PeekAndPick: Mobile Content Services using RSS & J2ME.

by Timothy Appnel

In his content syndication weblog, Ben Hammersley points out a nifty mobile application named PeekAndPick that he's begun using on his new Java enabled phone. PeekAndPick is a J2ME MIDP application for reading headlines and excerpts from RSS feeds and selecting the items you are interested in reading later. Your selections can be compiled into a list of links and emailed to your desktop for later reading.

PeekAndPick, the work of Jonathan Knudsen, is a brilliant mobile app because it illustrates good mobile application design. It doesn't try to do too much or be like a desktop application. It does demonstrates how mobile and traditional Internet channels can be used to provide a useful and appropriate solution together -- though it could do that a bit better. (More on that in a bit.)

The application's design acknowledges that mobile means "on the move." This mobility generally finds the end user in a less then ideal setting (context) that requires information be concise and interactions simple in order to be useful. Mobile users do not browse -- especially on a screen that typically is not much large then a postage stamp. (Note to telcos and device manufacturers: Web content was not designed or with a mobile devices or users in mind. It futile to try because it really doesn't work out and it just annoys people.)

While very well done application that we have to give Jonathan a great deal of credit for, PeekAndPick is not without its issues or room for improvement.

PeekAndPick underlines the need for RSS feed publishers to exercise good form and provide descriptive titles and concise well-formed excerpts. Since quite often this is not the case, PeekAndPick would probably benefit from a server-side proxy that retrieves feeds, cleanses them and strips any extraneous information that the app does not need. Besides heading off trouble this approach also helps keep bandwidth use to a minimum. Optimizing bandwidth usage not only improves response time, but it saves the end user some money. Remember mobile data services are typically priced by the bandwidth consumed.

Most of the configuration for the app, such as defining your list of feeds, should be handled through a web interface and not the mobile device. At a former employer, where I consulted on a number of mobile projects, we professed "configure while seated, consume while mobile." Who wants to type in a URI like with their phone's keypad?

In my cursory review of the code, the application does not queue messages if a connection if not available. Given the unreliable nature of mobile networks, handling these occurrences is important, even crucial, to developing user-friendly and reliable mobile applications.

I could really use PeekAndPick myself because I find myself woefully behind when I'm away from my desk for any extended period of time. Alas, I cannot use it because I use a Blackberry 957 that is not Java-enabled. (I love my Blackberry and still find it useful, but I've been deeply disappointed that RIM has forsaken users and not continued to advance this model's capabilities by providing J2ME support as its descendants. I suppose that's for another posts though.)

Check out PeekAndPick and consider your mobile application future.