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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.


January 20 2011

ePayments Week: Starbucks mainstreams mobile payment

Here are a few stories in payment news that caught my eye this week.

Starbucks' mobile payment plan

Starbucks mobile payment screenStarbucks continues to find things for us to do on our phones so we can avoid uncomfortable eye contact with others buying coffee. Back in 2007, it worked with Apple to create an integrated system that made it easier for iPhone and iPod Touch owners to buy and download whatever Dido or Brubeck song was playing in the store at that moment. Last year it began encouraging Foursquare check-ins by offering coupons for drinks — even if they were only dollar-off discounts for mammoth frozen treats available to a single visitor, the mayor of each location.

This week's innovation feels a little more serious: Starbucks expanded to 7,500 stores a pilot program for paying for your latte and scones with an iPhone or Blackberry. Here's how the mobile payment plan works: buy a Starbucks debit card and enter the card numbers into the app, then when it's time to pay, you tap the "Touch to Pay" button and the app generates a QR code that displays on your phone screen. Hold it up to the scanner near the cash register (they won't accept this at the drive-thru), and it debits your virtual card's balance. You can reload the card on the Starbucks site (after a lengthy and somewhat unnecessarily intrusive registration process) using PayPal or a credit card.

The difficult thing about this is that it's a proprietary solution for only one retailer. If Best Buy, Target, and KFC all followed with their own payment systems, checking out would become ridiculously unwieldy, dooming the digital wallet. On the upside, I have to hand it to Starbucks for forging ahead with a workable program, rather than waiting for the perfect solution from someone else. If it's a little clunky in requiring prepayment, at least it's an interesting experiment and an opportunity for customers in the U.S. to finally do what those in Japan and South Korea have been able to do for some time: pay for a common, physical purchase with their mobile device. It will be interesting to see how many consumers give it a try — and how many stick with it.

Amazon's app store plans

Amazon's plans to open an Android app store later this year are receiving a lot of attention as developers and bloggers try to weigh the pros and cons of a second, curated marketplace for the rapidly growing Android app market.

The pros seem to include that Amazon will do some pre-screening of the apps, unlike Google which lets developers post apps and only reviews them if complaints come in. TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid believes that Amazon's screening will be less stringent (and mysterious) than Apple's, but obviously more rigorous than Google's. Jason Ankeny at Fierce Developer points out that a major strength of the Amazon app store will be the deployment of its famously successful recommendation engine, which will suggest apps based not only on a customer's app choices, but also other purchases. Buy a cookbook and it will recommend a cooking app. This could be a huge boon to the Android market, since it will introduce apps to a wide audience of users who never thought to look for them.

If there are cons, they center around whether another marketplace is necessary given Google's app store presence on all Android phones and whether Google will enforce a rule against apps that are mini-markets, which could prevent Amazon from getting manufacturers to place a similar app on phones.

Overall, I find it tough to argue with the intelligence of this move. Amazon has spotted an opportunity to add a layer of value on top of the Android app marketplace, one that opens it up to 118 million Amazon users. I would bet that's almost certainly worth the $99 annual developer fee that Amazon plans to charge after the first year.

Are you a developer with apps at the Android store? If so, I'd like to hear what you think of Amazon's plans. Drop me a note.

Will iPhone 5 have NFC, 3D ... and Boku talent behind it?

Even as Steve Jobs' leave of absence from Apple had everyone wondering about the long-term fortunes of a Steve-less Apple, rumors continued to build about the feature set expected in the iPhone 5, which is due out this summer. There appears to be a growing consensus, based on patent filings and personnel hirings over the past year, that the iPhone 5 will have near-field communications (NFC) technology that will enable easy, wireless tap-and-buy transactions. Fierce Mobile Content agrees with this bet and has an even more interesting prediction: the same NFC technology could let the iPhone 5 personalize any compatible Mac by wirelessly loading the user's apps, preferences, and data from the phone onto that machine.

Meanwhile, speculated that Apple might try to compete with Nintendo's 3DS plans by offering 3D technology on its iPod Touch or iPhones later this year. And TechCrunch reported that Apple and Google were both talking to Boku, a well-funded leader in mobile payments of digital goods that facilitates payments via your phone number instead of a credit card or PayPal. TechCrunch also wondered whether Apple was more interested in Boku's technology, its talent, or just keeping the whole package out of Google's reach.

Do you know something I don't?

Almost certainly, I would bet. 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.

November 16 2010

The expanding influence of apps and mobile

If mobile interfaces continue to shape desktops and laptops and the Mac App Store successfully pushes the app business beyond mobile, "Back to the Mac" may prove to be more than a quirky tease for an Apple event. Mobile, it would seem, is leading the parade now.

With this as a backdrop, I got in touch with "App Savvy" author Ken Yarmosh (@kenyarmosh) to get his take on the current state of the app landscape and its near-term future and influence. Our interview follows.

Is Apple now a mobile-first company?

Ken YarmoshKen Yarmosh: Apple explicitly positioned itself as a mobile company with the launch of the iPad. Look at their product lineup and what's evident is only a handful of items are actually not mobile.

For the foreseeable future, it's likely that smaller mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad will continue to influence the evolution of laptops, desktops, and the Mac operating system. The reason is that they are spurring new ideas and pushing Apple to re-imagine hardware and software in a space that has been much more stable and less revolutionary over the past five years.

Apple's focus on the iPhone, iPad, and iOS caused some unrest with its tried and true Mac development community. Even at the "Back to Mac" event, however, it was obvious how much their work on iOS and iOS devices is influencing their thinking. The new iLife suite has inspiration from iOS interface elements. Mac OS X 10.7 adopts iOS' folders. And obviously the Mac App Store is derived from what used to simply be called the "App Store" but more technically will become the iOS App Store. Similarly, the engineering behind the MacBook Air was in many ways powered by the advancements made in the creation of the iPad. There will be further collapsing across Mac and iOS over the next several years. In general, iOS will spur the innovation that's brought to the Mac.

How is app behavior different from web behavior?

KY: We'll see less distinctions over time, but in the current environment one of the biggest differences is that apps are driven by touch. Even though touch gestures are present in many mobile browsers, they still are not as advanced as the experience in native mobile applications. Consider, for example, trying to play games like Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds in a browser versus an app.

Touch represents one of the key paradigm shifts occurring in how we interact with computers and other devices. While it became prevalent with apps, it will eventually be present everywhere, sometimes as the primary interaction, other times as a complementary one.

Is the app gold rush already over?

KY: The mobile app market is a tale of haves and have nots. Those making money are making quite a bit. You can guess what the rest are doing. There's not really an in-between.

It's still a new frontier, however, and one that is constantly changing. Consider the launch of Windows Phone 7 or the onslaught of new tablet devices. With the growth potential of those markets alone, I think apps represent as good opportunity for pursuing any new business venture. "Opportunity," of course, is the key word.

Given the "have-have not" realities of the App Store, does the value of creating a first app lie in experience rather than revenue?

KY: The most successful developers typically didn't make it big on their first apps. So, pursuing one app and expecting early retirement to following is a dangerous expectation. That type of misperception is why so many become disillusioned.

The benefits of building an app are not exclusively monetary. Those who jump into the App Store with a hope for more than big dollars are often the ones that continue to invest into it over time. They also so happen to represent the ones who eventually do see a tangible financial return on their investments. Commitment and hard work pays off.

What's the biggest problem with the App Store?

KY: Discovery is often discussed in the inner circles. But for the overwhelming number of consumers, they don't need much more than Apple's lists of featured and top ranking apps to be happy.

I think that's representative of the biggest problem, which is really more about supply and demand. At some point, the number of apps available stops to matter to consumers. For example, it's doubtful that they will really care there are 300,000 versus 400,000 apps in the App Store catalog.

Apple likes to tout the number of apps they have but they're aware of this issue. They expanded the featured list a while back and recently added a "Game of the Week" in addition to the "App of the Week." It's a good possibility that they'll spin off games into its own app store down the line. The "Game of the Week" and Game Center are indications that Apple understands iOS is as much a gaming platform as anything else.

A more basic way to trim the App Store will be for Apple to enact policies about purging apps that become abandoned or inactive. They already have a policy aimed at name squatters, and purging could be a natural extension of that. I could also see the developer program price being used as a throttle.

What's your take on jailbreaking and alternative markets, like Cydia? Are those viable options for developers?

KY: I follow the jailbreak community closely. From what I can tell, there are a handful of jailbreak developers who are making livings by developing tweaks, utilities, and apps for Cydia.

It takes a special talent and personality type to engage in that ecosystem. Even for experienced iOS developers, it's not something I would recommend. These folks truly are hackers and what they are able to do is pretty amazing. Ultimately though, they're constantly fighting Apple. it's a risky proposition since jailbreaks can be broken even with iOS point releases (e.g., 4.0.1 to 4.0.2).


September 29 2010

Amazon building its own Android App Market?

Speculation abounds that Amazon is planning their own storefront for selling Android apps, one in which they, not the developers, will set the price and decide which apps to feature (and which apps to exclude from the store all together). It's a shrewd move and smart strategy for Amazon, though its impact on app sellers is less certain.

Unlike the iOs App Store, the terms of sale for the Android Market have always been non-exclusive -- meaning developers are free to sell their Android apps in other places (we've taken advantage of that by including Android apps in many of our ebook bundles on, sold alongside access to PDF, EPUB, Mobipocket, and DAISY formats). Initially I wasn't clear what Google's intent was by taking that route, especially since parallel markets of any scale would mean developers needed to agree to terms with multiple marketplaces. But Amazon's entrance actually makes sense for Google as well as for Amazon and likely for many app sellers.

Android's open nature has driven its popularity among users (Google says they activate upwards of 100,000 new devices a day), as well as among carriers and device makers, but that openness has a price -- carriers in particular have modified it to both forcefully include their own "crapware" software that cannot be removed (except by doing things to the phone that likely void your warranty) and to forcefully exclude apps they don't want on their network (the Skype app isn't available in the Android Market on T-Mobile phones).

While the carriers likely see the current situation as an opportunity to build their own tightly controlled versions of the Android Market, that non-exclusivity opens the door for companies that (a) know retailing and merchandising much better than Google, (b) aren't in the awkward position of having to play nice with the carriers, and (c) have a global presence independent of carrier coverage and relationships. Enter Amazon.

Though we've taken issue with Amazon around the rendering quality of Kindle (and for their stubborn insistence on a proprietary ebook format), they're a phenomenal ecommerce company, and I buy more from them (especially via their iPhone app married with Amazon Prime) than I'd care to acknowledge. Before iTunes went DRM-free, Amazon is where I bought most of my music. Even our ebook bundles are actually served up to customers via Amazon's cloud storage and delivery software.

The current Android Market -- actually Markets, since several carriers have customized it to their own ends -- have a long way to go to match the customer and seller experience of iOs. Amazon knows ecommerce better than just about anybody, and the kind of collective intelligence filtering they brought to books would be a big leap forward for app discovery. But I'd caution developers eager to get their apps in front of more buyers via an Amazon store to carefully review the terms and conditions to make sure they're entering a relationship with a retailing behemoth like Amazon with both eyes open.

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