Previous Section  < Day Day Up >  Next Section

Hack 88 Enemies of Mobile IRC

figs/beginner.gif figs/hack88.gif

Mobile IRC has different limitations than the normal experience. Meet eight enemies of mobile IRC, and learn how to defeat them.

I'm the first to admit there are downsides to the mobile IRC experience; some of the things that make a mobile phone so much easier to carry than a PC or laptop can also be a slight hindrance in usage. However, judicious application of Sun Tzu's dictum, "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster," should help you to IRC on the move without disaster.

14.4.1 The Phone Keypad

Unless you have a device like the Treo 600 or the Nokia 6800, you are unlikely to have a full QWERTY keyboard on your phone, and even with these devices, the constrained dimensions means that full touch typing is unlikely. One or two thumbs on a phone keypad will never approach the speed of 10 fingers on a QWERTY. Accept this fact and use this knowledge to your advantage.

Slow text entry has benefits. It makes you think about what you're writing, and it can improve your writing skills; being able to convey a message concisely and coherently is a skill worth attaining in "real" life as well as on IRC. Be aware that slow entry has its hazards, avoid using words like "it" or "that" because the conversation may have moved on, and the "it" or "that" that you appear to be talking about may now be something completely different. For example, the conversation:

<Joe> did you see the game last night on TV?

<You> yeah, it was rubbish

could easily turn into the following if you're a bit too slow:

<Joe> did you see the game last night on TV?

<Steve> no I was hacking some code together, incidentally did you try my new app?

<You> yeah, it was rubbish

Some mobile IRC apps like Virca allow you to pre-enter common phrases (it calls these favorites), which you can select and reuse time after time. This is very useful for common actions like talking to bots or for giving a quick disclaimer like, "Sorry, I can't type very quickly because I'm using IRC on a mobile phone."

14.4.2 Predictive Text Entry

If your phone has predictive text entry like the T9 system, one can enter the word "horse" by pressing 4-6-7-7-3 rather than the multitap approach in which one presses 44-666-777-7777-33. This has an obvious benefit in reducing the number of keystrokes required, but predictive text entry is not without its foibles. Sometimes the word you intend to enter is not in the dictionary, or it is not the first- or even the second-choice word for a particular sequence of keystrokes. For example, the name Russ is the ninth choice for the 7-8-7-7 combination of key presses, so at 12 keystrokes—4 for the letters, plus 8 steps through the dictionary—this word is only barely quicker than using the multitap solution of 777-88-7777-7777.

Many words are not in the dictionary of your predictive text entry software. There are at least three ways around this problem. You could add the words to the dictionary so that they're remembered for future use. If you do not want to enter a word into your dictionary, you could enter it in a composite form (i.e., you could enter the words comp-o-site for composite), or you could even turn off predictive text entry for that word. Good words to add to your dictionary are common words that you use frequently; I've added unusual nicknames, technical acronyms, and swear words.

One thing that predictive text entry doesn't help with is bad spelling; if you can't spell, you're going to be hunting for words quite frequently, so think about your spelling.

Numeric entry is simple once you know the tricks. You can either switch from text entry to numeric, or you can usually hold down the intended digit key for about half a second and the numeral will appear instead of a letter. One big benefit of predictive text entry is that "l33t sp34k" is even more tedious to enter than it is read, so even if you are a 14-year-old script kiddy, predictive text entry will at least make you appear more like an intelligent human being on IRC.

14.4.3 Small Screen Size

Get used to it—no one is going to produce a megapixel resolution phone display in the near future, so this isn't a battle you're going to win, but you can mitigate the damage. On a 128x128-sized display, things can start scrolling past very swiftly. If this happens, you're going to have to stick to lurking for a while until the conversation calms down. If a channel gets too fast for you to follow consistently, it's probably worth leaving it. Keep your channel count low, to keep your stress levels down.

14.4.4 Street Traffic and Street Furniture

Maybe this should be enemy number 1 if you're the sort of person who tries to walk and IRC. It certainly requires a skill level far above simultaneous walking and gum chewing. Be careful out there. If a conversation gets fast moving, heated, or involved, slow down or even stop walking. Let's face it, IRC has rarely been called a time-saver, so a few extra seconds on your journey is far less serious a problem than your walking in front of a truck. Also, if you are that involved in looking at your phone, you are not going to notice someone running up behind you to steal it until it's far too late.

14.4.5 Dropped Connections

If you're moving around with a mobile phone, you're going to find areas with limited coverage. If you're using GPRS, this can be interesting as the "connection" can appear to stay up for quite an extended period of no coverage (more than 30 seconds is not unusual). One way to kill your GPRS session is trying to send a message when you are in an area without coverage, so check the signal strength before you hit the Enter key!

14.4.6 Others Unaware Your Client Is Limited

This can be a problem, as other users will sometimes ask you to send them an email, or they will try to DCC you a huge file or just ask you to check a web page. Some simple J2ME phones will even kill the Java session when you receive an incoming phone call. With some clients and phones, you will be limited in whether you can do these actions as well as use IRC. Your best bet is to let people know you are using a limited client. You could do this by changing your nick from, say, "Steve" to "Steve_3650," or by having a prewritten disclaimer—like a Virca favorite.

14.4.7 The Ephemeral Nature of Sessions

This will be a shock to those used to using a screen and having channel logs going back for years, but with most mobile IRC clients, you'll be able to see what's gone on in only the current session. Get used to it; it's not such a big disadvantage. Maybe you will have to lurk for a minute or so to find out what's going on when you join a channel, but it's no big deal. If you can't cope with this, use channels with public logs, or run another IRC session elsewhere, logging the channel for later perusal. The mobibot that runs in #mobitopia on the freenode IRC network has been modified to include a recap function that replays the last 10 items of traffic via private message. Sure, it's not extensive, but it's very useful to catch up on the last snippets of a conversation without having to ask someone.

14.4.8 Battery Life

Modern mobile phones get their impressive standby durations by being very miserly with power consumption when they're not active. The clock speed of the main processor is reduced, the screen backlight is turned off, and all nonessential hardware is powered down. However, when you're tapping away on the keypad, your phone is using as much power as if you were making a voice call or maybe even more. Suddenly, instead of 200 hours between charges, you may be looking at 5 hours or less. You can either accept this as inevitable and ensure that you recharge frequently, or you can mitigate this effect by thinking about your IRC usage.

There are (at least) eight enemies—none serious though. If you're aware of these enemies and their workarounds, mobile IRC isn't going to be a disaster for you.

Jim Hughes

    Previous Section  < Day Day Up >  Next Section