06 September 2009

Going mobile

Recently I was away from my desktop PC for a week, traveling through the country in my summer holiday. Luckily I discovered several WLAN hot-spots there so I could connect with my mobile phone. I discovered some new interesting things about the online applications I regularly use in their mobile form and I thought I share them with you.

Hotmail mobile on Symbian S60I used the mobile Hotmail site for the first time and I was surprised to see it is quite simple and clean, well suited for mobile use. There are no banners or sidebars like in the full desktop version stealing screen space. The service has a relatively small logo on the top, followed by a search box. It lists 15 messages per page and each of them has a check box next to it, like in the normal interface. From what I read on the Internet afterward, it seems relatively new. You don't need to use any special software, it renders just fine in the default Symbian S60 browser.

Gmail mobile Java applicationAlthough I now use Hotmail for the majority of my notifications from Facebook, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and other social networks, Gmail remains my main email account. As a result, I used it extensively on my mobile also, through the Java application for Symbian S60. This app was designed to offer an experience similar to the web interface, with the signature threaded messages that Gmail introduced. It has some advantages over HTML access, for example you can access recent conversations (around 20) and compose emails with no network connection. They are sent in the background the first time you connect.

Another feature, that is not available even in the full web interface without some hacks, is the ability to quickly check messages from several Gmail or Google Apps accounts. The app provides a menu with all the accounts configured and you can switch between them with just a few clicks. On the web you must logout from one account in order to check another one.

What I particularly like about this application is that it has keyboard shortcuts for the most common actions like the web-Gmail. Or should I say keypad shortcuts? They were also recently added to the browser-based mobile Gmail, but they don’t seem to work on my phone. Google is not particularly helpful in the help pages about these shortcuts for non-BlackBerry devices, but they are clearly marked in the menus next to each action. This is what each key does on my phone:

search mail
compose mail
mark read/unread
reply to all
report spam
add/remove star
go to inbox
message details

These shortcuts should work in all Java-enabled phones that don’t have a full keyboard. Please note that 4, 6 and # only work in conversation view, not in a folder, and 5 has a different effect in folder view, it opens the selected thread, like Enter. Another neat trick I discovered is that the left/right arrows double as ‘Page Up’/‘Page Down’ buttons, scrolling 5 messages at a time in a folder.

More options are available through the ‘Settings’ menu, including my favorite one: adding an extra text to the signature of outgoing messages to let everybody know you are writing from your mobile. On my device, this text, as well as the general interface, is set to the default language of the OS.

A small drawback of the Java app is that it doesn’t let you change the labels of the messages. For that I usually wait until I get back to my desktop PC or open Gmail in the mobile browser.

I also used the mobile twitter site this time for a short time. It also has a simple interface, no doubt to minimize unnecessary data transfer. Pictures are omitted in the timeline, but show up on the profile pages of users. You can read the updates, but there’s no button to reply or star them, so the mobile interface is pretty limited. I’m sure there are better twitter clients out there for Symbian (and preferably free), just waiting to be discovered.

I’ve had a rather bad experience once I was back to my PC trying to catch up on a week of unread tweets. Both Twitter and Seesmic refused to work with more that 3 days worth of updates displayed in the timeline, either crashing the browser or remaining locked in an endless ‘loading’ message. And I suspect the same would happen to most clients when forced to display thousands of updates. Finally, I’ve discovered iTweet, that splits the timeline into pages. And while I don’t particularly enjoy the grey-on-grey interface, it certainly got the job done.

The last page I tried on my mobile was mobile Facebook. A big disappointment, I couldn’t even log in! There was no error message, it just refused to go further. It’s probably incompatible with the browser, I don’t really see another explanation.

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