Remove redundant TouchFlo Start Menu with WkTask

Taskbar Since getting a Touch Pro a couple weeks ago, I’ve been trying to figure out to best to optimize the TouchFlo interface. HTC has done some nice things with this device (the Touch Pro on Sprint or outside the US, the HTC Fuze on AT&T, as well as all the variants of HTC Diamond), and in a lot of ways they’ve brought the ease of use from Windows Mobile Standard’s sliding panels home screen and simple Home and Back buttons to Windows Mobile Professional. It’s nice, but there’s one problem. By default, the Start Menu is still up there in the upper left corner, potentially confusing matters by offering a completely different and contradictory way to launch programs and access system settings. Fortunately, you can get rid of it, simplify the user interface and get a nifty way to switch between running programs in the process. (While one of Windows Mobile’s strengths is that there’s more than one way to do almost everything, a design goal for an efficient user interface is to have as little overlap in functionality as possible; a place for everything and everything in its place.)

Settings WkTask is a free shell utility that partially replaces your Windows Mobile Pro taskbar. By default, it leaves the Start Menu and notification icons alone, and puts icons for your running programs where the window title would normally be. But for our purposes, since TouchFlo 3D (or 2D, if you’re using an older device and can remap the Windows button on the phone to show the Today screen instead of the Start Menu) duplicates and expands on the Start Menu functionality, we’re going to get rid of it.

In the settings, notice that the offset from the left edge is set to 0 pixels. This moves the running programs all the way to left, covering the Start Menu completely. With the clock changed to the analog clock (you have a huge digital one on your home screen anyway), this also gives the entire taskbar a nice “all icons” uniformity fitting to a phone user experience. You can enhance this effect by telling WkTask to display only task icons in the Design tab of WkTask preferences.

So how can you use a Windows Mobile Professional device with out ever touching the Start Menu? Pretty easily, as it turns out. Here’s how it breaks down.

Start Menu TouchFlo with WkTask
Programs All Programs soft button on the Programs tab in TouchFlo
Settings All Settings soft button on the Settings tab in TouchFlo
Recent applications Running applications in WkTask
Pinned applications Programs tab in TouchFlo (except now you have 18 slots instead of 7)
Start Menu Home key
OK button Back key or OK screen button
Kill application via Task Manager Tap and hold app icon on the taskbar to close or forcibly terminate

PopupThere are a couple of gotchas. For one, you’ll notice the running apps area, from pixels 0 to 225 on a VGA screen, completely covers the notification icon if you have Bluetooth turned on as well. I get around this by making sure all the notifications I have enabled display a message onscreen in Windows Mobile’s love-it-or-hate-it pop up “toast”. That way I don’t have to tap the now-hidden notification icon in the taskbar to get clear an alarm. Also, on my screen I only have room to display 5 running tasks at a time. I can run more than that, but when I do, the fifth icon is replaced by a double right chevron ( » ) and the rest are displayed in a little drop down menu.

Overall, though, this has greatly improved my ease of use on the device, making it easy to switch between apps without going to the home screen, and making the home screen the one and only way to launch applications. This dramatically cuts down on confusion when it comes time to do something, and makes Windows Mobile Professional feel more like Windows Mobile Standard; that is, makes it feel more like a phone. Give it a try and let me know how it works in the comments.

When did Twitter kill instant messaging?

A funny thing happened on the way to the blog this morning. I checked my email, caught up my RSS feeds in Google Reader, and scanned last night’s Twitter activity in TweetDeck (which is so good it’s actually worth installing Adobe Air, thanks Alli). And I realized I didn’t have Google Reader or Live Messenger open. That I haven’t had them open for some time now. And that I don’t really use them anymore. Everyone I talk to on a regular basis is on Twitter.

This may be not restricted to Twitter and more a function of social networks in general, but I’m far more active on Twitter than I am on Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn (though I’m trying to grok Facebook). But I’ve noticed that since I started using Twitter and following everyone I know or am interested in, my instant messaging use has dropped through the floor and even my text message use has dropped off sharply. If I want to get someone’s attention and it’s not worth an email, I’ll tweet. If it’s private, I’ll send a Twitter Direct Message. I’ve got twitter clients on all my computers, including my smartphone (TweekDeck on desktop and netbook, Tiny Twitter on the Touch Pro, though I tend to waffle between TT and ceTwit and PockeTwit), and even use the Twitter web site when I’m at the office behind our proxy. It’s become my preferred method for light not-in-person (out-person?) conversation.

Do you tweet? And if so, has it replaced IM for you?

Pick your ecosystem carefully

There are shaping up to be four big ecosystems in computing. As all four diversify into the categories below, I’m noticing that a lot of users are standardizing on using everything from a single vendor, a siloing of the market rather than embracing variety. You can do nearly everything you need to do with offerings from any one of them, and they tend to work better if you don’t mix and match. But is it really possible to put all your eggs in one basket?

Microsoft

Operating System

Windows

Web Browser

Internet Explorer

Email

Microsoft Outlook/Live Mail

Instant Messaging

Live Messenger

Photo Albums

Live Photo Albums

Search Engine

Live Search

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh/Live Sync

Blogging

Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Zune

Media Management

Windows Media/Zune

Console Gaming

Xbox

Microsoft has, by far, the best selection of the bunch, with every single category I could think of covered. They have gone out of their way to provide solutions for the office, living room and on the go. Some of the options here aren’t best-in-class (though I’d say the Zune is better than the iPod classic and IE 8 can give Firefox and Chrome a run for their money if you give it chance), but they all work. And more importantly, they all work together. If you use the software and services listed above, they interoperate cleanly and efficiently, exactly the way conventional wisdom says Microsoft doesn’t do. The biggest problem Microsoft has is the snarky haters who have their minds made up and won’t give them a break.

Google

Operating System

 

Web Browser

Google Chrome

Email

Gmail

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Google Docs

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Google Docs

Blogging

Blogger

Home Theater

 

Phone Platform

Android

Portable Media

 

Media Management

 

Console Gaming

 

Google has a lot of gaps in their ecosystem offerings, but they make up for it with even better integration than Microsoft. Once you start using one Google product (Gmail seems to be the most popular "gateway drug" aside from search itself), it’s all too easy to start using the rest. But where Google wins in interoperability, they lose in power. Google Docs, for example, is fine for light use, but most users wouldn’t think of using it to completely replace a more powerful desktop office suite. Google also lacks an OS and virtually any entertainment options. Even Google’s Android platform offers only the most basic media playback.

Apple

Operating System

OS/X

Web Browser

Safari

Email

Mail.app

Instant Messaging

iChat

Photo Albums

iPhoto

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

iWork

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

MobileMe

Blogging

 

Home Theater

Apple TV

Phone Platform

iPhone

Portable Media

iPod

Media Management

iTunes

Console Gaming

 

For Apple, interoperability is king, but it comes at the cost of choice. Apple’s offerings work seamlessly together, often appearing to be one organic system, but heaven help you if you need to replace one of them because it doesn’t entirely meet your needs. Their gaps are fairly minor, and the lock-in provided by iTunes over portable media and home theater offerings keeps a lot of users in their camp.

Linux/Open Source

Operating System

Linux

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Mozilla Thunderbird

Instant Messaging

Pidgin

Photo Albums

Varies by distro

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

OpenOffice/Sunbird

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

 

Blogging

WordPress

Home Theater

MythTV

Phone Platform

Linux

Portable Media

RockBox

Media Management

Mozilla Songbird

Console Gaming

 

The open source route is for the free spirits out there who so don’t want to be in thrall to one company that they’re willing to cobble together everything themselves, even when it doesn’t necessarily even try to work together. Think of these as the polar opposites to the Apple users. A lot of this stuff is build your own, but at least most of it doesn’t require you to compile it yourself anymore. It’s also so fragmented between different Linux distros (KDE and Gnome both have their own photo managers, and there are others as well if you don’t like those), that any kind of consensus-based interoperability is unlikely.

Conclusions, my ecosystem

I tried to stay within a single ecosystem, and my life would probably be easier if I did. But because of the various gaps or missing functionality, I’ve been forced to mix and match a bit, fully knowing that that would be up to me to find my own ways to makes the pieces interoperate.

Operating System

Windows Vista

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Microsoft Outlook

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Live Photo Album or Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh

Blogging

OneNote/Word/Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Windows Mobile

Media Management

Windows Media Player

Console Gaming

Xbox 360

Most of my ecosystem is based on Microsoft offerings, but I’ve swapped out a bit from the Google and Open Source stacks where appropriate. Firefox performs better on my netbook than IE 8, and the IE Tab plugin allows me to use the IE rendering engine when I need it. Google Talk is lighter and less noisy than Live Messenger, and I find Google’s search results a little bit more reliable than Live Search’s. My blogging solution is also a three-headed monster with some quick posts done in Live Writer but most of my blogging done in OneNote for early drafts, and then Word for posting. I’ve also bypassed Zune in favor of Windows Media Player and my Windows Mobile smartphone, but I know people that use both.

What are your choices? Do you stick mostly to a single vendor, or do you play the field?

10,000 hours

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he makes an interesting observation. In any relatively complex discipline, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. This 10,000 hour rule seems to apply equally to music composition, software development, writing, sewing, playing hockey, anything. No matter what you do, you don’t do it at a professional level until you’ve spent 10,000 hours at it. There are no shortcuts. Even Mozart didn’t produce what people consider his best work until he’d spent 10,000 hours composing.

Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure I’ve spent about 4,000 hours writing in my lifetime. Maybe as much as 5,000 if I’m seriously underestimating my blogging. I’ve probably spent less than 1,000 hours writing fiction. Assuming I can lump fiction and nonfiction together, that means that even if I buckle down and spend 2 hours a day, every day, writing fiction until I get my 10,000, I’ll be ready to start writing quality work at the beginning of 2016, at the age of 44. I’ve factored in a few skipped days here and there, since I know even at my most diligent there will be days where social commitments on top of my day job won’t allow for 2 hours of writing time.

Seven years. Seven years of writing stuff that I know I won’t be able to show anyone, because I’m not good enough yet. The thought fills me with overwhelming dread, for several reasons.

First off, I know that in that amount of time I’m going to burn through every idea I currently have in my development notebook. Every project I’m even marginally excited about must be sacrificed to the monster called “learning the ropes.” By the time I’m ready to write professionally, I’ll have to come up with all new material. That part doesn’t worry me, since I know writing ideas are like buses: another one will be along eventually. But I also know there’s no way I can spend seven years writing about “filler” topics and characters that I don’t care about. So I have to waste the stuff that I’m currently passionate about just to make it work. That’s a pretty depressing thought, moreso than wasting a block of stone or a canvas for practicing other art forms.

Secondly, I’m acutely aware of how much that seven years of daily writing sounds like work. Gladwell also posits that if the work you’re doing is fulfilling, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll do it anyway and the 10,000 hours will come easily as a side effect of how you choose to spend your time. As much as I feel like I should be, I’m just not jazzed about the idea of writing that much “practice” that is unlikely to ever get published. I write on average 500 words an hour for fiction (1,000 or more for nonfiction), so we’re looking at 2,500,000 words, 2.5 million, before I’m “good enough.” That’s 15-25 average length novels. So far I’ve written 2 and half novels and a novella. Ten times that output before I’m good enough to go public makes me want to crawl under my couch.

And lastly, “good enough” for what? Even if I get my 10,000 hours in, that puts me at the same skill level as professional novelists like King and Grisham. It in no way guarantees the same degree of success. Gladwell also points out that success in any field has as much to do on who you know, how you were raised, when you were born and where you grew up as it does on individual achievement and hard work. So while I might be as good, technically, as my favorite authors, I might have no better results in getting published and onto bookstore shelves than I do right now. Is that much work worth it when there might be no reward?

Oddly, 10,000 hours of blogging feels totally doable, completely unlike fiction. Two hours a day of blogging, pointing out stuff on the net that interests me as well as writing original articles like this one, is definitely more than I’m doing now, but it would be a pleasant and engaging use of my time. It is also just about guaranteed to make more money for me than fiction thanks to Google Adsense, though probably never enough to support me without a day job. But that doesn’t matter. I’m in it for the LOLs, so they say. So maybe the problem here is my insistance on hanging on to fiction when that’s not were my lasting passion lies (I’ll probably always get a “bug up my ass” to tell a story every now and then, but the excitement never lasts long enough to write a book anymore).

What have you spent 10,000 hours doing, and does it sustain you, or do you sustain it?

Self-learning skills

Driving home just now I noticed something. When I’m straightening out of a turn, I’ll loosen my grip on the steering wheel and let the wheel spin freely just enough to bring the tires back to straight, then tighten my grip again. It seems like an obvious and efficient way to allow the laws of physics to straighten out the vehicle, but I have no memory of ever actually being taught to do this, either by my parents or my Driver’s Ed teacher.

So here’s my question. Does everyone do this? And if so, were you taught to do this, or does every driver figure this out independently through the daily act of driving a car?

I’m fascinated by the idea that user interfaces can be self-teaching, rather than “intuitive.” Not something that you can pick up and instantly feel a natural master of, which is what intuitive usually implies, but rather something that teaches you how to use it by using it.

Yet again, Windows Mobile trumps the iPhone

image Joost released a new iPhone application that, at first, seems like a pretty cool idea. You can use it to stream any of the videos hosted on Joost to the iPhone and watch them wherever you are. Neat! Movies and TV shows on the go! Premium content, because you can only watch that cat riding a Roomba on YouTube so many times.

Well, not so fast.

Like seemingly everything else about the iPhone, there’s a fatal flaw or two that makes the whole thing kind of WTF. Like you can’t use it over cellular data. At all. Nada. WiFi only, so no watching on the bus or the train, but more to the point, let’s think about this. You can only watch it at a hotspot. Meaning somewhere where you’re stationary, probably sitting down. Maybe enjoying a yummy coffee bean oriented beverage.

Where you could just pull out your damn laptop.

Is anyone really going to try to tell me that watching videos on the 3.5 inch, 320×480 screen on an iPhone is a better experience than watching them on even a 9 inch netbook? Really?

So while this is a nice idea, it thoroughly misses the point. It can’t see the point. The point is, well, a speck.

Contrast this to Windows Mobile. Install the free proxy browser Skyfire, and just about any Windows Mobile device can watch streaming video from Joost, Hulu or, well, anywhere. And you can do it over cellular. On a train. Where maybe a netbook wouldn’t be as convenient.

Unlike other mobile browsers, Skyfire supports the desktop version of Adobe Flash applications so sites, including those that serve-up video and music, are rendered exactly as you would expect – just like your PC. You will instantly recognize the content, be familiar with the page layout — which is not true for most mobile browsing experiences. We support all that’s good about today’s web – not just Flash, but also Silverlight, Ajax, QuickTime and more. And even better: Skyfire evolves with the newest capabilities without you having to do anything.

Yeah, I thought so.