Archive for the 'technology' Category

Call recording crippled on Android – FIX THIS NOW Google!

I recently passed up the opportunity to wait until the end of the month and upgrade my battered iPhone 3G to Apple’s whizzy new 4G model. Instead, I opted for the similarly whizzy and well-spec’d Dell Streak, running Google’s Android operating system. While I love the iPhone’s user interface, I have become increasingly frustrated with Apple’s strategy of keeping the system so determinedly closed. I wanted a device that I could simply transfer media files to and from without having to go through a proprietary file manager like iTunes. I wanted the ability to choose which apps I wanted to run simultaneously, not a system whose creators place arbitrary limits on users and developers in a bid to maintain system performance.

But my most pressing, specific need was for a device that would allow me, if I so chose, to record any incoming or outgoing voice call and save the result as an MP3 file or similar.

As a researcher and journalist, I often need to record phone interviews in order to later produce  accurate transcripts of conversations. It ensures I don’t misquote people, am able to review complex points until I understand them fully and allows me to concentrate closely and think of intelligent questions to move the discussion on, rather than missing points as I struggle to maintain an on-the-fly written shorthand transcript. And as I increasingly seek to produce more audio content, it would be useful to be able to record certain interviews on the phone for later editing and podcasting.

So, for me, call recording functionality is essential and I have been constantly frustrated by the lack of this feature on the iPhone, or in any of its millions of available apps. Apple has refused to expose the phone’s incoming and outgoing call voice streams to application developers, and there’s no hope of any call recording app emerging until they do – or until they build it into the OS itself. My previous Symbian-based Nokia phone had no problem recording calls, and it has been a standard feature of many simpler mobile handsets for years.

I had assumed that by changing to a phone with a more open operating system – Android – produced by the world’s #1 cheerleader for open platforms – Google – my frustrations would be over. How wrong I was!

Before I opted for a Dell Streak, I made a cursory check in the Android Marketplace and saw there were several call recording apps available. Great. But when I got my device and downloaded one, it didn’t work. Tried another. That didn’t work either. “What’s up?” I thought. Had my carrier, O2, crippled the device in some way? After a few tweets back and forth with one of Dell’s people, I found that no, everything should be working fine. Try another app, he suggested. But I’d exhausted the free ones, and didn’t want to part with any cash until I knew the app would work. So I Googled – and what I found left me utterly dismayed, enraged and incredulous.

After reading (and commenting on) a long thread over at the Google Code forum I discovered that, just like the iPhone, Google Android does not have a facility for developers to access the phone’s incoming voice stream. The call recording apps available in the Android Marketplace depend on an ‘analogue kludge’ – the only way to record both sides of a call is to turn on the phone’s speakerphone at sufficient volume for the incoming caller’s voice to be picked up by the phone’s mic. Not only does this mean you can’t record conversations without broadcasting them to everyone around you, but use of the speakerphone will produce a horrible echo for the other participant in the call and, unless you are in a totally silent environment, the resultant recording will be virtually inaudible. Completely useless if, like me, you ever take calls via a headset or need to record one somewhere other than a silent, isolated room.

And it’s not as if Google is not aware of the problem – the thread mentioned above was started some 15 months ago, and there’s still no word on any resolution to the issue. Some commenters suggested legal restrictions on call recording in certain countries were to blame, but it’s perfectly legal in the UK and many other places to record calls for the purposes I described above. And, as I also pointed out, many older and less complex phones have been offering this facility for years with no problems.

So my plea to Google is – FIX THIS FAST.

Ironically, with the introduction of limited multitasking on the new iPhone 4G, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where Apple decides to permit call recording, leaving Android phones among the only ones lacking such basic functionality. And if that happens, I may well be kicking myself for switching.

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George (23m) picking up birds on an iPhone

Further to my post about the educational side benefits of my 4-year-old daughter’s iphone adventures (“If you want smart kids, show them your smartphone”), here’s a video of my 23-month-old son George identifying a variety of garden birds by their picture and call on the iPhone application Chirp.

We certainly haven’t “hot-housed” him to remember these names – after showing him the app once, he’s repeatedly asked to play with it (he’s probably done so for around 10 stints of no more than 5 minutes apiece, with me speaking the names as I let him choose and press the birds he wants to see).

Obviously, like any proud parent I’d like to think he was particularly advanced – but I also believe there’s something in the nature of this kind of fun, interactive learning which encourages even very young children to soak up knowledge.

Parental involvement and encouragement is also vital, of course, but would he learn as much from a book or flashcards? I doubt it. For a start, they don’t have the added dimension of being able to play him recordings of the birds’ calls as he looks at their pictures. He likes books, too, but at this age they don’t hold his attention for very long (he seems more interesting in ripping them up).

It’s also crucial, I believe, to allow a child to follow his or her own curiousity in a way that’s fun.  George has shown an interest in birds ever since he’s been able to point. It’s no good trying to force a young child to play with something they don’t find engaging (as evidenced by my 4-year-old Ellen’s complete refusal to play with the pointedly pedagogic ‘Phonics’ application, which may appeal to a lot of parents with its boast of compliance with UK National Curriculum guidelines, but does little to capture kids’ imaginations).

If you want smart kids, show them your smartphone

A couple of hours ago, I finished putting my four-year-old to bed. Like most kids of her age, she likes to prolong bedtime as long as possible, knowing Daddy’s a bit of a soft touch. So, after several stories and songs, she starts with the questions. Tonight’s opening gambit was: “Daddy, what does a mosquito look like?” (She’d earlier heard me say I was bitten by one the other night.) I tell her it’s a bit like a fly, only with a smaller body, longer legs and a needle for a mouth, which it uses to suck your blood. “Can I see a picture of one on your phone?” I whip out my iPhone and call up a picture of a mosquito on Google Images. “How do they bite you?” she asks.

“Would you like to see a video of a mosquito biting someone?” She squeals an excited “yes”. I pop up the YouTube app and search for ‘mosquito biting’. Sure enough, I find a video of a mosquito perched on someone’s finger biting them and then flying off. I show her, pointing out what’s happening in lurid detail and explaining in a toddler-friendly way why they do it, how you can repel them and how you can treat their bites. The Q&A continues for ten minutes or so, with me able to answer all her questions instantly with real-time multimedia accompaniment. We touch on malaria in Africa, mosquito nets, antihistamine and immunisation, at which point – curiosity satisfied for the night – she settles down.

I don’t mind being suckered into prolonging bedtime for a few minutes when she is clearly not only learning things, but more importantly learning *how* to learn things, in a way that’s both accessible and fun. She knows the difference between Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, and which on-screen icons to press to call them up, even though she cannot yet read or write. She knows I can show her a map of anywhere, instantly, and ‘fly’ over the satellite-photographed terrain of Google Earth. She knows she can look at her friends’ houses on Google Streetview and deftly navigates the 3D scenes on the phone’s touchscreen. In a few years, she will learn that she can learn even more by connecting to people all over the world on social networks such as Twitter.

Our night-time discussions over the weeks have ranged from art to astrophysics, animals to animation, geography to geopolitics, biology to ballet. She knows there’s a device in Daddy’s pocket that can show her almost anything she imagines and help satisfy any curiosity. It encourages her to ask more questions and to learn even more. Yes, she also knows she can watch ‘Charlie and Lola’ and other CBeebies favourites on BBC iPlayer, or play Disney Flying Fairies. Often I let her. Entertainment and play are equally important to a child’s mental, physical and social development as education – and, indeed, they are not mutually exclusive. But TV and computer games take their natural place among the myriad playtime diversions of painting, Play-Doh, make-believe, music, dancing, toys and rough-and-tumble with her 23-month-old brother (who, incidentally, is also able to manipulate my iPhone fairly deftly – his current favourite apps are Dice, Snozzle, MooBox and Brian Eno’s visual music generator Bloom).

There are those who think introducing such young children to computers, the Internet and mobile phones is horrific, that it somehow ‘spoils’ them, that the ‘instant gratification’ enabled by new technology is a curse of our modern age, that we are bringing up a generation of helpless, tech-fixated drones. They are mistaken. With appropriate parental guidance, the web in your pocket is your kids’ gateway to all of the world’s knowledge, achievement, creativity, aspiration and inspiration.

Will those who grow up with this technology take it for granted? Of course. We, on the other hand, should not. Because – as long as we steer children in a way that stimulates both their curiosity and confidence – today’s technology can help bring about a future where human beings are not only better informed, but better equipped to meet the huge social and environmental challenges facing the planet.

*    *     *

As a footnote, when I read earlier today that the UK Government had backtracked on proposals to teach social networking in the classroom following an outcry from the technologically illiterate and tabloid tub-thumpers, it saddened me. For without proper education and guidance, the potential of new technologies to enrich people’s lives will be realised only by the few, not the many. And *not* giving people the skills to find things out for themselves is far more likely to result in the kind of drone-like, socially disengaged population that the ill-informed Luddites rail against so passionately.

A new blog: The New Game

While I’ll continue to use Mortlemania to post my personal ramblings, odes, songs and geek musings, I’ve also  started a new, more business-focused  blog over at http://mortleman.net. “The New Game” will  explore the momentous changes we are likely to see in business and society as a consequence of the technological, economic and political shifts now under way. Those of you who believe, like me, that the successful organisations of the future will be based around open collaboration, social responsibility, honesty and  responsiveness might like to check it out.

See friends’ Facebook statuses on your Twitter timeline

(…and selectively update your own Facebook status from Twitter)


So, you have all these old mates, school chums, far-flung family members and former colleagues using Facebook who definitely don’t share your geeky proclivities. You’d like to keep up-to-date with what they’re up to, and let them know what you’re doing, but you don’t want to have to visit the godawful spam-bucket that is Facebook. You want their Facebook status updates to hit your Twitter timeline as they update (or soon after), right? And at the same time, it would be useful to be able to update your Facebook status selectively from Twitter, so (for example) Auntie Mabel can see when you’re drinking a quadruple espresso but isn’t sent into a headspin by all your unfathomable @replies, hashtags and RTs.

Well here are a couple of workarounds that will stop you needing to visit Facebook ever again (except perhaps for the odd game of Scrabble). The first lets you see your friends’ Facebook status updates (within about a half-an-hour of them updating) as separate tweets on your Twitter-friends timeline, all without compromising their privacy (or, indeed, Fb’s privacy policy). I’m sure I’m not the first to figure this out, and there are no doubt other ways to do it, but this works well for me…

1. Friends’ Facebook status updates to Twitter:

  • Log out of your usual Twitter account (henceforth called ‘yourname’) and create a new account, which we’ll call here ‘yourfbfriends’. (You will need to use a separate email address from the one you used to create your original twitter account.)
  • Go into settings and check the box ‘protect my updates’ – this will ensure your friends’ updates can only be seen by you, and not by any Bot, Dick and Spammer.
  • Upload an avatar if you want one, then save settings and log out.
  • Log into Facebook and grab the RSS feed URL of your friends’ status updates. (To find it click on the “Friends” tab – then in the left-hand navigation pane you’ll see a link to “Friends’ Status Feed” under the heading “Subscribe”.)
  • Go to www.twitterfeed.com and create a new account. (You will need an OpenID to do this. There are instructions on the site about how to obtain one, or a new one if you are already using Twitterfeed with an existing Twitter account.)
  • Enter the Twitter username and password of your newly-created yourfbfriends Twitter account.
  • Enter the Facebook Friends’ Status Feed URL into the feed box.
  • Verify the Twitter account and feed URL are valid by clicking where indicated.
  • Use the drop-down menus to set up Twitterfeed. (I get it to check the feed every 30 mins, include up to 5 items, and to show both ‘title and description’.)
  • Save settings and log out of Twitterfeed.
  • Log back in to your normal Twitter account (yourname) and request to follow the new protected account you created (yourfbfriends).
  • Log out of yourname and back into yourfbfriends.
  • Accept yourname’s request to follow yourfbfriends then log out of yourfbfriends and back into yourname.

That’s it – except remember not to accept any other requests to follow yourfbfriends. After all, you don’t want to let any casual tweet-scanning criminals know that your Auntie Mabel’s just remembered she left her front door unlocked when she left the house this morning, now do you?

2. Update your Facebook status selectively via Twitter:

This has been fairly widely covered, but I’ll run through it here again for good measure. If you tick the standard Twitter-Facebook ‘Allow Twitter to update my status…’ permission box, your Facebook status will be crudely updated by *every* tweet you send, which can be confusing and annoying for your non-geeky Facebook friends.

Instead, find and install the Facebook application Twittersync and go to the settings page. Set it up to filter your tweets as required, then it will only update your Facebook status with your selected tweets.  You can use regex if you want to get clever about it, but I simply put an ‘@’ in the “‘Filter tweets containing” box. That automatically filters out any tweets containing @replies or references to other twitter usernames. If I then want to filter out other geeky tweets, I simply make sure I stick an ‘@’ character in them somewhere.

FOWA London 2008: Ominous Undercurrents and Hopeful Horizons

FOWA London 2008

FOWA London 2008: on target?

Prior to last year’s FOWA London, I wrote a post outlining my hopes and fears for the conference. At the 2007 event, there was indeed much talk of making big bucks and not so much about big, critical ideas like open social computing. Nonetheless, there was undoubtedly a huge buzz of excitement in the air at FOWA 2007 – everyone seemed to have a sense that they were helping to forge a new web which really could change the world forever – and I came away invigorated and inspired by the creativity and entrepreneurialism on show. (It even spurred me to versify.)

This year that palpable sense of excitement was noticeably absent, but in its place emerged a more thoughtful introspection about what really matters. The need for interoperability and data portability, for example, was vocally supported by many speakers and delegates, which was good to see.

But against a backdrop of catastrophic economic news, day one’s conference sessions made barely a reference to the fact that the until-now-successful model of many Web 2.0 start-ups – bootstrap, build, be aquired – is today looking decidedly shaky. It’s hard to get excited about developing something for the investment dollars when you know those dollars are going to be in increasingly short supply. Ben Huh of icanhascheezburger.com gave the best speech of the day, on the power of community, and most attendees I spoke to thought the same. He said his success with LOLcats had completely surprised him and advised attendees to do something they were passionate about and hope it chimes with others. Simon Wardley’s was the day’s other stand-out speech, offering a comprehensive overview of the bigger picture of business innovation. (Simon also chaired the business track on both days with considerable flair.)

Day two of the conference, however, was much better overall than the first, largely due to the tone set by opening keynote speaker Tim Bray of Sun, who wisely tore up his planned speech to focus instead on the implications of the economic crisis for the Web development and start-up community. “I’m scared,” he said. “I think the future of web applications is fairly dark at the moment because the future is fairly dark…I predict some really shitty times coming at us for a while.”

shooting from the hip

Sun's Tim Bray: shooting from the hip at FOWA London 2008

Despite the initially apocolyptic tone, Bray gave some useful and hopeful pieces of advice to improve attendees’ chances of survival and happiness in the times ahead. Essentially these were:

  • Agile project development is the only way forward (there’ll be no sign off on big projects).
  • Open source software can keep the cost of projects down.
  • Get in the cloud – but be wary of supplier lock-in.
  • Become part of the conversation – engage with customers, etc, online through social networking platforms.
  • Think about the technology infrastructure needed to support the scalable, transparent system of regulatiion that’s going to be needed as a surge of regulatory pressure comes down on business and finance.
  • Legacy skills are going to be in demand – particulaly putting web front-ends on old systems.
  • iPhone, Android, etc. open up the mobile phone network to developers – presenting major opportunities.
  • Build something for yourself – follow your passion rather than trying to fill a need.
  • Stay away from VCs – they have very little of value to offer you and substantially decrease your chances of success.
  • Stop believing in technology religions and broaden your skills – e.g. developers should learn to design and designers should learn to develop – it’ll improve your job security.
  • Contribute to an open source project.
  • Contribute online – publish, comment, blog, add to Wikipedia. “If you don’t care enough to contribute to the web, why would anyone want to hire you?”
  • Network – talk to each other and build new connections, both physically and online.

After his speech, the conference seemed far more relaxed and content with itself. Okay, there may have been an element of people only finding their feet after the first day (and first-night party), but I suspect Bray was primarily responsible for the change of mood. It was as if he had finally unleashed the elephant in the room – and delegates could suddenly see themselves riding on it rather than being trampled underfoot.

* Overall, the event went extremely well, and I’ll blog more shortly about the conference, as well as the expo and social side – including live Diggnation and the post-event party. A big thank-you, too, to organiser Carsonified, who made sure the whole thing ran with an impeccable level of both technical precision and creative style.

You can see my full Flickr set of pictures from the event here (although I’ve not had time to add descriptions yet), and all my tweets from FOWA here.

If you’re at FOWA London…

…on 9th and 10th October, come and say hi if you see me.  I’ll be the balding, shaven-haired lummox with the overstuffed brown backpack, SLR round his neck, a very large black coffee balanced precariously on his knee while attempting to tweet on his iPhone (at least, for as long as the battery holds out, which it won’t unless I can grab some juice). Oh, and I’m @jimjar, if anyone wants to tweet me rather than risk having hot coffee clumsily spilled over them.

Anyway, now the move’s done and dusted, and my son George has passed through the merciless-sleep-depriving stage, I should have more time and energy for blogging/podcasting than in recent months. And I’m expecting FOWA to give me plenty to ponder and pontificate about. But what I like best about the event is that it gives me the chance to connect with lots of interesting, smart, creative, tech-savvy people brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. So don’t be shy – come and say hi. You can even have one of my cool Moo minicards (which feature, variously, my 3-year-old daughter’s “art”, a friend’s fluffy white cat in shades and Wordles of Lessig and Lennon.


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