Last month I spent a week at a cross-country rally in Poland and Germany blogging from my iPhone. I hadn’t planned from the start to blog the event because I wasn’t sure it would be possible, but when I got there I was determined to try. Writing requires practice, and I knew I would learn a lot from the experience. I wrote most of my posts in Evernote, just like I’m doing now, and posted them through the WordPress iPhone app. I don’t have lots of time in my schedule for blogging these days, so it was a good exercise. Since that experience, I’ve been using my iPhone often for my regular blog, so I thought I’d share my observations here.
I’ve never covered an event before, and I knew I didn’t have the same means as the professional journalists following the race, so I decided to concentrate on providing a first person account of my own experience as part of the service crew for one of the teams. While arguably not as exciting as direct news about the race, it provides a unique view on what it’s like to take part in a rally.
From a writing perspective, the challenge was hard. I tried to publish a post every day to keep the story going and made it a point to include photos as I thought they would be interesting to my audience. Here’s one of two local boys who came to watch the race. I took it with my Sony Cybershot, and although it’s my favorite photo from the rally, I probably won’t use it on my other blog.
I don’t think I’m a very good writer, and I’m certainly not fast either. During the rally, I didn’t have the luxury of taking as much time or doing as many re-reads as I normally do. Despite the constraints, I managed to publish a post every day but the second one, sometimes completing the drafting in up to 5 or 6 sessions, taking the time when I could squeeze it in. Once I typed out my account of the previous day’s events while bouncing around in the cabin of our service truck as we were off in search of a good spot to take photos of the drivers during the specials.
The writing itself was a challenge for me too. Journalistic reporting is not something I’ve had the opportunity to do before, and the elements of style and pace are quite different from the technical prose I’m used to. It didn’t help any that I’m not an expert with automotive sports, nor that my team members were French, and I was writing in English. Sometimes the English translation of the racing vocabulary wasn’t obvious to me.
Overall, I’m pleased with the outcome. Re-reading the posts still makes me wince, but I think the experience taught me a few things and I hope my writing will improve as a result. It’s imperative to focus on the essential when you’re under pressure and have so little time to conceive an article, find a story line, select and prepare the photos, and write the text. The WordPress iPhone app doesn’t make it easy to select the picture formatting, or set a break, but I haven’t touched anything from the posts since I returned to my laptop so they look exactly the way they did when I posted them during the rally. I think there’s a noticeable improvement from the first days’ posts to the last. If you’d like to see how they look, you can start here.
As for blogging from an iPhone, in general I found it was extremely practical considering the circumstances. Small enough to fit in my pocket, I always had it with me whenever I had a few minutes to work on a post. Since the phone handles pictures and video, there was no need to use my computer to transfer files and upload them. The only drawback is the poor quality of the camera compared to my 10.2 Megapixel Sony Cybershot.
In terms of using the iPhone as a mobile blogging platform, I made the following observations.
1. Having the right applications is essential. I used the following apps: WordPress, Evernote, Photogene, MagicHour, bit.ly, Twitter and of course Safari. Accessing the WordPress site from Safari is slow so installing the WordPress app is mandatory. In practice drafting a post in the application is risky though. After losing three paragraphs of a draft post, which was somehow not saved by the application, I decided to use Evernote for my drafts. I have never lost a note with Evernote. It’s not perfect though. For example, the Evernote app doesnt seem to have an “undo” function. Once due to a series of mistakes tapping the wrong key, I selected the entire text of my note and then pasted the contents of the clipboard over it, thus losing the whole post. I managed to recover the version from the start of my session by quitting the application and discarding all my edits.
A basic photo editor is also a must to adjust contrast or color, add captions or crop; you can’t always count on the built-in camera and automatic adjustments to produce the best-looking image. Luckily, I happened to have Photogene on my iPhone already, so I used that. MagicHour also has some nice built-in filters, and you can make your own or tweak one of the standard ones if need be. For promoting your posts on social networks, a Twitter app is more convenient than accessing the site in Safari. For Facebook, it’s the opposite. The Facebook iPhone app won’t put thumbnails into the links you post to your Wall. Facebook’s mobile site doesn’t do that either, so you have to switch to the desktop version, which is slow and cumbersome.
2. Patience helps. Writing, proofing and waiting for the network take most of the time. The network is the slowest. I didn’t have access to the Wifi set up for staff and press use at the camp, so I had to rely on GSM data roaming. The signal was fairly good in most places, but 3G wasn’t available so I was mostly stuck on Edge. To avoid excessive roaming charges, I avoided uploading video to my posts and tried to limit my activities, accessing Facebook and Twitter only to publicize, and doing as much offline as possible. The final roaming charges for the 10-day trip were around 45 Swiss Francs, or $57 at current exchange rates.
3. The WordPress app specs don’t seem to have been developed by someone who has actually used the iPhone for mobile blogging. There are lots of things you take for granted on the WordPress website that you won’t be able to do in the iPhone app. There’s no easy way to specify the placing of your images. Once uploaded, you have to copy/paste the html code that embeds the image if you want to place it in a particular place in the text. There aren’t any options to add a caption or select the alignment (left, right or center) so you’ll have to know the html tags if you want to change the defaults. Previewing a post is bandwidth consuming because the application will upload all the text and media to WordPress and then download it again to display the view. There is no “local” preview option that would make this more efficient on low-bandwidth networks.
Since my trip, WordPress has upgraded their iPhone app. I’m still not using it for drafts, so I don’t know if they’ve made any improvements there, but they have added stats, which were missing from the app during the rally. That meant that unless I logged into the regular WordPress website with Safari, I had no way of knowing how much traffic my posts were getting or how people were finding them.
All things considered, the experiment was a success, and I’m now enjoying working on posts for my blog when I have time during the day, on the bus or during my lunch break, which I hadn’t really considered doing before. Blogging from the iPhone is something I hope to do more often, and I hope I’ll be doing it for a long time to come.