Posts Tagged 'iphone'

The Ele-vator SmartStand

Here’s my new business card – an ‘elephant’ stand for iPhone, smartphone or PDA.


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.

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).

“I got those piggy bug mutation blues…”

The feverish media response to the recent ‘swine flu’ outbreak inspired me to make this little comedy number the other week. After posting it on YouTube, I noticed there were already a few other videos entitled ‘Swine Flu Blues’, so now I’m thinking of changing the title to ‘Piggy Bug  Blues’ instead [edit: done]. If you like it, please rate it on YouTube (you can now sign in with a Google account). Also, it’s up on (here), too – so if it makes you laugh, I’d really appreciate a ‘funny’ vote there as well – thanks. (Geeks among you may also be interested to know I made the backing track using the iPhone app ‘Band’, from MooCowMusic.)

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.

My iPhone 3g apps – initial round-up

I’m taking a busman’s holiday over lunch to write a quick round-up of some of the apps I’ve installed so far on my new iPhone 3g. Hope it’s helpful for other users bewildered by the array on offer. They’re in no particular order.


Groundbreaking ambient networking app that allows you to broadcast a mini-profile and connect/text-chat with other users physically close to you (it bleeps you). At the moment only works within a WiFi hotspot – so useful for meeting like-minded folks at conferences, clubs, coffee shops, pubs, etc. Also currently needs no central server to work, which is neat. But it’d be even better if it worked on the basis of your location whether you were using 3g or WiFi and bleeped you when you were within a specified distance of another user. Nonetheless, a pioneering app – we’ll doubtless see more stuff like this in future. [Update: Well, at least we will if Apple deigns to allow background running of apps on the iPhone with a future firmware update. This app does have a ‘run in the background’ option, but I presume this only works within WiFi hotspots, if at all (not had a chance to test it yet). To work to full potential, iFob would need to run in the background all the time – over WifI, 3g or Edge networks.  So currently it looks like other, less restrictive smartphones will prove a more fertile breeding ground for apps of this ilk.]

[Developer:, FREE]


Amazing little app that listens to a song in the background wherever you are for about 12 seconds and then identifies it for you. I tested it on some really obscure tracks and it only failed once (with Philip Jeck, an experimental noise artist). A real ‘wow factor’ about this one. Only works with recorded tracks, though, so it wouldn’t ID songs at a gig. Doesn’t work if you sing into it, either, in case you were wondering…

[Developer: Shazam Entertainment, FREE]


Checks your location and lets you see wikipedia articles relating to the area you’re in, as well as details of nearby banks, bars, pubs, cafes, convenience stores, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, takeouts and taxi firms. Nice interface and works pretty well, but it obviously bases the info on nearest town/village “as the crow flies” rather than necessarily the one you’re in. It told me I was in nearby Leytonstone instead of on the edge of Walthamstow and made its recommendations on that basis, meaning none of my local services, cafes or pubs appeared (although it did include wikipedia articles on my area). It also needs to include petrol stations. Nonetheless, should prove very useful when out and about, particularly in major cities.

[Developer: ActiveGuru, UK price £1.79]


Grabs feeds and full stories from your Google Reader account for online or offline browsing. Useful as a stop-gap until Google brings out an official Reader app or webapp, but for a paid app it should really give you more customisation/user-related options – e.g. browsing your individual feeds and letting you share/star items etc. There are other free RSS readers available if you’re not wedded to Google Reader, which would probably be a better bet in that case.

[Developer: Milo Bird, UK price £5.99]

A killer app for me. Great functionality. Free. Listen to your own or any stations over WiFi or 3g. Features track scrobbling, groups, etc. too. Top marks. Now, if only Apple would allow the iPhone to run apps in the background while you do other tasks…

{Developer:, FREE]

Tap Tap Revenge

Great little (free) beat-matching game where you have to tap or shake the iPhone in specific ways in time to various tracks.

[Developer: Gogo Apps, FREE]


Full 88-key piano on your iPhone with sustain and soft pedals and song-recording features. Uses multi-touch, so you can play chords. Difficult to scroll the keyboard while playing though, since the app only shows one octave on the screen. It’s also a little annoying that you can’t trigger two adjacent keys simultaneously by hitting the gap between them, as you could on a real piano – you have to press each with a separate finger. Otherwise very good.

[Developer: MooCowMusic, UK price £3.49]


By the same developer as Pianist, Band features a rock drumkit, bass guitar and more basic piano than Pianist. Also has a ‘Blues Bar’ with pre-programmed blues riffs, a second drumkit with pre-programmed funky rhythms and an ‘audience applause’ sound effect. You can record individual parts and merge them into a saved composition. Superb.

[Developer: MooCowMusic, UK price £5.99]


Fantastic puzzle game of the Lemmings variety, except you have to guide a stream of water droplets into a container. This is the game I’ll be playing the most. Addictive, great graphics, quirky physics, gets the grey matter working and easy to get the hang of. Some of the reviews posted in the Appstore bemoan the lack of instructions. They seem to forget the title of the game is ‘Enigmo’ – figuring out what the various tools do is all part of the challenge.

[Developer: Pangea Software, UK price £5.99]


Handy little location-based utility that remembers where you’ve parked your car (or just where you are when you press the button) and guides you back to it when you want.

[Developer: PosiMotion, UK price 59p]

BBC iPlayer (web app)

Works fine when you find something to play, but it only plays the shows that are available as streaming video on the Beeb website (a handful of the total programming on iPlayer). The interface, however, is abysmal and there’s no easy way to see a list of those programs that are available on iPhone. Only when you find and click on the programme you want will you know if you can watch it (because a little play button appears in the middle of the window if it’s available). Needs some serious work on the interface, this.

[UPDATE: I was wrong. Had a bit more of a play with this and if you click on the ‘find programmes’ button in the BBC iPlayer box it does indeed only list programmes available to view on iPlayer – it can just take a while for the play button to appear on the thumbnail. There seems to be more here than I originally thought, too – still only a fraction of the complete content, but more than is available in streaming format on the website I think. However, the interface still sucks – the prominent Google ads are very obtrusive, especially. But, heck, I know the Beeb needs all the cash it can get, and as long they keep pumping out great content I won’t moan any more about this.]

[Developer: BBC, FREE web app]

Right – lunch break over, so that’s all for now. I’ll try to augment this list later in the week, when I’ve had a bit more of a play around. Now, back to the grind…


Mortlemania is my personal blog. For my professional blog, see

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