Prompt

Panic’s Prompt is the SSH iOS application that I (and I’m sure many others) were waiting for from the release of the first iPad.  My only complaint is that it took over a year (a year of using considerably inferior alternatives) before the app was finally available.

SSH isn’t pretty, but somehow Prompt is.  Although there’s a lot of space required for the keyboard, connections, and settings, Prompt somehow makes the remote display quite large enough to be readable (and if you use an external keyboard, then it’s perfectly sized, and you get the control keys and arrow keys working as you’d expect).  Connection management is very simple, and all the settings you’d expect (initial command, prompt string, etc) are available.

The keyboard includes an additional top row that has the keys that you need to use most frequently in SSH (escape, control, tab, /, -, |, @, arrow keys) and are missing from the standard iOS keyboard.  It even autocompletes using the shell history, saving typing long paths and commands repeatedly.

There’s very little I can say about the app other than if you will ever need/want to SSH from your iPad, then this is, without any doubt, the application to have.  It’s $11, but worth easily five times that much; I’d grumble and probably try and convince work to contribute to it, but I’d pay $100 for it.  If you don’t know what SSH is, then this is not the app for you.

(Before Prompt, I used iSSH which also does VNC – I use VNC a lot less frequently, but still need it occasionally, so now I need to figure out which is the best VNC app, which are unfortunately all fairly pricey.  If you have suggestions, let me know!)

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Cards (iOS App)

Cards is one of the lesser quality Apple iOS apps (think MobileMe Gallery rather than Keynote).  The premise is simple: you create a greeting card on your iOS device (just like you would in iPhoto) and through in-app purchasing you pay for it to be printed and sent (anywhere in the world) – unlike in iPhoto where you’d have to order many and they’d be sent to you to then send on.

Aspects of the app are good – the templates are very customisable and generally nice, and it’s a pretty simple process to create a card.  The pricing ($6.50 including postage) is extremely reasonable considering the cost of a decent (not customised) card elsewhere.

However, there are considerable flaws: the purchasing is odd – it doesn’t use the standard in-app purchasing system (I can’t understand why not), so you’re prompted for more information than simply your App Store password; the App is bizarrely iPhone/iPod resolution only (nearly the same interface would work perfectly well on an iPad, where you’ve got access to all your high-quality photos via Photo Stream anyway); and the cards take forever to arrive.

The latter is the most significant flaw, of course.  In a few cases (e.g. “thank you” cards) it doesn’t matter how long the card takes to arrive; in most cases (birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, …) timing is actually very important.  We sent a card while visiting the Auckland Museum at the end of the school holidays, and it took over a week to arrive; one has apparently been sent to us (around the same time) and has yet to arrive.  The “shipping notification” email arrives days before the card does, indicating that the problem isn’t in the printing, but in the delivery (presumably they are being printed in Australia and there’s some sort of international shipping delay causing issues).

It’s likely that this is a problem specific to New Zealand (and perhaps isolated other countries).  Unfortunately, that does mean that it’s less likely that it’ll be quickly fixed.  We’ll probably try this again in a couple of weeks, and see if the speed has improved – if not, then the app is only useable in rare circumstances, which is unfortunate, because we’d likely otherwise use it quite frequently.

SkyTV iOS App

The SkyTV iOS app is free, and I rarely use it, but on occasion is is very handy.  The application is mostly a TV Guide – since SkyTV refuses to let anyone else have their listings, but they do have all the free-to-air channels, it’s clearly the best guide.  However, I don’t really have much use for a guide, because I’m never looking for something to watch (everything I’m interested in is scheduled to record).

Where the app is occasionally useful is that it can be connected to your MySKY box, and you can remotely schedule a program to be recorded.  This is essential for those times when you’re away from home and remember that a new program is starting in a few hours and you forgot to schedule it.  The scheduling is limited (e.g. you can’t set up a series link), but it’s good enough for these situations.

As you’d expect from SkyTV, the process of setting this up is incredibly painful.  You need to enter your SkyTV account details and the unique ID of the smart card in the MySKY box, and although this should be a smooth process, it never works first time – and then, without anything being done at all, will ‘magically’ start working at some later date (I’m guessing that the linking process takes time, and the app fails to tell the user this, leading them to believe they did something wrong).

Once it is finally set up, though, it’s very simple to use – just find the program you’re interested in recording and a few taps later it’s scheduled.  Test it at home first, of course!  (But not right away, because, as above, it doesn’t appear to work until a few hours have passed since the initial setup).

If you’ve got MySKY and an iOS device, then this is absolutely an app that you should have installed (it is free, after all!).  If you don’t have MySKY, but you do want to use a TV Guide on iOS, then this is the more comprehensive one for New Zealand listings, so (again given that it’s free), it’s worth having.

Note that the app doesn’t offer any sort of iSKY (on demand video) access.  It would be extremely nice if that was added in the future, but I’m skeptical that it will be.

PyPad

PyPad is a Python interpreter for iOS.  This sounds incredibly exciting, right – finally I can do proper development and run Python programs on iOS!  Unfortunately, that’s not really the case (mostly due to Apple’s restrictions).

PyPad lets you create multiple modules and execute each of them.  However, only a subset of the standard library is available, and there’s nothing iOS-specific available (so you can’t access the camera, or touch information, and so on).  Getting code in and out of the app is done via copy and paste.  The standard keyboard is provided, with start/pause/stop buttons.

I keep the app installed so that I can (via AirPlay mirroring) demonstrate simple Python snippets.  However, if I have an Internet connection available, then I can do that in Prompt (ssh’d to a server that has Python installed) much more elegantly.

The app is clearly limited by Apple’s restrictions as to what’s acceptable for iOS.  However, it does seem like it could do much more (e.g. see Codea) if more of the standard library was available (this would mean rewriting chunks, I presume) and if there were special iOS-specific modules available for accessing things specific to the device (especially for accessing touch and graphical output).  It could accept .py and text files from other applications, making it easy to get code in (e.g. from Dropbox) and share files (as text) – although perhaps that crosses Apple’s boundary for what’s ok.  It would be nice to include the Python documentation, too (I have a separate app for this, but it makes sense to have it in once place).

The app is only $2, so if you’ve any interest in Python on iOS, then I’d recommend buying it to have a look and to encourage more development.  You probably won’t end up using it that much, however.

TomTom New Zealand

The TomTom iOS app was recently updated to be universal (i.e. support both iPhone/iPod and iPad resolution in a single app) and this, combined with yet another navigation argument, was enough to convince me to buy it – at $95 it’s by far the most expensive iOS app I’ve bought (although as a percentage of the total app expenditure it’s not very much!).

I gather the interface strongly resembles the dedicated TomTom hardware.  It’s useable, but not as clean or elegant as I imagine Apple’s app will be when they finally reveal it (but I strongly suspect that Apple’s one will be iPhone only, at least at first).  Given that most of the time you’re glancing at the map or just listening to the turn-by-turn directions, the interface isn’t overly important anyway.

It’s done well with directions so far – no errors, and easily correcting when mistakes are made.  The maps have sufficient coverage even in Warkworth and Ahuroa, and being a proper navigation app there’s no need for a cellular connection (unlike with the built-in Maps app), which is essential in Ahuroa, since there’s barely any coverage.

The app is certainly better than having to rely solely on another person to navigate.  Although I don’t often need instructions (since I’m usually driving somewhere I’m familiar with), in the cases where I do, it’s useful to have, and over the course of a year, I think that’s probably worth $100.  (The monthly traffic subscription, however, is not – I haven’t even bothered trying this out).

I’ve tried various free/cheap navigation apps, and although they’re ok, they’re absolutely inferior to this one.  I’d recommend it to anyone that thinks that they’ll get $100 of value out of it, especially over the next year (it seems very likely that iOS 6 will have a built-in app).

Quarrel Deluxe

Quarrel Deluxe (Quarrel DX in Springboard) is a cross between Scrabble (which I don’t love, although I did, like many people, play Words with Friends for quite a while) and Risk (which I do love, but rarely play non-digital because of a lack of people to play against), and may well be better than either.

The setup is essentially like Risk: a board of locations (countries in Risk) that each have a number of armies and varying numbers of neighbouring locations.  The options in a turn are similar as well: attack, fortify (i.e. move armies from one country to a neighbouring one), or pass.  Even in fortification Quarrel beats Risk – rather than only being able to fortify at the end of your turn, you can do it throughout the turn, but once you’ve moved armies from one location to another, neither of those can then fortify or attack later in the turn (they can receive armies from another neighbour).

Attacking is where Scrabble comes in – rather than relying on the luck of the dice, like in Risk, each player is given the same eight letters (that always form at least one eight-letter word, as well as many smaller ones) and whoever makes the highest scoring word wins the battle.  Not only is there more skill (and less luck) than in Risk, there’s more than in Scrabble, too, since you always have the same letters to work with as your opponent.  The length of the word you can make depends on how many armies you have (so if you have three and your opponent has seven, you’ll need a pretty awesome three-letter word). All the ‘double letter’, ‘triple word’, ‘use a letter from another word’, ‘make multiple words at once’, and hard limits to board size elements from Scrabble are gone: these are the parts I hate most about Scrabble, so for me that’s a clear win.  It’s all about making the best word (i.e. longest and with the highest point letters).

Speed is also a factor – if your word is the same number of points as your opponent’s, then whoever finished first wins.  This comes into play quite a lot – it’s often better to go for a high scoring word really quickly than take a bit longer trying to find the best word possible.  Games can also be against the clock, which adds considerably to the difficulty.

There are many other subtle elements to the game, which clearly indicate that it has been well thought out.  In addition, the graphics and sound are very well done (cutesy little stylised fighters).

I’d recommend this game to anyone that likes word games and/or strategy games like Risk.  There’s very little luck involved (none, really, if you exclude the computer opponent behaviour), and a lot of strategy required.  Games can be quite simple but also range to very difficult.

I’d love to see a future version include a multiplayer (i.e. multiple iPad) game option.  It could also possibly borrow the concept of “continents” from Risk and have some additional larger boards where there are locations that give additional reinforcements if you’re holding the entire island.

Open source in government is not important

Labour’s “ICT” policy includes a statement on “Open software” in government, part of which is attempting to get two thirds of government agencies to use some sort of open-source software by 2015.  This is basically what you expect from politicians when talking about “ICT” (or nearly anything, unfortunately) – they jump on whatever bandwagon/buzzwords are popular without any understanding of what should be done.

Firstly, I would be shocked if more than two thirds of government agencies were not already using some form of open-source software already.  For a start, it’s nearly impossible to use the Internet without accessing something running Linux or Apache.

More importantly, it makes no sense at all to aim for governments to be using more open-source software.  They should be using the software most suited to the job at hand, whether closed source or open source.  What benefit is there in requiring open source?  If they think it’s cheaper, then they should look more closely, because it’s often not.  The same applies to being more secure.  There are absolutely situations where the best choice is an open-source one – but there are absolutely situations where closed source is better.  I don’t want government employees forced to use less than the best tools because of some ideological burden placed on them by someone wanting a cushy job for the next three years.

They have a few other requirements:

Software developed in-house will be made publicly available.  A nice idea, but (a) I’m fairly sure that most of the in-house software is of no use to anyone else, (b) I suspect most of the software you’d assume was in-house was actually developed by non-government contractors, and, most significantly, (c) not all code is ready to be shared.  If a government sysadmin writes a quick script to do a job, do we really want to add the pressure that it will be publicly available (and given that it’s the government, it’s reasonable to assume that someone will be looking at everything).  As long as the software does the job, that’s good enough (in the “in-house” context).  What would be worthwhile is ensuring that government agencies consider whether software should be released to the public – I’m sure that there is some that would be of general interest and where the quality is suitably high.

Agencies considering technology purchases over $2 million would first evaluate whether publicly available technology would substantially meet their requirements.

Ugh.  A technology purchase over $100 should involve consideration of whether there was an existing public tool that could do the job – this should always be the case, not just for obscenely costly jobs.

Labour would also create a government “app store” to provide “a short circuit for fledgling NZ software developers to get to market” which would allow local developers to submit software for purchase by government agencies. Labour promises to ensure “informed neutrality” in software purchasing with due consideration of open-source software.

I really don’t understand what this is trying to achieve.  There’s no indication that local developers would be preferred (only, with no reasoning, open-source software), so how does this help local developers?  This sounds like a way to spend a lot of money for very little gain.

What they are missing are the most important “open”s: open standards (and open formats) and open data.

Governments should only be using software that produces and accepts files that are in formats that are open standards (this includes Microsoft Office documents).  We do have a “New Zealand official interoperability framework definition” already, but it could be significantly expanded on (see what other governments require, for example).  Everything the government produces should be in some sort of open format and everywhere the government accepts data at least one open format should be accepted.  Open standards apply to other areas too, but open formats is the key in “ICT”.

We have a limited commitment to open data already (see data.govt.nz).  This should be significantly expanded on – every data set that the government creates (and there are a huge number of these) should be publicly available, so that (a) we have transparency, and (b) other researchers can benefit from the data.  The only limitation is privacy – unfortunately even when a data set appears to be anonymous it is often possible to identify individuals – it would be worth spending money on figuring out how to get past this so that we can share just about everything without breaching individual people’s privacy.