Houston App: System overview

Houston, is a mobile application replacing the radio communication system previously used by the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF). Houston is a system using existing data network.

The system is spread over more than 200 busses, 30 team leaders and the operation center. It covers the needs of three types of users: the operators, the bus drivers and the team leaders (Houston: a mobile app to replace a radio communication system).

The major components

So how’s Houston working? Here is an overview of the major components. Houston is a distributed system composed of:

  • Two Mobile Apps that fulfill the specific need of bus drivers and team leaders
  • A Web Client used by the operators to create any type of call
  • A Cloud Communication Platform to establish Voice over IP (VoIP) and standard phone call over the Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN) without having to deal with the complexity of building and maintaining a communication infrastructure. The cloud platform used in this system is Twilio (more details on that later)
  • A Public API: implemented by a backend server used as a bridge between mobile apps, web clients and Twilio. It is connected to a database that stores user identities and bus planning. The database also keeps traces of all performed calls.

A deeper look inside each component of the system and how each of them interacts together will help to understand why Houston was a huge challenge.

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Houston: a mobile app to replace a radio communication system

Bring your company radio system to the 21st century using VoIP and mobile applications to improve communication quality while reducing costs.

With the project Houston, we took the challenge of replacing the old radio network of the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF), a swiss public transportation company by a system using existing data network and running on mobile applications. This solution solved the problem of maintaining a dedicated radio network. It also improved both the global quality of the communication and the availability of the system.

Initial situation: communication based on radio system

Since decades, employees of the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF) have been using standard radio to communicate between them. The radio system is meant to cover the needs of the users. It is spread over more than 200 busses, 30 team leaders and the operation center). There are three types of users, with specific needs:

  • The operators – working in the operation center – use the radio to speak to a specific bus driver, or to broadcast messages to all or part of the running busses.
  • The team leaders are dispatched at different locations. They use the radio to manage daily events – such as the replacement of a driver – or to inform many drivers of a change in the network – for example in case of an accident.
  • The bus drivers use the bus radio as the main means of communication while driving. They can call other busses, the team leaders or the operation center.


Logo TPF

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Native or Hybrid Mobile Application, Which One Should I Choose?

It is complex for non-geeks to understand the mobile application ecosystem. We often hear jargon such as mobile apps, hybrid apps, native apps, single-codebase-cross-platforms apps, etc.

Some clarification is needed.

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Do I Need a Mobile Application or a Mobile Website?

In our digital era where people’s attention is scattered between apps and websites, it’s not easy to know whether you need a mobile application, or if a responsive website (that can be accessed via your web browser) would meet your needs.

I have this discussion every week with new clients, and I thought it was time to share our reasoning here at Liip in order to give you a clear answer if you still hesitate.

Do You Want To Reach Your Users, or Bring Rich Features to Them?

When clients come with a mobile app request, I explain them that most of the time, a web application is more efficient in terms of investment, as well as in term of reach.

The second question I get after this answer is: “When would I need a mobile app, then?”
In my point of view, mobile apps are useful when they are crafted to be rich — vs. the reach that web applications can provide. Rich in terms of features that are only available on mobile devices, and that can’t be achieved via web technologies.

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5 industrial challenges mobile applications can solve

How can mobile applications support industries to undertake a digital transformation? In supply chain, risk management, or information distribution, mobile applications will make tasks easier for your employees, thus increasing efficiency. Read about 5 industrial challenges that mobile apps can solve.

First of all, it is important to carefully chose between a web and a mobile application. Mobile apps are useful when they use one of the device’s native capabilities (e.g. Bluetooth, GPS, camera, etc.), and when they enhance the experience provided to the user (compared to what a web application could do).

Industrial challenges

The challenges industries face are often very good candidates for mobile apps as they leverage all their potential. Therefore, I have identified five recurring issues that industries are facing nowadays. These pain points can be easily relieved by mobile applications.

Challenge 1: Productivity issues due to technical limitations

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Time for Coffee available on Android

Do you have time to take a coffee before your next public transportation connexion? Time for Coffee is a project initially started by François Terrier among friends in 2015.  We continued the work to make it available on further devices. 

When the Apple Watch came out, a few Liipers had the idea to make an app for it because having the next departures on the wrist was a perfect use case for this kind of device. The app received quite a lot of attentions in Swiss newspapers and received a Silver in the best of swiss apps in the category “Wearables & New Devices”. Since the Android world deserved also our attention, we made the app available for Android and Android Wear watches. The app is downloadable on the Play Store.

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Hackday React Native for Android

When React Native for Android came out I was excited to investigate it more at one of Liips monthly innovation days. Liip already developed a React Native app for iOS and we wanted to know how it works for Android. We were: Andrey, Germain, Lukasz and me. Germain is currently working on a cross platform app written with Xamarin.

For this hackday we tried to port an existing React Native iOS app to Android.

TL;DR: We are waiting for WebViews to be supported. See the pull request for changes. We didn’t need to dive deep into Android APIs like XML Layouts for views.

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Using a powerful and full-featured search engine on mobile platforms

When Xamarin meets Lucene…


As soon as we are dealing with a bigger amount of data, it can be complicated to find what you are actually looking for. It is obvious that we can ease the task of finding information by structuring our data and by offering an intuitive user interface.

Nonetheless, there are several scenarios where a search engine can come in handy.

Probably the best example is our good old friend the Internet. Information is stored and obtained in various ways and it is an immense yet growing collection of information resources. If you do not exactly know what you are looking for, your search engine of choice is an essential helper to point you into the right direction.

Implementing search capabilities in your desktop application is no rocket science because you can rely on powerful search engines that do the difficult work for you. It is rather a matter of configuration than implementing complex algorithms yourself. Especially when software is growing up, handcrafted search functionality is simply not satisfying anymore.

What do I expect from a “good” search engine? At first the obvious: return me the most accurate data I am looking for. It should find my information even if I misspell it (we all make mistakes). It should suggest me similar results and it should do all that fast. Pretty basic needs but quite some work if you have to implement this from scratch.

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About Wearables and Android Wear Platform

Andreas and I had the opportunity to give a talk about wearables at the Internet Briefing in Zürich at the beginning of october. After the introduction about wearables in general, smartwatches and a variety of other smart products, we explained what Android Wear is, how the platform works and if you should adapt your app for wearables. The presentation was followed by an interesting discussion between all participants. Questions and answers about business opportunities, personal experiences and current projects were the main topics.

Let me wrap up what we presented and what the discussion concluded among the participants.

Introduction to Wearable Technology

In the last years a lot of tech companies have started combining tiny electronic components with all kinds of already existing or new products. These intelligent products measure, communicate, and even lead humans. Surely you already know Google Glass, a variety of fitness trackers and smartwatches. Connected with your phone or the web, they track positions, measure movements, send and receive a big amount and variety of data.

This current development is changing our expectations and the way we interact with our environment. Increasingly integrated in our daily lives, technology is gaining power by turning almost invisible. We could almost talk about humanization of technology. But wearable technology actually has been around for centuries. In the 17th century people in China used to wear abacus bracelets in order to calculate directly on their wrists. The Hamilton Watch “The Pulsar” reuses the same concept. It was the first calculator watch, developed in 1975. As long as humans have lived they have adapted technology to their needs. Check out our presentation slides to learn more about the wearable history.

What is happening on the market

Smartwatches put themselves in charge to track the health of the carrier and to provide him with context relevant information at the moment when he needs them. So, this means that the watch won’t just tell you that it is 2 o clock, but “It is 2 o’clock and time to take the train to Zürich. It would be good for you to walk to the train station so you can burn some calories.”

While smartwatches are one of the the first intelligent wearables to enter the consumer market they will definitely not be the last. Innovative products like smart lenses for diabetics which measure the blood sugar level as well as smart pills which measure body temperature, heartbeat and breathing rhythm are being developed and tested at the moment. Smart clothing, jewelry and shoes are additional products that already hit the market as well and the offers are growing every day.

Experts predict a strong increase in turnover on the wearable market for the next years. Until the end of 2014 a turnover of 4 Billion Euro are expected and even 9 Billion until 2018.

Android Wear Platform

The platform enables developers to build their own wearable applications based on the existing Android SDK. The watches are an extension of Android smartphones and work together. The watch connects with the smartphone via Bluetooth. You can open apps on your smartphone via your watch and vice versa. The platform is available to everyone and offers a lot of potential: it opens possibilities to connect together smartphones, watches and other devices like Google Glass, Android TV or Android Auto.

Liip’s first wearable app for Android Wear is out now

We had the chance to obtain one of the first smartwatches which run on Android Wear. We received the Samsung Gear Live almost immediately after its release and started working on different projects. One project that we just released is the Liip Pomodoro App. Pomodoro is a popular time management technique and so many of us love it. It suggests to work in 25 minutes working cycles and to take 5 minute pauses.
By wearing a Google smartwatch and starting the Liip Pomodoro wearable app it helps you to focus on your tasks and reminds you to take breaks by vibrating and changing its design. Download now the Liip Pomodoro Wearable App.

We decided to develop a mobile app and then to extend it by creating the corresponding wear app. Both apps communicate together to synchronize the current time and cycle. If the watch is not connected to the mobile, the Pomodoro app can work also in standalone mode. The project was a good use case to experiment the different challenges when making two devices communicate together: having delay when trying to synchronize data, choosing the right communication strategy (e.g. master / slave model), finding a way to save battery life even if it sends many messages.

Developing for Android Wear

If you want to have an app on a smartwatch there are two different ways to get your app ready for wearables:

One quick and easy way is to extend your app with wearable notifications. If your existing app is using notification, those notification will be directly displayed on your watch. On this base it is possible to add additional action buttons and customize the notifications.

The other way is to develop a standalone wearable app which runs directly on your smartwatch and uses its hardware. In this case you will gain the freedom to define unique usability, design and additional functions. Obviously the time needed to develop a standalone app is higher than just notifications. Nonetheless a big amount of standard Android APIs can be used for this.


Should I adapt my app for wearables?

If the wearable app adds a value to you customer, then yes, go for it. From the marketing point of view you can create an extra touchpoint for the user with your brand. Maybe you want to create some buzz since smartwatches are still new on the market. Wearable apps are very useful for notifications, quick and small actions and for tasks where you need one or both hands. It should provide context relevant information which are visible at a glance.


During the open discussion at the end of our presentation, there was positive and also critical exchange. Battery life of the watch was a big issue, privacy of personal data or the fact that you receive notifications closer by vibrating feels more personal and direct. It can be positive but also disturbing at the same time. It is practical to quickly getting things done without looking at your smartphone. Responding to messages with only one tap and possibility of voice messaging is great. My personal positive experience was, that I didn’t have to look on my smartphone anymore because I was informed on my wrist already about the most important things at a glance.

Check out our presentation slides about Wearables and Android Wear Platform.




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