Paul Makepeace ;-)

September 29, 2004

Developing phone apps

Posted in: Phone, Tech

Ever since working on the Urban Tapestries project I've been becoming increasingly excited about the possibility of phone applications. These possibilities and their scope from having a highly networked portable tiny computer always about one's person continue to amaze and intrigue me. This evening alone a friend and I came up with an outstanding gadget for tourists; it feels like the Web in the mid 90s.

Enough breathlessness, what's out there?

The downside is that programming for phones is a real drag. The dominant development platform is Series 60, a system based on Symbian developed by the UK's Psion who've made organisers since the 80s. It's now powering untold millions of smartphones by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and many others. Writing code for series 60 however is not a pleasant experience, the biggest complaint being the dire state of documentation.

After witnessing the length of time taken for a competent developer to create the C++ UT app on the P800, and poking around with it a very little myself, I had a strong suspicion I wanted none of that. It simply looked like too much effort. This is 2004 after all, software ought to be writing itself by now for heaven's sake!

The obvious alternative to C++ is Java, everyone's favorite "cross-platform" language. As usual the reality bares a disappointing and grubby resemblence to the marketing hype: Java solutions don't even provide access to the camera, SMS, and other tantalising phone-specific goodies. The latest Java platform, MIDP2, goes a long way toward solving those deficiencies but I often come away from Java with the feeling whatever happens is far too late, too over-engineered, and not native to anything in particular (read: weird user interface).

Which leaves .NET for phones.

Sure, I could hang on and watch the MIDP2 scene develop. Or I could get stuck in with a working native system by a company who (despite best efforts of many) just won't go away: Microsoft. After sitting in front of the fire in Monterey a few years ago learning C# and .NET basics from a book I came away really impressed. The language and framework just felt right, especially against the bloated design-by-committee proprietary torpidity of Java. But that's a discussion for (probably) other authors and other blogs, suffice to say I knew I wanted to play with it, one day.

Then when I ended up with a Orange M1000 Pocket PC running Windows Mobile 2003 the desire became a realistic possibility...

There is a free compiler MS offer but it doesn't work for phones. An Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) subscription which would provide the necessary tools is expensive (£1,470).
After some investigation it turns out MS offer a UK ISV "Empower Initiative", a program that provides small companies with a cheap (£260) MSDN subscription presumably in the hopes that they'll be suckling on the Microsoft teat for evermore. (And I don't say that jokingly: this last week I met a guy who said more or less word for word, "yes, we're a Microsoft shop, back when we started they provided us some training material.")

After some discussion about tentatively exploring porting the UT app to Pocket PC Giles at Proboscis signed up for the UK ISV program (ironically on a Mac emulating a PC as their entire org is Microsoft-free!). The DVDs arrived, Visual Studio 2005 Beta's installed and off I go...

Posted by Paul Makepeace at September 29, 2004 18:00 | TrackBack
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