Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Blogging Machine

I have spoken before about blogging from the iPhone. Apple even has a commercial about it, you may have seen it on TV.

Well, that kind of blogging is done in one of two ways that I know of. The first is by using the Safari web browser built into the iPhone. It is the same as how I am blogging right now from my desktop computer, except it's on a mobile device. The second method, supported by a few mainstream blogging services, allows you to send an email to your blog. The email either becomes a saved draft, which you edit before releasing (again, via web browser), or it is posted immediately.

Well, that's all well and good, but the iPhone is such a capable platform that I think there is a better way. What I'll describe is a little specific to Blogger, partly because that's the platform I use, but secondly because it is owned/run by Google, which has some kind of development agreement with Apple (see the Google Maps application on the iPhone).

To turn the iPhone into a real blogging machine would start with a new iPhone application. You'll notice that there are currently three unused spots on the iPhone home screen (and an infinite number possible beyond) - this would be one of them. This application would have your logon information for one or more blog accounts, similar to how the Mail application has the account info for one or more email accounts. (As a bonus, these account settings would go beyond just logon information, but also include blog settings, preferences, etc.). Also like a Mail application, you would have an "Inbox" that would hold copies of your old posts, as well as an "Outbox" with drafts of new posts. Third, like the Mail application, you would have a fairly bare-bones compose window. The compose window would be laid out very similar to the compose window I am now using, complete with a series of formatting tools (bold, italics, insert hyperlink, etc.). The "insert picture" button would link to the iPhone's library, and allow you to size and crop images before uploading, in addition to determining the thumbnail size and justification (see Blogger's upload image window below).

Now, what makes this dedicated application better than the two traditional methods of iPhone blogging I mentioned above? The advantage over the web-browser based method is that you don't have to be connected to the internet to compose your next post. Like a mail application, you can draft and compose offline, then upload when you're connected. Although Apple toated Web 2.0 applications as being equivalent to iPhone native applications, there is a clear advantage in terms of user experience and performance in having the thing run locally. Compare a dedicated email client like Outlook, Eudora, Thunderbird, or Blitz to their web-based equivalents.

The advantage of a dedicated blogging application over the email method is that you would have access to the formatting tools I've mentioned above. Instead of composing emails, you are doing something more akin to word processing (a fine distinction, but one I feel is important). The blogging application, with its list of old posts and folder of draft new posts, seems a more tuned application.

Now, this is a good start, but it needs one more thing: an easier way to add content. Typing with the on-screen keyboard on the iPhone works, but is 1/3-1/10 the speed of using a real, physical keyboard. The images that you can capture with the iPhone are ok, but a way of getting images from real digital cameras would be nice. There is precedent for this: older iPods had an optional accessory that would allow you to offload images from your camera to the iPod's harddrive via USB.

Combine these two ways of adding content and you get the second portion of making the iPhone the ultimate blogging machine: a keyboard/Dock. When the Palm Pilot was the PDA in the world, there existed a thriving market of third-party accessories. Several companies sold keyboards into which you could dock your palm pilot. Some of these keyboards were real marvels, able to fold in half or quarters, resulting in a footprint the size of the Palm Pilot itself. Something similar could easily be made for the iPhone, and contain the all-important Dock connector. When the iPhone docks with the keyboard, the on-screen keyboard is disabled, allowing you to view the entire iPhone screen while typing. This would be an advantage not only in the blogging application, but anytime you need to type with the iPhone.

Having actual cursor keys and the ability to select text, copy, paste, and so on would be a real advantage. One could even have dedicated hotkeys on the keyboard to take you to the Safari, iPod, Mail, and Phone top-level applications. The real clincher would be to have a USB port on the side, to which you could connect a camera and transfer images to the iPhone.

Now, all this tossing around of ideas is great, but what would it take to make it happen? As I said, this would best be done through the Apple-Google partnership. There are enough coders and user-interface gurus between the two, plus a unique knowledge of the iPhone's inner workings, to make this very slick. The keyboard could be done as such things have always been done for PDAs and iPods - through third-party development. Offloading pictures from a camera directly to the iPhone would be tricky. However, camera USB drivers can be fairly generic these days, and the iPhone is built on OS X. I think the software tools necessary exist to be able to implement it. Moving the pictures from the iPhone back to a computer during the next sync is already implemented for the iPhone's internal camera.

Ordinarily, I would keep all of this to myself, lest someone get rich off my ideas. However, I am putting it here for all to see for a few reasons. First - I'm never going to have the resources to do this myself (even patenting the idea would be too much). Second, there is a likelihood, in light of Apple's announcement of allowing third-party development for the iPhone, there's a chance that someone (perhaps Apple and Google themselves) is already working on this. Third, if someone does come out with this, based off of what's written here (a very long shot, considering the small readership), I can always point to this posting as prior art and make a fuss. Lastly, I just think this would be really freakin' cool, and want to see it happen.

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