Archive for June, 2008

FloSpace Launches FloPrompter version 3.0!

FloSpace is my little software company and FloPrompter is my first product. It’s a teleprompter program for Windows PCs — it turns any PC into a studio quality teleprompter! (What’s a teleprompter?)

Today, I’m happy to announce that I’ve updated FloPrompter to version 3.0!

The newest version has several important new features, including mirrored text and support for multiple synchronized windows. Lots of customers have asked for those features and after nearly a year of trial and error, I figured out how to achieve them with very good performance.

In fact, those two features are critical for certain professional situations, but completely unnecessary for many of my “regular people” customers, like podcasters, churches, bands, and motivational speakers. So I created two editions of FloPrompter with this release: the Standard Edition, which has the same features as version 2.0, and the Professional Edition, which includes the mirrored text and support for dual monitors.

I left the pricing for the Standard Edition unchanged ($49.95), and set the price for the new Professional Edition to $250 for several reasons: The price is extremely good compared to competitors, the Professional Edition will be purchased by businesses rather than individuals and can be written off, and it will help me to recoup my substantial investment in producing the product (software tools, components, icons, professional services, etc.).

What’s particularly cool for hundreds of my customers is that they can upgrade for FREE from version 2.0 to version 3.0 (Standard Edition). Yes, that’s right — free!

Most software companies charge customers to upgrade to the newest version (hello, I’m talking to you, Apple and Adobe). But as version 3.0 includes many performance improvements and feature enhancements, as well, I know that my customers will appreciate the opportunity.

So — not only did I update the software, but I also worked with a friend of mine who’s a graphic designer to update the FloSpace web site. I really love the new design. I hope (potential) customers will, too!

The new web site looks professional, sophisticated, and polished. It offers much better features for showing off screenshots of FloPrompter in the Gallery. I love how when you click on a badge in the Gallery, the window becomes dark and the screenshot sort of unfolds into view. That effect is wicked cool. (It’s called a lightbox feature.)

I made numerous improvements to the FloSpace Store page, as well. The page is laid out better with big, clear buttons. I also include an Amazon.com store widget on the page. Many of our customers have asked us for recommendations on wireless remotes and foot switches, so this Amazon mini-store will help customers choose the right accessories to make the most of their investment in FloPrompter.

I hope you like the new FloPrompter web site and software! It’s been a long time coming. I’m really pleased to see how far along the product and web site have come in the past two years.

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Windows 4-bit Color Palette

Here’s a handy reference chart for those instances when you need to quickly see what the 16 colors are that are part of the Microsoft Windows 4-bit color palette. Particularly, for example, when you’re creating an .ICO file for a Windows application!

Microsoft 4 bit Color Swatches

By the way, I organized the colors in this palette in no particular order other than I thought it was nice.  🙂

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How to create .ICO files for Microsoft Windows applications

Creating an .ICO icon file for Microsoft Windows applications is surprisingly difficult, complicated, and unclear. Which is strange given how much software is actually created for Microsoft every day.

Making matters worse, there is precious little decent technical documentation on how to create .ICO files well, and for most graphic designers, it is a total mystery.

Fortunately, I’ve figured out how to do it with a mix of trial & error and a few clues uncovered here or there. First, let’s cover some background.

Q: What is an .ICO file?

An .ICO file is basically a fancy (and undocumented) file archive, kind of like a .ZIP file. Microsoft created it as a specialized container to hold multiple image files within a single logical file. During the software installation process, a program like FloSpace FloPrompter will register an .ICO file with Microsoft Windows. This process is similar to saying, “Hey, Windows! When you show my program or one of my files on the desktop, use one of the images from this .ICO file so that people can look at it and recognize it as mine!”

As a container, the file holds multiple files, each at a specific size and color depth. The bit depths are 4 bits, 8 bits, and 32 bits. At each bit depth, sizes range from 16×16 to 256×256. Put that into a table with the three bit depths for columns, and eight special sizes for eight rows. Three times eight – that means the table has 24 cells. That’s 24 unique images to create and pack into one single .ICO file. Yes, it does take some time! (Click the table below to view it at full size.)

.ICO Component Image Tables

(I think you can optionally ignore the 64×46 and higher images for the 4 bit column… but unconfirmed!)

Wikipedia offers a more in-depth look at the .ICO file format at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICO_%28icon_image_file_format%29

Windows Mobile Note: As you might have noticed from the table above, you’ll want to create a separate .ICO file for the Windows Mobile version of your application. The good news is that you can use a sub-set of the same image files! The only slightly bad news is you have to create image files at two mobile-specific sizes: 22×22 and 44×44. To help keep the total file size down, only package the necessary images as noted above into the .ICO.

Microsoft Resources

When learning how to create .ICO files, start by reading two very important web pages on Microsoft’s web site. One page provides some detailed information on how to create .ICO files for Windows XP, while the other provides additional information for people creating software for Windows Vista.

Read this third link if you’re creating an .ICO file for use by Windows Mobile applications.

Get the Right Tools For the Job

Next, I recommend that you purchase the right software for the job. I’ve tried using a few different software products and Photoshop plug-ins and they all pretty much suck. In my opinion, most are completely useless and unusable, with incomprehensible user interfaces.

One product that stands out as being both fairly usable and easy, is Gamani GIF Movie Gear. As you might expect from the name, it works really well for creating animated GIFs, as well. In my opinion, it’s also the most straightforward software program for creating .ICO files. Even better, it’s also really affordable, just $25.

www.gamani.com

In summary, use Gamani as an ICO packaging utility once the graphics are already created – not as a utility for actually creating graphics!

Step 1: 32 Bit Color Images

First, create the 32 bit color images at each of the magical sizes from 16×16 to 256×256. Yes, you should create the images all the way up to 256×256! Given that your software will probably run on both XP and Vista, just do it.

Whether you create each image file in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, here is what you want to do. Export the image in PNG format for best results. The easiest way is to click on the Save for Web menu item, then choose PNG-24 from the Settings drop-down, and make sure that Transparency is checked. (Click to view the screenshot in full size.)

Photoshop Save for Web - 24 bit PNG Settings

Don’t forget to give each file a good name! Something like “MyLogo_XX_32bit.png” is good, where XX represents the size (e.g., “MyLogo_16_32bit.png”).

Another thing to keep in mind is that the two smallest sizes, 16×16, and 24×24, will probably need hand tuning. So open those PNG files back up in Photoshop, and do any necessary clean up before moving on.

Windows Mobile Note: If you’re creating an .ICO for use on Windows Mobile devices, you don’t need any 32 bit color images in the .ICO archive. Most windows mobile devices can’t display that many colors.

Step 2: 8 Bit Color Images

Now to create the 8 bit images!

Open up one of the 32 bit PNG files which you just created. To convert it to an 8 bit image, the easiest thing to do is simply save it as an 8 bit image. Here’s how:

Click on the Save for Web menu item again in Photoshop. This time, select PNG-8 from the settings drop down. Now, adjust the color settings, dithering, diffusion style, etc., to maximize how well your image looks. Save the image with a good name, such as “MyLogo_XX_8bit.png.”

Photoshop Save for Web - 8 bit PNG Settings

Now repeat this process for all of the images. And again, you may need to re-open the smaller files in Photoshop to do some hand tuning.

Step 3: 4 Bit Color Images

Creating the images for the 8 and 32 bit colors is easy. Creating them for at 4 bit color depth is more complicated and time consuming.

First, you want to get a special color palette file for Photoshop which will make it easy for you to use the right colors. It turns out that Microsoft Windows is exceptionally picky about WHICH 16 colors you’re allowed to use for the 4 bit depth image files. You can only use the special Windows colors — no other colors are acceptable. Download the Photoshop color palette file (CLUT) from Gamani’s info page.

www.gamani.com/support_icon.htm

Direct file download: www.gamani.com/download/4bit.act

Next, we’re going to create some transitional files. These will NOT be added to the final .ICO file, but will help us get one step closer to proper 4 bit images.

Okay, open up one of the 8 bit image files. In the Layers window, add a new layer and position it UNDER the image so that it is the background. Fill this new background layer with a weird color completely unrelated to any other color in your image. For example, if your logo is mostly blues, set the background color as magenta.

Make sure than when this is done, the background color is unique (such as the magenta in the screenshot) and present in the top leftmost pixel.

Click on Save for Web menu item again, and this time select GIF 64 No Dither. Uncheck the transparency. Restrict the number of colors to something very low (such as 3 or 4). Remember that you do not want any anti-aliasing effects along the color borders. Just flat colors. No beveling or other effects. Just a small number of unique colors.

Photoshop Save for Web - GIF Settings

Now, save this image as a GIF. Give it a good name, such as “MyLogo_XX_Temp.gif.” Repeat this process for all image sizes.

Okay, now we can move on to creating the actual 4 bit images for use in the .ICO!

Open one of the temp GIF images. Click on Image > Mode > Color Table. In the Color Table Dialog, click on the Load button, and load in the 4bit.act file you got from Gamani. Your image may look pretty screwy! So now you need to hand tune each image file to use ONLY one of the 16 colors shown in that color table dialog. And again – this file should not have anti-aliasing or transparency effects.

Photoshop - Color Table Menu Item

Photoshop Color Table Dialog

When you’re done hand tuning the file, click Save for Web and choose GIF with the absolute minimum number of colors necessary, no transparency. Give the file a good name, such as “MyLogo_XX_4bit.gif.” And repeat this process for the rest of the sizes.

Step 4: Package the .ICO File

Now you’re finally ready to put it all together!

Launch Gamani GIF Movie Gear. Gamani launches into a “blank new project” state.

Gamani GIF Movie Gear - New Project

Let’s test one of the 4 bit GIF image files to make sure that it was done right. Open the folder containing all of your fabulous new images. Drag one of the 4 bit GIF images (“MyLogo_XX_4bit.gif”)onto the GIF Movie Gear window. Hover your mouse pointer over it and Movie Gear will show a tool tip confirming the bit depth. If Movie Gear does indeed show 4 bit, you ought to be fine.

Gamani GIF Movie Gear - Tooltip showing 4 bit color info for an image

Now, let’s save the project as an ICO file (we’ll add in the rest of the images in a moment).

Click File > Save As. Select “Windows icon (.ico)” from the Save As Type drop down.

Gamani GIF Movie Gear - Save As .ICO File

Now that it’s saved, let’s continue.

Next, drag the rest of your 4 bit image files onto the Gamani project window; then add all of the 8 bit images. Click on the File > Save button again to make sure that all is well and good in the world. Gamani does an error check to make sure that there is only one file at 16×16 for 4 bit, and one file at 16×16 for 8 bit. A common error is that designers will have accidentally saved what should be a 4 bit image as 8 bit instead, so Gamani will catch that if it’s the case. If Gamani saved the .ICO file and didn’t complain, then it means you created all of the 4 bit images properly! If it complained, then you have some illegal colors in one or more of the 4 bit images or it’s the wrong bit depth, so you’ll need to go through Step 4 again.

Finally, drop all of the 32 bit images onto the file. Save it! When you’re done it will look something like this:

Gamani GIF Movie Gear - Complete .ICO File

Don’t freak out if you see some of your 8 bit and 32 bit PNG images with what looks like non-transparent backgrounds. Gamani GIF Movie Gear gives transparency a color for some odd reason, and you can change that color if you like.

Now Breathe…

And with that, you’re all done!

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Fake Jerry Yang

Over at the Fake Steve Jobs blog (aka, “The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs”), Fake Steve has gone “on vacation” for awhile leaving Fake Jerry Yang (CEO of Yahoo) to take his place.

I miss Fake Steve. He was funny.

But fortunately Fake Jerry is funny & insightful, too. And his writing is eerily familiar…

Hmmmm…

Personally, I think that Fake Jerry is FAKE and that Fake Steve is behind the whole thing. I wouldn’t put it past him. That fakester. Faker McFakester.

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Why I won’t get a Nokia N810

I feel like doing more ranting today…

So I just read an article today on TabletBlog called “Teach Nokia Something,” and it got me thinking about the Nokia N810 device.

www.tabletblog.com/2008/06/teach-nokia-something.html

As all of my friends know, I used to work for Nokia. (I’m currently freelancing as a mobile UI designer.) Nokia is a great place to work for a lot of reasons, not least of which that you get to beta test new devices long before they’re launched. For example, I was an early recipient of the N800 device and filed a gazillion bugs & feature requests on it before it was launched. I also purchased a Nokia 770 with my own money shortly after it was launched in 2006 because it was such a cool and innovative product.

I love the concept of the N800/N810. A pocketable, infinitely expandable Linux-based computer! Plus, it’s extremely capable and a lot of fun to use!

Unfortunately, I think that the dream just hasn’t been realized with this device yet. And given the choice between a Nokia N810 or an iPod Touch, I’ll go with the Touch.

Holy cow! Did I really just write that? Oh yes, I did…

I think the N810 is missing several key features to really make it a strong competitor to the iPod Touch, which is in my opinion it’s target device to beat. The iPod Touch isn’t a true one-to-one competitor, but it’s the closest thing. And the iPod Touch has really raised the bar on what a pocket computer can be, leapfrogging the innovative N810 in many ways.

PIM FEATURES SUCK

Nokia has specifically resisted offering any competent PIM features on the device out of the box. They don’t want the press or customers to confuse the device with a Palm Pilot (ick!). Well, sure. I suppose that’s understandable. No one wants to buy a Palm any more and the Palm OS platform is dead. But at the end of the day, Personal Information Management (PIM) features like the Contacts, Calendar, and Address Book are core features of any mobile device. Purposefully under-developing those features is akin to giving your shiny new smart convergence device a lobotomy.

The fact is that convergence devices need to offer a platform-level mashup infrastructure with PIM features at the core. This is plumbing upon which third party software developers need to build innovative mashup-style products and services. All smartphone platforms offer Address Books with varying levels of open APIs (programming hooks) for just this purpose. Even the iPhone and Android have fairly open Address Book APIs! But the Nokia N8xx Maemo devices have an exceptionally braindead Address Book, lame ass email client, non-existent calendar, etc. The complaints about the native N8xx PIM apps ring loudly throughout the blogosphere ring.

And third parties have not really stepped up to the plate to fill in the gaps. The only company which was offering a competent suite of PIM applications for the early Nokia 770, Deja Desktop, discontinued its offering a couple of years ago. None of the other apps that are currently available on the Maemo.org download site qualify as suitable replacements.

Nokia, wake up and recognize PIM as the killer app suite for all of your mobile devices! It’s core infrastructure that, when well developed, makes your platform worthwhile to innovate on!

POOR MULTIMEDIA EXPERIENCEThe Nokia N8xx devices offer a fairly poor multimedia experience overall. It lacks out of the box support for a variety of common (MP4 video) and obscure fanboy formats (like Ogg Vorbis). So when I rip my DVDs for my iPod touch in MP4, I can’t also play them on an N810.

What’s worse, the media player is ugly as sin. It pains me to open the thing and look at it long enough to even launch a video or music file. The experience also doesn’t hold a candle to the rich and fun experience on an iPhone/iPod Touch.

And BTW, I’m not fond of Canola, either. It’s really pretty, but still a product with unrealized potential. It’s still too buggy and unstable for my liking.

INSUFFICIENT MEMORY

The cheapest iPhone and iPod Touch devices ship with more on-board memory than a Nokia N810. Yeah, I know that the N810 is expandable to 8 GB, but the smallest iPhones/iPod Touches ship with 8 GB and go up from there. Up to 32 GB for the iPod Touch! The next N8xx needs at least 8 GB!

And what’s wrong with offering multiple devices where the only differentiating factor is memory? It’s in decisions like this that Nokia’s handset roots show through. Apple, the computer company, get it that you can extract lots more revenue from the market simply by offering devices with different amounts of built in memory. Nokia? Yeah, not so much. Nokia has only dipped its toes into the water with such a strategy by offering a couple of mobile phones with extra memory. Nokia, you’re not quite there yet in learning how to be a consumer electronics company!

NO BLUETOOTH STEREO HEADPHONE SUPPORT

I want an N810 to offer Bluetooth stereo headphone support (A2DP) out of the box. Yes, you can add it in as an end user with third party software while by muttering weird incantations under a full moon. But who does? The N810 needs to get to the point where a whole suite of brilliant apps and features are THERE, right out of the box! Then it will have more likelihood to become a consumer success. Hackers will always hack and it’s really cool to see what they come up with. But consumers never do. Consumers personalize; they don’t hack.

DESKTOP MEDIA MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE

The killer feature of the iPhone/iPod Touch is the brilliant integration between iTunes on the desktop, the iTunes store web services, and the devices. One click and they’re all in sync! The Nokia N8xx series doesn’t necessarily need that level of integration. But it would be really nice if it were at least easier to manage my media collection on the device from my desktop! And that includes RSS news subscriptions too.

I’m sure there are more nits to pick here, but the day is getting on and I’ve got other work to do. And of course, this posting neglects to go on about all of the features I love about the device, such as the excellent browser and seamless Bluetooth connectivity for piggybacking on my Nokia E65’s data connection while on the road. The iPod Touch can’t do that!

BOTTOM LINE

I really love the Nokia N810 device and its siblings. But I won’t buy a replacement for my aging Nokia 770 until there’s a really competent alternative to my iPod Touch.

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Why I won’t get an Apple iPhone 3G

“Apple 3G iPhone is…”

  • Going to save the world.
  • Going to Nokia, LG, Samsung, RIM (BlackBerry), etc…
  • The second coming of the greatest technology ever.

That’s all hogwash!

True, it’s an amazing little device that’s really fun to use. But it’s not for me — yet.

For one thing, the device lacks advanced Bluetooth functionality for sending/getting files and stero headphone support (A2DP). Why does this supposedly advanced device lack the ability to get rid of the headphone wires all together? Strange.

The new 3G device also lacks enough memory. My iTunes music collection is already at 19 GB and growing fast with each new CD or iTunes purchase. Not to mention that I’m slowly going through my DVD collection and ripping some of my favorite movies and TV shows to an iPod-compatible video format. The 3G iPhone has 16 GB of storage maximum.  *yawn* I’m waiting for 32 (minimum) or 64 GB (preferred) before I’d even consider switching.

I also am waiting to see what kind of apps will be created for the device. Since the device doesn’t appear to have native support for SyncML, I can’t sync my contact list from Zyb (www.zyb.com) to the phone. But on the good side, it looks like some third party software vendors are lining up to provide support for SyncML.

And don’t even get me started on the lack of Flash and Java support on the device!

I think it’s lame that Apple doesn’t support such “core” mobile software features on their phones when the other mobile platform vendors do!

Well, with the notable exception of Microsoft. Their Windows Mobile platform still kind of sucks and lacks advanced features, too… That’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, I’ll content myself with one of Nokia’s advanced S60 smartphones paired with a 32 GB iPod Touch!

Oh, and Sony Ericsson, I‘ll come back to the fabulous UIQ platform when you start making UIQ devices that work on American 3G networks. Same goes for you Motorola! The Z8 is a great device — but no WiFi and no US 3G??? What the heck?!?

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What are the must have downloadable applications for your mobile phone?

Someone in my extended network on LinkedIn just posed this question, so I took a few minutes to write a response. I wrote a much longer article on this blog not too long ago on this topic:

Setting Up a New Unlocked Smartphone: www.infotart.com/blog/2008/01/05/setting-up-a-new-unlocked-phone/

So here’s my response to the LinkedIn question which I wrote this afternoon:

For me, it also depends on the phone’s operating system. I own several smartphones (either Symbian S60 or UIQ). As a mobile UI designer, I’ve also enjoyed spending time with Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Palm devices.

For me, personally, once I get a new phone, I always put all of my contacts on the phone. I use a free service from Zyb (www.zyb.com, now owned by Vodaphone) to sync my contacts to my devices. The device must have SyncML support, which includes most smartphones.

I use Google Calendar to manage my social calendar and I don’t need all of those events on my device’s calendar. The reason is that I set up Google Calendar to send me an SMS by default for all events about 15 min. before starting. (That setting is editable for each individual event.) But if I did want my calendar on my phone, I would use GooSync (www.goosync.com). GooSync also offers to sync your Google contacts.

One of the first things I do with a new phone is put my personal email on the device. I have Gmail, but don’t like the Java-based Gmail application. Instead, most smartphones support linking POP/IMAP accounts like Gmail into the phone’s native email app. That’s what I use with S60 and UIQ phones, and it works great!

Next, I put Google Maps on my phone. The features for Google Maps varies by operating system. It’s very rich on S60 devices, including getting location data from an external GPS receiver via Bluetooth (which is what I have in my car) or via cell tower. Hopefully those features are coming to UIQ soon, as I really missed it on my Sony Ericsson W960 Walkman phone. Google Maps has a few annoying quirks, but it’s free and works great overall.

I really like Fring (www.fring.com) on my WiFi-enabled S60 phone. I like being able to make calls over WiFi, as well as chat with friends on Skype and some other services.

Another good WiFi VOIP app is the Gizmo Project (www.gizmoproject.com), which has excellent integration with S60 phones as a native “Internet Call” service. The Gizmo Project is like Skype’s less famous (and not quite as pretty) cousin, but the VOIP calling features work great.

I love the concept of JoikuSpot Light (www.joiku.com) which turns your S60 phone into a wireless Internet WiFi hotspot! Since I also carry an iPod Touch around, I can enjoy my email and web browsing on a bigger screen on the iPod Touch. The beta version worked only so-so with my Nokia E65, so I’m hoping that the recently released full version will be working better.

Another Internet access utility that I’ve heard lots of great thing about is Psiloc Connect (http://connect.psiloc.com). This handy little utility helps ensure that your WiFi enabled phone connects to WiFi points when they’re available rather than eating up data on your cellular plan. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s very high on my “next to try” list.

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I’ve Joined the Twitterati!

It turns out that many of my friends have accounts with Twitter, this fun little “micro-blogging” service that seems to have captured the hearts and minds of the digerati. I first heard about it after the South By Southwest conference last year when it burst onto the scene, but resisted creating my own account at the time.

Well, I finally took the plunge and created my own account on Twitter yesterday. So far so good — two days into it and I’m still doing it! Look me up at: www.twitter.com/AnthonyHand

If you’re on Twitter already, let’s be friends! My ID is AnthonyHand.

I’m hoping that my fascination with this shiny new toy lasts a bit longer than a month…

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