There’s an interesting trend in webcomics for a push onto mobile devices. I think it started with Clickwheel.com (which apparently no longer exists, hence no link), which tried to bring comics to the iPod by encoding them as short video files syndicated like a podcast. I thought this was an interesting idea, and I was even offered an opportunity to get into it on the ground flood, right when it started. However, I had a number of technical and rights management questions about the service and dragged my feet, eventually losing out on the deal and never following up on it. Given that the domain is now owned by a Norwegian ISP that apparently serves up malware, I’d say apathy may have been the right choice.
Nowadays the hot new distribution medium is to put an app on the (seemingly) ubiquitous iPhone (or its GSM-crippled sibling, the iPod Touch). Keenspot was the first place I remember seeing webcomic iPhone apps showing up, although I can’t say for certain that they started the trend. Since then, I’ve seen iPhone apps for various comics popping up here and there. The one I’ve been watching the closest has been Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary (since Howard and I follow each other on Twitter and Facebook). It’s a curious trend to be certain, and it certainly has an element of “hipness” to it. After all, the iPhone is the “it” mobile device these days. And one thing every webcartoonist wants is more eyeballs reading their comics. Certainly it makes sense to go where those eyeballs are, to reach as many potential readers as possible.
Then a thought occurred to me: No one has really asked me why there’s no GPF iPhone app. Certainly it’s a valid question, and I’m even more surprised it hasn’t been brought up yet. I know a number of you out there use iPhones, as I’ve read your comments and seen your screen shots of the GPF site in the past. So I thought about this for a while and came up with a list of reasons why we don’t have an app, then decided to document those reasons here so I can point folks to one place so I won’t have to repeat myself. I thought about putting this in the GPF News, but since it’s more of an opinion piece than a news item, it probably belongs here instead. (There will probably be links from the FAQ eventually, if nothing else.)
The primary reason there is no dedicated GPF app for the iPhone will surely come as a shock to those out there who can’t get enough of their favorite beloved Apple device. I’ve never been one for great diplomacy or delicacy, so I’m afraid I can only be my blunt, bullish, blundering self. I really hate to say this, but it has to be said:
The iPhone isn’t the last word in mobile computing.
Now, before the fan boys start picking up your torches and pitchforks, let me elaborate. I have nothing against the iPhone. In fact, at one point, I seriously considered getting one. The GPF Year Nine story “iDilemma” is actually semi-autobiographical. (GPF Premium subscribers should check out the Author’s Notes for that story to see how it diverges from real life.) In the end, it all boiled down to economics, just as it did for Nick and Ki; it was less expensive for me to buy my current Treo 700p without subsidy than for me to break my contract with my current carrier, switch to AT&T, buy the iPhone plus another phone for my wife, and so on. While I passed on the device itself, several of my coworkers at my day job have iPhones, so I can pretty much get access to one to play with any time I wish. Thus I’m familiar enough with how it works and all the whiz-bang spiffiness it purports to have. I know a thing or two about what it does right, what it does wrong, and how it’s revolutionized the mobile computing or “smartphone” industry.
That said, the iPhone’s 30+ million units pales in comparison to the number of BlackBerry devices in circulation. The iPhone represents one device, one platform, on one network. BlackBerries are available in many form factors from almost every wireless carrier. On top of that, Android is a rapidly-growing platform; while it hasn’t yet matched the numbers of the iPhone, like the BlackBerry it comes in many flavors from many manufacturers and can be found on almost every network. It won’t be long before Android phones overtake iPhones in number by mere aggregation of disparate devices. And while some folks dismiss Palm as a has-been in the market, the Pre and the Pixi are selling modestly and may represent a comeback for the company. (Don’t forget the many of us who, ahem, still use good ol’ Palm OS, myself included, despite its age.) No matter how much we’d all wish it just went away, Windows Mobile still exists and people are still suckered into buying phones with it installed. And all of this ignores the biggest player of all in the field: Symbian, which runs about half of all mobile phones in the world.
Right there, I’ve listed off seven mobile platforms, including the iPhone. To pick one would severely limit the potential to reach new customers. To pick one with such a small market share (~14% as of Q2 2009) would be even more limiting. If my goal were to reach as many eyeballs as possible, why would I focus on one tiny segment of the market, simply because it’s the one everyone is talking about at the moment? After all, everyone might be talking about something else in a couple months.
Of course, this plethora of platforms opens up another can of worms. My goal with GPF has always been to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Although the comic is (currently) confined to the English speaking world, it is available to just about anyone with a Web browser. I carefully designed the site to be as cross-browser compatible as possible, sometimes even sticking with older technologies longer than I should so the site will keep working in older browsers. If nothing else, it degrades gracefully and is still functional if you don’t have something top of the line. For that matter, thanks t0 our Oh No Robot transcriptions, you can even read 95+% of the archives with a text browser! That also means screen readers for the visually impaired can be used to enjoy the strip. It’s not ideal, of course, but it’s functional, and it’s helped us garner fans in ways you might not expect.
And the answer, my friend, is the same as it is the desktop: the Web browser.
What piece of software do all the nifty little gadgets listed above have in common? A Web browser, of course. Some make it the core of everything the device does, like in webOS and to some extent the iPhone. To others, it’s just another app available among many. But even the most rudimentary phones have simple browsers these days, enough to grab small snippets of HTML and display it competently. Even my Treo, which most iPhone users would likely scoff at, allows me to do the odd bit of online banking, news reading, and forum checking. While no single mobile platform is ubiquitous, the Web browser itself comes alarmingly close.
So I’m happy to announce the creation of GPF Mobile, the official mobile-optimized version of the GPF site. There’s nothing special to learn or type in; just visit the main GPF site at the usual URL and it will detect your mobile device and bounce it to the mobile site seamlessly. With the exception of one or two multimedia-rich updates, you can read the entire comic archive, browse the News archive, read the forum, or search the wiki. If you are a Premium subscriber, you can do all of this ad free, as well as get mobile access to the Jeff’s Sketchbook and Rumor Mill archives. The entire mobile site is specially optimized to minimize clutter and trim bandwidth, so it loads fast and doesn’t break your data plan. But if you have a smartphone with a bit more horsepower and a fatter pipe, switching to the “full” site is as simple as a few extra clicks. Just use our site to set a cookie (and you choose its duration) and have access to the full size for as long as you choose. I’ve been using the mobile site myself for months now, especially to keep track of the forum while I’m on the road, and it’s been beta-tested by a number of hand-picked Faulties. It’s not necessarily pretty (in fact, it’s downright Spartan), but it does let you get your GPF fix on the go.
Best of all, it works with BlackBerries, Android, webOS, Palm OS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and… yes, folks, wait for it… the iPhone. I guarantee that bookmark will take up less valuable storage space than some bloated, unnecessary “app”.
Recently, our family took a long, hard look at some stock options my wife had been sitting on for a while and discovered that, even in the current questionable economic client, these options were looking pretty good. Well, a bit better than just “pretty good”. How about we say, “even after taxes, ‘pretty good’ still looks like an understatement”. After agonizing for a while over whether we should pull them all now or wait for the chance for the stock to go up even further, we decided to pull the trigger and take them all at once. After immediately moving the money to the savings account (where it will earn the most interest while still remaining liquid), we sat down and rationed how to slice up our piping hot and fresh money pie. Healthy chunks have or will go into numerous investments, of course, including the boy’s college fund and both long and short-term investments with decent returns. But we also wanted to keep some of that for ourselves, just to have a little fun. We’re planning on getting Ben a nice play set next spring or summer, and earmarked some to buy a few “toys” for ourselves.
The biggest “toys” are a new 55″ (139.7 cm for you metric-heads) LED LCD high-definition television, wall mounted, and a Blu-ray capable home theater system. Let me tell you folks, I was one of those people skeptical of the “high definition” craze when I had no basis of comparison. But after watching good ol’ standard DVDs on this thing and comparing them to what we got on our old 57″ (144.78 cm) projection TV, the difference is amazing. And that’s with “standard” definition DVDs! I think we still haven’t played an actual Blu-ray disc in this thing yet. And while surround sound is generally relegated to a gimmick in my book, I will admit that at times it’s a pretty good gimmick. I only wish now I actually had time to watch anything.
But none of that is the point of this post.
Rather, this is about the unilateral proliferation of the ubiquitous remote control. You know what I’m talking about. Every A/V device comes with one, and no matter what the manual tells you, you can try to program it to control your other devices, but you inevitably can’t. Either one device partially works but the rest don’t, or there’s one or two critical buttons that you absolutely need that never get mapped, or your device x from manufacturer y is not supported by the remote for device a from manufacturer b. So you end up with three or more remote controls sitting on the arm of your couch, each dedicated to one device and only halfheartedly supporting one or more others, if you’re lucky. You might be able to use the DVD player remote to turn on the TV and control the volume, but you have to switch back to the TV remote to get the aspect ratio right or switch the input mode.
Our recent purchase made our ever-breeding collection of remotes even worse. We were fortunate enough that the Tivo remote fully replaced the cable box remote (since the Tivo controls the cable box anyway), but now we were stuck with the Tivo, the TV, the home theater, and the old five-disc DVD player (kept in the loop mostly for its multi-disc capacity), all leaving remotes on the couch. (After about ten seconds of thought, we opted to retire the old VCR completely, eliminating a potential fifth remote.) Turning things on or switching activities required the “remote shuffle”, switching from one device to another to get everything just right. Worst of all, many times there were only a handful of buttons on each remote that were really needed for everyday use, meaning a lot of space, plastic, and silicon was being wasted.
Like any good geek, I thought that there had to be a better way. Larry Wall‘s first and second virtues of a great programmer are laziness and impatience, and I have both in spades. (Hubris, the third virtue, is something I struggle with as I have a chronic case of humility.) If only there were a way for me to consolidate all those useless logs into one, a single device that would let me push a single button and have everything just do what it needed to do: turn on what needed to be on and only those devices, put the TV and home theater on the right inputs, adjust settings for a device for one activity and then again when the activity changes, and make sure everything gets turned off when we’re heading out the door. I wanted something “scriptable”, something that with one button press would send off a chain of commands and “just do it”. Yes, there are “universal” remotes with macro languages out there that you can program to do just that. But I’m lazy (virtue #1); I wouldn’t mind a good starting point where most of the work is already done, and I don’t want to exert any more effort that I have to to make everything “just right”.
If you hadn’t guessed, we eventually purchased a Logitech Harmony remote, a Harmony One to be exact. For those whose definition of a “universal remote” consists of a $25-50 cheap plastic brick you can pick up at any drug store that “learns” by you pressing buttons on the old remote while pointing it at the new one, the Harmony line might seem like overkill. With prices starting around $100 and skyrocketing from there, Harmony remotes aren’t cheap. But for the premium price you get a ton of premium features that quickly make you wonder why you ever put up with the remote shuffle in the first place.
Harmony remotes are driven primarily by a single online database of devices. Using the Harmony software, you enter all the model numbers and it will look them up in the database, returning a pretty good mapping for all their remote keys. The database is pretty extensive, with tens of thousands of devices from thousands of manufacturers. Even our brand new TV (just released when we purchased it according to the manufacturer’s website) and home theater (which still doesn’t show up on their website) were there, ready to go. Best of all, all of the Harmony remotes share the same database, so the cheapest of the line can control the exact same devices as the most expensive. Of course, sometimes the database entries are inaccurate or incomplete since they are often populated by other users. However, Harmony remotes can learn just like the cheap URs can. I’ve been able to add a number of buttons from our home theater remote that were missed in the database import, and hopefully others will be able to share that effort.
To control your devices, Harmony uses an “activity” based process that may take a little bit of getting used to. You first need to decide what activities you plan to perform with your devices, such as “watch TV”, “watch DVD”, “play a game console”, etc. Once you have this list, you select what devices are needed for each activity and either let the software map the buttons for you or manually map them yourself. For example, our “watch TV” activity involves the TV, home theater (f0r audio), and Tivo box (which controls the cable). Many of the buttons on the remote map to the Tivo’s controls, so that’s how we switch channels, control video flow, etc. The volume and mute buttons are mapped to the home theater (the TV speakers are turned off). For the Harmony One, old remote buttons that don’t have an easy mapping (like the infamous Tivo “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons) are mapped to “soft buttons” on an LCD touch screen; cheaper Harmony remotes have a simpler text LCD with hard buttons next to each option. Default mappings are easy enough to modify with the Harmony software. When the activity is started, all the relevant devices are turned on if necessary and are switched to whatever inputs and settings you specify. While you remain in that activity, the buttons remain mapped to where you set them. At any time you can switch to a “device mode” that controls a single device exclusively, mapping all the buttons to control that once device. Once you’re done with taht, you can simply switch back to activity mode to restore the activity mappings. When you finish the activity or switch to a different one, devices are turned off and reconfigured as necessary to fit the new role and your button mappings change as appropriate. Hitting the “power” button doesn’t technically turn everything off, but rather ends the current activity and turns off all the devices currently in use… which is often the same thing.
The Harmony is not without its quirks, of course. As previously mentioned, the database isn’t always accurate and most likely you’ll need to learn a few commands and remap a few keys. This is simple enough and just requires a few minutes button pressing and a sync with your computer. Initial setup isn’t for the faint of heart, so non-techies may want their favorite tech-savvy relative set things up for them at first. After that, though, using the remote can be very intuitive if your key mappings are set up correctly. Although technically not the Harmony’s fault, some devices still require you to tweak things after an activity has started. For example, our TV does not provide a direct way to specify the aspect ratio (i.e. you have to cycle through the options by repeatedly pressing a single button), so that can’t be scripted as part of the activity. However, it’s easy enough to map the TV aspect ratio button to a soft button in any activity, making that function readily available at all times. It obviously can’t control hardware switches—for example, our five-disc DVD and the Wii share the same component video input on the TV, so a small splitter box combines both streams into one—so you may still have to walk up and flip a switch every now and then. And while it often does a good enough job of it, the remote occasionally forgets what state a certain device is in and turns it off when it’s supposed to be turning it on. That, however, is simple enough to fix using an integrated help function. (You can’t just go in and turn the device back on in device mode, though; you have to use the help so the device state manager knows that the device is supposed to be on.)
So now we have a single remote controlling, either directly or indirectly, five A/V devices. We’ve only pulled out the old remotes once or twice, primarily to learn the missing keys and add them to the Harmony database. We feel more confident that we can hand this remote to one of our less tech-savvy relatives and not come back with infinite picture-in-picture nesting going on and with all the colors shifted blue. I definitely think this thing was a worth-while purchase for us, and I’d heartily recommend it for anyone tired of doing the remote shuffle.
(I should add the disclaimer, of course, that I was not paid for this “endorsement”, nor was I given any promotions, samples, or “freebies” in return for a favorable review. No, I’m just a happy customer who paid full price for a nifty device that I really enjoy and I want to share that enjoyment with others. Make of that claim anything you see fit.)