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January 20 2014

Four short links: 20 January 2014

  1. idb (Github) — a tool to simplify some common tasks for iOS pentesting and research: screenshots, logs, plists/databases/caches, app binary decryption/download, etc. (via ShmooCon)
  2. Twitter Infrastructure — an interview with Raffi Krikorian, VP of Platform Engineering. Details on SOA, deployment schedule, rollouts, and culture. (via Nelson Minar)
  3. Orbit (Github) — a standalone Javascript lib for data access and synchronization.
  4. Chromium is the New C Runtime — using Chrome’s open source core as the standard stack of networking, crash report, testing, logging, strings, encryption, concurrency, etc. libraries for C programming.

December 05 2013

Four short links: 5 December 2013

  1. DeducerAn R Graphical User Interface (GUI) for Everyone.
  2. Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap (PDF, FAA) — first pass at regulatory framework for drones. (via Anil Dash)
  3. Bitcoin Stats — $21MM traded, $15MM of electricity spent mining. Goodness. (via Steve Klabnik)
  4. iOS vs Android Numbers (Luke Wroblewski) — roundup comparing Android to iOS in recent commerce writeups. More Android handsets, but less revenue per download/impression/etc.

April 24 2013

Four short links: 25 April 2013

  1. Alcatraz — package manager for iOS. (via Hacker News)
  2. Scarfolk Council — clever satire, the concept being a UK town stuck in 1979. Tupperware urns, “put old people down at birth”. The 1979 look is gorgeous. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Stop Designing Fragile Web APIsIt is possible to design your API in a manner that reduces its fragility and increases its resilience to change. The key is to design your API around its intent. In the SOA world, this is also referred to as business-orientation.
  4. @life100yearsago (Twitter) — account that tweets out fragments of New Zealand journals and newspapers and similar historic documents, as part of celebrating the surprising and the commonplace during WWI. My favourite so far: “Wizard” stones aeroplane. (via NDF)

April 01 2013

Four short links: 1 April 2013

  1. MLDemosan open-source visualization tool for machine learning algorithms created to help studying and understanding how several algorithms function and how their parameters affect and modify the results in problems of classification, regression, clustering, dimensionality reduction, dynamical systems and reward maximization. (via Mark Alen)
  2. kiln (GitHub) — open source extensible on-device debugging framework for iOS apps.
  3. Industrial Internet — the O’Reilly report on the industrial Internet of things is out. Prasad suggests an illustration: for every car with a rain sensor today, there are more than 10 that don’t have one. Instead of an optical sensor that turns on windshield wipers when it sees water, imagine the human in the car as a sensor — probably somewhat more discerning than the optical sensor in knowing what wiper setting is appropriate. A car could broadcast its wiper setting, along with its location, to the cloud. “Now you’ve got what you might call a rain API — two machines talking, mediated by a human being,” says Prasad. It could alert other cars to the presence of rain, perhaps switching on headlights automatically or changing the assumptions that nearby cars make about road traction.
  4. Unique in the Crowd: The Privacy Bounds of Human Mobility (PDF, Nature) — We study fifteen months of human mobility data for one and a half million individuals and find that human mobility traces are highly unique. In fact, in a dataset where the location of an individual is specified hourly, and with a spatial resolution equal to that given by the carrier’s antennas, four spatio-temporal points are enough to uniquely identify 95% of the individuals. We coarsen the data spatially and temporally to find a formula for the uniqueness of human mobility traces given their resolution and the available outside information. This formula shows that the uniqueness of mobility traces decays approximately as the 1/10 power of their resolution. Hence, even coarse datasets provide little anonymity. These findings represent fundamental constraints to an individual’s privacy and have important implications for the design of frameworks and institutions dedicated to protect the privacy of individuals. As Edd observed, “You are a unique snowflake, after all.” (via Alasdair Allan)

October 03 2012

Four short links: 3 October 2012

  1. Mil-OSS 4 — 4th military open source software working group conference, in Rosslyn VA. Oct 15-17. Tutorials and sessions will cover: Linux, Geospatial, LiDAR, Drupal, cloud, OSS policy and law, Android and many other topics. The last day will have a 1/2 day unconference for up-and-coming issues.
  2. State of Internet Slides (Business Insider) — Apple could buy Disney using cash at hand. Boggle. This presentation has plenty of numbers for those who like them.
  3. See Penny Work — an open source (GPLv2) toolkit for budget visualizations, from Code For America. (via Tim O’Reilly)
  4. libimobiledevice — LGPLed open source library which talks the protocols to support iPhone®, iPod Touch®, iPad® and Apple TV® devices. Unlike other projects, it does not depend on using any existing proprietary libraries and does not require jailbreaking. It allows other software to easily access the device’s filesystem, retrieve information about the device and it’s internals, backup/restore the device, manage SpringBoard® icons, manage installed applications, retrieve addressbook/calendars/notes and bookmarks and (using libgpod) synchronize music and video to the device. Runs on Linux, OS X, and Windows.

August 22 2012

Mastering iOS Development

Matt Neuburg is an O’Reilly author and long-time writer for tidBITS.

We sat down recently to talk about iOS development and how best to build solid apps … the secret is take the time to learn the basics.

Key points from the full video (below) interview include:

  • All of the real power in iOS development is in C. [Discussed at the 1:26 mark]
  • Don’t use the Cocoa Framework, let it use you. [Discussed at the 2:56 mark]
  • Even though you don’t have time, understanding the underlying foundation of the OS makes you better a developer. [Discussed at the 8:07 mark]
  • Take a deep breath … Apple is actually working on improving the dev experience. [Discussed at the 10:54 mark]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

Related:

July 19 2012

Objective-C and Cocoa: The core of solid iOS apps

Jon Manning (@desplesda) and Paris Buttfield-Addison (@parisba) are co-founders of Secret Lab and authors of the forthcoming Learning Cocoa with Objective-C, 3rd Edition

Key points from the full video (below) interview include:

  • Embrace Objective-C’s verbosity [Discussed at the 0:30 mark]
  • Just getting started with Objective-C? Check out the WWDC videos and… [Discussed at the 1:45 mark]
  • Long awaited updates to Objective-C make a big impact [Discussed at the 2:27 mark]
  • When it comes time to submit your app to the App Store, think about it as Apple would [Discussed at the 3:47 mark]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

Related:

June 05 2012

Developing cross-platform mobile apps with C#

Building a mobile app that runs on more than one platform, with minimal code changes, is a technical Holy Grail. The HTML5 stack (using CSS and JavaScript, among other standards) and Java are two solutions. Another is Microsoft's .NET plus C#, a combo that's been overlooked outside the Windows Phone 7 developer community despite its potential to create apps that can run natively on Android and iOS.

In the following interview, software engineer Greg Shackles (@gshackles) aims to expand the potential of this platform. Shackles is the author of "Mobile Development with C#" and maintains a blog focusing mainly on .NET and its related technologies.

We hear a lot about using C++ to build mobile apps, so why use C# — and the associated .NET?

Greg Shackles: There are various ways to share code across different platforms. Unfortunately, many approaches will abstract away the user interface from the developer in order to achieve a "write once, run anywhere" solution, making it easier to release an application quickly on many platforms. This sounds great, but often it will lead to a degraded user experience since the app won't look and feel native to that platform. The user experience is the most important thing to consider when designing an application.

Using C# and the Mono Tools allows the developer to share a large subset of an application's code across multiple platforms while still building a completely native user interface on top of it for each platform. Applications created with this approach will look and feel native because they're using the exact same APIs and toolkits exposed by the platform. In some cases, the Mono tools even help to clean up the platform APIs to make them easier to work with than those exposed by the native languages.

This approach allows developers to concentrate on solving business problems rather than having to manage multiple languages and reinvent the wheel every time they want to expand to a new platform. Going even further, the code that is shared across platforms isn't limited to mobile applications. It can go pretty much anywhere that C# and .NET are supported, such as ASP.NET, Silverlight, or WPF. Developers already familiar with these technologies can easily hit the ground running and start targeting these new platforms while reusing the skills they already have.

What else makes the .NET Framework well suited for mobile development?

Greg Shackles: C# and .NET are both very mature and powerful technologies. They have evolved over the years to provide support for things like asynchronous programming and memory management, and features like LINQ help make them great to work with as a developer.

For example, there is no garbage collector when writing iOS apps with Objective-C. That's a feature .NET developers are used to having. MonoTouch actually brings a garbage collector along with it, making it much easier to work with, without having to worry about manual memory management.

What are a few of the technical weaknesses of C# or .NET?

Greg Shackles: There aren't too many technical limitations, but whenever you place another layer between you and the native platform, some problems are unavoidable.

One example is that on iOS, you are not allowed to dynamically execute code at runtime, meaning that the standard .NET style of just-in-time compilation is not permitted and that aspects of .NET that rely on runtime code compilation are not possible, such as Reflection.Emit and the Dynamic Language Runtime. To get around this, MonoTouch compiles the application down to static code ahead of time. This particular limitation does not apply on Android, which does allow for just-in-time compilation.

For those who are already developing native apps for Android or iOS, what benefits would they gain from using C#?

Greg Shackles: For developers who have already built their apps in Java in Objective-C, the case for switching to a new set of tools definitely becomes more difficult to make. The benefits they would get from making such a move would largely be in the ability to share code across all of the platforms rather than have to rewrite it in a different language every time. Both MonoTouch and Mono for Android offer the ability to interact with code written in Objective-C and Java, so code already written in those languages could still be leveraged.

What kind of cross-platform mobile apps are easy or best to make under C#?

Greg Shackles: I don't think there's any particular category of app that's obviously more difficult to write in C#. For extremely simple applications that don't have much logic, it becomes more of a decision of preference for the developer rather than a strategic advantage. In reality, not many applications fall into this category. A majority of applications will need to perform tasks like accessing the Internet or saving to a database, and that is where it becomes beneficial to be able to write that code once and share it across all platforms. Personally, I find C# to be a much nicer language to work with than Objective-C and Java, so that alone becomes an advantage of using it.

.NET is native on Windows Phone 7, but it's not on Android or iOS without the use of MonoTouch or Mono. What are the performance issues or differences across these mobile platforms when you're developing for all three at once using C# through .NET and its unofficial variants?

Greg Shackles: The addition of another layer between you and the platform will have its consequences, but by and large, it's not something you'll notice or need to worry about as a developer. Since MonoTouch applications are run through its ahead-of-time compiler, their performance is already highly optimized. Mono for Android applications include their own instance of the Mono runtime that .NET code is run against and includes an intelligent garbage collector that is optimized for managing objects across the different runtimes. In general, you won't be able to see any difference in performance between an app written in C# and one that is not.

One other common concern is the size of the application, since the .NET Framework is not known for being minimal. Both Mono for Android and MonoTouch ship with a tool called a linker that is included as part of the build process. The linker is a static analysis tool that scans the compiled assemblies in the application and actually strips out any pieces of the framework that are not referenced. As a result, your application will only ship with precisely the pieces of the .NET Framework that you actually use, which drastically cuts down the size of the application. With each release, the Mono team seems to find new ways to optimize the linking process, so this size overhead continues to dwindle down further, even though it is already rather minimal.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Mobile Development with C# — This hands-on guide shows you how to reuse one codebase across iOS, Android, and Windows Phone by combining the business logic layer of your C# app with separate, fully native UIs.

Related:

March 29 2012

Commerce Weekly: Google Wallet vs Isis is coming soon

Here's what caught my eye in commerce news this week.

Who's got the winning wallet?

Several recent articles have speculated about the coming competition between Google Wallet and the forthcoming mobile wallet from Isis, which is set to debut in tests in Austin and Salt Lake City this summer. Tech bloggers love a contest, and even though there's only one major player in this race so far, observers are handicapping the players before they even take the field.

MobilePaymentsToday.com ran a column comparing the merits of the two platforms in several categories. (Where was the massive infographic that we've all grown used to for this sort of thing?) Google took the prize in time-to-market (already out there, a little) and branding, while the nod went to Isis for building a solid ecosystem, with its support from three major U.S. wireless carriers and the top credit card networks and handset builders. Isis should also get the award for most imaginative and compelling demo video, based on the clip of Cyber Illusionist Marco Tempest at SXSW a few weeks ago (demo begins 15 seconds in, after the ad):



Of course, both of these plays depend on NFC wireless capability in phones, and while that's destined to ramp up soon, GigaOm reported that in 2011, NFC in the U.S. lagged far behind other regions. Of the 30 million NFC-capable handsets sold worldwide last year, about five million went to North America, 10 million went to Europe, and more than that went to Asia. Some mobile wallets, of course, don't rely on NFC: PayPal, for example, is getting ready to launch an updated version of its wallet that operates closer to the direct billing model, where you enter your mobile number on the retailer's keypad and then confirm when a text is sent to your mobile. PayPal's system is a bit less elegant than wireless tap and pay, but as we wrote a few weeks ago, it's ready now and available on any phone that supports texting.



We couldn't help notice that all this handicapping of the two most visible mobile wallets overlooked the potential of a third player that has yet to enter the arena. Only a few weeks ago, mobile payment geeks were abuzz about newly published patents from Apple that described a method for payment with credit cards that sends the receipt to the user's iTunes account. And since there are more than 200 million of those iTunes accounts (and 350 million iOS devices out there), that represents a significant installed user base that may be receptive to Apple's familiar interface applied to a mobile wallet. Those who think Apple is coming late to the party should be reminded that Apple has never had to be the first to a market to end up dominating it.

X.commerce harnesses the technologies of eBay, PayPal and Magento to create the first end-to-end multi-channel commerce technology platform. Our vision is to enable merchants of every size, service providers and developers to thrive in a marketplace where in-store, online, mobile and social selling are all mission critical to business success. Learn more at x.com.

In-app purchases continue to dominate

In-app purchase screenshotHere's more evidence that in-app purchases are driving most of the revenues in mobile apps. According to Inside Mobile Apps, Distimo, which specializes in tracking app store activity, reports that a majority of the top-grossing apps on iPad, iPhone and Android monetize with in-app purchases. The researcher found that, of the top 200 grossing apps in the iPad App Store, the iPhone App store, and the Google Play store in February, 74% of the iPad apps and 80% of the iPhone apps featured in-app purchases. The numbers are even more remarkable when taken with the additional insight that only 10% of all iPad apps and 6% of iPhone apps even offer in-app purchases. So, there appears to be an awful lot of iOS apps that aren't yet interested in playing in the winning game.

The number was lower on Android apps (56%). Inside Mobile Apps' Kathleen De Vere suggested that may be because Android has a shorter history with in-app purchases (only since last May) and, related, fewer Android apps offer in-app purchases.

The findings support other reports that have also suggested the superiority of the foot-in-the-door model, including one by Flurry Analytics last summer that found freemium emerging as the dominant model for generating revenue from mobile apps.

Tip us off

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.


If you're interested in learning more about the commerce space, check out DevZone on x.com, a collaboration between O'Reilly and X.commerce.


Related:

March 14 2012

February 27 2012

Four short links: 27 February 2012

  1. Open Science Requires Open Source (Nature editorial) -- Our view is that we have reached the point that, with some exceptions, anything less than release of actual source code is an indefensible approach for any scientific results that depend on computation, because not releasing such code raises needless, and needlessly confusing, roadblocks to reproducibility.
  2. What's Still Wrong With ACTA -- the fist-sized jewel in the crown of hypocrisy is USTR has repeated assured Congress that it is not bound by ACTA, and that no changes in US law will be made to comply with ACTA, even in those areas where ACTA conflicts with US law, such as our many limitations on damages from infringement for copyright and trademarks. The US government does intend for ACTA to be binding on developing countries, as part of a "do as we say not as we do" foreign policy.
  3. WeViews -- open source library for laying out UIViews for iOS. (via Hacker News)
  4. SparkLab -- With your help, we'll find and outfit a delivery truck with cutting-edge maker tools and software (like laser cutters, 3D printers, and hand tools) and drive from school to school bringing teachers and students the resources and equipment they need to create engaging, educational activities. A KickStarter project made of solid Maker awesome. (via Dan Meyer)

February 02 2012

Commerce Weekly: The return of iPhone NFC rumors

Here are some things that caught my eye in the news this week.

When will Apple mainstream mobile payments?

AppleNow that everyone's iPhone 4S has a few dings on it and we've all grown bored flirting with Siri, our curiosity naturally turns to iPhone 5 and what gifts it will bequeath on mankind. Rumors of NFC (near-field communication, which lets phones pay with wireless technology), are at the forefront again, just as they were before the 4S arrived. As far back as August 2010, when Apple hired NFC expert Benjamin Vigier as its product manager for mobile commerce, expectations have been high that the next iPhone would include wireless payment. That was two versions ago; we must be getting close.

Seth Weintraub wrote this week on 9to5mac that a developer he met at MacWorld was building NFC into the next version of his app because Apple's iOS engineers are "heavy into NFC." Over on Fast Company, Austin Carr looked for clues in his conversation with Ed McLaughlin, who leads emerging payments at MasterCard. When Carr pressed McLaughlin for details on which handset makers were developing phones that work with MasterCard's contactless payment system, he didn't mention Apple by name but said he "didn't know of any handset maker out there who wasn't working to make their phones PayPass ready."

Why do we read these tea leaves? There are a few other NFC phones out there already, pushing the far end of the envelope. But Apple is much more significant, as Carr points out, thanks to its:

"... magical ability to transform whole industries. No one paid for music digitally before Apple unveiled iTunes; virtually no one listened to MP3 players, or carried smartphones, or played with tablets before Apple entered the markets."

Even more so than with previous trends, an enormous captive audience awaits the moment when Apple will introduce it to mobile payments. Scot Wingo notes, in a very good summary of the state of mobile commerce on Seeking Alpha, that Apple has "something like 250 million credit cards on file" in the iTunes store. Although only a fraction of those will buy the iPhone 5 in its first months out, they are sure to be customers who are already comfortable buying things through Apple's interface.

I think the biggest and best surprise will be more than just the date when iPhones ship with NFC, but rather how Apple presents a mobile wallet interface. When you think of how iTunes presented a better way to buy digital music, and when you compare the customer experience in Apple's retail stores with what you find almost anywhere else, you have to acknowledge Apple's genius in what we might call the transaction interface. Its programming efforts up front seem as likely to mainstream mobile commerce as any programming that it does behind the scenes to make those transactions occur.

X.commerce harnesses the technologies of eBay, PayPal and Magento to create the first end-to-end multi-channel commerce technology platform. Our vision is to enable merchants of every size, service providers and developers to thrive in a marketplace where in-store, online, mobile and social selling are all mission critical to business success. Learn more at x.com.


What PayPal is learning at the point of sale

PayPal's point-of-sale (POS) trial with 51 Home Depot stores is rolling out to Office Depot stores, too — cautiously, according to this Reuters story, which quotes an Office Depot executive saying "there are still some rough spots in that experience." The executive didn't say whether those rough spots had to do with the technology, the way customers are using it, or just the basic unfamiliarity with it. Regardless, the novelty presents something of an opportunity for PayPal, says Anuj Nayar, PayPal's chief spokesperson. "Retailers are not technologists by nature," Nayar told me in a conversation last week. "They have to work and sell in this multi-channel environment, where increasingly the differentiator is based on technology." But keeping up with the evolving technology shouldn't be the retailer's job, Nayar says. PayPal, of course, wants to provide a commercial ecosystem — as Nayar calls it, "a one-stop tech partner for retail."

PayPal at a HomeDepot point of sale terminalPayPal had those capabilities on display at the National Retail Federation show last month, showing the various ways it is enabling payment at the point of sale. PayPal aspires to go beyond the concept of a mobile wallet in a phone; it wants to offer a "wallet in the cloud" that lets consumers make purchases with just their mobile number and a PIN — no card or phone needed. No doubt, the trials at Home Depot will shed light on just how comfortable consumers are with this idea. So far, Nayar says, it's too early in the trial to share any of those learnings.

Nayar did share a finding from PayPal's conversations with consumers and retailers about how they want to use mobile commerce: You need to get beyond not only the friction that keeps people from using technology, but also guard against any social stigma that could arise. "For example, when I go to get coffee in the morning, if I get there and see there is a 20-minute wait, I can't wait for that. That retailer has lost a customer because of a friction point. So how do you reduce that friction? Maybe it's giving people the ability to order the coffee over their mobile before they get there? ... But we tested that, and you know what we found? People don't like to jump the line. They didn't like the idea of coming in and looking to everyone in line like they were getting to skip the line. So, maybe you need a separate line and register, a PayPal Express line or something."

In other words, we want convenience, but not at the expense of looking like we're getting special treatment. No doubt, PayPal will learn more in the coming trials, which are ramping up quickly: The company wants to be at 2,000 points of sale by the end of March.

Square hits the hustings

Square picked up a fresh round of publicity this week when word broke that staffers from both the Obama and Romney campaigns were using its plug-in dongle card reader to collect political donations for their candidates.

Obama campaign spokesperson Katie Hogan told Nick Bilton of The New York Times that the dongles were being shipped out to campaign workers across the country. The Obama campaign also hopes to create a donation app that works in conjunction with Square dongles so that any supporter can collect contributions with or without the support of the local campaign organization. All donations would obviously go to the campaign — minus the 2.75% transaction fee that Square keeps from every transaction.

The Romney campaign's digital director Zac Moffatt said the Republicans would also begin using Square as soon as this week, but he cautioned they want to make sure that using Square doesn't break any rules. "The challenge on this sort of thing is never with the technology, it's with the compliance. We're making sure everything we're doing follows fund-raising rules and is compliant with the FEC."

Although DC is generally slow to embrace new technologies, I have a hunch that tech that makes it easier for candidates to collect money will find a swift and warm welcome.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.


If you're interested in learning more about the commerce space, check out DevZone on x.com, a collaboration between O'Reilly and X.commerce.


Related:

January 06 2012

Commerce Weekly: Yahoo's new CEO has data focus

As the payments world roused itself from its holiday hiatus, here are some of the items that caught my eye.

Former PayPal chief brings data focus to Yahoo CEO position

YahooScott Thompson's move from leading eBay's PayPal division to becoming CEO of Yahoo received ample coverage in this light news week. The most interesting aspect to me was this former chief technology officer's focus on the importance of data to Yahoo's success. While past CEOs have focused on advertising, the company's role in the media landscape and alliances with U.S. and Chinese companies, Thompson showed his tech-centered origins in an interview with Ad Age:

At PayPal, we were able to create an unbelievably compelling business because we used data to understand risk and fraud better than anyone on earth. And that was the secret sauce. We had more data than anyone else, better tools and models, and super smart people who were challenged by the problem. It doesn't seem glamorous, but that was the reason.

Fast Company emphasized Thompson's background as PayPal's CTO and made clear to its lay-business audience that when he's talking about data, he's not just talking about a better dashboard to understand advertising opportunities. He's talking about the "big data" opportunity, tapping into large datasets produced by the transactions and interactions of Yahoo's 700 million members around the world.

From E.B. Boyd's Fast Company post:

Every day, those 700 million souls log in to the Yahoo universe and start making their way around its sites, moving from story to story to story to story — effectively giving Yahoo a media mogul's dream: the largest petri dish in the world to understand what sorts of content appeal to which sorts of people and what sorts of things will make them likely to consume more and more.

Of course, this is hardly news to Yahoo's data engineers or the big data community, but it will be interesting to see what effect a data-savvy CEO will have on Yahoo's prospects.

X.commerce harnesses the technologies of eBay, PayPal and Magento to create the first end-to-end multi-channel commerce technology platform. Our vision is to enable merchants of every size, service providers and developers to thrive in a marketplace where in-store, online, mobile and social selling are all mission critical to business success. Learn more at x.com.

Flurry: More than one billion apps downloaded in 2011's final week

While most retailers focus on the crucial weeks leading up to the holidays, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day — when customers are off work playing with their newly received devices — is more important for app developers. In fact, Flurry reports that this particular week was the largest ever for iOS and Android device activations and app downloads.

Flurry estimates that more than 20 million iOS and Android devices were activated, and 1.2 billion applications were downloaded on the two platforms. Christmas day itself was the biggest day ever for downloads: Flurry estimates that 242 million apps were downloaded while happy recipients explored their new toys.

Flurry also predicted that Apple's App Store will have delivered more than 10 billion apps in 2011 — more than twice the number downloaded in 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined.

EBay's mobile VP goes shopping with Robert Scoble

Just before the holiday, we reported on the "Watch with eBay" feature in eBay's iPad app, which offers viewers a sort of real-time catalog, proffering goods related to the program they're viewing on TV. Robert Scoble has an interesting follow-up interview with Steve Yankovich, eBay's vice president of mobile. Yankovich dropped by Scoble's home office with the app to show him how it works, and he revealed a new feature that identifies fabric patterns in clothing and taps related clothing items in eBay's inventories.

Posters on Scoble's related Google+ thread were more fascinated (or irritated) by Yankovich's comments that even though Android devices are dominating the market, the iOS platform is still more important from a commerce perspective.

Got news?

News tips and suggestions are always welcome, so please send them along.


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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?

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

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.

Got news?

Please send tips and leads here.

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December 22 2011

Developer Year in Review: 2011 Edition

This year brought us triumphs and tragedies, new companies born and old ones burning out. Before DWiR takes a holiday hiatus, we're going to look back on the high points of the year that was.

Mobile gains ground

Smartphones

Lost in all the news about lawsuits, patents and speculation was the overarching theme for mobile this year: it has become the primary software platform for many users. The desktop may not be dead, but it's definitely showing its age, and as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous, the amount of time the average consumer spends in front of a keyboard is declining rapidly.

The good news for software developers is that the maturing app store model has opened up software distribution to a much larger pool of potential software makers. The bad news is that it has also drastically reset the expectation of how much consumers are willing to spend for apps, although prices are climbing marginally. A $1 app can make you a lot of money if you can get millions of users to buy it, but it won't even get you a nice night on the town if you're writing for a niche market.

With RIM's Blackberry market share doing a good imitation of an Olympic high diver, and the new Windows mobile platform not yet gaining significant traction, 2011 was essentially a two-horse race, with Android passing iOS for the first time in new sales. Apple is crying all the way to the bank, though, as the profit margin on iOS devices is pushing Apple's bottom line to new highs and overall unit sales continue to climb steadily. At least for the moment, the smartphone market is not a zero-sum game.

This year also marked the release of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) for Android and iOS 5 for the iPhone/iPad/iPod. ICS is the first version of Android that is making serious efforts to tame the tablet situation, but there have been widespread complaints that carriers are slow to pick it up, even in new models. Objective-C developers are finally getting to say goodbye to old friends like retain, release and autorelease, as Apple rolled out the automatic reference count compiler. Few tears were shed for their passing.


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The year of HTML5

In future years, 2011 will be remembered as the year Adobe put up the white flag and joined the HTML5 bandwagon, which started an industry death-watch for Flash. Microsoft also sent out signals that Silverlight was being put out to pasture and that it planned to embrace HTML5 as well.

The stampede to adopt HTML5 was prompted, in part, by the increasing robustness of the standard and the implementations of the standard in browsers. It also didn't hurt that it is the only Rich Internet Application platform that will run on the iPad.

Dru-who and Ha-what?

Two packages with funny names became the hot skills to have on your resume this year. Drupal continued to gain popularity as a content management platform, while Apache Hadoop was the must-have technology for data crunching. By the end of the year, developers with experience in either were in short supply and could basically write their own tickets.

Languages emerge, but few stick

It seems like every year, there's a new batch of languages that promise to be the next Big Thing. In past years, the crown has been worn by Scala, Erlang, Clojure and others. But when it comes time to start a project or hire developers, skills in new languages are rarely high on the list of priorities for companies.

This year, Google joined the fun, promoting both Go and Dart. Like most new languages, they face an uphill battle, even with Google's massive resources behind them. Few have what it takes to fight the institutional inertia of existing development decisions and to join winners such as Ruby in the pantheon of well-adopted emerging languages.

Some general thoughts to end the year

The computer industry, more than most others, can make you feel very old at a relatively young age. I've been hacking, in one form or another, for nearly 35 years, and the technology I used in my youth seems like it belongs in another universe.

The flip side of this is that I'm constantly amazed by what science and technology brings forth on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it's having a conversation with a device I can hold in the palm of my hand or watching the aurora light up the heavens, seen from above by occupants of the ISS, I often seem to be living in the future I read about as a kid.

As a species, we may be prone to pettiness, violence, willful ignorance and hatred, but once in a while, we manage to pull ourselves out of the muck and do something insanely great. Let's attempt to honor the vision of an admittedly imperfect man we lost this year and try to make 2012 insanely greater.

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December 20 2011

The price of greatness: Three takeaways from the biography of Steve Jobs

Steve JobsAs the first Christmas approaches without Apple founder Steve Jobs, it's worth pausing for a moment to appreciate what he has left behind.

In addition to an astoundingly healthy business with $80 billion in the bank, recent analysis by Andy Zaky of Bullish Cross suggests that in the current holiday quarter, Apple will record its largest earnings blowout ever.

This is on top of unparalleled customer loyalty and brand recognition, not to mention a potent halo effect generated by Apple's iPhone, iPad and Mac products.

Yet, according to analyst Zaky, Apple remains the most undervalued large cap stock in America. It's almost as if Apple is saving "one more thing" for the holidays; this one, a stocking-stuffer for investors.

I bring this last point up because the notion of Apple still being undervalued (and under-appreciated), despite the accomplishments, accolades and attention, suggests something about the human condition; namely, that when faced with an exceedingly bright and brilliant light, our minds naturally filter it down a bit.

But true greatness, the kind realized by Jobs in his life, and by Edison, Disney and Ford before him, is best appreciated without filters, for it is something that is experienced perhaps only once in a generation.

With that in mind, I want to share three takeaways from Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs that spotlight both the greatness of the man and the price that greatness demands.

"The flu game"

In the annals of professional sports, there is perhaps no individual performance more emblematic of greatness in action, than "the flu game" in the 1997 NBA Finals, where a flu-ridden Michael Jordan overcame a stomach virus that had rendered him weak and dehydrated to score 38 points and lead his Chicago Bulls to a 90-88 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 5. They won the series in six games.

That one man could overcome, no ignore, failing health to will his team to victory is both a defining example of the greatness of Michael Jordan as a basketball player, and no different than how Jordan approached every game that he played.

I thought about this a lot in reading Jobs' bio, inasmuch as one of the key takeaways (for me) from the book was how Apple's rise from the ashes was largely accomplished with its leader fighting not a flu, but cancer, and not for one game, but for eight years.

We all know about Jobs' battles with cancer, his forced leaves of absence, and the fact that he was never quite physically restored to the cherub-like state that he embodied when he first returned to Apple in 1997.

But the book lays clear, painfully so, something that all of us grokked and groped from the shadows but could never truly "know" because it wasn't public: from the moment he got sick in 2003 to when he died in October of this year, Jobs was never fully healthy again

.

Quite the opposite, in fact. He was literally fighting a continuous battle with his body, and a metastasizing cancer, yet still led his team to a series of triumphs that have no equal in the annals of business.

What Steve Jobs accomplished after cancer

  1. iTunes Store ramp
  2. iPhone
  3. iOS + App Store
  4. iPad

During this period, Apple stock surged more than 3,000%, and for Jobs personally, it was only his second greatest financial achievement; he would realize far greater personal wealth leading Pixar's evolution from a failing tech provider for the film business into Disney 2.0.

Apple's stock performance

Just as Jordan's flu game is simultaneously emblematic and par for the course of his greatness, so too was Jobs' leadership of Apple during his period of sickness.

The man known for reality distortion and an unwavering, uncompromising pursuit of the insanely great, ignored his own personal suffering, paying the ultimate price to achieve greatness. More so than any nugget from the Steve Jobs bio is this coarsely ground truth, something that should serve as a reminder the next time we wonder why there are so few great leaders, and even fewer great companies.

Yeah, but he was a jerk

Those who seek to dismiss or marginalize the accomplishments of Jobs tend to focus on one of three things.

Either they diminish his accomplishments as a modern-day Edison since Jobs wasn't an engineer, or they give props to Jobs' marketing savvy as a backhanded-way of diminishing the realness of what he built.

Or, they point out that he was a narcissistic jerk who took credit for the accomplishments of others, was controlling, belligerent, and probably not the prototypical role model of the family man (home for dinner, mowing the lawn on the weekends).

I'd like to focus on this last point, as it is simply irrelevant to the field of play that Jobs made his mark within.

Few of us know or care if Michael Jordan is a nice guy, whether Walt Disney remembered the names of his workers' kids or if Thomas Edison pet his dog. Case in point, Henry Ford held anti-Semitic views, but that doesn't mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry.

In Jobs' case, we have already established how fully the man led by example; how unparalleled the financial results his company generates are; and the deep, emotional bond that Apple products engender with users. But, also know that Jobs built a corporate culture defined by longevity, loyalty, depth, purpose and intellectual honesty — but above all, peak performance.

In other words, in the field of play that is creating enduring companies that build products that "make a dent in the universe" (a Jobs axiom), whether the leader is warm, fuzzy and personally likable is mostly orthogonal to the outcomes that he manifests.

Sweating the details

So, we've established that Jobs led by example, making the ultimate sacrifice so that his vision, his purpose in life, could be realized.

And we've noted that whatever personal peculiarities adorned the man, they didn't tarnish his accomplishments one iota.

In closing, I'd note how Jobs' manifestation of these attributes translated into the type of leader who plugged himself into an entire category of granular decisions that on the one hand, most CEOs would delegate "on principal," but on the other, it's darn near impossible to imagine an un-Jobsian leader being able to yield the wealth of transformational products that Apple has created.

One such example explored in the book are the specific materials and production processes that Apple uses in building its products. Such is the story of Gorilla Glass, the exceptionally lightweight, damage-resistant glass that came to anchor the screen of the iPhone.

How Gorilla Glass came to be is classic Jobs.

Internally, the iPhone team was driven by a realization that the centerpiece of a touch-driven phone was the display, not a composite of screen, casing and keyboard.

Armed with this clarity, Jobs drove the Apple team to re-think the form of the device around its display centricity. But, of course, this begged the question of the integrity and durability of the display material being used.

While conventional wisdom initially drove the company toward plastic screens, as the iPod had used, Jobs focused on the elegance and substantive nature of glass.

Having gotten wind from an old friend that Corning Glass was doing some amazing things with chemically-fortified glass, in typical Jobs fashion, he tracked down Corning's CEO, who told him about a chemical process that had actually originated in the 1960s but had never found an appropriate commercial application.

Convinced that he had found the right answer, Jobs challenged Corning's CEO to commit to both the capacity and timeline needed to achieve the scale Apple required to meet the iPhone launch deadline.

It was a game-changing solution for an unproven new device from an approach that had never been produced commercially prior to that point. And it worked!

There are similar stories in the book about the advent of multitouch, Apple's embrace of intricate metal fabrication processes, mass-purchasing of pinpoint lasers and the internal prototyping culture that instructed what became the Apple Stores.

Beyond showcasing the many incredible qualities of Jobs, all of this serves to underscore that having a simple product line — in terms of having very few products — is very different than having a simple product strategy. With scarcity comes focus, and with focus comes precision.

A final thought

There are many of us who consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs, inventors, and startup guys and gals, but I think this quote from Jobs captures the essence that there are no shortcuts to greatness. Greatness is dedication. It's a demand, and it's a detail. Or, as Jobs said:

I hate it when people call themselves entrepreneurs when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public so they can cash in and move on. They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business.

Amen. Somewhere in the universe, there is a hole where the light of Steve Jobs still shines through.

Photo of Steve Jobs from Apple Press Info.

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November 18 2011

Top Stories: November 14-18, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Steve Jobs, the Unabomber, and America's love/hate relationship with technology
Steve Jobs and Ted Kaczynski represent the extreme poles of a deep-seated ambivalence in our attitudes toward technology. It's an ambivalence that's been a part of American history, and part of the American psyche, since the beginning.

Understanding Apple fans
AT&T and other carriers are not helping Android, or themselves, by turning a great product into a second-rate one. And maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, but I now understand what Apple fans hate about Android.


Embedded systems are "terrifyingly important"
Author and embedded systems engineer Elecia White discusses the state of embedded systems and what lies ahead (hint: distributed intelligence and microdots).

HTML5 for publishers: Drawing on the screen
This excerpt from "HTML5 for Publishers" shows how a simple finger-painting canvas can be added to an HTML5-based children's book


Why we needed EPUB 3
EPUB3 is more than just bug fixes and tweaks from the last version. It represents a major change in what an ebook can be.



Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Register to attend TOC 2012.

November 17 2011

Understanding Apple fans

The original Nexus One from GoogleHaving admitted a few months ago that I've come to terms with JavaScript, I have to admit that recent events have made me more sympathetic with iPhone fans. I'm a long-time Android user, and I don't plan to change; Android has a better track record on innovation and on openness. You can debate Google's commitment to open source, but openness is a joke when you can't even get an app on the phone without Apple's approval.

Apple's design sense is admittedly better, but Android's user interface is pretty good; if Apple didn't exist to be teach us what great design was, we'd certainly be happy with Android. Way, way better than any of the feature-phones I've used in the past.

So what changed? I've been a sheltered Android user: I go to a lot of Google events, and at one point had a whole stack of Android phones sitting on my desk (most of which were tied to carriers that I don't use). I'm also an AT&T customer, and it was a simple matter to put an AT&T SIM into an unlocked phone and get on the network. But recently, I was running across the street when my trusty Nexus fell out of my pocket and had an unfortunate rendezvous with the wheels of a passing truck. So I reluctantly bought a new Motorola Atrix from AT&T. It's a nice piece of hardware: 1 GHz dual core processor, plenty of memory, etc. No complaints about the hardware.

But man, AT&T's notion of Android is a lot different from Google's. Android as Google ships is it really quite good. Not excellent, but more than good enough. AT&T has taken that basic goodness and broken it by piling on glopware, bloatware, and you-don't-need-it-and-you-can't-delete-it-ware. They've rearranged things in stupid ways, changed icons that were familiar and serviceable, and botched things up in many other ways. An AT&T logo for the browser? Why would I associate the AT&T's death star with the web? Why list apps you've downloaded separately from apps that come with the phone? Why banish Google Maps from the home screen? (AT&T has its own GPS navigation app, which they charge for using.)

I could go on, but I won't. Each change was minor, taken by itself, but they added up, and turned a good user experience into a mediocre user experience. Maybe I wouldn't feel so strongly if I weren't accustomed to the neater, trimmer Android that Google delivers; but suddenly, the light went on, and I said, "Oh, that's why Apple fans hate Android so much." I don't know what other carriers do; does Verizon mangle Android so badly on the phones they ship? As I said at the outset, I've been sheltered, and the real world isn't living up to my expectations.

The price of openness may well be letting vendors break stuff. And I suppose I'm willing to pay that price. But I don't have to be happy about it. I hope Google can figure out how to exert some control over what vendors do with Android; that would be good for the whole community. AT&T and other carriers are not helping Android, or themselves, by turning a great product into a second-rate one. And maybe I'm becoming soft in my old age, but I now understand what Apple fans hate about Android.

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Reposted bymurdeltan0g

October 24 2011

You say you want a revolution? It's called post-PC computing


"You say you want a revolution,

Well, you know,

We all want to change the world."
— The Beatles

I loved Google engineer Steve Yegge's rant about: A) Google not grokking how to build and execute platforms; and B) How his ex-employer, Amazon, does.

First off, it bucks conventional wisdom. How could Google, the high priest of the cloud and the parent of Android, analytics and AdWords/AdSense, not be a standard-setter for platform creation?

Second, as Amazon's strategy seems to be to embrace "open" Android and use it to make a platform that's proprietary to Amazon, that's a heck of a story to watch unfold in the months ahead. Even more so, knowing that Amazon has serious platform mojo.

But mostly, I loved the piece because it underscores the granular truth about just how hard it is to execute a coherent platform strategy in the real world.

Put another way, Yegge's rant, and what it suggests about Google's and Amazon's platform readiness, provides the best insider's point of reference for appreciating how Apple has played chess to everyone's checkers in the post-PC platform wars.

Case in point, what company other than Apple could have executed something even remotely as rich and well-integrated as the simultaneous release of iOS 5, iCloud and iPhone 4S, the latter of which sold four million units in its first weekend of availability?

Let me answer that for you: No one.

Post-PC: Putting humans into the center of the computing equation

Each computing wave dwarfs and disrupts its predecessor

There is a truism that each wave of computing not only disrupts, but dwarfs its predecessor.

The mainframe was dwarfed by the PC, which in turn has been subordinated by the web. But now, a new kind of device is taking over. It's mobile, lightweight, simple to use, connected, has a long battery life and is a digital machine for running native apps, web browsing, playing all kinds of media, enabling game playing, taking photos and communicating.

Given its multiplicity of capabilities, it's not hard to imagine a future where post-PC devices dot every nook and cranny of the planet (an estimated 10 billion devices by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley).

But, an analysis of evolving computing models suggests a second, less obvious moral of the story. Namely, when you solve the right core problems central to enabling the emergent wave (as opposed to just bolting on more stuff), all sorts of lifecycle advantages come your way.

In the PC era, for example, the core problems were centered on creating homogeneity to get to scale and to give developers a singular platform to program around, something that the Wintel hardware-software duopoly addressed with bull's-eye accuracy. As a result, Microsoft and Intel captured the lion's share of the industry's profits.

By contrast, the wonderful thing about the way that the web emerged is that HTML initially made it so simple to "write once, run anywhere" that any new idea — brilliant or otherwise — could rapidly go from napkin to launch to global presence. The revolution was completely decentralized, and suddenly, web-based applications were absorbing more and more of the PC's reason for being.

Making all of this new content discoverable via search and monetizable (usually via advertising) thus became the core problem where the lion's share of profits flowed, and Google became the icon of the web.

The downside of this is that because the premise of the web is about abstracting out hardware and OS specificity, browsers are prone to crashing, slowdowns and sub-optimal performance. Very little about the web screams out "great design" or "magical user experience."

Enter Apple. It brought back a fundamental appreciation of the goodness of "native" experiences built around deeply integrated hardware, software and service platforms.

Equally important, Apple's emphasis on outcomes over attributes led it to marry design, technology and liberal arts in ways that brought humans into the center of the computing equation, such that for many, an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad is the most "personal" computer they have ever owned.

The success of Apple in this regard is best appreciated by how it took a touch-based interfacing model and made it seamless and invisible across different device types and interaction methods. Touch facilitated the emotional bond that users have with their iPhones, iPads and the like. Touch is one of the human senses, after all.

Thus, it's little surprise that the lion's share of profits in the post-PC computing space are flowing to the company that is delivering the best, most human-centric user experience: Apple.

Now, Apple is opening a second formal interface into iOS through Siri, a voice-based helper system that is enmeshed in the land of artificial intelligence and automated agents. This was noted by Daring Fireball's John Gruber in an excellent analysis of the iPhone 4S:

... Siri is indicative of an AI-focused ambition that Apple hasn't shown since before Steve Jobs returned to the company. Prior to Siri, iOS struck me being designed to make it easy for us to do things. Siri is designed to do things for us.

Once again, Apple is looking to one of the human senses — this time, sound — to provide a window for users into computing. While many look at Siri as a concept that's bound to fail, if Apple gets Siri right, it could become even more transformational than touch — particularly as Siri's dictionary, grammar and contextual understanding grow.

Taken together, a new picture of the evolution of computing starts to emerge. An industry that was once defined by the singular goal of achieving power (the mainframe era), morphed over time into the noble ambition of achieving ubiquity via the "PC on every desktop" era. It then evolved into the ideal of universality, vis-à-vis the universal access model of the web, which in turn was aided by lots of free, ad-supported sites and services. Now, human-centricity is emerging as the raison d'être for computing, and it seems clear that the inmates will never run the asylum again. That may quite possibly be the greatest legacy of Steve Jobs.

Do technology revolutions drive economic revolutions?

Sitting in these difficult economic times, it is perhaps fair to ask if the rise of post-PC computing is destined to be a catalyst for economic revival. After all, we've seen the Internet disrupt industry after industry with a brutal efficiency that has arguably wiped out more jobs than it has created.

Before answering that, though, let me note that while the seminal revolutions always appear in retrospect to occur in one magical moment, in truth, they play out as a series of compounding innovations, punctuated by a handful of catalytic, game-changing events.

For example, it may seem that the Industrial Revolution occurred spontaneously, but the truth is that for the revolution to realize its destiny, multiple concurrent innovations had to occur in manufacturing, energy utilization, information exchange and machine tools. And all of this was aided by significant public infrastructure development. It took continuous, measurable improvements in the products, markets, suppliers and sales channels participating in the embryonic wave before things sufficiently coalesced to transform society, launch new industries, create jobs, and rain serious material wealth on the economy.

It's often a painful, messy process going from infancy to maturation, and it may take still more time for this latest wave to play out in our society. But, I fully believe that we are approaching what VC John Doerr refers to as the "third wave" in technology:

We are at the beginning of a third wave in technology (the prior two were the commercialization of the microprocessor, followed 15 years later by the advent of the web), which is this convergence of mobile and social technologies made possible by the cloud. We will see the creation of multiple multi-billion-dollar businesses, and equally important, tens maybe hundreds of thousands of smaller companies.

For many folks, the revolution can't come soon enough. But it is coming.

Quantifying the post-PC "standard bearers"

A couple years back, I wrote an article called "Built-to-Thrive — The Standard Bearers," where I argued that Apple was the gold standard company (i.e., the measuring stick by which all others are judged), Google was the silver and Amazon was the bronze.

The only re-thinking I have with respect to that medal stand is that Amazon and Google have now flipped places.

Most fundamentally, this exemplifies:

  1. How well Apple has succeeded in actually solving the core problems of its constituency base through an integrated, human-centered platform.
  2. How Amazon has gained religion about the importance of platform practice.
  3. How, as Yegge noted, Google doesn't always "eat its own dog food."

If you doubt this, check out the adjacent charts, which spotlight the relative stock performance of Apple, Amazon and Google after each company's strategic foray into post-PC computing: namely, iPod, Kindle and Android, respectively.

This is one of those cases where the numbers may surprise, but they don't lie.

Amazon, Google, Apple stock charts in the post-PC era

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October 21 2011

Developer Week in Review: Talking to your phone

I've spent the last week or so getting up to speed on the ins and outs of Vex Robotics tournaments since I foolishly volunteered to be competition coordinator for an event this Saturday. I've also been helping out my son's team, offering design advice where I could. Vex is similar to Dean Kamen's FIRST Robotics program, but the robots are much less expensive to build. That means many more people can field robots from a given school and more people can be hands-on in the build. If you happen to be in southern New Hampshire this Saturday, drop by Pinkerton Academy and watch two dozen robots duke it out.

In non-robotic news ...

Why Siri matters

SiriIt's easy to dismiss Siri, Apple's new voice-driven "assistant" for the iPhone 4S, as just another refinement of the chatbot model that's been entertaining people since the days of ELIZA. No one would claim that Siri could pass the Turing test, for example. But, at least in my opinion, Siri is important for several reasons.

On a pragmatic level, Siri makes a lot of common smartphone tasks much easier. For example, I rarely used reminders on the iPhone and preferred to use a real keyboard when I had to create appointments. But Siri makes adding a reminder or appointment so easy that I have made it pretty much my exclusive method of entering them. It also is going to be a big win for drivers trying to use smartphones in their cars, especially in states that require hands-free operations.

I suspect Siri will also end up being a classic example of crowdsourcing. If I were Apple, I would be capturing every "miss" that Siri couldn't handle and looking for common threads. Since Siri is essentially doing natural language processing and applying rules to your requests, Apple can improve Siri progressively by adding the low-hanging fruit. For example, at the moment, Siri balks at a question like, "How are the Patriots doing?" I'd be shocked if it fails to answer that question in a year since sports scores and standings will be at the heart of commonly asked questions.

For developers, the benefits of Siri are obvious. While it's a closed box right now, if Apple follows its standard model, we should expect to see API and SDK support for it in future releases of iOS. At the moment, apps that want voice control (and they are few and far between) have to implement it themselves. Once apps can register with Siri, any app will be able to use voice.

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Can Open Office survive?

OpenOffice.org logoLong-time WIR readers will know that I'm no fan of how Oracle has treated its acquisitions from Sun. A prime example is OpenOffice. In June, OpenOffice was spun off from Oracle, and therefore lost its allowance. Now the OpenOffice team is passing around the hat, looking for funds to keep the project going.

We need to support Open Office because it's the only project that really keeps Microsoft honest as far as providing open standards access to Microsoft Office products. It's also the only way that Linux users can deal with the near-ubiquitous use of Office document formats in the real world (short of running Office in a VM or with Wine.)

The revenge of SQL

The NoSQL crowd has always had Google App Engine as an ally since the only database available to App Engine apps has been the App Engine Datastore, which (among other things) doesn't support joins. But much as Apple initially rejected multitasking on the iPhone (until it decided to embrace it), Google appears to have thrown in the towel as far as SQL goes.

It's always dangerous to hold an absolutist position (with obvious exceptions, such as despising Jar Jar Binks). SQL may have been overused in the past, but it's foolish to reject SQL altogether. It can be far too useful at times. SQL can be especially handy, as an example, when developing pure REST-like web services. It's nice to see that Google has taken a step back from the edge. Or, to put it more pragmatically, that it listens to its customer base on occasion.

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