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January 16 2012

The art of marrying content with mobile apps

This post is part of the TOC podcast series. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.

Publishers are often approached by mobile app developers looking to help them distribute their content in new ways. Most of those developers aren't all that familiar with the publishing industry and treat the results as just another app. KiwiTech is different. As founder and CTO Gurvinder Batra explains in this interview, KiwiTech uses its management team's extensive publishing industry experience to craft a better solution.

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

  • The KiwiTech founders are well versed in the publishing space — This is the same team that founded Aptara. That translates into them having a much better sense of the challenges of marrying content with mobile apps. [Discussed at the 00:33 mark.]
  • What's the future of iOS versus Android? — The phones are a good predictor of the tablet's future. So, while Android is overtaking iOS on phone market share, the large number of different handsets and configurations makes it particularly challenging for developers. Expect the same problem to arise with tablets. [Discussed at 6:22.]
  • Porting from iOS to Android is harder than it sounds — Many publishers think development costs for the second platform (e.g., Android) should cost about half of the development costs of the original one (e.g., iOS), but that logic is wrong. [Discussed at 7:45.]
  • Why choose native apps over EPUB? — While it's tempting to go with a platform-independent solution like EPUB, you lose the ability to tap into many of the device's core capabilities, such as sensors, for example. [Discussed at 15:43.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb. 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

Register to attend TOC 2012


October 25 2011

What to watch for in mobile web apps

Mobile web apps are mostly defined by their "if onlys" — if only they had the feel of native apps, if only they could fully interact with devices, etc.

James Pearce, (@jamespearce), senior director of developer relations at Sencha, has a more optimistic take on mobile web apps. In the following interview, Pearce discusses promising web app technologies, and he explains why device APIs could make the web a lot more interesting. Pearce also weighs in on developers' current concerns, such as backward web app compatibility and testing across devices.

Our interview follows.

What are the most promising mobile web app technologies?

James_Pearce_Mug.pngJames Pearce: There are two significant technologies that I think we will see mature in the coming years. The first is WebGL, which provides a way for web developers to access the low-level graphic capabilities of the computer or device that the browser is running on. WebGL creates a huge opportunity to use web technologies to build games, to create high-performance simulations, and to develop other types of graphically heavy user interfaces — at least, when the browser supports it well. Currently, no default mobile smartphone browser offers good support, but I expect this to change soon.

Device APIs are also important because they allow web applications within a browser to query and interact with the device they're running on. These are not being implemented quickly, for various reasons, but the mobile web will take a huge step forward when web applications can interface with a device in much the same way native applications can. Imagine the possibilities that would come about through granting web apps access to a device's camera, contacts, calendar, messaging, and so on. The web will suddenly become a much more interesting place.

What are the best examples of HTML5 mobile apps? What lessons can and should be learned from them?

James Pearce: We have a directory at Sencha of some of the best examples, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course there are some very well-known brands doing cool mobile things with web technology already — the Financial Times is a good example. We're seeing a whole spectrum of different types of apps and companies deploying services and applications with these tools and techniques.

Financial Times web app
Screenshot of the Financial Times web app

That said, it's still very early days, and I'm not sure we're ready to say we fully understand the best practices for building, deploying and promoting HTML5 web apps. But, certainly, we're seeing a lot of creativity around user experiences, and developers are pushing the bounds of what mobile devices can do. I guess if there's one thing we can learn, it is that the future is still very much up for grabs.

How much backward compatibility should mobile developers incorporate into their web apps?

James Pearce: This depends a lot on the type of app. If you are creating a relatively simple web application or site, then it's a good idea to employ techniques that allow it to function on down-scale devices. Normally, this means starting with simple content or markup and progressively enhancing the application in response to the additional capabilities the browser contains.

For full-fledged web applications, this is not at all easy to do, and at some point you need to draw the line with regard to the functionality the device must absolutely have in order to support your application's purpose. For example, a photo-sharing application is almost no use on a device with no camera API. A location-based application is pretty useless if the device can't determine its location and convey it to the browser, and so on.

What is the best way to test across devices without owning those devices?

James Pearce: That's an eternal challenge in mobile. The Apple and BlackBerry emulator tools are great. There's also one in the Android SDK, though sadly, of lower fidelity right now. Services like DeviceAnywhere allow you to remotely connect to devices — and Nokia runs a similar service — but ultimately, there's no alternative to the real thing to truly judge how your app's user experience shapes up.

TOC NY 2012 — O'Reilly's TOC Conference, being held Feb 13-15, 2012, in New York City, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Practitioners and executives from both camps will share what they've learned and join together to navigate publishing's ongoing transformation.

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This interview was edited and condensed.


August 18 2011

ePayments Week: The economics of in-app purchases

Here's what caught my attention in the payment space this week.

Flurry: Gamers buying more consumables

Mighty Eagle from Angry BirdsA few weeks ago we reported on research from Flurry Analytics that found the freemium model for games was quickly becoming the dominant source of income from mobile apps on the iOS and Android platforms. This week, Flurry has followed up that report with some details on the types of goods gamers buy. Economists in the physical world divide goods into durables (washing machines) and consumables (detergent). So does Flurry, which found that only 30% of purchases were for things users could keep (like a new suit of armor or a building), while 68% was spent on things we use up getting to the next level (like Smurfberries or fertilizer). Personalization items, like decorations, accounted for 2%.

Flurry's Jeferson Valadares speculated that the relative value of a purchase depends on the game's goals. For example, purchasing a structure in a city-building game may help you reach a higher level, whereas in a farming game consumables like fertilizer may be more valuable. And it just may be that in more games out there, consumables help players reach their goals more often than durables do.

Over on The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Mike Schramm reported on the finding and added another perspective: that in some cases, gamers will balk at too much help. "[S]ome consumers will backlash against a consumable item that affects gameplay too much, like a double-damage token in a multiplayer game, or anything else that could be seen as cheating." Gamers, like anyone else, don't mind a little help, but not so much help that they feel they're not winning on their own.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD

Cheap Androids invade Kenya

While One Laptop Per Child continues its mission of distributing inexpensive, network-enabled laptops to school children around the world, it seems that smartphones may make an end run around that effort. Chinese technology firm Huawei is manufacturing an $80 Android-based phone called IDEOS, and it has sold 350,000 through Safaricom in Kenya.

Writing on Singularity Hub, Jeremy Ford dissects some of the technology used in the IDEOs to show that by delivering a slightly less powerful phone, Huawei is able to deliver a significantly less expensive product that still offers users access to hundreds of thousands of Android apps. Ford describes some of the apps available, including one that uses crowdsourcing to track crop diseases.

Safaricom has already made an international name for itself through its M-PESA program, which has brought mobile banking services to millions of Kenyans in urban and rural environments. Having innovated in the financial arena on phones that were only capable of sending text messages, it will be interesting to see what sorts of payment applications take shape once millions of Kenyans are carrying smartphones — and it sounds like that won't be far off.

What makes a successful mobile app?

What should mobile developers be thinking about as they approach development on their next project? Which platform offers the most potential for growth? How about revenue? Over at Fierce Developer, Sandhya Raman has a round-up of six questions that developers should ask themselves before starting that next project. Raman links to a similar article that ran last month on GigaOM, Rachel Youens' "7 Habits of Highly Effective Apps." Both make good, quick reading for anyone involved in mobile development.

Got news?

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

If you're interested in learning more about the payment development space, check out PayPal X DevZone, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


August 15 2011

Honeycomb and the Android tablet tipping point

There are encouraging signs for Android tablets, including release of the tablet-friendly Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), strong early sales for the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, and critical acclaim for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. But these positive signals have yet to translate into a robust inventory of Android tablet applications.

Marko Gargenta (@markogargenta), author of "Learning Android" and the forthcoming "Programming Honeycomb," discusses the state of Honeycomb and the adoption pattern of Android tablets in the following interview. Many of these topics will be further explored at the upcoming Android Open conference, which Gargenta is co-chairing.

We've been hearing about the lack of apps designed specifically for Android tablets. Why is this area slow to develop?

Marko GargentaMarko Gargenta: It's true that there aren't as many Android apps designed specifically for tablets. The reason for this is two-fold. On one hand, most of the existing Android apps will happily work on tablets. On the other hand, developers want to see a sizable market share for tablets before they invest their time. It appears that we're at that tipping point where the number of Android tablet devices out there supports the development costs to create tablet-optimized applications.

What are the biggest technical challenges for Android tablet apps?

Marko Gargenta: Honeycomb brings a couple of new concepts to app development, namely Fragments and new UI capabilities. Developers need to learn how these work in order to take advantage of the new features. While not too complex, they do take some time to master.

The other technical challenge is the emulator. In previous versions of Android, the emulator worked great and most developers did not need a physical device for development. But the Honeycomb emulator is extremely slow. That means developers need actual tablet devices, which are somewhat pricey compared to subsidized phones.

What's your take on Honeycomb thus far?

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1Marko Gargenta: I like Honeycomb and the general direction of Android for tablets. I think the tools have a ways to go in order to be more appealing to developers. The issues with tablet tools are the same we see with smartphones, but they're amplified on the tablet side. In addition to the emulator issues, there's also the quirks and steep learning curve of Eclipse, a powerful and feature-rich tool that many developers use for Android development.

That said, I think Honeycomb is overall a well-designed platform. The Android team took a holistic view at how tablets are used and they developed a platform that addresses that view. At the same time, Honeycomb isn't as polished as the iPad. There aren't any major features missing in Honeycomb when compared to iOS, but there are differences in the ecosystems: the economics, the user bases, the distribution, etc.

How difficult would it be for an iPad developer to transition apps to Honeycomb?

Marko Gargenta: There are two types of iOS applications: native and those based on WebKit (web applications wrapped in a native app shell). WebKit apps are easy to port and many tools exist to help with that. Native iOS apps usually require a total rewrite. It's like starting a new project with very little reusable code.

Which Android tablet do you use?

Marko Gargenta: I use the Motorola Xoom. I have it rooted, and I've reinstalled the operating system many times to experiment with how it all works. It's certainly a heavier tablet than others on the market, but it's also fairly rugged.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD


August 11 2011

The evolution of iOS development: Better tools and a lot more to think about

The first edition of "Head First iPhone Development" came out in 2009, which feels like decades ago in app years. Now, with "Head First iPhone and iPad Development" arriving earlier this summer, I checked in with the authors of both editions, Dan Pilone (@danpilone) and Tracey Pilone (@traceypilone), to get their take on the maturation of the iOS world, how the iPad has changed development patterns, and what they hope to see in iOS down the road.

Our interview follows.

Has the learning curve for iPhone/iPad development improved?

Dan Pilone: That's a really tough one to judge after spending so much time working with iOS. I think the fundamentals are still the same: you still need to learn Objective-C, you're still dealing with memory management, you still need to learn the core Cocoa Touch patterns. In some ways it definitely has gotten easier. For example, Xcode 4 is a huge step forward. Provisioning and iTunes App Store submission have been streamlined as well.

However, iOS has gotten harder in some ways. There are a lot more devices in the mix and iOS as a platform is bigger than ever. You have Game Kit, Map Kit, Store Kit, Grand Central Dispatch (GCD), fully capable audio and video frameworks, and more, all under the umbrella of iOS. There are entire parts of the iOS SDK that you might never bump into depending on what kind of apps you're writing. It's a great platform to develop for, but I don't know if I'd describe it as "easy" just yet.

Tracey Pilone: Actually, I'd say it's gotten worse! When iPhone development started, it was just one iPhone, with fairly limited developer access to parts of the OS, like multitasking. Since the last time we wrote the book, we have multiple iPhones, different displays, iPads, different OS versions to support, etc. You can start in the same place, but the topics for us to cover have expanded.

How have iOS development tools evolved since you wrote the first edition of your book?

Tracey Pilone: The tools have evolved a lot, which is part of why it took us a while to print an update. Xcode 4 was announced and in developer preview for months, and we struggled over when to print the new edition. We finally went ahead when Xcode 4 became public.

Xcode 4 integrated Interface Builder and dramatically changed the workflow, mostly for the better. You can link outlets and actions directly to code, unlike in previous versions. The editor for the views is completely integrated. Git support is included and there's better support for coding with features like code completion.

Dan Pilone: The provisioning and signing tools have significantly improved and you can now do application validation prior to submission, which saves on needless round-trips trying to get your first application in the App Store. Testing tools have improved a good bit with Unit Tests being a first-class part of Xcode. Automated UI testing through Instruments is a big win as well.

Head First iPhone and iPad Development, Second Edition — Learn how to design for Apple's devices and master the iOS SDK tools -- including Interface Builder, Xcode, and Objective-C programming principles -- to create eye-catching apps.

Have you noticed any iOS development trends tied to the popularity of the iPad?

Tracey Pilone: What we have seen is that clients come to us looking for completely different experiences out of the iPad verses the iPhone. The iPad has opened up lots of possibilities for extended user interaction. The iPhone is always with you, but the interaction time frame is significantly shorter. It's been fascinating for us to see so many different types of uses for the devices.

Dan Pilone: I love the way iPad application UIs have evolved since the iPad first came out. Apple has gone to great lengths to get developers to think differently about iPad application UIs, and this has resulted in some really stunning apps. The integration of iPad applications and UIs with the real world is the most fascinating aspect. The virtual game board in "Scrabble" and Adobe's applications for working with Photoshop are examples.

What technical issues does iOS need to address?

Dan Pilone: Provisioning and certificate management are still harder than I think they should be, but my biggest issue is the lack of a garbage collector. I understand the constraints of a mobile device and I'm willing to put up with it, but right now, to the best of my knowledge, garbage collection is the biggest hurdle to getting MacRuby as a viable development platform for iOS. I like the Cocoa Touch framework, and GCD is absolutely unmatched by anything else I've used. But I'm still lukewarm on Objective-C. If Apple makes iOS development more approachable through something like Ruby with real garbage collection, I think the application rush will start all over again.

At this point, do developers have to choose one mobile platform over another?

Dan Pilone: Unfortunately, yes. Either that or they're choosing both iOS and Android and basically writing their applications twice. There are some mobile applications that are great as HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript and those are cross-platform, but I still think nothing beats a true, native application. As a great example, try ordering pizza from Papa Johns through their web application — it's well-done, pretty straightforward, and it looks a lot like an iOS application. Then use Chipotle's native iOS app. It's phenomenal. It doesn't do a whole lot more than Papa John's mobile web app, but the Chipotle app's user experience is dramatically better.

Papa Johns web app and Chipotle native app

We went through the whole "cross-platform development" thing with desktop apps, then again with web apps, and I guess we still need another round with mobile devices. In the end, HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript might be the cross-platform solution, but I don't think it's there quite yet.

Tracey Pilone: The overlap for iOS and Android is there, but it's limited. UI and graphics work can be used for both, but they won't share any code. There are a lot of mobile developers out there who can do Android and iOS, but our experience has been that the iOS market is significantly stronger than Android.

What aspects of app development — or types of apps — are you most interested in?

Tracey Pilone: I'm most excited about the prospects for education with iPads. The ability to integrate video, audio, reading, and tactile exercises into teaching topics is a great area for growth and it has the potential to deliver good teaching even to those students who can't physically be in the classroom.

Dan Pilone: For me, it's the idea of mobile devices acting as entry points for users into an always-connected network of information. We do Rails development in addition to iOS development, and I'm much more interested in applications that present me with exactly the right UI to plug into and take advantage of interconnected back-end systems. Combine heavy lifting on the server side with the location awareness and always-on connectivity of a mobile device and you have a pretty amazing change in how people interact.

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July 12 2011

Getting started with HTML5 apps

HTML5 logoBuilding apps in HTML5 and JavaScript may be easier than using other development tools, but there's still a learning curve. In the following interview, "Programming HTML5 Applications" author Zachary Kessin (@zkessin) discusses the skills you'll need — and the mistakes you should avoid — if you want to create solid HTML5 applications.

What's the difference between an HTML5/JavaScript app and a regular website?

Zachary Kessin: There isn't a line you can draw and say that things on this side are "web pages" and on that side they're "apps." It’s more of a common-sense definition: Google Docs is an app, Wikipedia is not. If I had to define one factor, it would be how long do you go between page loads? In an app, you may work for an hour or more before reloading the page.

That being said, many of the ideas behind apps can be used in web pages to improve the user experience. For example, having an office wiki that cached the data on your local computer so you could use it offline would be a very useful feature.

How much programming experience do you need to take on HTML5 app development?

Zachary Kessin: There are two key things you need. First, an ability to do some amount of functional programming, and second, you need an understanding of asynchronous operations. In a web app, there are lots of times when a function does not return a value; it takes a callback that is called at some point in the future when the value is available. This takes some getting used to and it can often hit you in a strange way.

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What are most common mistakes you see in HTML5/JavaScript apps?

Zachary Kessin: JavaScript, like PHP, is one of those languages that lets a beginner cut and paste code and get something that more or less works. The novice doesn't really need to understanding what's going on. This can lead to some really bad code. Common mistakes include:

  • Directly using the DOM. It is buggy and a pain to use. Use jQuery instead.
  • Overuse of the global name space, by design or not understanding things. Keep things lexically scoped.
  • Not really understanding the language. I think people see the "-script" in JavaScript and treat it as a "toy language," which is a shame.
  • Not using JSLint. I can think of so many problems that would be caught in advance with JSLint.

What about HTML5/JavaScript apps most needs to be improved?

Zachary Kessin: The state of the local storage interfaces is kind of a mess. We've got IndexDB, SQLite and a few others, and it’s not quite clear what to use. The vendors need to get their acts together there.

Being able to do Web Workers is nice, but it would be great if there was some way to step through code and set breakpoints with Firebug or Chrome dev tools. I expect that will happen eventually.

Programming HTML5 Applications — This practical guide shows you how HTML5's JavaScript APIs give you the power to take web development into fields that used to require more platform-specific development — particularly mobile deployment.


June 21 2011

How is HTML 5 changing web development?

Although still in draft form, HTML5 is seeing widespread adoption and implementation. But there's still a fair amount of pushback and skepticism about whether HTML5 is really ready for production.

At a session at OSCON next month, Left Logic's Remy Sharp will address this. Sharp's OSCON workshop will dive into HTML5 technologies that are already in production.

I recently asked Sharp about how HTML5 is changing development, in terms of what's developed and how. Our interview follows.

How is HTML5 going to change web apps?

Remy SharpRemy Sharp: We're going to see JavaScript being used to push further and further out of the old confines of the browser. We'll also see more applications that work without an Internet connection.

The more APIs that the browser gives us, the more the idea of the browser fades away. There are APIs to access the file system and we can do drawing and photo editing and save the files to our computers. There are APIs that are just making their way in to the wild that give us access to the webcam and microphone — all natively — with JavaScript.

We're seeing it already, but with time, I believe people won't access the web apps through the gateway of the browser. The "browser" part will be invisible and the web app will just be part of the computing experience.

What is HTML5 going to make easier? How is it going to aid performance?

Remy Sharp: I see HTML5 and related specs as heavily focused on the JavaScript. The HTML5 spec used to be called "Web Applications 1.0," and it shows given the amount of APIs that have been specified out of that process.

So to me, as a web developer who spends most of his time in JavaScript, HTML5 and related specs, this make doing a lot of things easier.

For example, adding audio and video is a doddle. Adding real-time two-way communication between the client and the server is a matter of a few lines of code and it has an extremely low barrier to entry.

OSCON JavaScript and HTML5 Track — Discover the new power offered by HTML5, and understand JavaScript's imminent colonization of server-side technology.

Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

As for performance, I see it improving in two key places: first, the browser won't have to rely on external plugins for more advanced applications. This reduces the work the browser needs to do, and the amount of work JavaScript would have to do, if indeed the technology is baked directly in to the browser. More practically there's a number of APIs that allow data to be stored on the client side, allowing for local access to data or website assets. Removing this dependency on the server for data and assets (like images, CSS, JavaScript, etc.) increases the free resources the browser has for doing other things, like rendering the page and responding to the user.

Second, the time required to develop will decrease since the learning is limited to HTML, CSS and JavaScript. If my company wants me to create a branded video player for their website, it's just CSS. If I want to learn how someone has built a branded video player, I just view the source.

Developing for a multitude of browsers has long been the bane of web development. Is HTML5 going to make this simpler?

HTML5 logoRemy Sharp: HTML5 first and foremost gives developers a consistent specification that all the browser vendors can work from. HTML4 didn't have this. In fact, some of the key technologies we rely on today were reverse engineered into specs, which is why we see subtle differences. HTML5 is specified right down to the tiniest detail, ensuring that all the browser vendors are singing from the same hymn sheet. This means that new HTML5 APIs are easier to work with, since the implementations are the same.

As for making it easier to work with browsers: on-going that's certainly easier, but today's development and browser wrangling remains the same. That said, we're better off than we were 10 years ago. Developers' approaches to JavaScript have matured, and more developers are relying on clearly maintained libraries (jQuery, although having nothing to do with HTML5, is a perfect example of this).

When developing an application that solves a problem using a new technology that's part of HTML5, or even not part of HTML5 — like geo-location or Web Sockets — we developers can rely on polyfills: micro-JavaScript libraries that mimic future APIs by providing fallback support to "older" browsers. This means I can write my markup to use the new HTML5 elements, and a JavaScript polyfill can trigger IE8 to allow me to style those new elements.

Most importantly, HTML5 and related APIs provide native technology that means I, the developer, do not have to rely on Flash or some other plugin technology to solve the problem I've been faced with. I only have to learn open web technologies and I'm able to create interactive, real-time, graphics-rich web applications — should I chose to.

This interview was edited and condensed.


June 20 2011

The iPhone, the Angry Bird and the Pink Elephant

pink elephantI am firm believer that he who wins the hearts and minds of developers wins the platform game.

Case in point, in today's mobile/Post-PC universe, we see clearly how major companies like Microsoft, HP, Dell, RIM and Nokia are struggling to remain relevant in the face of developer apathy.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have left the competition in the dust by virtue of their tremendous success in courting application developers.

But, there is a "pink elephant" in the room that no one is really discussing, and it gets to the nut of what investing time and energy in a software platform is all about. More on that in a minute.

First, some table setting. As an apps developer, I care about three things. First and foremost, is having a great platform to develop on top of.

After all, great software is a by-product of: A) Enabling your target audience to achieve a well-defined set of outcomes; B) Solving the right problem, technically speaking; and C) Delivering an engaging user experience.

Simply put, if you are working on the wrong canvas, or using an inferior palette, accomplishing these tasks is hard to do. The good news here is that whether you're a devotee of Apple's iOS, Google's Android, third-party frameworks like Ansca's Corona, or open web approaches like HTML5, the getting's actually pretty good in this realm.

The second requirement is having a readily addressable, targetable base of users. All things being equal, this is preferably a large base of users, but ultimately, the metric of audience size is less integral than factoring the lifecycle value (in dollars) that you can reasonably hope to capture from the base of your users that you actually do monetize. Again, 200 million iOS devices, and 100 million Android devices is a very large footprint for targeting purposes, so no complaints there either.

This brings me to my third requirement. As a developer, while I am of course very passionate about what I build, I am not doing this for the dark joys of being a starving artist.

Rather, I am in it to make money; namely, to build upon my profession, and if all goes well, sing and dance all the way to the bank. Here's where the circumstances are cloudy at best, and deeply troubling at worst.

Thinking about success: What's past is prologue

vintage pcWhen I close my eyes and think back to the days of old PC, I can recall legions of very large, breakout successes that emanated from the PC model (i.e., $100M+ revenue companies).

The high profile names include companies like Intuit, Lotus, Adobe, Symantec, Borland, CheckPoint, McAfee, Siebel and Sybase. But trust me, the landscape was dotted with successes across a dizzying array of application categories and vertical segments, and serviced by a wide range of solution providers.

Similarly, when I think about the dotcom phase of the web, companies like Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Google and PayPal come easily to mind.

Even the post-dotcom phase of the web is spotlighted by monster successes like, Facebook and LinkedIn, with Facebook being doubly noteworthy for having already spawned a true cash-generating machine goliath off of its platform, in Zynga, which is expected to reach $1.8 billion in revenue, and $630 million in profits in 2011.

Angry BirdNow, contrast these companies with their "breakout success" counterparts on iOS and Android, and you are left with the chirping sounds of crickets.

Shockingly, lost in the stunning growth of iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android-derived devices — 300 million devices sold combined and counting, 600,000-plus apps built, and more than 18 billion app downloads — is the disconcerting truth that no one is talking about. Namely, that the closest story of financial success that we have to Facebook, Amazon or Intuit is ... Angry Birds!

What the frak? Angry Birds is ridiculously addictive, it's cute and it's brilliantly executed, but it is perhaps a $15-25 million business.

Is this the best that we can do in painting a picture of software success in an industry that is projected to grow to 10 billion devices worldwide?

Cry me a river: Why should Apple or Google care?

I trust that Apple CEO Steve Jobs felt tremendous pride when he announced at WWDC that Apple had paid app developers more than $2.5 billion in revenue share from sales of their applications.

He should be proud. Apple has created an amazing platform that seemingly overnight, but actually a decade in the making, has achieved the disruption trifecta: first re-jiggering the music business, then mobile, and now, the PC industry.

But, I'd like to submit an uncomfortable truth that should give the chess players at Apple (and to a lesser extent, Google) some cause for pause.

As Amazon first began to prove out back in the mid-'90s, creating a discovery engine, distribution platform and marketplace optimized for long tail-oriented product offerings can create great financial rewards for the platform creator, and no doubt Apple has innovated upon this model incredibly well vis-á-vis iTunes and the App Store.

However, whereas Amazon's model did not completely re-write the economics of selling electronics, toys and books, such that what once sold for $25 is now $0.99, the App Store is fundamentally different. Its sole purpose seems designed to create surplus, so as to commoditize software, and since the incremental cost of each piece of software is effectively zero, the race to the bottom is almost assured in this environment.

This is ironic because Apple's own highly disciplined business strategy is geared toward maximizing profit margins, without leaving pricing overhang for the competition to attack them from the low-end (which is what happened to Apple during the PC era).

Yet strangely, for all of the brilliant creation, orchestration and curation efforts that Apple has made on behalf of developers, little attention seems to have been made to ensuring that app makers can actually build profitable, scalable businesses.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

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Thus, it's noteworthy that in Amazon's nascent Android App Store, the company is exerting a measure of pricing control over app developers, presumably to avoid this race to the bottom.

Why is this? Perhaps, unlike Apple and Google, Amazon is in the business of making the lion's share of its money selling other people's stuff. Silly as it sounds, Amazon actually needs its vendors to be fiscally healthy enough so Amazon can sell lots of their products. By contrast, Apple just needs a steady supply of "there's an app for that" chum to keep the platform fresh and exciting.

Lest one wax poetic about Google saving the day, remember that their real customer is the carrier and device OEM, and the lion's share of their dollars are derived from search advertising, so they merely need the "optics" of app diversity to remain relevant.

(Sidebar: If you watch Apple's TV commercials for iPhone/iPad and mobile carriers' ads for Android phones, this qualitative distinction becomes clear.)

Netting it out, the current state of affairs raises the following questions:

  1. How is a large software industry going to grow around this type of model, and what happens if it doesn't?
  2. From an economic viability perspective, what would the ideal platform approach look like for developers?
  3. How might another platform, such as Amazon's, or Facebook's rumored Project Spartan, outflank Apple and Google by building a better mousetrap for developers to make money?

A final thought: Once upon a time, the notion that people would even pay for software was scoffed at. But Microsoft, acting purely out of enlightened self-interest, helped catalyze a packaged software industry that would grow to more than $200 billion in annual revenues.

The moral of the story? What's past is prologue in distinguishing between mere survival and breakout success. How do I know this? A little birdy told me.


May 20 2011

Publishing News: BAFTA nomination hints at app crossover appeal

Here are a few highlights from the publishing world. (Note: These stories were published here on Radar throughout the week.)

An app is up for a TV BAFTA for the first time

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?

Henry 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.

  • This story continues here

Kindle book sales officially outpace print — are we at the ebook tipping point?

questionmarkIn a news release today, Amazon announced that Kindle book sales are outpacing sales of hardcover and paperback book sales combined. The release included several interesting statistics:

  • Since April 1, for every 100 print books has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
  • Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.

These stats beg the question: Are we at the ebook tipping point?

  • Please share your thoughts in the comments here

How to revolutionize the Kindle

KindleAmazon is well positioned to advance the Kindle platform much faster and further than they have in any 6-12 month period up to now. Here's where I hope they end up between now and the middle of next year:

An insanely inexpensive entry-level device. Picture the current Kindle, but for $99 or less. How about $49? Better yet, how about free with a customer commitment to buy a minimum of X books in each of the next two years? Sounds a lot like a cell phone plan, doesn't it?

Of course, if you're instead looking for something a bit more powerful and extendable, how about...

An Android tablet device with an LCD screen. This one is the worst kept secrets since the iPhone 4. Amazon didn't launch that Appstore for Android because they want to push more cell phone sales. The only questions here are (1) when?, (2) how much?, and (3) how open? If they're smart the answers will be (1) any day, (2) $300 max, and (3) wide open.

But if you can't stand the thought of reading long-form content on an LCD screen, then how about...

That same Android tablet with a hybrid E Ink/LCD screen. That's right. A single device offering both the bright-light comfort of E Ink with the backlit option of LCD. Unfortunately for Amazon, it seems Apple is the one who's taking the lead on this front. Just search for the phrase "hybrid E Ink LCD display" and you get nothing but Apple news. That's a bummer since the first company to offer this solution could own the high end (and my loyalty). A fully open Android tablet with hybrid E Ink/LCD could easily command a $500 price or higher.

  • This story continues here.

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Keep up with Radar's latest publishing news and interviews with our publishing RSS feed.


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.


February 08 2011

Mobile apps and development platforms get more consumer centric

ACS.jpgThe news of AOL's acquisition of HuffPo took center stage in my iGoogle feeds yesterday, but a couple pieces of news on mobile apps caught my attention outside the fray.

The Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers recognized the American Chemical Society (ACS) mobile app in two categories: Best New eProduct/Innovation in ePublishing and Best New eProduct in Physical Sciences and Mathematics.

I'm not a scientist, and the news might have filtered into the if-only-I-were-a-math-genius pile, but the ACS mobile app is actually pretty slick. It not only gives scientists and scholars access to archives, databases and current content in all of ACS' journals, but it also offers a live-stream update of new research as it's published. Applications of this type of platform could work across all academic disciplines, of course, but news organizations and other content providers shouldn't dismiss it as a scholastic-only platform.

Also in mobile app news, Conduit announced its move into mobile apps. The new Conduit Mobile Platform will allow publishers and developers to create one app that will work on all major platforms. What's more, the company claims the apps can be created by anyone — not just skilled developers — and it's free. Ina Fried at All Things Digital smartly pointed out the issue of profitably remains unclear. Functionality will be interesting to watch as well. The platform will be launched at the GSMA Mobile World Congress next week in Barcelona.

TOC: 2011, being held Feb. 14-16, 2011 in New York City, will explore "publishing without boundaries" through a variety of workshops, keynotes and panel sessions.

Save 15% off registration with the code TOC11RAD

January 31 2011

The iPad's ripple effect

As we approach the iPad's first birthday, much has already been written about how the iPad is a game-changing device. But the iPad's success goes beyond the hardware — it's also opened the tablet market and ushered in new forms of applications and media. Pete Meyers (@petermeyers), author of "Best iPad Apps," discusses these shifts in the following interview.

Content consumption is a big part of the iPad, but are there options for people who want to create on the device?

Pete MeyersPete Meyers: From what I've seen, those with creative urges have plenty of ways to express themselves. Top of my list includes pottery making (Let's Create Pottery HD), drawing (SketchBook Pro, Drawing Pad), music making (ThumbJam, Music Studio), roller coaster design (AirCoaster), 3D sculpting (iDough), and all kinds of photo futzing (Photogene, Strip Designer).

Fact is, the iPad encourages creativity and experimentation in ways that are sometimes even better than paper. Think about, for example, the "undo" button that's found in almost every drawing app. Especially for young kids, this frees them from worrying about making mistakes. It's been fun to also read about artist David Hockney's fondness for Brushes, one of the most popular painting apps.

The most serious death-of-creativity concerns seem to revolve around fears that "Generation iPad" will never learn how to program, given the closed nature of the device. First off, I think this presumes kids will use the iPad as their sole computing platform. And while that may be the case among some people, I find it tough to imagine that a kid, intrigued by the complex magic of writing code, won't somehow find his or her way to a "real" computer. Another promising development is found in apps that let you do some elementary coding right on the iPad. Basic! for example is a perfectly good canvas for junior code slingers. Will they develop a Python-powered, e-commerce backend? No. But neither do most mortals when they first start programming.

Have you come across any examples where the app version of an entertainment product does something you wouldn't have seen prior to the iPad?

Pete Meyers: I think we're at the very early stages. Much of what's out there resembles TV in its early days, where content meant for radio was dragged onto the television (e.g. a bunch of people standing in front of the camera reading a radio play). Similarly, in the App Store's early days you see comic books and graphic novels that are more or less digitized versions of print, magazines that maintain the page-based sequence of print, and so on.

A few reference and how-to books are doing obvious things like adding video explanations of cooking techniques (Weber's On the Grill) or including recorded audio of bird calls (iBird Pro HD).

"Motion comics" are another area where the creative product is starting to change. Apps like Superare and Operation Ajax add motion to artwork that was previously still, letting the action play out inside of and across multiple panels.

But keep in mind that all these examples are mainly print products that have been repurposed as iPad apps. The real interesting stuff will come when artists, writers, and publishers build apps that don't have a print-edition correlate. In these efforts we'll see creativity that really takes advantage of the touchscreen medium.

Best iPad Apps guides you to the hidden treasures in the App Store's crowded aisles. Author Peter Meyers stress-tested thousands of options to put together this extensive catalog.

How useful do you think App Store ratings and reviews are? Are there any tricks you've picked up for making sense of this mass of feedback?

Pete Meyers: Let me take a crack at rephrasing that first question:

How level-headed and thoughtful are most people nowadays when they get to comment anonymously online?

App Store customers haven't proven themselves unique in that respect. My particular gripe: iPadders who attack developers with stark pronouncements for leaving off one particular feature. Reading these types of comments is like watching the pundits on cable TV — there's lots of noise and not much information.

What I have found useful are a couple of telltale shapes in the ratings. Those are the 1- to 5-star horizontal bar graphs that aggregate user ratings.

A common sight is what I call the "C"-spread: lots of 5 stars, lots of 1 stars, and not much in between. I often see these on game apps, where a certain percentage of users have played the game on consoles and are bitterly disappointed when the app doesn't replicate the console experience. The five-star ratings, on the other hand, are coming from the people who are thrilled to be able to play something like Madden NFL 11 on the iPad. I think the takeaway here is to approach these kinds of "it was the worst of apps, it was the best of apps" spreads with a good understanding of where your own interests and expectations lie.

Another common shape is the "L"-spread, which is marked by lots of 1-star ratings. This is one time when mass opinion is usually right. Just make sure the number of ratings is sufficient to judge against.

The most interesting shape — and the one that gets me downloading most often — is "the claw." This is a jagged mishmash of bar lengths for each of the five possible ratings. Wild disagreement among the ratings usually means there's something interesting going on, and at that point I may dive into the comments to see if I can discern some common themes.

iPad rating types

Speaking of comments, I like to sort them by "most recent." That way, I can quickly skim the reviews most relevant to the app's current state, and not judge an app that may have started off on a rocky note in a previous version.

Finally, I also factor in the app description that starts off each listing. If it's riddled with typos or offers an incoherent description of what the app does, my thinking is the developer probably offers the same kind of quality in the app itself.

When the iPad launched, some wondered where it would fit amidst smartphones, laptops, and desktops. What niche does the iPad fill in your gadget-using life?

Pete Meyers: I'm a bit of a fringe case, given the amount of time I just devoted to stuffing my two iPads with apps for my book and then playing with them in every conceivable niche of time and space I could carve out.

But in the weeks since I stopped working on the project full-time, I've seen my usage settle into a pattern that I suspect will last for a while: I use it at the breakfast table instead of cracking open my laptop; on the subway, I'll use the iPad if I can get a seat (otherwise, I'm on my iPhone); on the couch after work, I'll steal looks at Twitter, Flipboard, and some websites, as various toddlers scream at me to return to the mosh pit on the living room floor; and later at night, I'm incapable of watching TV without simultaneously surfing the web. In fact, I'm hoping TiVo or IMDb soon adds a new category: "Movies for Multitaskers."

This interview was edited and condensed.


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