Over the past year, I’ve been a very active user of my W800i mobile phone. I find that it is one of the best consumer electronics devices I’ve ever owned. It is a very good music player, overall good phone, and great camera (for a phone) – all in one compact 2×5.5×10 cm / 99 grams package. (More on that in my 6 months on review of W800i.)
The size of this phone and all the features it offers means that I can do stuff I simply couldn’t before. A few of my favourite examples include:
– Lighting up the dark path in the woods or finding the right cable connections at the rear of my receiver using the camera light
– Listen to music while walking without being concerned about missing calls or texts (the phone automatically pauses the music for me when something happens)
– Do document scans anywhere – need a copy of that A4 sheet? Just photograph it!
Mobile phones today are really small computers – increasingly similar to the general purpose computers most of us use daily. My two favourite applications are brilliant examples of this trend.
Surf the web anywhere – sounds nice, right? Well, I’ve been waiting for it quite a while, but now it is finally here.
The internet for mobile devices was supposed to be enabled by WAP – a standard so comparatively unimportant I won’t bother looking up what it means. While WAP works – it means that you can view documents following the WAP standard on your mobile phone – the content was never really there. WAP is a crude form of HTML, the standard the World Wide Web is built on, and for web site owners (and web application programmers) supporting another format meant a lot of extra work. The result is that the number of WAP pages is miniscule compared to the monstrous dimensions of the HTML-based World Wide Web.
WAPs raison d’etre was the slow internet connections offered by mobile phones, meaning downloading pages would take ages, their small screens, which meant HTML content wouldn’t fit, and their weak processors, which meant that digesting huge Web pages would be impractical.
Norwegian software company Opera, makers of the multi-platform web browser Opera, found a way around these obstacles. Thanks to the increasing computing power of mobile phones and a standardized program format in the shape of Java for mobile devices, it became possible to write Java applications that would run on different types of mobile phones with a manageable amount of configuration on the part of the developer. In addition, most mobile phones began including GPRS class 10, meaning they could transfer data at about 50 kbps – around the speed you could get with old-fashioned dial-up. While an improvement from earlier forms of GPRS, this was not sufficient to make WWW practical in the age of 500+ kilobyte web pages.
The result is the web page as OBML – Opera Binary Markup Language – which is the format Opera Mini understands. All the heavy work described above is done at a powerful server, while the only data sent across the internet to the mobile device is the highly efficient OBML, which doesn’t require much computing resources to decode compared to standard HTML.
The end result of this is that you can start Opera Mini, request any website you want, and get it. You will have to do a lot more scrolling than usual and images will be small (even absent if you turn them off to save bandwidth costs, which is what I do). The text also tends to be tiny, but you can tell Opera Mini to enlarge it for you.
In two words: Pretty neat. I use this on a daily basis – on the metro, I’m never without something to read; my favourite web sites are just sixty seconds away. While shopping, it is possible for me to use Opera Mini to check prices online with services such as Kelkoo. I even fetched the footprint of a friend’s TV when we were looking for furniture at IKEA once – he had forgotten taking measurements, but using Opera Mini, I could fetch the product specification directly from the retailer.
Apart from surfing the internet, what do I spend my days doing? Yeah – checking my mail. Usually on my Macbook, but of course, like surfing, it would be nice to be able to read mail anywhere.
Unlike websurfing, mail has been more or less available on mobile phones for a while. Most expensive phones have included mail programs for the last couple of years; in principle, these work like the mail program you use at home.
Or, I should say, used to use at home. Earlier this year, I started using Google’s mail service, Gmail. It runs in your web browser, and offers almost 3 gigabyte of storage. As the storage quota constantly increases, it will probably be large enough to store all your mail forever – at least excluding attachments. Combined with the fact that the service is fast, sprinkled with almost all the keyboard shortcuts you could want, and without the backup concerns I have when using my own computer for the storage, that made me join up, and I’ve been very happy with Gmail ever since.
Now, Gmail lets you connect an ordinary mail client to the Gmail servers, so you can use your own program instead of the Gmail web interface. This means that I was able to use the W800i’s built-in mail client to read my mail. This had disadvantages, primarily:
* Painfully slow (about 2 minutes to check the mail)
* Only access to the X most recent mails in the inbox
* No searching of all mail in the account
Then, Google launched a WAP service (kind of ironic, don’t you agree?) that you could access through the phone’s WAP browser. It was actually faster than the built-in mail client, and offered the most important functionality from the standard webmail version.
About a month ago, however, Google took the next logical step and launched a Gmail application for Java ME devices. Happily, it is compatible with W800i. Now, it stands to reason that a dedicated application should be more efficient than a WAP interface, but then again, it also seems reasonable that a dedicated mail client should be better than a web-based one – something I have concluded is not the case. So, does Gmail for Java ME add any value? Yes, most definitely!
In my experience, it is faster than the WAP interface – which means it is pretty fast. When you have unread mail in your inbox, Gmail will fetch their contents in the background, while you are viewing the list of mails. The mail contents will therefore usually appear instantaneously. It is also more reliable when composing mails (I occasionally had problems when using WAP – lost a mail, on one occasion), and includes keyboard shortcuts for actions such as delete (which Gmail on WWW ironically lacks!), mark as spam, archive, reply, mark with star, etcetera. In short, it is a pleasure to use. The only flaw I’ve discovered so far is that it doesn’t automatically capitalize the first letter in sentences – perhaps some problem with the T9 dictionary integration.
Another nice feature in the Gmail app: I’m writing this from the airport, and when standing in front of the check-in machine, I actually used Gmail on my W800i to read the mail with the ticket reservation from the airline. For some reason, the vital referencen number was embedded in a PDF. Had I been using the built-in mail client, that would have been it, but somewhat akin to Opera’s methods in Opera Mini, Gmail lets you view the PDF document on your phone by converting it to plain text on the mail server. Incredibly useful!
With Gmail and Opera Mini on your W800i, you’ll be able to read and send mail and surf the web no matter where you are as long as you have a GPRS connection. These applications are excellent examples of what can be achieved with Java technology on a “weak” client such as a phone. While there are drawbacks compared to what the equivalent PC applications can offer, these are due to inherent limitations of the platform (limited screen estate and limited multi-tasking, for instance) and does not detract from my very favourable opinion of these programs.
They are free – so if you like doing mail and web on the move, you owe it to yourself to give them a go!
PS: Happy New Year!