Archive for the ‘This iPhoneless Life’ Category

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This iPhoneless Life #11 – iTunes’ Secret Agent

August 27, 2010

iPod To describe my life as iPhoneless is a slight exaggeration. There is definitely an iPhone in my life, my wife’s iPhone 4, and it robs me of sleep.

My wife is addicted to Angry Birds.  It has not quite taken over completely from reading in bed at night (I can thank the late Stieg Larsson for that) but there seems to be an unwritten rule that we have to get through at least 2 or 3 levels of the aforementioned smash hit game before calling it a night.  I am often called in to help out clearing a level if my wife is stuck on it and wants a break to read another chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am expected to keep going until every last grunting green pig has been blown to bits.


So I know all about the iPhone 4, it’s beautiful “retina” screen and gorgeous build quality. But for my own use I still have my old, battered Windows Mobile phone – an HTC Tytn II (in O2 “Stellar” livery).  It has done a job for me but now enough is enough and I want a modern phone.

Largely out of sheer bedevilment, I am determined not to become an iPhone user like everyone else in my family. And I’m wary of being a Windows Phone early adopter, much as I believe that platform holds out great promise. How could I forget what it was like to be an early adopter of Vista, when the pain of it is still faithfully documented in this blog? So I will go Android, at least for the foreseeable future, and currently favour the Samsung Galaxy S.

It was while I was checking out what the podcast client options look like in the Android world that I came across a free open source application called iTunes Agent. The idea is very simple. It makes your random non-Apple music device look, to iTunes, like an iPod. That means you can use iTunes directly and seamlessly to synchronise music and podcasts with any mp3 player or phone.  iTunes Agent has been around for quite a while and I can’t think how I missed it, particularly when I was casting around for a podcast solution for my HTC WM6 phone. As explained in an earlier post, I have a more than workable solution using iTunes for podcast capture and WMP for synchronisation, but iTunes Agent looked like a neater fix and I thought I should try it out.

I had no trouble installing and running iTunes Agent on my Windows 7 PC, and it hooked up immediately with iTunes. The difficulty I had was getting iTunes Agent to link up to my phone when the latter was connected to the PC via USB.

The way it is supposed to work is that you specify the folder on your music device where you want your synchronised music to live, in my case a folder on the HTC phone’s micro SD storage card. When you connect your phone, iTunes Agent is supposed to detect that this folder  is available on the Windows file system and therefore knows your phone is ready for synchronisation.  The limitation is that iTunes Agent requires your phone or music player to have been allocated a drive letter by Windows, but Windows was just listing my phone under “Portable Devices”. I could easily navigate through the phone’s folders and files using Windows Explorer but no way could I persuade Windows to allocate a drive letter.  And without a drive letter, iTunes Agent refused to accept any folder on the storage card as synchronisation target.

This stumped me for a while until, by dint of frantic Googling, I discovered the difference between the MTP and UMS protocols for connecting storage devices over USB. My phone naturally connects to my PC using MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) – a technology which is reckoned to offer the widest device compatibility with media players – as opposed to UMS (USB Mass Storage) which is targeted more at USB keys and SD card readers. Unfortunately Windows only allocates a drive letter with UMS devices, not with MTP.

More Googling and I found out about two applications that can be installed on a WM phone to make it emulate a UMS device and thus qualify for a drive letter, W5torage and Softick Card Export.  The former was written by a lone developer and is free whereas Card Export is a commercial product. Both were created so that you can in effect use your WM phone as a card reader.

I tried W5torage first.  It installed fine on my phone and appeared to be running, but in UMS mode my PC was not able to detect my phone at all. A quick uninstall and I tried Card Export, which is free to trial for 21 days. I took an instant dislike to the latter because it automatically added an annoying status display to my Today screen and an icon in the notification tray. It did however work. My phone now appeared as the G: drive and at last I was able to configure my phone in iTunes Agent. My HTC now showed up as a device in iTunes.

This did not though constitute a happy ending. Before going much further I was determined to rid my phone’s Today screen of the unwanted Card Export status display.  I went into the phone settings and unticked the Card Export option from the list of Today items. This resulted in my phone locking up. A reboot later and the Today Screen was free of Card Export status, but now my program icons were missing. There was clearly some clash between Card Export and the application manager software from O2 which came with my phone. Now the O2 software is lot more important to me than use of iTunes Agent – my researches in that direction were more curiosity than need – so it was Card Export that was going to have to go.

It took about 10 reboots before the phone was working normally again, with no trace of Card Export, the Today screen displaying all the right items and no lock-ups when I tried to access the Today settings.  There was a moment when I thought I was going to have to ditch the phone as a write-off, or at least restore factory settings.

That is, unfortunately, one of the most problematical issues with Windows Mobile. Lots of apps but easy access by developers to the deep innards of the operating system, which can readily become unstable as a result. I don’t know why iTunes Agent had remained a secret to me for so long but I could have done with it remaining a secret.

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This iPhone 4 wife

August 8, 2010

iPod It seems very strange that I have now purchased 4 iPhones but am still using a Windows Mobile phone. For a while at least I will continue to lead this iPhoneless life. The first 3 iPhones (all 3GSs) were for my children, for the festive season, and just recently an iPhone 4 for my wife, Naomi.

My children are absolutely besotted with their iPhones. In heaven with them. Naomi hates hers and keeps begging me to get rid of it. Until very recently she was a Windows Mobile user too, and had been since the first O2 XDA came out 7 or 8 years ago. But her O2 XDA Orbit2 was suffering death throes (symbolic of the Windows Mobile platform as a whole) and the iPhone seemed the obvious, safe alternative. Naomi had had a play with the kids’ iPhones (admittedly mostly Doodle Jump) and I expected her to take to it straight away. But she is finding the transition very hard going.

Steve Jobs has shown us that the one true smartphone experience has no room for a pesky stylus. Such things are fiddly and keep getting lost or broken. There is no need for any such contrivance if the user interface is properly thought through. Except that Naomi had had plenty of time to get very efficient writing texts etc with a stylus and finds the iPhone keyboard to be a beast, as many do on first acquaintance. Coupled with exceptionally unhelpful predictive text and her unfortunate tendency to hit send on SMS messages by accident and the results are utterly infuriating for her, when they’re not hilarious.

Last week she replied to a text from my son Jonathan which asked for advice on making sure a text he planned to send to a friend was not misinterpreted. She wanted to suggest he tack a smiley on the end of his text. But thanks to her keyboard issues, the unwanted incompetent interference from the predictive text facility and an untimely use of send she ended up advising him to add a “skills” to his text.

The reply came back: “what is a skills and where do I put it?”

Naomi dissolved into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. She could hardly breathe, let alone say a word. Which was highly inconvenient because at that moment I was driving the two of us around the horrible Coventry ring-road system (which I do not know at all), was struggling to make sense of the Satnav and was hoping for some help from my co-pilot. I had to manage without help.

I sense Naomi is settling down, very slowly, to the iPhone. And what are the alternatives? Another moribund Windows Mobile phone? Just putting off the inevitable. A Blackberry with a real keyboard? She likes the tiny buttons even less than Apple’s virtual ones. And there really is no going back to the horrible texting systems we had before smartphones.

So I imagine the iPhone will stay. But in trying to help my wife get on speaking terms with her new phone I have spent a fair bit of time with it and I do see where she is coming from. The more time I spend with it, the more I think Windows Mobile has come in for an unfairly bad rap.

I don’t think I will be buying a fifth iPhone. Not for myself. I know Windows Mobile is on its deathbed and Windows Phone 7 is still some way off being ready to invest in. Most likely I will go with the trend towards Android.

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This iPhoneless Life #10 – Almost enough to make me buy an iPhone

August 10, 2009

iPod As I have been documenting over the last few months, I have got my WM6 phone pretty much doing all the same things as an iPhone but with the added advantage of wireless stereo Bluetooth earphone support.

Of course there are some downsides.  The device, an HTC TyTN II, is not as svelte and elegant as an iPhone and the user interface, being based on Windows Mobile, is not as slick and well integrated as the Apple equivalent. Also, the looser software/hardware integration of Windows Mobile devices, and in particular the greater reliance on third-party utilities, is more likely to cause grief.

A case in point is the clash between Windows Media Player Mobile (WMPM) and Audible.com’s player. For reasons best known to themselves, Audible will not allow their audiobooks to be played on WMPM, instead requiring users to install Audible’s proprietary audiobook player. Maybe it’s because WMPM does not support bookmarking. It  would not have been that much of a problem to have to use two separate applications for music/podcasts vs. audiobooks were it not for the fact that they conflict with each other causing the phone to crash.

The culprit appears to be the Audible player.  Once it has been run, it seems to result in some persistent locking of resources which interferes with the operation of Windows Media Player, even after the Audible player application has been closed.  You can still open and use Windows Media, but when you try to close the latter down, as you would if say updating your podcasts or synchronising your music, the phone locks up and requires a time-consuming soft reset.

I have tried installing various bits of kit to try to troubleshoot or debug the problem, but whatever it is has its hooks too deep down within the operating system and I cannot fathom it.  It is very annoying but I guess I’m stuck with it for the foreseeable future unless anyone has any bright ideas.

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This iPhoneless Life #9 – Waiting for the zPhone

April 17, 2009

iPod I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that with a little bit of effort you can set up a WM phone so that it can do all the things you would expect from an iPhone.  Maybe not with quite the same slick style and chic design, but there are some compensations.  Pocket Outlook is a better calendaring and contacts tool than comes with the iPhone, much better suited to business needs.  And the Pocket Office applications, although limited, are occasionally useful.

The whole balance may change though when the ZuneHD comes out, particularly if the rumours are true that the Zune software will be made available for WM phones, effectively creating the ZunePhone. I don’t know if that will be new WM phones only, but I can always claim an upgrade.


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This iPhoneless Life #8 – Full circle

April 13, 2009

iPod Having tried a number of Windows Mobile audio player programs I am back with Windows Media Player Mobile (WMPM), at least for everything apart from audiobooks.  And I am back to AudiblePlayer for the latter.

As I explained in a previous post, I had moved away from AudiblePlayer because it did not support my bluetooth A2DP earphones properly, with the result that the audio (which is mono) was coming out of the left channel only.  I had therefore embarked on a tour of proprietary media player solutions, in the hope of finding one that would play audiobooks properly and (ideally) handle my music and podcasts as well.

I had all but settled on Pocket Tunes, which ticks most of the boxes but is quite expensive. It also offers syncing direct with iTunes, as opposed to my current two-stage solution of  using  iTunes for podcast capture followed by WMP for syncing with the phone. Ironically, it was my attempt to get this iTunes sync functionality working which ultimately did away with the need for Pocket Tunes at all.

To explain how this came about we need to introduce my old nemesis, ActiveSync, into the story. Strictly I should call it WMDC, as Microsoft have rebranded it for Vista in the hope that we’d all be fooled into thinking it really isn’t as bad as we remember it. It turns out that when I installed WMDC on my Vista PC a year ago it was missing certain key drivers.  An updated version was released later but not rolled out automatically. Of course, I had no way of knowing that. But I had noted that some applications for the phone refused to install over WMDC, giving error messages of various descriptions. Where CAB files were provided by the vendor I could use them to get software installed on my phone, but in other cases I was stuck.  For example, I had not been able to get the latest versions of Audible Manager and AudibleAir installed on my PC and phone.  The installs failed and, at the time, I didn’t understand the error messages. It wasn’t stopping me enjoying audiobooks at that point so I didn’t waste time trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

Of course, when I attempted to install the Pocket Tunes iTunes sync software I hit the same issue again, the error message being “Can’t find CE Application Manager“.  This time I was less inclined to give up.  Googling took me to this website. Now being aware that I had an out of date (and incomplete) installation of WMDC I installed the current version.  This had the benefit that I was at last able to install Pocket Tunes iTunes sync and establish that it worked very nicely.

And while about it I also installed the latest Audible software, both to my PC and my phone, now that the path was clear.  This included an upgrade from AudiblePlayer 5.5.0.6 to 5.5.0.7.  And guess what? The new AudiblePlayer supports bluetooth properly so audiobooks play on both channels.  Still mono of course but at least in the middle of my head rather than in one ear only.

Conclusion? I don’t need to spend money on Pocket Tunes. I have gone back to WMPM and am using the latest AudiblePlayer for my audiobooks. Problem solved for an outlay of nil, plus a modicum of perseverance.

Mind you, ActiveSync/WMDC had the last laugh. After I installed the latest WMDC, it wouldn’t sync with my phone unless I removed one of the two established relationships.  I wasn’t sure which one was the one I needed so picked one more or less at random. After the next sync every single appointment had been wiped from my Calendar in Pocket Outlook. Thank you, WMDC. So kind. At least it had the good grace to leave my contacts alone.

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This iPhoneless Life #7 – Simply music

April 13, 2009

iPod Most iPhone users will think of the media capabilities of the device as mainly about music and video. So far, in looking at my Windows Mobile based alternative to the iPhone, I have been focusing on podcasts and audiobooks. That’s partly because they are important to me and partly because they need the most effort to get working smoothly on a WM PDA-phone, whereas music is obviously trivial, right?

Well, maybe if all your music takes the form of CDs you ripped yourself in mp3 format, using say iTunes. Provided it is all sitting in a folder which is “watched” by WMP on your PC it will appear in your WMP Library. If you want to sync a particular album to your phone, you just go the Album view in the Library, find the desired album, right click and select “Add to Sync List”. Next time you synchronise with your phone the album will be copied across. It is then easy to find and play in your phone’s WMP Library, and the album art will be there too if you had added that.

It gets more complicated though if you have bought iTunes music and have songs in say .m4a (AAC) format. Natively, WMP will not recognise them so they will not appear in the Library, whichever folder they are in and WMP will not be able to play them. Thankfully, there are WMP plug-ins available to fix that. As far as DRM’d music is concerned (.m4p) you really can’t use those in the Windows world outside of iTunes. The only option is to remove the DRM encryption so you end up with an m4a. I’ll leave you investigate that for yourself if you wish.

To enable desktop WMP playback of (unprotected) AAC there is a free plug-in from Orban technologies. The plug-in works well but on its own won’t make your m4a files visible to the WMP Library. For that you need a tag extender plug-in. There are several available and generally seem to work well. You can try the Softpointer Tag Support Plugin, or maybe this plugin among others.

With all that in place music is fine on a WM6 phone. The AAC files play fine natively on the phone in WMP. No click wheel but I would have to say that WMP works well enough as a vanilla music player.

Speaking of click-wheels and Apple, did I get this wrong or does the iPhone NOT support bluetooth stereo streaming (A2DP), even in its 3G manifestation? That’s a complete and utter showstopper for me. I had been giving serious thought to getting an iPhone when my WM phone’s contract runs out in December.  But my bluetooth Sennheiser earphones have transformed my mobile audio and no way would I go back to wired. Suddenly, I’m entirely happy with my iPhoneless life.

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This iPhoneless Life #6 – Playing musical music players

April 11, 2009

iPod Following on from my voyage of discovery, I had settled into using Mobile WMP for playing podcasts on my HTC Windows Mobile phone, and AudiblePlayer for playback of audiobooks. All was fine and working well.

Then my kids, bless them, took my hints and bought me a set of Sennheiser MM200 bluetooth stereo earphones for my birthday. Fantastic bit of kit.  No fiddling with wires.  No tangles. Great quality audio. Only one teensy drawback.  AudiblePlayer didn’t appear to support A2DP properly so that my audiobooks played out of the left ear only.  The books are mono so I wasn’t missing anything, but it’s very disconcerting to have the narrator’s voice just coming out of one channel.

In the search for a solution I found myself trying a sequence of alternative Windows Mobile audio playback applications, looking for the magic bullet that would play audiobooks on both channels and, while about it, meet my podcast and music playback needs too.

PocketMind’s Pocket Music

I found Pocket Music by Googling for WM music players that could play audiobooks.  There don’t seem to be many of those, and the ones that do aren’t free. WM players seem to come in three categories: free, around $20 and around $40.  The free ones presumably pay no licence fees so have the most limited coverage of music file formats.  Pocket Music is $19.95 and claims to play audible books.  It looks like you have to pay an extra $9.95 for AAC support, which affects me because at least one podcast I listen to is in that format.


At first I thought I’d found a real winner. It did, as billed, play audiobooks in .aa format. And out of both ears over bluetooth. Not only that, it had some other features that were a positive boon to audiobook/podcast playback.  For example, you can program hardware buttons to carry out actions chosen from a wide range, such as 30 second skip forward or back. The former is perfect for going past adverts in podcasts, Tivo style, or short boring bits. The skip back is great if you didn’t quite catch something and want to hear it again without risk of zooming way past it.  I also like the excellent support for bookmarking of both audiobooks and podcasts, and the ability to remember the place in a podcast even after the player was closed and relaunched.  These two features alone put the podcast experience on my WM6 phone way ahead of an iPod, and that is saying a lot.

I thought I had it, my all in one solution, and was quite ready to pay the $19.95 at the end of the 15 day free trial. Alas, it was not to be. Sadly, Pocket Music does not like long files. After a while it starts to struggle with playback.  It stops in mid sentence, pauses and goes back a couple of seconds then restarts.  It is then fine for a few minutes, then does it again.  After a while, on a long podcast, it starts to become very, very irritating. No amount of fiddling with the ample options for thread priorities and buffer sizes could cure the problem.

It was definitely the fault of the player.  This never happened with any of the others I tried, even in combination with the bluetooth earhones, and I tried a fair few.

Pocket Music was also a bit buggy. There was a facility for re-ordering playlist items but it was clunky to use and never seemed to work. Worst of all was the tendency, after making settings changes, to lose the application-specific options in the lower menu bar.  The standard Today screen options of Calendar and Contacts would appear instead of Playlist and Menu as in the picture above.  The only way out was to close and relaunch the player.

I decided to move on.

Pocket Tunes

Pocket Tunes has been around for years in the Palm OS world, but only fairly recently became available for Windows Mobile.  It is a premium product at a premium price: $37.95.

It is very slick in use and playback is exemplary; definitely no skips or jumps. It is supposed to support audiobooks, but not the free trial version.  Still, I gave it a fair try-out listening to podcasts.  It was excellent at locating my podcast playlist and sorting my podcasts into correct order of date/time created.  Better at it than any other player, including WMP, but didn’t allow manual override of playback order.

Pocket Tunes is well specced, but lacks the excellent forward/back skip feature of Pocket Music.  It does though have good bookmarking capabilities.


One particularly cute feature is the ability to sync directly with iTunes, but this does require various bits of extra software installation to set up.

Pocket Tunes does seem more promising than Pocket Music, but it is expensive and does not quite seem to tick all the boxes.

Might keep playing musical music players for a bit longer.

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