Friday, October 30, 2009

Blind iPhone User Is A Voice For the Sight-Impaired

Alvin Ng may be blind but that has not stopped him from being an avid iPhone user. He loves playing around with the device and trying out apps from the app store. He even provides iPhone tech support to his wife, a private tutor who has normal sight.

"I am helping her to use her iPhone and to set it up,” he said. “She is too scared to touch the keyboard.”

Coding For Accessibility: The Experience of SG Buses Developer Muh Hon Cheng

Ensuring that an app is accessible means a little extra work, which Apple has documented. In addition, there are other resources online to help developers, such as this article by Mobile Orchard.

Testing accessibility is pretty simple too. If you have a 3GS, go to Settings/General/Accessibility and turn VoiceOver on. Then close your eyes and use the app the way a blind person would.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An App For Aljunied GRC Residents

Even the town councils are getting into the act. If you live in Aljunied GRC, you can now report problems to the Aljunied town council using iLink@Aljunied, a free app that also allows you to view other problems reported by people that day.

In addition, the app provides news updates, information about upcoming events and tells you where to find the Meet-The-People sessions.

Great to see more and more local institutions embracing the iPhone.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

TomTom GPS App Now Available for Singapore and Malaysia

TomTom Malaysia & Singapore is now available on the App Store for US$59.99. Singapore coverage is 99.9 percent while Malaysian coverage is 54.5 percent, according to the description.

This brings the number of locally relevant turn-by-turn GPS apps to three -- TomTom, NDrive Malaysia & Singapore (US$39.99) and Sygic Mobile Maps SE Asia (US$79.99). Neat.

The Young And The Restless: A Profile of iPhone Developer Koh Jing Yu

Koh Jing Yu is one busy iPhone developer. He has three apps in the app store, does contract work for companies overseas, and is in the middle of a 30-days, 30-apps project where he develops an app a day and shares the source code to help other developers learn about iPhone programming. Not bad for a 14-year-old who picked up iPhone development just four months ago.

This Secondary Two student of Dunman High School was introduced to sofware development after learning Flash at the school's Infocomms Club. From Flash, he moved on to the iPhone.  

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Brains Behind SmartMeter

Richard Yip, 42, talks about why and how he developed SmartMeter. And no, he's never worked for the PUB.

How did you come up with the idea?
My friend works in Sembcorp Industrial Parks. His customers had requested ways to keep track of their factories electricity consumption by taking regular readings. I was not involved in that project. With the current oil and electricity tariffs fluctuations, I believe people will be quite concerned about tracking utilities charges and hopefully save some cash at the same time. People will also like to have projections on usage and charges to help them in the monthly budgeting.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

MKSync, An iPhone Client For Syncplicity, Now Awaiting Approval

Well-known local developer Mugunth Kumar has just submitted an iPhone client for Syncplicity, a service that syncs your local files and folders to the cloud.

Called MKSync, it comes with a bunch of nice features including:

- multiple account support
- pinch/tap gestures for pictures
- the ability to read downloaded files without an Internet connection
- the ability to resume downloads if an MKSync download is interrupted by a phone call.

A screencast of how it works can be seen here.

This is, so far, the only iPhone client for the service, which was rated by PCWorld as the best sync solution in a comparison of syncing services earlier this year. Unlike services such as MobileMe, Syncplicity will sync any folder that you designate and do so automatically. With MobileMe, you have to manually copy over a folder to your iDisk. Sadly, Syncplicity does not have a Mac client.

Kumar has a pretty sweet deal with this app: "They licensed the API free of cost to me, and any financial gains I make through the app belongs wholly to me," he said. "The app will be sold from my iTunes account and I can use their trademark/logo on the splash screen (under an agreement) to make it look like an authorized iPhone app. They have also helped me spread the word and get me beta testers by announcing it on their Twitter account @Syncplicity."

Kumar received this special treatment because he was an early private beta tester of the service and he developed a good relationship with one of the VPs of the company. About 10 months ago, he volunteered to build an iPhone client. When the API matured, the company invited him to be a private API developer.

Now that Apple has made it possible to include in-app purchasing for free apps, Kumar has decided to make this app free and to sell additional functionality through in-app purchasing. Once you unlock the app, you will be able to share files and download files locally to the iPhone. He's still trying to figure out how much to charge for these two features though. "But given that the Dropbox app took 7 weeks to get approved, I don't expect Apple to approve mine any soon. My estimate is like late November or early December. Keeping my fingers crossed."


Save Money By Tracking Your Electricity And Water Usage

A new app called SmartMeter promises to allow you to monitor your use of water, electricity and gas. Input your meter readings and it will tell you what your estimated bill for the month is. The website has comprehensive instructions on how it works and tells you how to read your meters. Interestingly, this app features Malay, Mandarin and Tamil localisation too. Future versions are likely to be localised and be available in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. SmartMeter was developed by independent developer Richard Yip and is available for US$1.99.

Doodle Kids Updated

Doodle Kids, the app that catapulted 9-year-old Lim Ding Wen to fame has just received a significant update. The latest version of Doodle Kids, now version 2.0, has the ability to use a photo from your photo album or camera as your background to doodle on.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Free Apps Using In-App Purchasing On The Way

Now that Apple is allowing developers to use in-app purchasing in their free apps, local developers are busy rethinking their apps to add this new functionality.

Cheah Chu Yeow, the developer behind the app Singtel Data Usage, is one of those developers. “I'm going to be including in-app purchases for my apps from now on,” he said. He is planning to implement push notifications for his Singtel Data Usage app and making it a US$0.99 in-app purchase.

Games developer Gibson Tang is also thinking about implementing it for his game Piecehunters, which is currently available as a Premium version and a Lite version. As he notes, the advantage of this change is that developers don’t have to maintain two code bases, one for their premium apps, and the other for their ‘lite’ apps. Gibson is planning to incorporate in-app purchases into the lite version of his game later, to avoid the anticipated App Store approvals crush.

Apple’s new policy is changing the development plans for some developers. Local development shop 2359 Media is currently working on an app that would be monetized through the sale of digital content. “We initially had to release a paid version and a free version,” said founder Zhou Wenhan. “We will only be releasing a free version now since it has in-app purchase.”

The news, however, came just a little too late for Mugunth Kumar, who recently submitted an app called MKSync for Apple’s approval. “If Apple allowed this earlier, I would have changed the app to use the in-app purchases module. 

“Currently, I'm looking at ways to make some features of the app ‘unlockable’ thru in-app purchases.”

Local developers give thumbs-up to new Apple policy

Local iPhone developers have welcomed Apple's announcement last week allowing developers to add in-app purchasing to free apps. This is a change from its previous policy of only allowing in-app purchasing for paid apps, but not free apps.

For buUuk and SG Buses developer Muh Hon Cheng, the change means "no need for a lite version, less maintenance by developers, and a less cluttered App Store."

Mugunth Kumar of SG BBOM and StationAlarm SG believes this move will help fight iPhone app piracy. "Piracy in the App Store gets drastically reduced," he said. "Even on a jailbroken iPhone, you can't 'install' an in-app purchase.

"Apple expects developers to 'remember' what the user has purchased. In case he deletes and re-downloads the app, all in-app purchases he did should be available for free.

"With such a framework in place, installing a pirated app and requesting a feature can be easily thwarted. As I read somewhere today, it's like tricking Amazon to ship a book you never ordered."

2359 Media co-founder Zhou Wenhan believes this will help developers improve their market reach. "If you think about it, free is a great way to demonstrate the utility of an app," he said. "Free also increases the app's distribution base. For apps that have an in-app purchasing model, they will now be able to use free as a trial model thus reaching more users and money.

"In-app purchase will make it easier to convert these trial users to paying ones."

Lim Thye Chean, the CTO of an IT firm and father of programming prodigy Lim Ding Wen, believes that the change has the potential to be revolutionary. "This is probably one of the biggest developments in the iPhone App Store. I am surprised that many see it as just as a combination of LITE and PAID app.

"In-app purchases allow developers to SELL anything in their application. This means everybody can create their own STORE! Instead of selling an application ONCE, it is now possible to do recurring revenue in the application.

"With the new development, it is now possible to distribute anything for FREE and charge for anything in your application. This means you can give away an eBook reader and sell the books, give away media store application and sell the media, etc. This works worldwide and allows developers to open worldwide stores for anything." (Anything, in this case, subject to Apple's approval as Apple can block developers from selling stuff that Apple thinks conflicts with the company's business model.)

Gibson Tang of AzukiSoft sounded a cautious note though. He believes that there will be a surge of developers making use of this new ruling to introduce in-app functionality, but only a small one. "But my bet is that the surge will not match Apple's expectation when they reversed their decision," he said.

He believes that not allowing the sale of virtual currency is the major stumbling block in getting in-app purchases off the ground. "Virtual items have always been bought with virtual currency and players are used to purchasing virtual currency with real cold, hard cash," he noted. However, he does not see Apple allowing the sale of virtual currency any time soon because it raises the issue of gambling. "Apple has always been a stickler for protecting its brand and image."

Apple's Q4 2009 Results: Record Sales

Apple has just reported its most profitable quarter ever, with record Mac and iPhone sales, though iPod sales dropped.

Summary of results below:

Revenue: $9.87b  vs $7.9b a year ago
Net profit: $1.67b ($1.82 per diluted share) vs $1.14b ($1.26 per diluted share) a year ago
Gross margin: 36.6 percent vs 34.7 percent
International sales: 46 percent of total revenue
Non-Gaap Sales: $12.25b
Non-Gaap Income: $2.85b

Unit sales
Mac: 3.05m (up 17 percent from a year ago)
iPod: 10.2m (down 8 percent from a year ago)
iPhone: 7.4m (up 7 percent from a year ago)

Full press release

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plea To Local Developers: Please Make Your Apps Accessible

I received this email yesterday and I thought it made an important point so I'm reproducing it in full:


Hello Jimmy

My name is Alvin and I am blind.  I have been following your blog for the past 1 month, and just bought an iphone 2 weeks ago.  Love my iphone and have been downloading apps from the apps store.   However, some apps are not developed with the issues of accessibility in mind.  Some pages are not accessible at all with the voice over (a built-in screen reader for the blind).  Most of the time, the buttons are not labelled. 

I would like to ask you for a favour.  Would you mind posting a blog entry to highlight to the apps developers in sg to make a reference to the following website when developing their apps. 

I hope to raise the awareness of the accessibility issues for local iphone apps developers.  There are quite a big number of blind iphone users over in U.S. and europe.  Hopefully, with the accessibility issues resolved, more blind people will be downloading apps developed by the locals.

Hope you would consider my request favourably.

Thank you.

Alvin Ng

Friday, October 16, 2009

Arcade game written by 10-year-old gets approval, but you can't have it

Invader War, the arcade game developed by (now) 10-year-old programming prodigy Lim Ding Wen has been given approval by Apple but you won't be able to download it unless you have an account with Apple's US App Store.

The app was approved on Wednesday and made available in the US that day. However it has yet to reach the Singapore App Store, even after two days.

The delay in propagating Invader War to the different app stores around the world is more evidence that Apple is struggling to handle the explosive growth of apps. The company's most recent count put the total number of apps at 85,000, a number which is most certainly outdated by now.

Invader War is a neat alien-killing arcade-type game that was originally written in Javascript and then ported over the iPhone. It was submitted to Apple on the boy's 10th birthday, meaning that he worked on this game when he was 9.

This is Ding Wen's second iPhone app. His first was Doodle Kids, which made news globally when he became known as the world's youngest iPhone developer.

In related news, Doodle War, an arcade game developed by Ding Wen's father has also been given the green light. Doodle War uses graphics created by the boy's 5-year-old sister Xin Quan.

Doodle War is a simplified port of a game was originally written in Java for the Android platform. According to Lim Thye Chean, the boy's father, he wrote the Java game to inspire his son but also to ensure that his son could not simply copy the code.

Naturally, Doodle War is not yet in the Singapore App Store either.

Update: 1.20pm, 17 Oct 2009: After a three-day wait, both apps are now in the app store, thanks (most probably) to a neat trick suggested by Willson Cuaca of Xsago. Download Invader War and Doodle War here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SG Buses 2.0 Now Available

SG Buses has received a major update and it's well worth the wait.

The best feature of the new SG Buses is how it handles bus arrival times. While other bus guides only tell you when the next bus (of a particular service) is coming to a certain bus stop, SG Buses will give you the timing for the bus after that as well.

In addition, it can also tell you when that service number is scheduled to arrive at any or all bus stops on its route.

Bookmarking a bus service is a little complex though. You have to do a long swipe to the right to add a bus stop to the bookmarks.

Other features in this update include location awareness and a unified search engine that will search for bus services, bus stops and roads.

The app's location awareness is quite cool. Apart from sorting all bus stops by distance from your location, a mini-compass tells you where those bus stops are relative to you.

Muh Hon Cheng has done a great job with SG Buses 2.0 and it will definitely occupy a slot on my iPhone's homescreen.

SG Buses is free and is available on the App Store here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New turn-by-turn GPS app available

Competition in the turn-by-turn GPS market is heating up. A new app called Ndrive Malaysia and Singapore is now available on the App Store.

As the name suggests, it only covers Singapore and Malaysia, unlike the pioneer app by Sygic which also covers Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. On the other hand, Sygic's app costs US$79.99 while Ndrive's app costs half the price.

Early reviews in the app store appear to be positive but it's probably too early to say.

M1 to bring in iPhone this year

Looks like SingTel has lost it's iPhone monopoly. M1 has just announced that it will bring in the iPhone later this year.

Full statement below:

SINGAPORE, 13 October 2009 - M1 and Apple have reached an agreement to bring iPhone to customers in Singapore later this year. M1 looks forward to offering iPhone and a range of tailored service plans to customers in Singapore.

More information on pricing, tariffs and availability dates will be released in due course

Friday, October 9, 2009

Apple releases iPhone OS 3.1.2

Seems mainly to be a bug fix.

Xsago's i-Shop Now Available

Xsago's latest app, i-Shop, which helps people find shops that allow tourists to get GST refunds, is now in the App Store. The free app was designed for Global Refund. While you can't take advantage of this app if you are resident in Singapore, it's helpful if you have to play tour guide to visiting friends or relatives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Day 2 Report: No Queues (So Far) At SingTel

The lunchtime crowd at SingTel's temporary outlet at Bugis Junction. Picture taken at 1.30pm today.

Based on my highly scientific random sample of two entire SingTel shops today, it looks like things are back to normal, iPhone-wise.

There were no queues at the SingTel shops at Bugis Junction or Jurong Point this morning. The shop assistant at Bugis assured me that there were enough stocks available if I wanted to buy a 3GS. The guy at Jurong Point was more circumspect and would only say that while there were no queues then, he could not promise that stocks would still be available later. "The crowd is very unpredictable," he said. Because of the long queues yesterday, he left the shop at 10.30pm, one and a half hours after he was supposed to knock off, he told me.

So far, Twitter also appears to be free of complaints about having to queue for an iPhone, very different from yesterday.

It looks like the people who have been waiting for an iPhone since July took no chances and rushed to buy their iPhones yesterday, the first day of availability, to ensure they would not be left empty handed if stocks ran out quickly as it did last month. Some people online claimed to have queued for five hours yesterday for their set.

Of course I could be wrong and I could have picked the only two outlets without a queue in Singapore. And it is still early. Let's see how the rest of the day plays out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Long waits as iPhone fans queue to buy at SingTel's outlets

Singapore's iPhone fans are rushing down to SingTel's retail outlets to snap up stocks of the 3GS which were made available today.

Thanks to pent-up demand, waits of up to five hours are being reported on online forums and on Twitter. Unlike previously, SingTel is not accepting reservations ahead of time. Instead, iPhones are being sold on a first-come, first-served basis. While it is also possible to buy an iPhone through SingTel's online store, it appears that the servers are under a heavy load and are unreliable.

Given that the 3GS was initially launched in Singapore in July, and that this is October, this suggests that some who have just gotten their iPhones have been waiting for three months.

Since the 3GS was launched, SingTel has struggled to meet demand. The weekend it was launched in July, people waited eight hours to buy the new 3GS. After that, SingTel rationed the phones out to people who had reserved beforehand and doled them out slowly over the next month. When stocks ran dry, SingTel took advance orders but made no promises about when they would be able to fulfill them. It was only on September 9 that SingTel suddenly announced that they had stocks again. However, all its inventory was snapped up in two days and on September 11, SingTel said that hopeful iPhone owners would have to wait a month for the new shipment to come in. A little under a month later, as promised, SingTel is selling iPhones again.

There are no indications as to just how long stocks will last this time. SingTel is not making any promises about availability. In its FAQ, to the question about whether one is guaranteed to be able to buy an iPhone since no reservations are being taken, SingTel's stand is "All iPhone 3GS stocks will be on a while stock(sic) last basis."

SingTel says iPhones in stock again

Text from SingTel's announcement:

Thank you for your patience and interest in the iPhone 3GS.

iPhone stocks will be available from 7 October 2009 and while stocks last.

No registration or reservation is required.

Sales will be on a first come first served basis at, hello! outlets, selected SingTel Exclusive Retailers and Apple Premium Resellers.

Monday, October 5, 2009

If You Love Your Data, Set It Free (Free, Free, Set It Free)

It's ironic that the week that SingTel breaks third party-apps that use its data is the same week that the mayor of San Francisco launches a contest to encourage third-party developers to take the city’s data and do something useful with it. For the contest, San Francisco has released more than 100 datasets at, ranging from crime incident data to post office locations.

The idea behind the contest is a great one. Governments have data. Citizens have the means to turn that data into useful information. Governments can create useful applications by releasing datasets and allowing developers to be innovative. Sure a government agency could commission an app but then you only get one app. Freeing the data, on the other hand, allows developer ingenuity to take it places no bureaucrat could envisage. 

The idea behind a contest riding on "citizen driven innovation" started in Washington DC last year and was tremendously successful. In 30 days, it resulted in 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps, which the city valued at $2.3 million but which cost the city just $50,000. With returns like this, it is no surprise that the concept is gaining momentum which is why San Francisco and New York have jumped onto the bandwagon.

This is something that Singapore can learn from. So far, Singapore has done a great job in creating useful online government services, from tax filing to business registration. However, Singapore's government agencies can do more. They have lots of data that would be of immense use if it were easily available to consumers. For example, how cool would it be to have an app that tells you where to find available parking spots in the city within a certain radius from you, or from your destination? The LTA already has a Parking Guidance System that collects data on available parking spots in the Orchard and Marina area. That information is displayed on giant electronic billboards along roads in the city. Why not make the data available for developers to harness? Isn't it the aim to get that information out?

And it's not just government agencies that have useful data. Private companies have useful information too. Apart from SingTel's data usage database, there are things like SBS Transit's bus arrival times and Shaw and Golden Village’s movie screening times. 

But hang on, you say. There are already a bunch of apps that provide information about bus arrival times like SG Buses and tranSGuide. And there are also a few apps that do local movie schedules. It's true that these apps exist, but they work despite the original data provider, not because of them. Most of these apps tap onto the database without the explicit consent of the data provider. And because of that, these apps suffer when there is a change on the backend that does not take them into consideration, as was the case with SingTel last week. And sometimes, data providers actively block apps the way SBS Transit did when it blocked the neat web app NextBus in May this year. (Read the depressing account here; scroll down to the entry Giving up on NextBus).

We know that the Singapore government is making all the right noises. The government's latest IT master plan, iN2015, envisions Singapore as an "An Intelligent Nation, A Global City, powered by Infocomm."  Infocomms will be extensively harnessed to enable innovation and iN2015 will "fuel creativity and innovation among businesses and individuals by providing an infocomm platform that supports enterprise and talent," says the master plan.

With regard to future government services, the aim is to "enhance the quality of e-services ("richness") and increase their adoption and usage ("reach") according to the related iGov2010 plan.

Good stuff, all of this. Now let’s see it being put into practice. If government agencies really want to “fuel creativity and innovation”, if they really want to "build an infocomm platform that supports enterprise and talent", if they really want to "enhance the quality of e-services and increase their adoption and usage", they need to release datasets and APIs. Data should be given away so that developers can mash up the data to provide new types of information that citizens and consumers will find useful. At the same time, government agencies and companies get to reach out to more people.

And frankly, it’s not like it would be a big gamble. Despite a less than friendly environment, local developers have already made cool apps that take publicly available information and mash it up.
On the iPhone platform, tranSGuide and SG Buses take bus arrival times and mash that up with location awareness so you can easily tell what time your bus will arrive at the bus stop you’re at. Trafficam SG rearranges traffic camera images so that it works better on the iPhone. BuUuk and HungryGoWhere are location aware restaurant guides. TrafficAlert takes LTA traffic alerts and mashes it up with crowd-sourced data about traffic jams, leveraging on the GPS capabilities of the iPhone. Apps like SG BBOM, iBBOM and Singtel Data Usage take (or used to take in the case of SG BBOM) SingTel’s plain vanilla data usage data and add new functionality, like estimating how much data you have left for the rest of the month. 

All this was done without access to API's or official datasets. If this is what local developers can do without official support, just imagine what they might dream up if they actually had access to the right tools.

(Thanks to Hon Cheng, Kumar, Meiwin and Chu Yeow for reading an early draft and giving me valuable comments and suggestions.)

Related stories

Note: For another take on this issue, check out Lucian Teo’s blog post based on the Gov 2.0 summit he attended in Washington DC. He nicely points out how the Singapore government is using a 1.0 mindset in a 2.0 era.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Local iPhone developers wanted

If you're an iPhone app developer based in Singapore and you're interested in contract work, please drop me an email. People email me regularly asking if I can put them in touch with a developer. I'll be happy to pass on your contacts.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Augmented Reality Edition of BuUuk Now In App Store

The augmented reality edition of restaurant guide buUuk has been approved and is now in the App Store. Have fun playing with it!