Steel City Codefest 2014 – The Checkpoint

Finally getting around to posting about my experience at this year’s Steel City Codefest where I worked with a team of my colleagues to whip up a prototype of an app for a non-profit organization: TheCheckpoint.org.

THE PROJECT

This particular project was to create a mobile app (cross-platform) for veterans to locate and review/rate resources and services. While this doesn’t sound like a particularly flashy application to work on, we felt it was one with more need than the others (plenty of teams volunteering for other projects) and the challenge was really to try to make something useful and interesting.

THE TEAM AND THE TECH

Initially I had no plans to participate in Codefest but a few of my colleagues at work were joining in so I figured I would give it a shot.  We all have many years of experience working on a variety of technologies but we all shared a common background for C#/.NET so we decided to leverage Xamarin’s cross-platform native app framework so that we could all contribute as equally as possible.  Since we were targeting both iPhone and Android we felt that we were too limited by a hybrid-mobile solution and didn’t have a big enough team to go full native (Objective-C and Java) so Xamarin fit right in the middle.

Additionally, we wanted to share as much code as possible (really the only way to recoup the cost of tools/platforms like Xamarin) so we decided to incorporate MvvmCross, a framework for Xamarin allowing us to only need to re-write the view layer and share all the way down through the ViewModels and so on.

THE PROCESS

While we had done some initial planning after work, we pretty much came in with a blank slate ready to get started.  As I was the only one with a MacBook, I was on the hook for ripping out the iPhone version, Geoff had some Android experience so he was tackling that, Mark started working through integration with FourSquare, and since our designer was a no-show, Steve got stuck with the UX/UI design work and also kicking in on the ViewModels.

15 straight hours of coding later and out pops a prototype of an app:

20140224_142409000_iOS 20140224_142417000_iOS 20140224_142421000_iOS

WHAT’S NEXT

I am planning on finishing this app as soon as I get a chance to get working on it.  To help, I am working with Jared from Checkpoint to apply for some grant money to cover the cost of licenses (Xamarin), services (some mobile backend-as-a-service) and some time/help/kindness of others!

My beach experiment with the Kindle Paperwhite

I’m connected, lead a connected life, and I can’t live without being connected. So, every year when traveling to the beach I am faced with the challenge of trying to read my iPhone’s display in the stark sunlight. This year I decided to try a little experiment: “Could I be with an e-reader with an e-ink display?”

First, I needed to find a device with a usable browser, understanding that it would not be a first-class experience and that I would depend on tethering to my iPhone and that the refresh rate of an e-ink display might limit what I could do.

Choosing – Winner: Kindle Paperwhite

The day before we left for the beach (I only buy electronics on impulse), I headed over to the local electronics retailer to compare the Nook to the Kindle.  The Nook was what I assumed I was going to pick up: allegedly faster refresh, micro SD slot, more format support and so on.  However, it is difficult not to admire the tech behind the Paperwhite’s screen and, in my opinion, I found the it a little nicer in the Kindle.  The second factor was that most of the Nooks I see on display are busted.  Either they are so popular that they get handled a lot or they are fragile.  I went with the Kindle.  While I would miss the micro SD slot I have come to like just emailing my Kindle anything I want to sync to it.  I could just use the USB cable but I hate tethering.

Getting Content – Feedly+Instapaper = WIN!!

My primary beach activities (other than burying my daughter in sand) include reading my way-old stack of magazines and reading my (RSS) news feeds.  Funny enough, many of my magazines have gone totally digital or I canceled as I just never have time to read them.  What was left was a “stack” of MSDN PDFs and a new subscription to MIT Technology Review (Kindle edition).  Long story short: PDFs stink on the Kindle (you can zoom in/out but turning the page os just too slow) but the Kindle edition of the magazines are really nice.  As a note, I can convert the PDFs into .mobi by emailing them to Amazon and they’ll just appear on my device.  MSDN mag did not survive the conversion process 😦

Since the demise of Google Reader, I moved on to Feedly for my RSS feed madness.  Generally, I scan through headlines on my iPhone or laptop and read just a few articles but Feedly would simply not work in the Kindle’s browser. Then I re-discovered Instapaper. Feedly integrates with Instapaper where, when not on the Kindle, I can simply flag articles I want to read later.  Then, with a single push of a button, I can have those web articles delivered to my Kindle in e-reader (.MOBI) format.  Now they are super easy to read and waiting for me.  Brilliant!

Staying Connected – Kindle’s Experimental Browser + Gmail + Twitter

Once I inevitably get bored of reading, I move on to checking email and tweets.  The good news is that Gmail and Twitter are perfectly usable in the Kindle’s browser.  That’s not to say the experience is awesome … but it easily gets the job done and I don’t have to struggle to see what I am reading in the bright sunlight.  My corporate webmail client, however, is totally unusable … what a shame 😀

Most other web sites work to some degree in the browser as long as they aren’t getting crazy with the rich media.

Conclusion – Success!

After using the Kindle this way for a few days, I am very pleased with the experience. In fact, I wrote the intro to this post with the Kindle itself.  The spelling mistakes (from the slow refresh and my fat thumbs) were a little comical and required some post edits but it was fun anyway.