Monday, July 4, 2011

Some light on the dark side

Previously, I tried to explain a little of why there are still Palm OS-5 die-hards out there, myself included. Now that I've begun experimenting with an iPod Touch, it's time to share some first-hand reactions to the new standard.

In reality, my trusty Treo 680 is tired. It's clunky, the online landscape has changed such that it's not compatible with so much of the action, and it's rather painfully slow at certain times when I want to do something, if it can do it at all. Then there's the relative lack of connectivity to all the things I'm doing, compared to the relative synchronicity of today's devices.

Which isn't to say it doesn't have its use. Take email, for example - if I access my gmail via the Treo browser, I can select from the 14 from addresses, depending on to whom I'm replying. With the iPod Touch? Nope, whether the built in email app or some 3rd party installed app, it always replies from my single account email address. That's pretty lame, and essentially reduces my iPod Touch to an email viewer - if I have to respond from the appropriate email address, I have to fire up my Treo and get some work done.

Be that as it may, I couldn't run Dropbox on my Treo, and it's a piece of cake on the iPod Touch. Similar for banking software. Truth be told, the functionality available via the installed app for my bank is identical to the web version I can access via Treo's browser. But, it's much more vibrant, and smoothly functioning with the iPod Touch.

Several of my professional techie friends, who run both Windows and Apple shops, will tell me that Apple hardware rules the world and Apple software sucks. Apple has an approach that renders the union of form and function among the greatest of any manufacturer of anything, ever. My son's iPod Nano is a remarkable little thing to hold and use, and the same goes for the Touch. It's a solid device, impeccably crafted, down to the finest of details at the edges, with the weight, the balance, the feel of it... I used to think my Treo looked cool, but compared to the sleek slick lines and finish of the Touch, my trusty Treo is positively stodgy.

And, beautiful as the iPod is, it's not fragile. Hand-helds must be able to endure 4ft drops with regularity (the industry standard is a 3ft drop, but more often than not I fumble it while in motion so it's dropping at a forward trajectory, not straight down). I've already dropped the iPod a couple of times, and I've had no problem with it. It's solid.

Getting the thing to work required iTunes, which I'd previously taken an oath never to install. Having no choice, I took the plunge, ensuring I paid attention to the install steps to prevent iTunes from even knowing what folder my mp3 collection is - I do not use iTunes for managing my music.

However, it's a fairly interesting environment for managing the iPod. I learned, for the first time, that iTunes backs up my iPod which, for a Palm guy, was pretty cool. I've yet to actually attempt to retrieve data from the iTunes back to the iPod, but it's more of a back up rather than a sync - there is no "desktop" where I can, for example, see my calendar or create a memo pad entry, or edit a contact's information. It's just a back up, but seems to do the job.

Now, the music player on the iPod itself is also crappy in my opinion. I find it difficult to play a set of songs without having to make a playlist, and it appears to only be able to play a list in shuffle mode. It also assumes mp3 tags are all perfect, and if they're not (as mine aren't, don't ask me why) then of course I can't select an artist and get a list of all their songs. My Treo mp3 player allowed me to see a list of songs by their file name, and my mp3 files are all named by artist and then song title, so it's easy for me to pull up a list of one artist. I've also saved my songs in genre folders, so it's easy for me to play "jazz bop" or "jazz fusion" or "R&B jazz" on my Treo. On the iPod, it's not near as easy. So, generally, I'm just not a fan of iTunes as a music tool, whether on the desktop or on the iPod.

It also showed me that not everything I install requires an internet connection. Yes, most apps require a web connection, but apps are installed on the iPod, which was news to me.

Now, I don't have a data plan with this thing. I got it from work as an introduction to the world of Apple (my boss is a Mac guy, our office hardware is Mac, so I am being assimilated and have been advised that resistance is futile). But, it does have a slick wi-fi manager, so I have full use of it from home and wherever I can pick up a signal, such as Starbucks, etc.

But, if you read that previous article on the Palm OS die-hard, you would appreciate that the different demographics inform how people interact with and use their hand-helds. And a recent situation underscores this.

Me and the boss were heading back from a meeting last week. We were down in the city, and he said "I wish I could find a gas station." Strangely, we were in an area of town where we hadn't seen one in blocks (much unlike the suburbs where just about every intersection has at least one gas station). I said to him "I've got an app on my iPod called AroundMe, but it's not connected to the web now. Give me your iPhone while you're driving, I'll install it from the app store."

Here's another example of the ease of use of the iOS ecosystem - no screwing around with .pdb files, just tap here, tap there, it's installed and ready to rock in a minute. We had AroundMe running and found a gas station approximately 661m from where we were at the time.

The thing is, I'm a Palm guy. I would expect my hand-held to be able to help me out. My boss the Mac guy was driving around on E with the gas gauge light on...and didn't think "there's got to be an app for finding a gas station when you need one." But it didn't dawn on him to deploy the tool that his iPhone really is - it took me, the Palm guy riding shotgun, to apply my Palm way of looking at things to leverage the power of the iOS ecosystem.

It drives me nuts -
  • that the system calendar won't allow me to set an appointment reminder any further in advance than two days;
  • that the system note pad does not include alarms and there's no system task list;
  • that the task lists I've installed to test don't show up in the iPod search functionality;
  • that I can't swap out a dead battery for a fresh one. When this battery is dead, I'm out of commission until I can recharge it...
etc...but we've already discussed the fact that the demographic target of the iPhone has an entirely different priority than the demographic clutching their crumbling Palm OS 5 devices like grim death. And, there are a gazillion 3rd party offerings in each category with varying degrees of sophistication.

At the end of the day, I know that Palm OS 5 functionality will die out as the online landscape continues to evolve beyond its legendary but tired capabilities. I watch movies and episodes of NewsRadio and other TV shows on Crackle or YouTube, which is very cool. YouTube is hit and miss on the Treo (mostly miss), and Crackle? Forgettabadit.

Test-driving the iPod was an attempt to grease the slope for a slide into iPhone, but I'm now thinking I'd like to see if HP webOS can deliver a decent hand-held (the Pre pebble is just not happening) and cultivate an app ecosystem. Either way, I realize there's so much going on these days that I will have to release my grip on my old Treo and move on before too long.