A SnapAsk Widget for Symbian S60

Answers in a snap
Answers in a snap

My favourite gadget of all time is the Psion 5MX. EPOC, its operating system, was sheer genius. It had a great interface and was a joy to use. EPOC became Symbian S80 and when the lack of Internet functionality of the Psion became too bothersome I decided to switch to a Nokia 9500, then to a Nokia E90 and now I own a Nokia E71 with Symbian S60 3rd edition.

Suddenly I find myself stuck with a smartphone that has an operating system which doesn’t leverage the keyboard of the device and is in many ways quite clunky (some options are hidden more than five layers deep). However I much prefer Symbian to the other available platforms: the iPhone is extremely nice but married to iTunes and locked down, Palm hasn’t been resurrected yet, Windows Mobile is a joke (using a pen is ridiculous in this day and age), the Neo Freerunner is too experimental, Maemo doesn’t allow me to use a SIM card and all the phones running Android that currently exist have no battery life.

I like to get the maximum potential out of all the technology that I use. I have spent quite a bit of time setting up my phone exactly the way I like it, so that I have quick access to information on the go (see for example the custom mobile start page that I created). In due time I will write a post about the programs that I use on my phone. In this post I want to focus on a small widget that I developed yesterday evening.

A couple of months ago I read a post on Lifehacker about a great service for people who own a mobile device with email capabilities: SnapAsk allows you to send an email to ask – at – snapask -dot- com with a keyword and a query in the subject line. SnapAsk will then reply to your email with an answer to your query. So “wiki Symbian” will return the Wikipedia page for Symbian and “news economic crisis” will return an email with relevant news articles. Some of the keywords are a bit US centric and don’t return proper results for me in the Netherlands (e.g. weather, traffic or flight), others are quite innovative: Know some words of a song, but can’t remember the name or who sang it? Send an email with the subject “lyrics A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of” to Snapask and you will be textually Rickrolled.

Using SnapAsk on my phone proved more difficult than I had hoped. I had to either type in the email address in the To: field or select it from my contacts, remember (the hardest part!) and type the keyword I wanted to use and finally type the query. I also learnt the other day that Nokia has decided to support widget development on their Symbian platform. So I gave in to my tinkering spirit and committed to trying to write a little widget which would make it easier to use SnapAsk on my phone.

I set the following criteria for the widget:

  • It should require the least amount of possible clicks
  • It should be as close to self explanatory as possible
  • I would have to be done with it in a couple of hours
The UI of the widget
The UI of the widget

At first I thought I would create links for each keyword and an input field for the query. The user would first click on the link with the keyword, then write the query and finally click on a link or press a button to start the email application. Later I realised that I could eliminate one step by making the keywords buttons. This way the user would only have to type in the query and select the correct keyword.

This idea required some Javascript. I have been wanting to try jQuery, so I wrote the initial implementation using that library. When I tried loading the page on my phone I learnt that jQuery seemingly was not supported by Nokia’s built-in browser. I then decided to try and write it with normal Javascript code and this worked perfect. With some CSS I managed to get the input field to be the full width of the top of the page (where the cursor is likely to be). I also made the field higher by increasing the font-size property, so that it is easy to get your cursor on it, in case it isn’t. The only thing I couldn’t manage to do was get the field to auto-focus on load. It seems that Nokia doesn’t want to support that function.

All I had to do, after finishing the HTML file (with inline CSS and Javascript), was create an XML file called info.plist with the name of the widget and its version number and an icon.png file of 88×88 pixels. I then put these three files into a folder, zipped it and changed the extension to .wgz.

The widget as an installed app
The widget as an installed app

The great thing about these widgets is that they install like any other Symbian program and can, by default, be found in the Installations directory on your phone. Ajax can be used and apparently some Javascript methods exist that allow you to map certain functions to the softkeys of the phone.

I really like how standardised web technology is becoming. This widget should run on any other device with a standards based browser and if you keep the structure of the page simple and clean you can expect each individual mobile browser to display the page optimally.

My employer has standardised on Symbian smartphones for all their consultants. It should be relatively easy for them to develop a highly relevant widget that will enable me to do my work better and more efficiently. I have to say I am bit puzzled about the fact that Nokia is not pushing this concept a bit harder. Where is the Nokia Widget Store?

I would love for people to use the widget and give me some feedback on whether they like it:

Download the Widget
(or try in your browser if you don’t have a Symbian phone)

If you know of any other interesting widgets for Symbian please let me know!

Learning 2008: Mashups & Widgets are the Future of the LMS

“Mashups & Widgets are the Future of the LMS” was the title of the talk by Bryan Polivka of the Laureate Higher Education Group. This is a group that runs 36 universities over the world. All of these universities have different methodologies, styles and cultures. It is Bryan’s challenge to find solutions that work for all of these universities.

Bryan outlined his problem for us: The learning model is determined by how content connects to students connect to faculty connect to assessment. Their universities are still in the traditional LMS paradigm. This is a problem because we now have all these new things like podcasts, mobile phones, 3D worlds, social sites, etc.

His solution to this problem is to go back to the basics. What is the core of what they want to do with learning technology? According to Bryan they decided that Content – Students – Assessments form the core interaction. This is what should be supported by the LMS, the rest can be flexible and can be set up in multiple ways.

He then went on to highlight the widgetisation of the web (his example was Pageflakes). It used to be the case that the Internet was laid out according to the physical metaphor of the web page: a virtual location. You moved from place to place by switching web pages. That infrastructure is in the process of being broken up: you now have the possibility to pull in data from all over the web and display it in a single location (look at popurls as an example).

An LMS should support this through its architecture. Bryan gave a quick demo of Asiatrac Learning Studio. This LMS is created in Thailand and allows embedding of all of its contents as a widget on another site.

The courses in the Laureate group’s universities are designed through a very solid design process. This allows them to have a lot of high quality content (much video and audio) in their repository of digital assets. The repository allows for tracking and can display its assets in an LMS, but also in a Facebook app or through the iTunes university. All they need is to make sure the student authenticates. The university is now in control of what options they will give their students and they can experiment with having the content only available in Blackboard, or sharing it more widely capitalising on the site that is currently en vogue with their students.

I find this a very interesting strategy and love how Bryan managed to conceptualise his whole presentation very clearly. It would be great for current LMS’ to have more of an architecture that would support its contents being displayed elsewhere. However, I do see two issues that could use some more thought:

  • Content is seen here as broadcasted material (audio, video, interactive e-learning modules, etc.) and not as pedagogically designed activities. Where is the student as a constructor of knowledge in this story? How do you facilitate and moderate student interaction and collaboration?
  • How do you ensure that the learning experience doesn’t become too fragmented? The British Open University has explicitly chosen a strategy in which all the learning takes place inside the LMS (or as they call it: the VLE, compare Niall Sclater). This way they have full control over the design of the learning experience and are able to optimally facilitate their learners with a unified and clear interface.

I would love to explore this topic further. Does anybody have any pointers?