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mobile app design

ibeerA mobile app is a program or website that works on a mobile phone, particularly smartphones like the iPhone or the T-Mobile G1.

What to keep in mind:

  • The screens are small and come in different sizes.
  • On the Internet they are slow: it is 1995 all over again.
  • They can be used outdoors where the lighting is different.
  • A telephone call can come in during the middle of your app.
  • Typing and clicking are much more painful to do.
  • They are commonly used repeatedly in odd moments throughout the day.
  • Most have cameras and some even accelerometers and GPS.
  • Battery life has to be considered.
  • It is hard to use more than one app at a time.
  • If your app does not do something useful in 30 seconds, then it is useless.

Some notes on designing a mobile app:

  • Think about what people want to know, do and feel. Make users feel good about what they are doing. Your aim is not to show off but to make life easier, better and simpler for them.
  • Avoid shovelware: design it for the mobile phone from the ground up.
  • About half your time will be spent in design, the other half in coding and testing.
  • Design on paper with a fat marker. Do not try to put too much on a screen: keep it simple. Design all screens and the complete flow between them. When you think you are done, go back over it and make it better. Do that again and again. Design as much of the app on paper as possible.
  • Build on the user’s experience of the physical world.
  • Without scrolling the user should see branding, the most frequently used functions and the most important information.
  • Cut out all typing, clicking, scrolling and zooming wherever possible.
  • Prefer scrolling to clicking.
  • People see and understand images and colours first. They look at things with rounded corners.
  • Use presets that covers 80% of users.
  • Get something simple working first. Then add to it bit by bit, but keep it solid. Then make it fast. Then make it good-looking. Then make it cool.
  • Eat your own dog food: use the app for yourself.
  • Scratch the itch: if something about the app gets to you, then make it right and good.
  • Test, test, test:
    • Test for speed.
    • Test on all supported mobile phones.
    • Test indoors and outdoors.
    • Test when a call comes in.
  • Get it as good as you can before you put it out: if users do not like it, they will not wait for the update.
  • Remember you can use sound – but do not depend on it.
  • For websites:
    • Use simple HTML for the things on your pages.
    • Use CSS to make it look cool.
    • You can use JavaScript, but do not count on it always being supported.
    • Do not use a fixed-width layout. Do not count on more than 240 x 320.
    • Provide links to both the mobile and full version of the website (if they are different).

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The Google phone (2008), also known as the Android phone, the gPhone or the T-Mobile G1, is a mobile phone that is the brainchild of Google. It is Google’s answer to Apple’s iPhone. It is, in fact, the first mobile phone to go head-to-head with the iPhone.

The G1, which goes on sale in America on October 22nd 2008 and in Britain a few weeks later, is merely the first of many Android devices to come. Or so Google hopes. Samsung and LG are set to come out with Android phones of their own in 2009.

Android is the name of the software platform that Google built for mobile phones. It remains to be seen whether it will catch on in a big way: Google is not the first to try to build such a platform. Android is built in the Java language running on the Linux operating system. Linux is what the TiVo and Google itself run on.

The Android phone is not a me-too copy of the iPhone. Where the iPhone is a Mac computer shrunk down to fit in your hand, one that can make telephone calls and play music, Google sees mobile phones as Web devices – as pocket computers that can go on the Web (and see Google ads!). The thinking is that mobile phones will become one of the main ways people will go on the Web.

The G1 is a first rough cut at what Google has in mind. It is not as nice as the iPhone nor is it as easy to use, but it holds promise:

  1. Google made it easy for computer geeks to write programs for it. That means in the long run Google phones will be able to do cooler things than iPhones.
  2. Android is not tied to particular hardware, so it will be easier to get it to work on newer and better phones as they come along.
  3. It is designed to be a part of the Internet.

Unlike the iPhone, the G1 has a built-in keyboard, which you can see if you slide back the screen.

Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile G1

On top of being a mobile phone, the G1 has:

  • Google Maps with built-in GPS so it knows where you are,
  • email (but it can handle only one Gmail account),
  • instant messaging,
  • a music player (it can download music from Amazon, but it has no headphone jack! You have to buy a separate USB adapter for that),
  • a camera (that cannot zoom or record video), but no media player yet,
  • a touchscreen (that can handle only one finger at a time),
  • Wi-Fi,
  • the Web (even with a working YouTube, but no Flash).

It has no Bluetooth and there is no easy way for it to talk to your computer. But, unlike the iPhone, it can do cut and paste.

The battery only lasts 12 hours or less between charges.

The G1 runs on T-Mobile’s 3G network, which by October will be in 22 American cities.

The price: $179 (14 crowns), but you also have to sign up for two years with T-Mobile for at least $25 a month (2 crowns a month). An iPhone these days is $199 (16 crowns – way cheaper than when it first came out).

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Yesterday, on August 10th 2007, I saw my first iPhone. Well, I saw one a few weeks ago from a distance across a conference room. It just looked like a black piece of plastic. But someone at work just got one and so this time I could hold it in my hands and try it out.

It still needs some work, but it is leagues beyond anything that is out there. I would get one in an instant if I had the money.

It is smaller than I imagined it. Lighter and thinner too. It looks like it does in the pictures (but without the cool backlighting, of course). When you turn it off the front turns all black.

The iPhone is slower and harder to use than I expected.

The keyboard works. Because it has one key for each letter, it is easier to use than what you get on other mobile phones. But because so many keys are in such a small space, it takes practice to hit them right. I have heard that with practice with two thumbs you can go pretty fast.

Because it uses a touch screen instead of physical keys, sometimes you have to hit a key more than once for it to work. With a physical key, once you press it down you know it is going to work: you feel it in your fingers. But with a touch screen you do not get that. You have to look on the screen to see if it worked. I have the very same trouble with bank machines.

The biggest pain in the neck I found, in the few minutes I was using it, is the spell checker. It was not clear how to stop it from changing what I wrote. Good spell checkers are not that controlling. They are friendly, not motherly. This one needs work.

I noticed that with all that touching it is easy for the glass front to get dirty looking.

It does the Web. I saw Google Maps. The way you zoom in and out with two fingers is cool and it works. But because it is coming over a mobile phone network it is slow, like it was 1995. Still, it is way better than the Web I have seen on other mobile phones: the Web looks the way it should so it is readable and usable.

The iPhone does not have GPS – it does not know where you are. I find that a bit strange: you are on a mobile phone network which knows about where you are. You would think the iPhone could use that to its advantage.

Later I was standing in line at the store. The woman in front of me had a Treo. I saw its rows of little buttons and already it was starting to look old-fashioned to me.


Palm Treo 650, circa 2006. Click to enlarge.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2018): Added picture of a Treo, like the one I saw.

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Apple’s iPhone (2007- ) is like an iPod with a telephone built in. Like an iPod, it can store and play music. Like a telephone, it can make and receive calls. But there is more. It can also take pictures like a camera and show films like a small television. It can go on the Internet to get email, go to web pages and get maps and directions.

In fact, it is a Macintosh computer made small enough to fit in your hand and light enough to take anywhere. It even runs Mac OS X like a Macintosh.

There are already telephones that can play music, but they are hard to use. And there are telephones that can go on the Web, but the Web is almost unreadable and painful to use. The iPhone works the way these things should have. Even as just a telephone it is better than anything we are use to.

Apple will start selling the iPhone in America on June 29th 2007. Cingular, which was just bought by AT&T, will provide the telephone service. It will appear in Europe later in 2007 and Asia in 2008.

The iPhone is the future now: Bit by bit the computer has been taking over television, telephone, music and film. Within ten years few will still have a separate telephone or television or music player. Instead there will be three kinds of computers:

  • wall computer
  • table computer
  • hand computer

The iPhone is the first real hand computer.

Apple understands design and understands computers. Few companies have a deep understanding of both. That is why Apple is first.

Instead of little keys and a little screen, the iPhone has no built-in keys and one large screen. When it needs keys for you to enter names or numbers, it draws the keys as needed.

Things like Treos, Blackberries and Zunes will have to change or die. They will seem old-fashioned almost overnight.

As wonderful as it seems now, it already has some known drawbacks:

  • At 40 to 50 crowns ($500 to $600), it is a lot for “a telephone that plays music”. But, from the Gutenberg Bible to the VCR, this is a common starting price for something as new and different as the iPhone. If it does well, the price will come down, just as it did for printed books and VCRs.
  • Cingular’s telephone service is not as cheap or as good as, say, Sprint’s. It seems like a strange choice. You will not be able to get an iPhone unless you sign up for two years with Cingular.
  • The battery is built in. If it turns out to be anything like the iPod, then when the battery runs out of power after a few years you will have to send your iPhone back to Apple. They will send back someone else’s used iPhone with a new battery.
  • It has no games.
  • Even though it has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, you will still need to hook it physically into a computer to download songs and so on.

By year’s end we will have a much better idea of how good it is, of its strengths and weaknesses.

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