Nov 23rd, 2009

Does your “older” phone need an afternoon nap?  Sure, these young whippersnappers can go for 20 hours without a recharge. Realistically, though, most of us don’t (for one reason or another) own a Droid, nor can we make it a day without at least few minutes of down time connected to some sort of energy source.  Neither can our phones.  Or can they?

Screeble Lite is not a miracle cure for phone fatigue.  It did make it to the final round of the Android Development Challenge (2), and it is an emerging implementation that could teach an essential lesson to Google (and Microsoft) about usage-based customization.  It’s simple enough to tweak manually, but it’s built on usage.  It automatically locks/turns off your phone based on its accelerometer reading.  In other words, if you are holding your phone at an angle, it stays on, if you lay it flat, or if it’s upright in your pocket, it turns off.  Conversely, and the actual paradigm of the app is that it keeps your phone on if you’re using it.

Screebl won’t be enabled by default. Check the Enable box:

Enable the service

It will show you simultaneously inside the app and in the notification icon that it’s at work, in a noticeable-but-not-too-obnoxious green.

One of the million things I like about Android is the ability to change settings live, while things are running.  I never lost Screebl functionality while I was setting it up.  One of the kickers that I think will have an influence on development everywhere is this developer, David Keyes, included a video both introducing/personalizing himself, and providing two contexts for the app, one for development (why he produced it) and one for you (why & how you can use the app).  The joy of this little video is he let’s the app sell itself; he just explains it.  The world needs more of this.

A simple menu is a lovely thing

Setup is well explained in each of the option descriptions.  You can turn the notification off, which is key (although it brings to the fore Android’s inability to put up notification icons without having a notification in the drawer).  The more frequently you have it sample (read the orientation with the accelerometer), the more battery it will use, but the better it will work.  The Orientation Settings need some experimenting on your part, but it’s stellarly easy to do.  The handle in the middle of the slider is a flashy and useful feature. This is excellent customization: getting a user to explore an aspect of their usage they haven’t considered yet, and making it fun to do.  I’m not sold on the Stillness Setting myself.  My phone is pretty active hanging off my shoulder in my bag.

setup composite

Screeble Lite is currently in Beta, which means it’s developed enough to release with a caveat: it might not yet be up-to-snuff, and feedback is welcomed.  On the Developers official site there’s a place to discuss and offer feedback.  The lack of a link to contact him from inside the app surprises me (but if he gets barraged with emails, and then takes the link away, it might create more problems than it solves.  Perhaps he just has a sharp eye on the future.)  He notes on his site that localization (getting the app to work in languages not native to the developer) was/is difficult.  As more phones are manufactured, and more ROMs for each of them are rolled out, apps like this, which manipulate hardware, will be bowled over all too often, adding even more difficulty to full development and maintenance.  I seem to be taking advantage of that caveat….   Hi.  My name is Janis.  I’m an app-oholic.  I have a problem running background apps.   The Screeble app has to be actually running for it to keep the phone on.  I haven’t left enough memory for it to do its job properly.

UPDATE 11/23/09 9:48 p.m.: Something whacky happened and we ended up publishing my first draft of the review.  It could very easily have been user error on my part, or a server deal, since nothing I did on Sunday the 22nd seemed to have saved.

David did respond to my email within a couple of hours, and what he wrote was longer than this review, and so incredibly articulate and organized I questioned who should be doing the writing. (Although if we switched roles at this point I’d be banned from Market in two days, purely for bad quality.)  Here are highlights.

  • “Ultimately, I want the technology behind Screebl to be included as a core part of a variety of mobile devices, and hope to license it to manufacturers (e.g., HTC, Apple, etc.).   I’m confident that all of the challenges that Screebl currently has could be easily dealt with if it were bundled as a part of the core feature set of a mobile phone.  Incidentally, the power saving aspects of Screebl came as a very pleasant surprise, and weren’t my original goal in designing the prototype.”
  • He addressed the issue I was having, and within a day he released an update that solved the problem. I have updated Screebl and it now works for me.
  • “As for power-saving, I’m sure that you’ve seen the post on keyeslabs.com that I did in an attempt to evaluate what Screebl can and cannot do…. First, it seems that power savings is more pronounced on devices that do NOT have a physical keyboard.  I think this is due to the fact that these devices have their accelerometers enabled all the time, even before Screebl enters the picture.  They have no physical cue such as opening the keyboard on the G1, and have to rely on the accelerometers to determine when the phone is rotated.  Screebl adds very little in the way of overhead beyond the accelerometer usage, and as such tends to help more on keyboardless devices.”*
  • Once the screen blanks,… Screebl shuts down entirely.  All threads become dormant until the screen is again turned on.  Screebl only consumes power when the Screen is on, which is typically when the user would be interacting with the phone anyway.”
  • Future plans (which would  bump Feature/simplicity balance and Customization scores with me way up) :
    –  enable/disable screen during phone calls.  For example, move phone from face, dialpad appears.  move back to face, screen blanks
    – integration with Locale.  Providing intents that enable/disable Screebl, allowing Locale to control it.
    – optionally disabling Screebl when the phone is docked on desk or in car
    – locking phone automatically when rotated upside down (e.g., when putting it into ones pocket)

*tip for those of us with hard keyboards: turning off auto-rotate may help preserve battery life by letting the accelerometer rest.

Even with all of these great features in the hopper, If you can hear yourself saying: “Mom.  Mom!  MOM!…  You were nodding off…. Yes, you were.”  Screebl Lite will alleviate some of the frustration of having to deal with both your mom and your phone doing the same thing, as is, for every phone.  If you haven’t said it yet, you will.  Get Screebl before you really need it.

Summary:

Reliability: 2 stars (but that’s for me and my overloaded phone)

Usability: 5 stars

Customization: 4 stars (I know the app will grow here)

Feature/simplicity balance: 4 stars

Ongoing memory use: a little less than 1mb, but the app itself, not just the service, needs to be running

Size on disk: 219KB

barcode for Screebl Lite in Android Market