The Weblog of Vincent Oberle - Thoughts and opinions about technology and business

iPhone love

December 10th, 2007

Since a couple of months, I have been using an iPhone. In one of the first posts of this blog, in mid 2004, I wondered why we didn’t have an iPod phone yet. It took a long time, but it was worth the wait. The iPhone is an amazing device.

There have been lots of critics of the iPhone, often citing its lack of some features compared to some other phones. These critics are completely unjustified. The iPhone has the most important applications, but more important, they work so much better than on any other phone. As pointed out by alpheccar, its beauty is also in its simplicity.

First it is an iPod, and an amazing one. It does the iPod job very well. Cover flow in particular is something I didn’t get at all how cool it was before using it. It brings something very important back to digital music listening experience, the CD feeling. We all have many CDs, some for a long time, some we really love and we know them first by their cover. I am still listening to my CDs, one reason being that I like to go through them. Browsing your collection using Cover Flow just gives you the feeling of looking through your CD collection. This feeling is even emphasized by the iPhone touchscreen. And it’s a great feeling!

The iPhone doesn’t support Flash. But what is the most useful Flash app on PC? YouTube of course, and the iPhone plays YouTube videos better than a PC. It’s using H.264, and the quality is just beautiful. I’ve only tested it with wifi, as I’m not using a data plan with it (not really necessary, as most of the time I’m under wifi coverage anyway).

I’ve been wondering why I prefer the iPhone over the Nokia N800/N810 Internet tablets, which are also good devices. I think it’s because from a usage point of view, I do things with the N8×0 that I would do with my laptop, while I do things with the iPhone that I would do with my phone. So compared to my laptop, the N8×0 is less good. It’s a good device, but using Skype on it is less practical than on a laptop, same for web browsing or working. And it’s still slightly big to really fit in a pocket. While compared to my previous phones, the iPhone is amazing. Oh even better, compared to previous iPods the iPhone is amazing. And it remains usefull on the road. And the problem for the N800 is still that on THE feature where it competes head-to-head with the iPhone, the web browser, the iPhone is way better.

In general the iPhone UI is that good that I have been wondering how do they do it? I mean it’s so fast, so responsive. One can be watching a video and in 2 finger press (cannot say click here..) and 1 second be in the web browser. And in that web browser, zooming will works so well and is so fast.

One clearly sees Apple worked hard to make a usable phone. An example I like: On my former Nokia phone, to put it in silent mode, I had to unlock it, go in a menu, choose between several options (what is the different between silent and meeting modes?) and then relock it. On the iPhone, there is one real switch on the side, which puts in on vibrator. Can be done without removing the phone from the pocket, or unlocking it. Seems so obvious to do it like that!

Putting still a negative touch, a real pity is that Apple makes is so tough for non iTunes applications to use it. I’m using it under Linux, and while I now can synchronize music with covers and videos from Amarok, I miss calendar synchronization. Well on the other hand I do this synchronization over wifi, which is pretty cool (iTunes users at stuck with the USB cable for now).

There is no doubt that the iPhone is a game changer in the mobile industry. Every new phone will be compared to it now, and that’s a tough standard to match.

Maybe the most amazing thing is that Apple got it so right, so stable, so usable in its version 1.0. One wonders what will they come up next with. The SDK that should be released in February will be very interesting to watch. What will it look like?

Henri-mania!

December 9th, 2007

2007 is ending, time for a little personal update. No changes actually, still in Estonia, still at Skype. And still having a great time with our son.

Beginning of October, Henri started walking. That was pretty amazing to see him so happy to discover that he can walk alone. Since then, he has been using this new ability quite extensively, exploring, doing new tricks, running away when we go out. Walking has also clearly given a boost to his development. He started to understand much more when we tell him something, and now clearly understands already many words, often in French and in Estonian. He also behaves better, in the sense that now it’s much easier for him to keep himself busy alone.

He still loves to eat and is ready to try everything (such a little French he is). We try to give him healthy food, but also give him all kind of things to try. It’s so cute to see him eating pancakes. Our idea with eating education is variety, enjoying food and getting healthy habits.

IMG_4805a.jpg

More pictures to show he still is the most beautiful bonhomme in the world!

Visiting Paris

September 21st, 2007

While we have been traveling a lot in the last years with Ingrid, we haven’t been really in holidays in the classical sense of the terms, where you go for a week or two to a nice place, in a hotel, and relax or do sightseeing. So this year’s trip to Paris was a first for us in that sense.

It was also the first time we left Henri for so long. He stayed the 6 days by my parents in Alsace and behaved very well. Seems he will be allowed to spend his holidays in Alsace again :-)

It was the first time for Ingrid in Paris, and myself I had only really done some tourism in Paris over 15 years ago. So we decided to focus on sightseeing. We took the new TGV from Saverne (close to Strasbourg, where my parents live) to Paris. 2 hours for 500 km, very comfortable, cheap (we paid 100 Euros for 2 return-tickets, bought online), the TGV is really great.

We had a nice little hotel next to the rue Mouffertard called Hotel de l’Esperance. It’s a nice neighbourhood, lively and Parisian. Nice little room for only 80 Euros, cheap for a capital city. We recommend it.

We didn’t take the breakfast at the hotel, but rather bought some pain au chocolat or croissants in one of the bakery around the hotel, and went eating it in a cafe with a coffee. That’s just the right way of starting a day in France! Speaking about coffee, this is actually rather expensive (2 to 3 Euros). But Paris is actually not as expensive as one might think. Eating out is not much more expensive than Tallinn. And funnily coming from Estonia, beer costs as much or more than wine (or you could say that wine is cheap in France).

So what did we see? Lots of things, some of the highlights:

  • On l’Ile de la Cite, the Notre-Dame cathedral of course, but also Sainte-Chappelle, a little church hidden between other buildings, which has an impressive amount of stained glasses. Entrance is 7 Euros, but probably worth it as it is very impressive.
  • Maybe my favorite thing we visited is Le Louvre. It is absolutely huge (the biggest museum in the world) and extremely rich and interesting. We spend a long morning there but it would clearly deserve a full day. The 10 Euros entrance is worth it. There are many visitors but since the museum is so big it’s ok. However I would advise to arrive there early (before 9:30) and do immediately the most popular section, the Italian paintings and La Joconde, before the crowd of American and Japanese tourists arrives.
  • The Eiffel Tower is of course a must. A great thing to do is being up in the tower by night. Paris becomes very nice and the tower itself is lighted. I think it’s enough to go to the Eiffer Tower, no need to climb up the Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame (they all cost a lot).
  • And of course the Montmartre, Quartier Latin and Le Marais, which are all nice neighbourhoods of Paris.

I think we will probably go more often to Paris now, the TGV making it so close from Alsace.

Showing edited chat messages on Skype for Linux

September 1st, 2007

Recent version of Skype for Windows allow to edit already sent chat messages. Unfortunately, Skype for Linux 1.4 won’t show the edited version unless you reload the chat history.

I have added to my Skype command-line tools a little script, which will warn you when someone edited a message by showing a message window. Then you just need to reload the chat history to see the new version in its context.

The Public API also allows to edit chat messages, but this is not supported by my script for now. See the Public API documentation for details.

Linux: Slow encfs on USB drives

August 7th, 2007

I recently purchased an external USB hard drive to backup my data. I want to encrypt some of the data I put and I decided to use encfs for this. It’s a very easy way to set up an encrypted file system, a 5 minutes setup under Ubuntu Feisty. Compared to a loopback encrypted file system, it doesn’t require to specify the size ahead of time, it grows as needed.

However when backing up on a encrypted directory on my USB drive I experienced very bad performance. I found a way to improve it several times by changing the Filesystem Block Size used by encfs. By default it uses 512 bytes blocks. Increasing it to 4096 bits made it several times faster.

In fact backing up 77 MB of data was over 5 times faster. It’s still much slower than not encrypting at all however.

  • 4096 block size: 1 min 43 secs (size 78856 KB)
  • 512 block size: 9 mins 21 secs (size 78860 KB)
  • Non encrypted: 19 secs (size 78824 KB)

The Filesystem Block Size can only be set when creating the file system. When starting encfs for the first time, choose the expert mode. Then you can choose the same options as for the standard mode (as described in the encfs man page: Blowfish algorithm, 160 bits key size, block encoding and everything else as default choices) except for the block size where you should choose 4096. You may also choose the AES algorithm with a 256 bits key. In my tests it was even slightly faster than the less secure Blowfish algorithm (1 min 41 secs).

Update: I ended up not using encfs at all on my USB drive, as I found out that TrueCrypt was much faster, in fact there is no penalty for the encryption. One has to choose the size of the file system before, but that is a small price to pay for speed. It is easy to install under Ubuntu and is also supported under Windows.

Skype on Nokia N800

July 6th, 2007

Nokia has released a firmware update for the N800 (which I reviewed before) with a great new application, Skype. We have been working with Nokia on this client and I must say the result is very nice, this is a great looking, fast, well done interface. Besides voice calls, it supports chats and multi-chats, one of the best chat implementation we have on devices. There is no video, file transfer or SMS support however.

I’m looking forward to the reviews, and I would be happy to hear feedback about it. You can leave me a comment or ping me over Skype.

Estonia is a country…

July 5th, 2007

where on Sunday morning you meet the Prime Minister’s wife;
in the afternoon you are listening to a choir of 20.000 children, with 100.000 spectators - out of 1.4 millions living in Estonia;
you get shivers when all the big final choir with all children sing the national hymn;
on Tuesday you have a glass with the French ambassador and meet the Prime Minister’s EU affairs advisor;
and on Thursday evening discover a wonderful new little restaurant just around the corner of your apartment;
all this with a great sunny weather - while it doesn’t stop raining in France.

Life is nice :)

Headsets are good

June 23rd, 2007

JAJAH is running a campaign targeted at Skype’s users, campaign which focuses on how you don’t need a headset with JAJAH. Of course these days a headset is not at all required anymore for making Skype calls. Jim Courtney lists some of the options for using Skype without headset, the first one being simply to use a recent version of Skype. Thanks to our recent improvements in echo cancellation, I have regularly calls without headset using the microphone of my webcam (using the webcam microphone helps I think, as it is situated further from the speaker than the laptop integrated microphone, making the job of the echo cancellation software easier).

But the headset is not a bad thing at all, on the contrary. I think the headset is in fact a great feature of Skype, as it allows individual private calls without tying one of your hand against your ear. Often these headsets have several meters long cables and one can even walk around.

Today Skype standalone devices use the classical phone form factor (the handset). An interesting Skype device would be a cordless headset. Such a device should be composed of a comfortable headset connected via DECT to a base station. The screen and keypad would be on the base station (like a corded phone). We use DECT and not Bluetooth because we want the simplicity, great range and good battery life of DECT. The headset should go on both ears, as it is much more comfortable than the one-ear Bluetooth headsets sold for mobile phones. It is for home use, so size is not an issue.

Having the screen and keypad on the base station is a minor inconvenient: In general a cordless phone is anyway on the base station when not in use, to charge the batteries. Which means when you receive a call or want to make a call, you have to go to the base station anyway.

Sending SMS with Skype on Linux

June 11th, 2007

Skype for Linux 1.4 doesn’t support sending SMS in the User Interface yet, but the functionality is supported in the core library used in this release, thus it is possible to send SMS using the Public API.

I have added to my Skype command-line tools a little application for sending SMS. Usage is simple, call it with the phone number and the message to send:

$ ./sk_send_sms.py PHONENUMBER Hello world

Of course you need Skype credit for this to work. The tool doesn’t implement validating your phone number. This allows recipients of your SMS to see your mobile number as the sender, instead of the first 11 characters from your Skype Name. This can be done with Skype for Windows.

Update 2007-08-30: About the Initialization failed errors that some got, they are probably because “sms_sender” is not authorized to connect to Skype. First time the script is launched, Skype asks if you want to authorize it to connect to Skype. Later the authorized applications can be seen in Options => Public API. I fixed the scripts to show better error messages in this case.

Update 2007-12-12: I rewrote the script to use the Skype4Py wrapper. Hopefully this should solve the issues people have been seeing. As a bonus it should now work under Windows and Mac too (didn’t test that).

Finding old Skype chats

June 6th, 2007

Skype for Linux 1.4, like other desktop clients, supports the Skype Public API, which allows other applications to make use of Skype features.

I started a set of command-line tools for Skype Linux to do various things that cannot be done with the user interface. The first of these tools allows to find and open old multi-chats, even the ones that have disappeared from the recent chat list in the UI or are not bookmarked.

The tools are Python scripts, and with them also comes a simple Python wrapper around the Public API.

To get them see the Skype for Linux Tools page.