Sunday, 23 September 2012

App review: EUssentials

App fever has hit Brussels. Suddenly, every department of the European Commission (the EU's  executive) wants a shiny new app with which to impress its political masters. Predictably, this exuberance is now spilling over to Brussels-based PR agencies. One, Cambre Associates, has produced EUssentials, a free iPhone and Android app that promises to put key information about the EU institutions at the fingertips of those wanting to influence or do business with them. Below, I review the new Android version of EUssentials.

On the face of it, EUssentials appears to address a genuine need. Information about the EU is scattered across the three separate websites of the Council, Parliament and Commission. There is no effective universal search, and only parts are adapted for mobile devices. The single public directory (which does have a mobile version) provides the phone number of every Commission official, but omits their email addresses. So does Cambre Associates' app fill this gap? It does provide offline access to basic information about some of the big fish in the Brussels pond, notably Commissioners and senior MEPs. But it could do it a lot better.

Memory hungry

The app does conform to some important Android standards. It demands a whopping 13.74 Mb of internal memory and does not offer the now standard facility to offload much of this to the SD card. It also takes over the full screen, disabling the Android notification bar.

More important for the target users, it is not clear whether data - much of which is of a time-sensitive nature - will be updated dynamically, or if this requires a new version of the app itself to be installed. Cambre has confirmed that they actively maintain the data presented in EUssentials, and that this is updated dynamically each time the app is launched.

Flags of inconvenience

EUssentials presents information under four main headings - Parliament, Presidencies, Commission and Institutions. These labels could be misleading to Brussels newbies (the Parliament and the Commission are institutions), but we'll let that pass.

In the Presidencies section you can find a list of the Member States that will hold the rotating Presidency of the EU up until the first semester of 2020 (Finland). It's reassuring to see that the Lithuanian Presidency (second half of 2013) already has a website, to which the app provides a link, but slightly alarming that the Greek Presidency that follows in 2014 does not. 

While browsing the future Presidencies, try to memorise each country's flag, because in the Commission section the only clue to each Commissioner's nationality is their national flag. There is no indication at all of their political allegiance. 

Be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the EU flags

This section provides the direct line and personal email address of each Commissioner and - perhaps more valuable - those of each member of their Cabinets. But access to the Commissioners' online presence is poorly and inconsistently implemented. In principle, each  profile includes icons for sending mail to the Commissioner, their Europa web page, Wikipedia entry, Twitter account, RSS news feed and personal blog. But the email icon is redundant, since the email address itself is an active mailto: link, while links to Facebook pages are missing completely. The button for Viviane Reding's RSS feed takes one to an obsolete web page (Europe's Information Society Thematic Portal: Error 404). Commissioner Georgieva's blog is delivered as an RSS feed rather than a web page.

Corridors of power

Perhaps the most useful section is Parliament, where we find not only a calendar of parliamentary sessions (to the end of 2013) but also lists of the MEPs that make up the Parliament's powerful committees. The email address of each committee member is given, as well as their Brussels and Strasbourg phone numbers. (Non-EU citizens, don't even ask.) But knowledge of national flags is once again essential if you want to have a chance of guessing what language each MEP speaks. And surely lobbyists would have appreciated having the scheduled meetings of individual committees added to the calendar?

Pressure points

The essentially geographical view of the EU's Institutions is interesting but eccentric. Buildings are listed in alphabetical order of their institutional acronym (ah, dear old BREY), with no indication whether they are occupied by Commission, Parliament, Council or mere Executive agency. The 'View in Google Maps' option is useful.  But the section as a whole might have been more useful if we could have started the search from a list of EU bodies and departments, rather than a list of buildings.

Personally, I will struggle on with my painstakingly assembled collection of bookmarks, RSS feeds and Twitter lists until that bright new dawn when the EU's Europa portal is refashioned as an information tool fit for a functioning federal democracy. But I am not a lobbyist. This app may thrill the hearts of nervous or obsessive stagiaires. I do wonder, though, whether it will really repay the effort that Cambre Associates has certainly put into building it.

Next post: Android Jellybean's gesture keyboard

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

High time for a new Android phone

. . . but not an HTC One S (at least not in Europe).

It's now over two years since I bought my HTC Desire. It hasn't broken or malfunctioned, and I still use it intensively every day. But as my 'essential' apps swell with every automatic update, the phone's limited internal memory is becoming a real constraint too often. (Google Maps now hogs 19.25Mb and still cannot be moved to the SD card!) Processes slow right down or simply stop, and software cannot be updated until I uninstall another app to free up space. And of course my unrooted phone is stuck on Android 2.2 (Froyo) while the operating system has progressed through Honeycomb and Gingerbread to the gorgeous-looking Jellybean.

So I figured the time had come to pass the perfectly serviceable Desire on to another member of the family and choose myself a new Android device.

I do feel some loyalty to HTC, and I like the solid build of their phones, so my first choice was the HTC One S. The black carbonised metal finish sounded cool, the 4.3-inch screen and slim profile were perfect for me, and I liked what I read about the fast 1.5GHz dual core Snapdragon S4 processor. Possible downsides were the pentile AMOLED display, which some reviewers found 'jaggy', and the lack of an SD Card slot to supplement the 16Gb of internal memory, which is shared between internal memory and data storage. But the pros outweighed the cons, and I shopped around for the best price on an unlocked phone.

I found a great price at (I live in Belgium). The €424.99 deal came from a third-party vendor, Expansys, and announced the processor as the 1.5GHz dual core Snapdragon S4 that I wanted. But I had read that HTC was having difficulty sourcing the S4, and that in some European markets the One S was being sold with the older 1.7GHz S3 processor, with inferior performance and battery life and some overheating problems. I had no way of checking if these rumours were true, but I decided that the S3 was not for me. So I emailed Pixmania, asking for confirmation that the model advertised really was fitted with the 1.5GHz S4 processor. Yes, I was assured, it was the 1.5GHz S4, as advertised. Okay then! I placed the order.

Two days later, the package arrived, but the model number on the outside of the phone's packaging worried me. I checked with HTC itself, and quickly got a polite reply: "The code Z560e on the box indicates that you have received the 1.7GHz version of the device. This is an enhanced version of the dual-core Snapdragon processor, running at 1.7GHz to provide a comparable user experience to the 1.5GHz S4 chip. There will be no discernible difference between the user experience supported by the two processors, with both delivering a premium experience." But that was not what I had ordered!

Pixmania referred me to Expansys, who did not respond to my message demanding that they refund the full price and cover the cost of returning the device. But with support from the European Consumer Centre Belgium I insisted, and the phone was finally picked up by a courier today. I trust my credit card will be recredited as soon as the phone arrives back at Expansys, and then I'll be looking around for another new Android phone once more.

Does anyone have any advice? The Samsung Galaxy S III looks great, but Samsung's phones always seem a bit flimsy to me. And of course, I'd really like Jellybean pre-installed.

Next post: App review: EUssentials