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November 19 2012

August 07 2012

Where are the apps for ereaders?

I read on my GlowLight NOOK much more frequently than I read on my Asus Transformer tablet. I’d say there’s at least a 10:1 differential, so for every hour I read on my tablet I read at least 10 hours on my Glowlight Nook. I’ll bet I’m not alone and people who own both an E Ink device and a tablet probably do much more reading on the former. So why is the apps ecosystem limited to tablets? Why are there no add-on apps for E Ink devices in general?

In a recent TOC newsletter we asked readers “What do you wish your ereader could do?” We received quite a few replies, but one of the more interesting ones came from a person who said they’d like to have apps like Flipboard, Zite and Pulse on their E Ink device. I found that interesting because those are the apps (along with News360) I use almost every day on my tablet. If there were Nook E Ink versions, that 10:1 ratio noted earlier would probably become 50:1 as there would be less reason for me to switch to my tablet for reading.

So why aren’t there apps like this on E Ink devices? One reason is tied to E Ink’s capabilities. Apps like Flipboard, Zite, et al, offer nice graphics and even a bit of animation. E Ink is limited to grayscale and no animation, of course. So why not create those apps without the animation and just show the images in black and white? That leads to reason No. 2: Amazon, B&N and the other E Ink device vendors aren’t encouraging third-party app development. That’s probably because they want those devices to have the highest walled gardens of all, which is a shame and a loss for consumers.

Is it too late for these vendors to reconsider and encourage third-party app development? Maybe. After all, the momentum has already swung toward tablets and away from E Ink readers. Nevertheless, as long as tablets weigh more than E Ink readers, their displays aren’t as easy on the eyes and they don’t offer significantly longer battery life, I’ll remain a two-device reading consumer. I suspect I’m not alone, so I hope an E Ink app ecosystem takes root at some point.

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“Why Are Apps Only on Tablets?“). This version has been lightly edited.

Related:

May 22 2012

Four short links: 22 May 2012

  1. New Zealand Government Budget App -- when the NZ budget is announced, it'll go live on iOS and Android apps. Tablet users get details, mobile users get talking points and speeches. Half-political, but an interesting approach to reaching out to voters with political actions.
  2. Health Care Data Dump (Washington Post) -- 5B health insurance claims (attempted anonymized) to be released. Researchers will be able to access that data, largely using it to probe a critical question: What makes health care so expensive?
  3. Perl 5.16.0 Out -- two epic things here: 590k lines of changes, and announcement quote from Auden. Auden is my favourite poet, Perl my favourite programming language.
  4. WYSIHTML5 (GitHub) -- wysihtml5 is an open source rich text editor based on HTML5 technology and the progressive-enhancement approach. It uses a sophisticated security concept and aims to generate fully valid HTML5 markup by preventing unmaintainable tag soups and inline styles.

January 05 2012

Developer Week in Review: 2012 preview edition

Baby New Year has opened his eyes, and he sees a bright future for the developer community. Of course, newborn babies can't focus beyond a few inches, so I'd take that with a grain of salt. Some of us are a little longer in the tooth, so this week, I'll try to peer out into the months ahead and take my best guess as to what we can expect in 2012. You can come back in December and laugh hysterically at my predictions.

It's all about the mobile

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. The intellectual property litigation mayhem that we saw in 2011 will continue unabated in the new year. Now that several vendors have implemented the nuclear option by suing their competitors, the fun and games can only get more intense as companies use local judicial systems and trade organizations as a way to keep competing products out of markets.

On the Android front, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is starting to show up on handsets, but depressingly few if you're an Android developer hoping to use the new features of the release. There's no word if there will be a follow-on to ICS anytime soon, which is probably a good thing, given how far behind handset makers are in getting recent releases onto their shipping products.

Fans of iOS can look forward to at least one new iPhone and iPad (if not more) in 2012, as well as iOS 6. We'll probably see the end-of-life for the iPhone 3 family since only the 3GS made it onto the iOS 5 supported list, and another year will have past. Rumors abound that there will be an integrated TV option for iOS as well — whether it will allow apps to be installed is a question mark at the moment. Siri on your TV could be fairly awesome; imagine just saying, "Record all new Patriots games" and having it happen.

The BlackBerry appears to be singing its swan song while those pesky P2ME feature phones continue to own much of the low-end cell phone market. The biggest unknown this year is if the Windows Phone platform will finally gain significant traction. Nokia and Microsoft are spending a boatload of money to promote it. They have the resources to buy market share if they want, and recent reviews of new Windows Phone devices have actually been pretty positive. The question would be, who would Microsoft steal market share from — Apple, Android or the low-end phones?

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Clouds are gathering on the horizon

Much as the Internet rapidly gained mindshare in the early '90s, the cloud has now become the hot new concept that the general public grasps, at least in principle. What exactly the cloud is tends to depend on who you talk to, but the general idea of moving desktop applications to HTML5-based web applications is a done deal at this point.

The one big wrench in the plan could come from the legislative branches of the world. The more they pass SOPA-like laws, the more people are going to worry about how easily they could lose access to their private data if they move it to the cloud. It was bad enough when you had to trust Google not to be evil; expecting elected representatives to be evil is almost a given.

The increasing move to the cloud is only going to heat up demand for developers who know HTML5, jQuery, PHP, and other web-based technologies. At least in the short run, it's going to be a good time to be a web developer.

Offshoring loses its cachet

The stampede to move development jobs overseas seems to have encountered a roadblock, and many U.S. companies appear to be rethinking the economics of outsourcing projects. Some startups are trying new and innovative (and potentially insane) schemes to work around U.S. labor laws, and while this is unlikely to bring back the go-go days of the late '90s — when developers were courted like rock stars — it may perhaps stem the hemorrhaging of skilled jobs overseas. The challenge for the U.S. will be to produce enough high-tech workers to fill all those returning jobs, especially as more and more high school students rethink the economics of going to college.

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July 18 2011

Intellectual property gone mad

Friday night, I tweeted a link to a Guardian article stating that app developers were withdrawing apps from Apple's app store and Google's Android market (and presumably also Amazon's app store), because they feared becoming victims of a patent trolling lawsuit. That tweet elicited some interesting responses that I'd like to discuss.

The insurance solution?

One option might be to rely on the insurance industry to solve the problem. "Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?" wrote @qckbrnfx. An interesting idea, and one I've considered. But that's a cure that seems worse than the disease. First, it's not likely to be a cure. How many insurance companies actually defend their clients against an unreasonable lawsuit? They typically don't. They settle out of court and your insurance premium goes up.

@mikeloukides Isn't this what insurance is supposed to be for? Couldn't all these developers set up a fund for their common defense?less than a minute ago via Tweetbot for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

If you look at medical malpractice insurance, where unfounded malpractice claims are the equivalent to trolling, I would bet that the willingness of insurance companies to settle out of court increases trolling. An insurance solution to the problem of trolling would be, effectively, a tax on the software developers. And we would soon be in a situation where insurance companies were specifying who could develop software (after a couple of malpractice cases, a doctor becomes uninsurable, and he's effectively out of the business, regardless of the merits of those cases), what software they could develop, and so on. Percy Shelley once said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." But my more cynical variation is that the insurance companies are the world's unacknowledged legislators. I don't want to see the software industry dancing to the insurance industry's tune. Some fear big government. I fear big insurance much more.

Fighting back?

There's a variant of the insurance solution that I like: @patentbuzz said: "Developers need to unite and crowdfund re-exam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson." This isn't "insurance" in the classic risk-spreading sense: this is going on the offensive, and pooling funds to defend against trolling. I do not think it would take a lot of effort to make trolling (at least, the sort of low-level trolling that we're looking at here) unprofitable, and as soon as it becomes unprofitable, it will stop. Small-time app developers can't afford lawyers, which is precisely why trolling is so dangerous. But here's the secret: most patent trolls can't afford lawyers, either. They can afford enough lawyering to write a few cease and desist letters, and to settle out of court, but their funds would be exhausted fairly quickly if even a small percentage of their victims tried to fight back.

@mikeloukides Developers need to unite and crowdfund reexam of obnoxious troll patents. Teach them a lesson http://t.co/8wFkyFQless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

This is precisely where the big players need to get into the game. Apple has tried to give their app developers some legal cover, but as far as I know, they have not stepped in to pay for anyone's defense. Neither has Google. It's time for Apple and Google to step up to the plate. I am willing to bet that, if Apple or Google set up a defense fund, trolling would stop really quickly.

Blocking sale of patents?

A large part of the patent problem is that patents are transferable. @_philjohn asks "Do you think changing law to prevent transfer of patents could reduce the patent troll problem?" On one level, this is an attractive solution. But I'm wary: not about patent reform in itself (which is absolutely necessary), but because I've worked for a startup that went out of business. They had a small intellectual property portfolio, and the sale of that portfolio paid for my (substantial) unused vacation time. That's not how things are supposed to happen, but when startups go out of business, they don't always shut down nicely. It's worth asking what the cost would be if patents and other kinds of intellectual property were non-transferable. Would venture capitalists be less likely to invest, would startups fail sooner, if it were impossible to sell intellectual property assets? I suspect not, but it isn't a simple question.


A call to action

Patent and copyright law in the U.S. derives from the Constitution, and it's for a specific purpose: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts" (Article I, section 8). If app developers are being driven out of the U.S. market by patent controlling, patent law is failing in its constitutional goal; indeed, it's forcing "science and the useful arts" to take place elsewhere. That's a problem that needs to be addressed, particularly at a time when the software industry is one of the few thriving areas of the U.S. economy, and when startups (and in my book, that includes independent developers) drive most of the potential for job growth in the economy.

I don't see any relief coming from the patent system as it currently exists. The bigger question is whether software should be patentable at all. As Nat Torkington (@gnat) has reported, New Zealand's Parliament has a bill before it that will ban software patents, despite the lobbying of software giants in the U.S. and elsewhere. Still, at this point, significant changes to U.S. patent law belong in the realm of pleasant fantasy. Much as I would like to see it happen, I can't imagine Congress standing up to an onslaught of lobbyists paid by some of the largest corporations in the U.S.

One dimension of the problem is relatively simple: too many patent applications, too few patent office staff reviewing those applications, and not enough technical expertise on that staff to evaluate the applications properly. It doesn't help that patents are typically written to be as vague and broad as possible, without being completely meaningless. (As the staff tech writer at that startup, I had a hand in reviewing some of my former employer's patent applications). So you frequently can't tell what was actually patented, and an alleged "infringement" can take place that had little to do with the original invention. Tim O'Reilly (@timoreilly) suggested a return to the days when a patent application had to include the actual invention (for software, that could mean source code) being patented. This would reduce much of the ambiguity in what was actually patented, and might prevent some kinds of abuse. Whatever form it takes, better scrutiny on the part of the patent office would be a big help. But is that conceivable in these days of government spending cuts and debt ceilings? Larger filing fees, to support the cost of more rigorous examination, is probably a non-starter, given the current allergy to anything that looks like a "tax." However, inadequate review of patent applications effectively imposes a much larger (and unproductive) tax on the small developers who can least afford it.

If we can't rely on the patent office to do a better job of reviewing patents, the task falls to the Apples and Googles of the world — the deep-pocketed players who rely on small developers — to get into the game and defend their ecosystems. But though that's a nice idea, there are many reasons to believe it will never happen, not the least of which is that the big players are too busy suing each other.

Apple and Google, are you listening? Your communities are at stake. Now's the time to show whether you really care about your developers.

Crowdfunding the defense of small developers may be the best solution for the immediate problem. Is this a viable Kickstarter project? It probably would be the largest project Kickstarter has ever attempted. Would a coalition of patent attorneys be willing to be underpaid while they contribute to the public good? I'd be excited to see such a project start. This could also be a project for the EFF. The EFF has the expertise, they list "innovation" and "fair use" among their causes, and they talk explicitly about trolling on their intellectual property page. But they've typically involved themselves in a smaller number of relatively high-profile cases. Are they willing to step in on a larger (or smaller, as the case may be) scale?

None of these solutions addresses the larger problems with patents and other forms of intellectual property, but perhaps we're better off with baby steps. Even the baby steps aren't simple, but it's time to start taking them.

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    June 06 2011

    Four short links: 6 June 2011

    1. Turning Receipts into Paper Apps (BERG London) -- I love the idea of the modern web app sensibility bleeding back into the world, the same way classic offline design has informed online.
    2. Telehack -- an amazing interactive reconstruction of the early net, part nostalgia part game part simulation. Check out the README for more details. (via Andy Baio)
    3. Stencyl -- free Flash games creation tool. Brilliant because they're creating and owning a corresponding market for in-game assets (icons, sounds, etc.). (via Andy Baio)
    4. Introductory Machine Learning Resources (Quora) -- collection of pointers for beginners. (via Joshua Schachter)

    May 18 2011

    And the BAFTA goes to ... an app?

    MalcomTucker.pngFor the first time ever, an app has been nominated for a TV British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. The Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone app, which has a story line based on a character of a popular BBC series called "The Thick of It" and a subsequent book "The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files," was launched in December. In a post for The Bookseller, Charlotte Williams talked to Henry Volans (@FaberDigital), head of the digital arm of UK publisher Faber & Faber and part of the team responsible for the app. In the interview, Volans responded to the nomination:

    It's really thrilling. When we made this app we wanted to do more than translate a book to an app, but made something that made sense of the platform and I think this nomination shows we've gone some way to doing that.

    I reached out to Volans via an email interview to find out more about the app and the nomination. (The BAFTA awards will be announced May 22.) Our interview follows.


    How did the app get started?

    HenryVolans.pngHenry Volans: It started with a question that's quite common but to which the answer is usually "no." We looked at the book and said "can we make an app from this?" Because the material is so rich, and I had the freedom at Faber Digital to develop something new — and on a schedule independent of the book — it got off the ground quickly. The project also worked because we went straight back to the creative team — Armando Iannucci and his four co-writers — rather than shoehorn the book into an app template.

    What specific characteristics of the app do you think led to the BAFTA nomination?

    Henry Volans: I suspect that it stands out from other TV-related apps because it is not a soundboard or promotional add-on. It immerses the user in Tucker's world. And it tells a story that is completely routed in the TV series but which is made for the form of the app. New material includes the SMS messages, recent calls screen, @pulsefinger Twitter feed, and crucially the voice messages from Tucker, Ollie Reeder, and Nicola Murray.

    Being the first app to be nominated for a BAFTA, do you view your nomination as an anomaly? Or is it an indication that traditional media channels are blurring?

    Henry Volans: I don't think it will prove to be an anomaly. I'm convinced that there will be more and more blurring of traditional media channels, even if this is just a first example at the edges. It is the first app ever nominated for a TV BAFTA, but apps have won in the separate video games ceremony before.

    This interview was edited and condensed.



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    May 17 2011

    Putting conference distractions to good use

    DonahueLogo.pngConference presenters are increasingly faced with audiences that are dividing time between in-person presentations and web updates. Two presenters at SXSW 2010 noticed the growing trend and developed an app to harness that distraction.

    Tim Meaney (@timothymeaney), partner at Arc90, and Christopher Fahey (@chrisfahey), founding partner at Behavior Design, launched the Donahue app shortly before SXSW 2011 in March. In a recent interview, they discussed how the app helps presenters and audiences stay connected and keep the conversation going.

    Our interview follows.


    How does the Donahue app work?

    TimMeaney.pngTim Meaney: First, for a highly technical answer, we've posted a blog with a full technical walk-through of how we architected and built the app. For a more general description, Donahue is a presentation tool built upon the premise that certain conference presentations are best delivered in conversational format. The app allows the presenter to construct their points as a series of portable ideas, delivered through Donahue into a number of views:

    • The Presenter View of the point — For display in the room, this view is akin to a PowerPoint slide. We took care to remember that not everyone in the room will have a laptop or wish to view the "supplemental" experience of the talk.
    • The Participant View of the point — This view allows for easy interaction with the presenter's point. Donahue puts these points directly out there with the presenter's name and avatar attached. In the Participant View, anyone in the audience — in-person and web-based — can reply to the points or tweet to their network. This reduces the friction around the presenter's ideas, and allows the points to flow freely through the audience into a larger network.
    • The idea or point is also directly tweeted, from the presenter. This creates another opportunity for ideas delivered in a talk to reach others.

    ChrisFahey.pngChristopher Fahey: From the moment Arc90's Rich Ziade thought that Twitter could be Donahue's engine, we knew that Donahue would have to be able to work for users who didn't want to (or could not) use Donahue. Users who are only on Twitter can engage with Donahue using standard Twitter functions, like hashtags and retweets.

    Another view is the Projector View. We knew Donahue would have to work for people who wanted to experience the conference in the conventional way, sitting in the room sans laptop, phone, or tablet. The Projector View takes the speaker's tweets and any related media (like a photo) and displays them in a simplified view, suitable for projection on a screen.

    Tim Meaney: Donahue also "works" by acknowledging that the audience wants to have a conversation. It's pretty standard today that the audience tweets during a talk, and then hours later the presenter uploads their slide deck to SlideShare, and then later elaborates their thesis or ideas in a blog post. With Donahue, that wall between audience and presenter, and the abstraction of a slide deck, is removed. The content and ideas are immediately shared, and the audience can immediately begin discussing them. People insist upon discussion, and instead of fighting that trend — "please close your laptops" — we went the other way and joined the conversation.

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    How should conferences evolve? What needs to improve?

    Tim Meaney: It's hard to make a general proscription for all conferences, but we do believe that conference presentations, like all other forms of media, are being impacted by "the conversation revolution." And much like all other forms of media, bringing the benefits of the conversation directly into the conference will suit presenters, organizers, and attendees alike. Those benefits are engaged participants, frictionless sharing of ideas, better learning through discourse, and building new connections among all participants. It's very likely that conferences will begin to better design for conversations — the audience is demanding it.

    Christopher Fahey: Speakers also need to ask themselves a few questions:

    • What can I get from this audience? — Can the speaker improve his or her own ideas by really hearing audience reactions and feedback? How? The best feedback is likely to pop into the audience's heads during the talk itself. How can speakers harness that?
    • What can this audience do with my ideas? — If the ideas are any good, the speaker should desire and expect those ideas to grow, spread, and evolve immediately. Again, this might happen in real time.

    Complexity is important, too. In our talk at SXSW, I mentioned that most conferences are not theoretical physics and that most audiences can understand everything that a speaker is saying without devoting their full attention. Two days after getting back from SXSW, I went to a theoretical physics lecture — and I was right: theoretical physics is far more complex than web design or project management or search engine optimization. I tried to tweet during the lecture, and when I looked back up I was completely lost. I couldn't keep up with the speaker if I allowed myself even a moment's distraction.

    But what I learned from that experience was this: Even a complex topic should permit audiences to let their minds wander. You just can't come to understand and master a complex topic through listening to a lecture alone. Learners need to read and study at their own pace. Conferences and lectures augment and inspire those materials. But most of all, conferences should connect both speakers and audiences with the subject matter and with each other. This enables learning by empowering people to pay attention together, think about ideas together, and most importantly talk about them in the same energized moment.

    This interview was edited and condensed.



    Related:


    April 25 2011

    Four short links: 25 April 2011

    1. E-Referral Evaluation Interim Findings -- in general good, but note this: The outstanding system issues are an ongoing source of frustration and concern, including [...] automated data uptake from the GP [General Practitioner=family doctor] PMS [Patient Management System], that sometimes has clearly inaccurate or contradictory information. When you connect systems, you realize the limitations of the data in them.
    2. c64iphone (GitHub) -- the source to an iPhone/iPad app from the store, released under GPLv3. It incorporates the Frodo emulator. Sweet Freedom.
    3. mlpy -- machine learning Python library, a high-performance Python package for predictive modeling. It makes extensive use of NumPy to provide fast N-dimensional array manipulation and easy integration of C code. (via Joshua Schachter)
    4. What is The Truth Behind 9 Out of 10 Startups Fail? (Quora) -- some very interesting pointers and statistics, such as Hall and Woodward (2007) analyze a dataset of all VC-backed firms and show the highly skewed distribution of outcomes. VC revenue averages $5 million per VC-backed company. Founding team averages $9 million per VC-backed company (most from small probability of great success). The economically rational founding team would sell at time of VC funding for $900,000 to avoid the undiversified risk. (via Hacker News)

    April 22 2011

    Four short links: 22 April 2011

    1. Tuffy -- a GPL v3 licensed Markov Logic Network inference engine in Java and PostgreSQL that claims to be more scalable than previous tools. (via Hacker News)
    2. Behind news.me -- if you are curious to see what they are reading, if you want to see the world through their eyes, News.me is for you. Many people curate their Twitter experience to reflect their own unique set of interests. News.me offers a window into their curated view of the world, filtered for realtime social relevance via the bit-rank algorithm. A friend and I have been using Instapaper for this, and I'm keen to see how it works. It's interesting, though: the more people I "share" with, the less insight I get into any one person--it goes from being a mindmeld to ambient zeitgeist.
    3. Orbital Content -- Content shifting allows a user to take a piece of content that they’ve identified in one context and make it available in another. [...] Calling Instapaper a content shifter tells only half the story. It puts too much attention on the shifting and not enough on what needs to happen before a piece of content can be shifted. Before content can be shifted, it must be correctly identified, uprooted from its source, and tied to a user. This process, which I call “content liberation” is the common ground between Instapaper, Svpply, Readability, Zootool, and other bookmarklet apps. Content shifting, as powerful as it is, is just the beginning of what’s possible when content is liberated. I think they're optimistic about liberation retaining attribution (there needs to be compelling self-interest to retain attribution) but otherwise love this piece. (via Courtney Johnston)
    4. Rate Limiting Traffic with Varnish (Dan Singerman) -- I love that the technology which help you deliver web pages quickly also helps you deliver them not too quickly. (via John Clegg).

    March 10 2011

    Another attempt at fixing the address book problem

    HiyaDup.pngOne of the major advantages of WhitePages' new contact app/service, Hiya, is tucked behind the scenes: the app mines WhitePages' database of 200 million listings to update phone numbers and addresses for a user's contacts.

    Hiya can flag duplicate entries and suggest contacts who may need to update their information. (And people do not have to register for the service to update their details.)

    Hiya also incorporates location awareness, but it's a variation on the location theme. Using the GPS on a user's device, the app pulls data on nearby addresses of contacts. The app does not show physical locations or check-in trails.

    Many of the features in Hiya tie back to an online study that asked more than 2,000 adults to identify their frustrations with current contact management platforms (the "address book problem" is something we've covered for quite a while).

    A press release announcing HIya highlighted the main issues:

    The biggest problems people have with managing their contacts is keeping information up-to-date (48 percent) and compiling missing data (19 percent), followed by keeping contacts all in one place (17 percent). The pieces of information most frequently missing from people's main methods of storing contact data was physical addresses (40 percent) and birthdates (45 percent). Furthermore, 50 percent of those who store personal contact information indicated that they have duplicate contacts.

    Hiya is available as an online service and a free iPhone app. Future contact support will tap Yahoo, Facebook, MSN Live, LinkedIn, and CSV files. Integration with Outlook, Android, and Blackberry is planned for later this year.

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    February 03 2011

    Does Apple's newly enforced policy really benefit Apple?

    In the wake of Apple's rejection of the Sony Reader app, speculations abound as to what it all means and what next steps app companies might take. In the case specifically of ereaders, many are waiting for the Amazon app to fall victim to this same policy (a policy that Apple says isn't new).

    O'Reilly's Joe Wikert has some advice for Amazon should the shake up head their way: adhere to the in-app purchase rules, but make yourself more attractive than the other guy.

    Liza Daly, owner and president of Threepress Consulting, Inc., thinks the whole situation points to the increased importance of an HTML5-based ereader. Granted, her company developed Ibis Reader — an HTML5-based reader. (The system is pretty slick, and with the increased experimentation with books in the cloud, it may just be the next big thing.)

    European publishers don't know what to make of Apple's latest move and have scheduled a summit in London on Feb. 17 to discuss the situation. The meeting includes newspaper publishers as well, who are feeling particularly "betrayed" by the in-app purchasing policy, as it will directly effect their iPad subscription platforms, and not in a good way.

    Whatever it is that Apple is doing — and no one is quite certain of that yet — everyone seems to agree that it's a game changer. Just what game it's changing remains to be seen.

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    January 26 2011

    Mobile in the enterprise changes everything

    mobile phonesBy now it's clear that mobile is the new global frontier for computing. People on every continent are embracing mobile as the primary method for electronic communications.

    Increasingly, many are also using mobile computing for a myriad of day-to-day activities, from purchasing products and services to testing blood insulin levels. Five billion people now use cellphones — about 62 percent of the planet's population — compared to less than two billion who have a personal computer.

    Within just a few years more people will access the Internet from a mobile device than from any other technology.

    In developing nations the cellphone is a tool of empowerment; it has the power to change economic and political landscapes. In developed nations it is disrupting existing business models and introducing completely new ones. Mobile is enabling us to reinvent everything from healthcare to payment systems.

    Smartphones, a subset of the mobile market at a little less than one billion users and growing quickly, has become a domain of hyper-innovation. Fierce competition from big players such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Research in Motion (RIM), is driving the rapid delivery of new, innovative capability. The lifespan of a new device or version of an operating system is been compressed. The market appetite continues to grow and there are no signs of fatigue. In fact, the accompanying mobile applications industry is booming. In just over two years, consumers have downloaded 10 billion apps from Apple alone.

    Suddenly the PC looks like yesterday, while mobile is today and tomorrow.

    It's time to act

    For an IT leader, mobile is a game-changer. Unlike many other emerging technologies where an immediate strategy is not a concern, mobile is front and center now to your users and customers. This requires new thinking with regard to how data is accessed and presented, how applications are architected, what kind of technical talent is brought on board, and how companies can meet the increasingly high expectations of users.

    As if there wasn't enough pressure already!

    There are two audiences for mobile applications and capability: your internal audience and the customers you serve in the marketplace. Both have different needs, but both have expectations that have already been set. The benchmark is not your best internal web-based app; instead, it is the most recent best-in-class mobile app that any one of your users or customers have recently downloaded. While your internal users might be more forgiving for a less than optimum user-experience, you're pretty much guaranteed your external users won't be.

    Many IT leaders are not yet fully embracing mobile (I'm not talking about email and calendar access here — those are the essential basics). Part of the reluctance to fully come to terms with mobile is simply change fatigue. Remember, the move to the web is still in full swing and many organizations still struggle with core system integration issues. But another part of the issue is that the magnitude of the change ahead is not well understood. A mobile strategy is not the equivalent of making your web applications accessible via a mobile device. In the short-term, that may suffice for some (but barely). In the medium-term a mobile strategy means thinking completely differently about the user experience.

    In the world of mobile, IT leaders and business stakeholders must consider how new capability such as geolocation, sensors, near field communications, cameras, voice, and touch can be integrated into functionality. It also means that core issues such as security, device form-factor, and limited screen real-estate must be addressed.

    Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

    Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD


    Mobile crashed the party

    For a time there was a positive trend trajectory where the ubiquity of browsers on computers were making application development almost hardware agnostic. This was a great story and it had a decent run. The proliferation of devices and operating systems in the mobile space is a considerable spoiler. Now, any mobile application worth its salt must have versions — at minimum — for the web, for the iPhone, and for the Android platforms (that's the basics before you consider others such as the BlackBerry, iPad, and Windows Phone). That may mean multiple development and design efforts.

    In other words, just when IT leaders were beginning to see some platform stability, everything changed.

    Not all industries will need to adopt mobile strategies at the same rate and not all industries will have to deal with providing solutions for their end-users in the near-term. There is no question that if your product or service is business-to-consumer and it already supports a good deal of its business via the web, then this scenario demands an aggressive approach to mobile. While this offers some consolation for everyone else, it's merely temporal in nature.

    Every business and every IT leader will need to quickly find the right response to the momentum that is nothing less than a mobile revolution.

    At the end of the day, those of us who work with technology do it because of these types of major disruptions. The move to mobile represents yet another technology cycle that we must embrace. These cycles often start and end in different places. Who could have imagined that the web would change so much about our world in the way it has? I think it's fair to say that mobile has the capacity to change the world in ways we cannot even fathom today.

    I don't know about you, but that makes me excited about our industry and the future.



    Related:




    January 25 2011

    Healthier living through mobile location data

    RunKeeper is a location-aware app that helps runners monitor and manage their exercise regimens. The overarching goal is to aggregate the world's fitness data and use it to power a platform that drives healthier behavior.

    The app, which launched on the iPhone and has since expanded to Android and other platforms, takes advantage of the GPS sensors built into mobile devices to track runs, walks, rides, paddles and just about any outdoor activity.

    I recently spoke to Jason Jacobs (@jjacobs22), co-founder and CEO of RunKeeper and a speaker at the upcoming Where 2.0 conference, about the current and near-term outlook for mobile location technology.

    [Disclosure: O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in RunKeeper.]


    How did RunKeeper come about?

    Jason JacobsJason Jacobs: I used the Nike+ system during an 18-week marathon training program in 2007. That system was one of the first to track fitness activity through sensors and then feed data back to a web platform where it could be analyzed. I thought the concept was incredibly powerful.

    I looked around and couldn't believe these guys were the only ones doing this, or that it was only focused on one sensor, one pair of shoes, and one sport, by a company whose core business is something totally different. There was a huge opportunity for someone to carve out a similar system that worked across different devices and sports, and build it in an input-agnostic way.

    That's when I landed on the idea for an "independent fitness technology company." I couldn't stop thinking about it, and in May 2008, I quit my job so I could build a team to make this vision a reality.

    Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

    Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD



    What technical developments have enabled you to build RunKeeper?


    Jason Jacobs: Two-and-a-half years ago, there were a few convergences that were starting to happen. One, GPS technology was being built into smartphones. Two, app stores completely changed the way mobile applications are distributed. There used to be long cycles of selling into mobile carriers and getting approval to be on the carrier deck. Three, social tools like Twitter and Facebook were helping word-of-mouth stretch further than ever before. This let us go from concept to revenue-generating in 35 countries in six weeks, and to build up a community of millions of users with zero marketing spend.

    mandelbrot_set_01.jpg
    Screens from the RunKeeper Pro iPhone app.

    Why is location technology important for this kind of application?

    Jason Jacobs: Location technology gives you accurate data around things like distance, pace and elevation. This data then lets you move back into things like calories burned and total exertion.

    Location data also provides context for the area you're in: the other people running nearby, the routes you're on, and how your performance on a certain route compares to other times you've run that route.

    There are interesting potential applications as well. For example, if the application knows that running shoes should be changed every 500 miles, and it sees a user has logged 450 miles, a coupon could be offered for their next pair of shoes. And wouldn't it be great if that coupon is from a retailer that's three blocks from their house?

    How do you see location-aware technologies developing over the next five to 10 years?

    Jason Jacobs: The pace of innovation in sensors parallels the pace of innovation in smartphones. But what if there was a way to take location functionality and streaming data capabilities beyond a phone; to shrink them down and lower the cost? The potential applications increase and adoption would increase. A larger community and richer set of aggregate data also creates opportunities to do some really interesting things.

    As location technology becomes more powerful, and as the transmission of location data becomes frictionless and fully integrated into applications that weren't location-aware in the past, the ramifications are massive. Companies can be so much more thoughtful about the way they deliver services and person-specific functionality. That could apply to fitness, travel, logistics, shipping — there's so many different applications for this technology.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    Related:


    November 09 2010

    Geeks and government converge at the FCC

    Yesterday, the first FCC developer day focused on open government innovation. For a day, the commission room that has hosted hearings on spectrum policy, licensing, mergers and net neutrality was full of geeks focused on making something useful from the FCC's new APIs and open data stores.

    One of those geeks is well-known to many developers: the founding editor of Lifehacker, Gina Trapani. I spoke with her in the FCC's new TEC Lab about her work on the ThinkUp app, the prototype apps that came out of the hackathon, and the potential for geeks to create better outcomes for citizens - and maybe make a few dollars along the way -- with open government data.

    Will a rebooted FCC.gov become a platform for applications driven by open government data? If that vision is going to come to fruition, the nation's pre-eminent communication regulator will have to do more than just publish open data sets in machine readable formats. It must also develop a community of software developers that benefits from creating such applications.

    Monday's FCC developer day was a first step toward that future. Whether it’s a successful one will depend on how the applications help citizens, businesses or other organizations do something new. In the process, expect a few savvy entrepreneurs to tap into the goldmine of Gov 2.0, empowering citizens along the way.

    September 27 2010

    A new twist on "data-driven site"

    The distinction between platform applications and websites doesn't need to be as defined as it often is. Companies simply choose to develop apps and sites as separate products.

    TripAdvisor is pursuing a different model. The company has an established travel website and a popular Facebook app, but it's gone a step further and constructed an umbilical between these platforms. Data from the app shapes the site.

    Sanjay Vakil, technical manager for apps at TripAdvisor, discusses the inner-workings of this mutually beneficial relationship in the following Q&A.

    What is TripFriends? How is it connected to Facebook?

    Sanjay Vakil: TripAdvisor has 35 million reviews of various locations, but the reviews are fundamentally anonymous. What TripFriends attempts to do is to pull together information from your social graph and identify friends who can tell you about the places you're researching.

    So as an example, I can navigate to the Los Angeles page on TripAdvisor. That page will show me people that I know who live there and people who have visited there. I can ask these people questions, and responses are curated on my Facebook wall.

    What we're actually doing here is pulling data from Cities I've Visited, which is a Facebook application that we've had for about three years. When people come to Cities I've Visited, they put pins in a map. We have over a billion pins' worth of data. Data from Cities I've Visited is augmented with Facebook information users have opted to share publicly. That combination powers TripFriends.

    With the penetration that Cities I've Visited has, Facebook users have anywhere between eight and 10 friends who are using the Cities I've Visited application.


    Screenshot of TripAdvisor's TripFriends functionality
    TripAdvisor's TripFriends tool (top right corner) hooks into Facebook's social graph.


    Screenshot of Cities I've Visited Facebook application
    Data from the Cities I've Visited application (above) is augmented with public Facebook data. That combination powers TripFriends.

    It sounds like you're dealing mostly with structured data. Is that the case?

    SV: The information that's going on the Cities I've Visited map is entirely on the TripAdvisor side. We've worked hard to make that specifically structured.

    Facebook is actually going through a process now of making their location information more structured. If you looked at Facebook three years ago, when we were starting this stuff out, the "current location" and "hometown" fields were just free text entry. You'd see entries like "Bat Cave" in the current location field.

    That's not helpful to us if we want to generate a lat-long from it. But recently -- and I'm guessing this was part of the work involved in Facebook Places -- Facebook went through and structured that information. Now, if you update your Facebook profile and type in a current city, you have to select from an auto-completed list. That's helpful to us.

    How do you manage the data?

    SV: Some of this predates me, but when Cities I've Visited was first taking off, they were watching the users ramp up exponentially and trying to buy computers fast enough to keep up with them. During the nine months I've been here, Cities I've Visited has more than doubled its usage base.

    We're tackling this growth in a number of ways. One is, internally, we spend a lot of time minimizing the number of hits we make to our database. We have a large Memcached cluster that all of this stuff runs against. We also took our single database that was holding all the pin information and federated it across 12 different databases so we could keep up with the huge amount of data coming in.

    TripFriends is a very strategic product for us, so we're building this infrastructure to deal with it.

    Could TripFriends tap into other platforms?

    SV: It's certainly possible. We're not really in a position to go into much detail on it, but there's a lot of data sources out there.

    The one thing I will say is that a lot of the information in the dataset we're gathering is historical. People are pinning the last 25 years of their lives to the Cities I've Visited map. That's really exciting to me. It's a very broad swath with global coverage, as opposed to something that people are collecting over GPS.

    What advice would you give to companies that are developing their own data products?

    SV: One of the top problems to deal with when you're gathering data is building it in a way where the data all maps down to a single set. You don't want people having seven different copies of the same thing and having that information spread across seven different locations. For example, when someone says, “I'm visiting Boston,” do they actually mean Cambridge? Do they mean the greater Boston area? We've done a lot of mapping, so we know exactly what it is they're talking about.

    When you come in out of the blue, especially as a small player, it's easy to just use Google's database or just use Facebook's database. The reality is none of the players -- especially in the travel space -- have a single database that is the de facto standard. You're going to be doing a bunch of mapping back and forth, so you might as well go in with your eyes open.

    Also, I think we tend to get caught up only looking forward. But there's an opportunity to go in and gather information based on what a person has already done. Providing a mechanism around that jumpstarts the data collection.

    Finally, companies that make pulling data out of people like pulling teeth are barking up the wrong tree. As a consumer, I want companies to make the data collection interesting to me and offer a clear benefit. That creates a virtuous feedback loop where people really like doing it. Getting people to use stuff is the hardest thing, so building something with a clear benefit helps a lot down the road.

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    Related:

    July 15 2010

    App Inventor and the culture wars

    Google's new App Inventor gets to the heart of the cultural difference between Apple and Google. If you haven't seen it yet, App Inventor is an experimental new SDK for the Android platform. What's different about App Inventor is that there's practically no coding per se; it's an entirely visual language. Its heritage goes back to Logo, but more directly, to Scratch, which has a snap-together, building-block model for describing behavior.

    App Inventor's intent is to enable people who wouldn't normally program to develop the apps that they want; to make it possible to write Android apps without being a "software developer." This is revolutionary; they're not trying to lower the bar, they're throwing it away entirely. I don't know if App Inventor will succeed, but it's an important experiment.

    I want to contrast this with the iPhone, which has a much different model. When I last wrote about the iPhone, many commented on Apple's focus on the perfect user experience. I largely agree (and said so in the article), and I think Google is unlikely to match that. Apple has an app store to guarantee that poorly designed apps never get to the user (the fact that many junky apps make it into the store is, well, another issue). The user gets the perfect curated experience. I won't even begin to argue about whether App Inventor's UI components are as elegant as Cocoa's. They aren't. But Google has taken another direction altogether: the user's experience isn't going to be perfect, but the user's experience will be the experience he or she wants. If you want to do something, you can build it yourself; you can put it on your own phone without going through a long approval process; you don't have to learn an arcane programming language. This is computing for the masses. It's computing that enables people to be creative, not just passive consumers.

    It's sort of like travel: you can go to Club Med or take a cruise ship if you want a crafted experience. But you won't find out anything about the local culture, you'll only eat the local food in controlled settings, you'll never hear the native language spoken. You'll just do the limited set of things the organizers want you to do. Many years ago, I was in Juneau, Alaska, wandering around on a back street in what may well have been a "dangerous" part of town. I kicked a piece of trash lying in the gutter, and it turned out to be an Eagle totem crudely carved on a piece of scrap lumber. That's still one of my prize possessions, and it's not the sort of thing you find if you insist on the safe guided tour.

    That's an important difference. Apple is saying "trust us, it will just work." Google is saying "We'll help you to be creative and make your own stuff that works for you." There's nothing inherently wrong with either approach. Apple's approach is more appropriate for an entertainment device, more like the 60s TV, radio, or dial phone. It does more, but it's still sealed; you can't open it up and hack it. There are plenty of people who want that kind of experience--possibly a majority. Google is opening up the guts and letting you create--and taking the gamble that people who haven't been creative in the past will start.

    What will we see coming out of App Inventor? Probably lots of junk, but does that matter? In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky talks about the "stupidest possible creative act," which he associates with LOLcats. What Clay realizes, and what Google realizes, is that the "stupidest possible creative act" is much better than no creative act at all, or limiting creativity to a small elite. A world full of LOLcats is preferable to a world full of network sitcoms. The history of creativity is filled with lots of trash; but in a weird way, the trash enables the truly great creative works to come into being. You can't have one without the other.

    I did say that there's nothing inherently wrong with Apple's approach, but it's clear that I don't really believe that. I can muster some grudging respect for that position (and yes, I do like stuff that "just works"), but I can't imagine anything more dreadful than a world where creativity is always mediated by someone else. I don't think I'll ever take a vacation at Club Med. Apple has built a culture around creating the perfect user experience, and they've done wonderful things in refining that experience, but at great cost: I cannot imagine Apple offering non-programmers the ability to develop for the iPhone. If ported to iOS, App Inventor, or its equivalent, would presumably violate the iOS developer agreement. Creativity--whether the creativity of others or your own--is what makes life worthwhile, and enabling creativity is a heroic act. Google has built a culture around enabling others' creativity, and that's worth celebrating.

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