace ePub which has quickly become the industry standard format. Whilst they have had fairly limited competition in the ebook market, they have been able to getaway with backing their own proprietary format. However, now Apple have entered the fray, Amazon’s Kindle could be in real trouble. By supporting the ePub format, Apple have left Amazon nowhere to turn. Surely no-one will seriously consider a Kindle when it doesn’t support a format that has pretty much become standard? Although speculation is a dangerous game, it seems hard to see much of a future for the Kindle unless it adopts the ePub standard as soon as possible. If it does not, it is dead. And even if it does, it could be too late. The Kindle has not been able to get a foothold in Europe due to various technological issues (Amazon’s Whispernet cannot be used in Europe). Should the iPad launch over here before the Kindle gets a proper Europe-wide release (which is pretty much a nailed on certainty), the Kindle won’t have a chance.

However, Amazon may have one thing in its locker. The one drawback with the iPad, in terms of ebooks anyway, is that users could suffer from eyestrain as it is has a backlit screen. Reading from a screen using e-ink is far more comfortable than reading from a backlit screen as it puts no strain on your eyes whatsoever, and comes close to the experience of reading a ‘real’ book. That said, more and more people seem to comfortable reading text from their iPhone/Touch. I have even heard people suggest that they will ditch their ereader in favour of reading from their iPhone. So maybe it isn’t that much of an advantage after all!

As well as sounding the death knell for the Kindle, the iPad could have a very positive impact on the ebook market as a whole. With Apple’s current strength, is it unlikely to see the cost of ebooks come down and for this new format to finally take-off? Could it be that 2010 will see real growth for ebooks? It’ll be interesting to see how things develop in the light of Apple’s foray into the ebook market.

Update

Looks like my initial excitement may not have been well founded.  Just discovered this on an Adobe blog:

It looks like Apple is continuing to impose restrictions on their devices that limit both content publishers and consumers. Unlike many other ebook readers using the ePub file format, consumers will not be able to access ePub content with Apple’s DRM technology on devices made by other manufacturers.  And without Flash support, iPad users will not be able to access the full range of web content, including over 70% of games and 75% of video on the web.

I do hope this isn’t the case.  If the iPad was to adopt an ePub standard compatible with other readers then, as I said above, we could really see the ebook market take-off.  Maybe this will change before launch, if it does not it’s not the step forward I hoped it would be.

CardStar – Embrace or Fear?

There was a lot of chatter on Twitter last week with the discovery that an application for the iPhone is offering a new way for borrowers to use their local library serviceCardStar offers users a way of carrying all their barcoded loyalty and reward cards with them without having a pocket full of plastic.  By inputting the barcode details, the application generates the appropriate barcode which can then be scanned in store……straight off your iPhone.  However, it is not only store cards that are catered for by this service, it is also possible to input a library card number and then, theoretically, present your iPhone at the library desk to take out books.

The application already lists Surrey libraries as one of the ‘merchants’, apparently in reaction to a borrower request.  Interestingly, Surrey libraries were unaware that they are listed on the application, this is because CardStar does not inform the relevant organisation that a request has been made.  This is not particularly helpful as library authorities could be listed without their consent or knowledge.  Furthermore, according to the blogger who kickstarted the flurry of Tweets, not many other libraries are aware of the service.  Of course, this presents its own problems for libraries unaware that users have requested that their library card be included on the application.  Should someone visit their local library and present their iPhone to a member of staff who is unaware of the application, there is likely to be an uncomfortable confrontation regarding the validity of the barcode.  In fact, it would appear that there have been some problems already.

@aarontay at Musings about Librarianship has already tracked down a couple of embarrasing incidents involving the application in some libraries in the US:

“Look you, next time you want to take out books bring in the actual card.  I don’t know if this is a real card.  Do you understand me?  I want the card, not the barcode.  Jesus.  begin muttering under breath and shaking head [then back to] I don’t know if this is a real card.”

and…

Do you have your library card?

Oh, yea. Sure. Here it is.

She looked at my outstretched hand with the iPod Touch and appeared unsure of what to do with the scanner in her hand. Taking a deep breath and saying a small prayer, I casually took the scanner from her hand and revealed my agenda to her.

See? I just place this scanner above the barcode displayed on the screen and….

Ummmm you can’t do that here…

No, it works! Trust me! I got it. Let me try one more time….

Excuse me, young man. People are waiting in line.

That’s not the kind of customer service that will win awards, that’s for certain.

The problem is, you can kinda understand the reactions of the staff members in these libraries.  After all, if you were presented with some new tech like this that you were previously unaware of, you would quite possibly refuse to even entertain the idea that these are valid library cards.  Besides, even if you were aware of the tech, there would still be reservations regarding security.  How can anyone know if the barcode number presented before them is genuinely the card number for the customer they are serving?  After all, it is just a case of jotting a card number down on the iPhone.  It’s no more valid than scrawling a barcode on a piece of paper and handing it over to a member of staff.  Clearly there are security concerns that have to be resolved and policies to be developed in relation to this application.  That’s not to say it is a thing that libraries (or frontline library staff) should fear.  Anything that makes the customer’s experience easier should be considered an advantage to the service.

Having said that, there is no guarantee that the application will work in all libraries anyway.  Judging by the tweets flying around on Friday last week, it was a bit hit and miss with some scanners.  It certainly seemed that those who tested the application on old scanners had more luck than those with new ones.  I tried to find out the reason for this from CardStar on Twitter, but it was more complicated than a 140 character tweet (obviously, should have worked that out myself!).  I have consequently emailed their support desk to ask for further info, so should find out why this is the case in due course¹.

Personally, I think @aarontay is spot-on with his conclusion.  It is important for libraries to be prepared for the use of this technology as any iPhone owner could stroll in with their iPhone and expect to take out their books using the CardStar application.  The most important thing is to ensure that the examples above are not repeated – that would be a disaster.

Update

1. I received a reply from CardStar explaining the situation with the hit and miss nature of scanning the iPhone.  They said:

The first thing to note is that handheld scanners (where you can direct the laser towards the phone) tend to work much better.  Because a lot of the laser light is lost when scanning from an LCD screen, the best laser scanners are the more high-powered ones (which typically correlate with “more expensive”).  We have found the most success with handheld scanners from Symbol.

They also requested that I send them the make and model of any scanners that are incompatible so they can test them in their lab.  Finally, they added:

We are actively trying to improve scanning rates in CardStar, and as we make advancements we will push them into newer versions of the software.

Looks like CardStar are aiming to be around for a while and to develop their product. Could be interesting times ahead.