Old-School Technophile Lost In A Sea of Apps

While the smartphone has been in existence for a decade, and PDA predecessors date back to the 1990s, they have only reached mainstream attention in the last few years, with the release of the iPhone and Google’s Android operating system. Since then, the smartphone has become one of the most successful and fastest-growing computing platforms around. Perhaps key to its success is the different approach to software development and distribution compared to the personal computer.

I’m a big fan of the smartphone concept. The idea of a pocketable computer has appealed to me since I first heard of the brick-like Nokia Communicators in the early 2000s, and now that they’ve become available to the general public, rather than just people in business, a surprising amount of potential is now available at our fingertips (or, more accurately, thumbtips). However, I’m not entirely convinced that we’re going quite the right way with the concept of mobile applications – there are certain parts of the implementation which I’m not exactly enamoured with.

The first problem I have is the increasingly insular, hermetic nature of mobile operating systems, facilitated in some extent by Apple’s introduction of the App Store with iPhone OS 2.0. There are several advantages to the concept of the application market, including the fact that you’re pretty much assured that applications will just work. That doesn’t mean, however, that smartphone application distribution should be entirely dependent on the application market.

Apple is the chief offender here, with an operating system which needs to be hacked to allow for any installation of applications outside the App Store. This means that the distribution channels of software for the iPhone are in principle controlled entirely by Apple. While this doesn’t affect many people, as an advocate of open-source software, I’d prefer it if there was some distribution channel that didn’t require the hacking of your phone in order to install experimental software. Some of the most interesting applications available on personal computers have arisen as a result of large teams of programmers developing applications through open-source means, including VLC Media Player, OpenOffice.org and Mozilla Firefox.

Android is considerably better, allowing people to install applications from third-party sources. It also has the highest percentage of free applications on its application market; 57% as opposed to the 28% on Apple’s App Store. We need more of this approach, rather than the hermeticism of Apple and more recent attempts by Nokia (although the open-source licence that Symbian now follows and Nokia’s announcement that future Nseries phones will run MeeGo, a Debian-based variant of Linux, will probably help matters).

Another problem I have with the application market idea is that there’s such a sheer amount of junk to sort through to find the gems. I attribute some of this junk to companies who make applications when they’re absolutely not required. There is no need for an application by Time Magazine, or Empire, or any of the other media outlets which have applications out there. All of their content can be recreated using a properly-formatted mobile website, and shouldn’t need a separate piece of software to access.

A massive proportion of the junk applications come courtesy of games and other time-wasting applications along the same lines. I’m not going to protest against people having fun, but few of these games really bring anything new or original to the fore. I’m not about to let iPhone users forget about the 400-plus fart applications on their platform either. It would be favourable to get a reasonable balance of utility applications, such as office suites, along with the games. As it is, though, the balance is badly skewed.

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FROM THE ARCHIVE: Adobe Systems – Making Crippled Proprietary Software Since 1993

Adobe Systems are well-known, either directly or indirectly, to a large number of the population of the Internet. Making some of the most popular multimedia formats on computers today, along with the standard in professional image editing, some of their media formats have become standardised. I have a problem with that, though: I don’t see how file formats so fundamentally restrictive and, in some cases, crippled, could become the standard file formats of the Internet.

My objections to them go back to about 1998, around about the time when I discovered some of their file formats. There are two file formats which are linked to Adobe which almost all of the users here will have experienced: the Portable Document Format or PDF file, and the Flash Player’s .swf files. I have objections to both of these file formats, and the fact that they have become standardised fills me with disgust.

The Portable Document Format was first developed in 1993 as a replacement for Adobe’s PostScript format, a computer language for the rendering of files. Integrating a file’s contents into a single unit, PDF was different to its predecessors, such as LaTeX and PostScript, which used commands embedded in a text file to characterise properties of that text. This led to the advantage of being able to render files exactly the same on every platform, but also led to some massive disadvantages.

You see, a PDF file is huge. Elephantine, even, with file sizes which make me cringe every time I happen to have to use one of these files. As a little experiment, I took a file of my own, a short story entitled The New Challenge and proceeded to save it in a number of formats with OpenOffice 3.0.

Reference Text

Here were the sizes of the resulting files:

Foo.tex (LaTeX 2e): 31.6KB
Foo.odt (OASIS OpenDocument Text): 40.2KB
Foo.doc (Microsoft Word Document): 59.0KB
Foo.rtf (Rich Text Format): 59.6KB
Foo.pdf (Portable Document Format): 73.3KB

So, the DOC file, written in a format which is notoriously human-unreadable when processed as ASCII, ended up smaller than a PDF file? That’s pretty embarrassing. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with binary-encoded files. Note that the XML-based .odt file comes in at a ridiculous 33KB smaller than the PDF, and when you get to the command-based LaTeX file, you’re talking about a file half the size!

How about one more experiment? A file with pictures will be used this time, and ODT will be pitted against PDF. The document in question is my Ground Control review.

Bar.odt: 157.7KB
Bar.pdf: 196.1KB

It isn’t the file-size that necessarily annoys me though; storage is cheap these days, and there’s a price to be paid for portability. One of my problems is, however, that this file type is so large and has also become a standard on the Internet.

Have you ever opened a PDF file in a web-browser? Usually, it opens an Adobe Reader session inside the browser, which leaves the browser unusable as it tries to process a file that may be megabytes in size, and sometimes slows down the whole computer at the same time. The reasonable thing would be to save the file and open it with a discrete PDF reader, but this doesn’t stop a 2.5MB file still being a slow, annoying mess a lot of the time, especially as the gap between files like ODT is just getting larger as the files get longer.

But wait, there’s more to dislike about PDF files! You know the way that PDF is a standard file format? It’s only been an open standard since 2008, despite being in existence since 1993. That means that since it became popular, people have had to use a proprietary program to open these files, or else use a gross hack. Indeed, it was even harder to create hacks to read PDF files than read and write that other standard proprietary file format, the DOC file, because at least the DOC files had some semblance of human legibility in ASCII, unlike the ridiculously binarised PDFs. The fact that it became an open standard in the first place makes me utterly confused as well, because until its acceptance by the ISO, if you wanted to write PDF files, you had to use proprietary software anyway.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll have a look at that other Adobe proprietary format which has become unfathomably popular, even more so since the introduction of YouTube. The Flash format was devised by Macromedia in 1996, bought by Adobe in 2005, and has since become the standard video format of choice for the Internet. Guess what? It’s proprietary as well.

In fact, despite being the standard format of much of the Internet’s videos, it hasn’t become an open standard. This is rather annoying to me, a person who uses open-source software when available. Indeed, most variants of Linux don’t include Flash as a standard option, because it’s not open-source and there’s no open-source player available. It’s only a minor criticism, but it’s one nonetheless, because Adobe once again holds people back with a standard format which happens to be proprietary.

In one case, you have a product loaded with disadvantages, and on the other, a proprietary standard which makes open-source developers want to tear their hair out. Sometimes I really dislike Adobe Systems.