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August 06 2010

13:57

Are Android phones the best option for journalism students?

A few months ago I was asked what sort of mobile phone I would recommend for a journalism student. Knowing how tight student budgets are, and that any choice should have as much of an eye on the future as on the present, I recommended getting an Android phone.

The reasoning went like this: iPhones are great at certain things, and currently benefit from a wider range of applications than other mobile phones. But the contracts are expensive, the battery life poor, and Apple’s closed system problematic, for reasons I’ll expand on in a moment.

Currently, BlackBerry smartphones (apparently you can’t say ‘BlackBerries’) and high-end Nokias are probably the most popular phones for journalists. Both have excellent battery life and BlackBerry smartphones (yes, it gets annoying after the first time) have a particular strength in the way their email works.

But these are also expensive, and Symbian (the operating system for most high end Nokias) does not have a long term future, while its replacement, Maemo, has yet to build a present.

Which brings us to Android – the ‘Google’ phone – and the most affordable option for the student journalist looking at a multiplatform future.

  • With Google behind the technology, Android phones have excellent email integration – not quite as strong as a BlackBerry, but more than good enough.
  • Android’s app store – the ‘Market‘ – competes with Apple’s – and is catching up fast. Most of the must-have apps for journalists are already in there, and on this score it’s much stronger than BlackBerry or Nokia.
  • The biggest weakness is Android’s battery life, which is around the same as the iPhone (some tips on that here).
  • But apart from their affordability it is the openness of the Android platform which presents the strongest case for being the student journalist’s mobile of choice.

When I advised that student to get an Android phone, it was because I think that Android will seriously challenge iPhone both in terms of userbase (which is already happening) and app development.

Computerworld’s Jonny Evans (an “Apple Holic”) compares the situation to the struggle for the PC:

“[Apple's] insistence on a closed system means partnership deals aren’t open to it in the hardware space.

“So, where Android can deliver multiple devices for multiple niches at multiple price points to the market, Apple delivers a limited number of devices, hoping the quality of its software will make a difference. It seems to attract customers that way.

“As fellow blogger, Sharon Machlis, noted last week, the result of that strategy during the PC wars enabled Microsoft to seize monopoly-level market share on the desktop.

The game’s not over.

The same post, however, notes that “Apple’s key advantage against Android is its developer community”:

“Despite criticism of the way it curates its store, Apple does have an App Store that works, where 95 percent of apps are approved fast.

“This means developers already have a reliable and profitable route to market at 100 million iOS users – set to climb with the addition of at least 24 million more iPhone 4 users this year.

“Android developers may be able to develop more openly, but development is fragmented by the need to develop for multiple devices.”

Apple alienated parts of their community earlier this year when they released a new developer agreement. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Google provided a platform for a whole new community when it announced the launch of a tool that can only challenge Apple’s dominance: the App Inventor for Android:

“To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behavior.”

For the student journalist, this tool also offers an opportunity to experiment with mobile journalism and publishing in the same way that Blogger allowed you to experiment with online publishing and distribution, or Yahoo! Pipes allowed you to play with mashups (TechCrunch’s MG Siegler compares it with GeoCities). Tony Hirst has already written a series of posts exploring how the tool works (it’s currently in invite-only beta), which are worth bookmarking.

This tool seals the deal for me – it’s the difference between doing the job now and redefining it for the future.

But what do you think? What features do Android phones lack? What advantages do other phones hold?

For the record, I use an iPhone and an old N95. I use the N95 for phonecalls, texts and streaming video (because of its long battery life) and the iPhone for web browsing and apps – particularly RSS readers, Audioboo, editing blog posts and checking comments, Twitter, and email. Each handset is with a different operator, which gives me better 3G coverage options too. I also pay for an Android phone (a HTC Magic) in my household.


November 09 2009

14:30

Using Mobile Phones to Map the Slums of Brazil

In the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, unnamed streets meander through the hillsides. There are hospitals, coffee shops and restaurants, none of which appear on a map. Mail carriers struggle to deliver letters to homes without addresses.

A new project by Rede Jovem, a Brazilian non-profit that loosely translates to "Youth Net," seeks to change that. With the help of five young "wiki-reporters" and GPS-equipped mobile phones, the non-profit is building a map of five Brazilian favelas: Complexo do Alemão, Cidade de Deus, Morro do Pavão-Pavãozinho, Morro Santa Marta and Complexo da Maré. 

Mapping the Unmapped

By uploading information to the phones, the reporters are mapping the unmapped, one road and cafe at a time.

"The main goal was to mark public interest spots on a map and show places like schools and institutions and hospitals and restaurants," said Natalia Santos, the executive coordinator for Rede Jovem. "We wanted to spread the news about what slums do have, so all the people can get to know that the slum is not just a place for violence and marginality and robbery."

All the reporters are women, according to Santos. Although the project originally intended to have male participants, the men were nervous about being in the favelas with costly mobile phones.

"The boys in the last phase of the selection said they wouldn't have the guts to walk with a cell phone in a slum," said Santos. "Girls can walk with a lot more freedom than boys, and boys get approached by the police."

The reporters are between the ages of 17 and 25, and all are in their final year of high school.  The person that maps the most information will receive a scholarship to study communications or journalism at a private university.

The reporters use GPS-equipped Nokia N95s and a mobile application developed by Rede Jovem that uses Google maps. As they move through the favelas, they label corners, streets and bystreets. The reporters can also add photos or video directly from their phones, and label places like restaurants and hospitals. There is both a website, www.wikimapa.org.br, and a mobile site for the resulting maps. Content added to the maps is also automatically added to a Twitter feed.

Expanding to New Platforms

Funding for the project comes from a 150,000 Brazilian reais (U.S. $87,310) grant from Institutional Oi Futuro, which is affiliated with Oi, the largest telephone operator in Brazil. The project is scheduled to conclude when the funding runs out in December. But Rede Jovem is applying for other grants, according to Santos. In the future, the organization hopes to build a mobile application that works on other operating systems. Currently, the mobile application (available for download here) only works on Symbian phones. "We want everyone who has a cell phone with GPS to be a wiki-reporter," said Santos.

As the maps expand, they will provide more and more useful everyday information. On a larger scale, they also give legitimacy to the residents. "I think they are very happy because they're seeing that they exist," said Santos. "And the mailman says that now he can deliver the mail."

Photos courtesy of Rede Jovem

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