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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.


April 30 2012

Mobile web development isn't slowing down

We're all well aware that mobile web development has gone through a complete metamorphosis over the last five years. We went from tiny screens with limited browsers to elegant multitouch displays with advanced web experiences. But even if you look at a shorter timeline — two years or so — you'll see that major improvements in mobile web development are still in progress. This space continues to produce exponential shifts.

In the following interview, "Programming the Mobile Web" author and Fluent Conference speaker Maximiliano Firtman (@firt) discusses some of mobile development's short-term leaps. He also looks at where mobile's envelope pushers will take us next.

At this point, what are the essential mobile development skills?

Maximiliano FirtmanMaximiliano Firtman: It depends on if we are targeting native or mobile web development, but usually an understanding of the mobile space is important. There are many differences between devices, so developers need up-to-date information on operating systems, versions, browsers, screen sizes, screen densities, multitouch, etc. That's why mobile usability and high-performance coding techniques are a must.

Related to that, what are the key mobile development tools?

Maximiliano Firtman: Emulators and simulators, while not perfect, are essential tools. Tools that debug and quickly deploy apps to real devices are also important. And the devices themselves are important for measuring performance and testing hardware-related features, such as touch, the accelerometer, GPS accuracy and even color palettes.

The first edition of your book, "Programming the Mobile Web," came out in July 2010. What are the major changes you've tracked in mobile web development since then?

Maximiliano Firtman: Since 2010, we've finally deprecated some old technologies such as WML and even XHTML MP. Today, HTML5 is king, while in 2010 we were talking about Apple or Webkit extensions.

In addition, the mobile web is no longer just for mobile websites. We can now also develop native web apps and even ebooks with EPUB 3. So, the platform is growing.

The tablet market was just starting two years ago, and now we have several vendors and operating systems. We also have new problems to deal with, such as screen density, performance optimization and even 3-D screens.

These days, we have a new vocabulary with responsive web design and responsive web design + server-side components (RESS). We also have lots of new APIs on the JavaScript side, new hardware APIs (motion sensors, battery, camera), and new mobile browsers (Google Chrome, Firefox, Amazon Silk).

Finally, we've seen the creation of a number of frameworks and debugging tools, including jQuery Mobile, Adobe Shadow and even iWebInspector — a free tool I've created for iOS web debugging.

What do you see happening at the edge of mobile web development?

Maximiliano Firtman: We are seeing browsers pushing boundaries, such as the live camera API inside WebRTC on Opera Mobile, Web Notifications and WebGL on BlackBerry PlayBook, and the Battery API on Firefox for Android.

Examples of envelope-pushing web apps include the Financial Times app, which has a great touch UI and offline access, and the Boston Globe website, which is a good example of responsive web design and RESS.

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This interview was edited and condensed.


December 08 2011

Commerce Weekly: Verizon drops Google Wallet

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

Verizon to Google: Leave your Wallet at home

VerizonVerizon's decision not to support Google Wallet in a new NFC-enabled phone renewed concerns that the mobile payments landscape is in for a long turf battle. Samsung's Galaxy Nexus, an Android-powered phone in all other respects, won't support Google Wallet on Verizon because, the carrier says, Google Wallet differs from other apps in that it interacts not only with the operating system but also with "a new and proprietary hardware element in our phones" — presumably, the NFC chip.

Few thought that was the whole story: the consensus among observers was that Verizon won't ship Google Wallet because it's one of the founding partners of Isis, a competing mobile-wallet solution. Isis isn't on any phones yet, but it's planning trials in Austin and Salt Lake City later this year. Verizon teamed up with fellow telecoms AT&T and T-Mobile, along with Barclaycard US and Discover Financial Services to launch the Isis effort last autumn. Since then, Isis has signed agreements with the other major credit card services to collaborate on development.

ZDNet's James Kendrick said it's not just about Isis, but about how much Google should pay to reach a new, large pool of customers: "Google will have to pay Verizon to play." And besides, Kendrick wrote, Google has a deal with Sprint right now — though it's going to be a long, cold winter for Google if that agreement keeps it off the other major carriers.

This fragmentation is likely to be the case for a while, noted Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic. Mobile wallets are probably fine for enthusiasts and early adopters, but mainstream shoppers won't take it too seriously until they know they can use their mobile wallets in most of the places they go. "[W]e won't leave our wallets at home until we get a cord-cutting equivalent," Greenfield wrote. "For now, users either have to load a smorgasbord of mobile payment apps, or settle for the current half-hearted solutions."

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

Crooks take swipe-and-pay literally

In a reminder that unattended payment points — such as pay-at-the-pump terminals, ATMs, and self-serve check-out lanes — are weak links in the payments security chain, shoppers at Lucky supermarkets in Northern California appear to be the victims of criminals who tampered with card readers to skim debit card and PIN data. As of Tuesday, police in Petaluma, Calif., had 112 reports from customers of the local Lucky who reported unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts.

SaveMart, Lucky's parent corporation based in Modesto, Calif., said on its website that it discovered breaches back on November 23 and replaced compromised card readers at 20 stores. Unfortunately, they missed a few stores, including the one in Petaluma.

It's not clear yet what method was used to skim the data and the PINs. reports that there are several ways to capture the PIN, including compromising the PIN pad hardware inside the box. In that case, it's also possible that Bluetooth technology could be used to transmit data to a laptop in a car parked close outside. Michael's craft stores were hit by a similar breach last May, causing that company to replace 7,200 PIN pads.

"Criminals realize that retailers are understaffed to the point that swapping out a [point-of-sale terminal] will go unnoticed," McAfee consultant Robert Siciliano told BankInfoSecurity. "Once they determine the make and model of an easily swappable device, they target a chain they can easily comprise."

Starbucks succeeds with payments, moves on to augmented reality

Starbucks said it has processed more than 26 million transactions on its mobile app since launching it last January. The novelty effect appears not to have worn off: in the first nine weeks of the program, there were three million transactions. For the nine-week period starting in October, there were twice that number. The Starbucks app is a nice example of what's possible with lightweight payments when you have complete control of a closed-loop system. Customers can load up a Starbucks card by credit card online or at a store (with cash or credit). They can draw off that card's credit by clicking a button on the mobile app, which displays a barcode that Starbucks' cashiers scan to debit the card.

But payment is just one part of Starbucks' mobile strategy. In November, it introduced Cup Magic, an augmented-reality application that lets users interact with characters on its red holiday cups and on displays in its stores. After launching the associated iOS or Android app, you find drawings of the characters and view them with your phone's camera. The app identifies shapes in the characters and launches simple interactive animations, like snowflakes falling and the characters playing.

When I first read the release, I thought it was yet another way for customers to engage with their phones rather than anyone else in the store. But when my daughter and I went to a nearby Starbucks to try it out, just the opposite happened: a crowd of curious customers gathered around to see what we were laughing at. Some downloaded the app right away and began doing the same. The two cashiers, who were unaware of the app or the secret behind the character drawings, demanded to know what we were all doing. When we explained, they agreed it was pretty cool and helped us locate the other characters in the store. As we drove home with her hot chocolate, my daughter explained to me how each of those people in the store would probably go home and tell a few other people about what they saw at Starbucks this evening. I smiled and thought to myself: a viral marketer's dream.

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, a collaboration between O'Reilly and X.commerce.


November 03 2011

Commerce Weekly: Square upgrades Card Case with geofences

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

Card Case can reach out and touch someone

Square Card CaseIf you're among those who downloaded Square's Card Case digital wallet app back in May and haven't opened it since, there's something new in the latest upgrade that may inspire a return visit to the app: geofencing. Card Case's latest version takes advantage of new capabilities in iOS 5 to trigger alerts when a user enters a geofenced area. Users have to opt into the feature. Once they do, when they pass within 100 meters of a retailer who uses Square, the app will automatically load a card in Card Case. If you visit the shop and opt to buy something, you can complete the transaction by giving your name at the register and confirming the purchase through a text message that arrives on your mobile.

The process still sounds a little less convenient than paying for coffee with a five-dollar bill — and I must confess I wasn't able to demo this today, though I will follow up here once I do. But in theory, this makes Card Case a far more interesting app to parties on both sides of the transaction. Here's why:

  • First, for those of us who buy stuff — Card Case is an early form of the mobile wallet, one that isn't waiting for phones or merchants to adopt NFC wireless. Unfortunately, few merchants use it. It's no doubt more interesting downtown (isn't everything?). But I live in a medium-sized suburb where most of the nearby Square-enabled merchants offer services I don't use much: film editing, spa services, wine-country tours. It's not going to be much help in keeping track of my expenses unless Square makes some deal with a larger network of merchants.
  • Second, for those who sell things, the value is clearer — You can reach out and tap customers who may be close and ready to buy. As I noted this summer, Placecast is another player developing this service. Its ShopAlerts send out texts (for other merchants, not under its brand) when opted-in customers wander into a retailer's geofenced area. Groupon Now has also entered this game, giving merchants the ability to manage offers in real time. Undoubtedly, Square will want to offer similar capabilities to its merchants so they can clear the shelves or fill the tables in real time.

The back-end data and analysis that retailers get from these services is valuable, but the real-time customer management seems like the key feature of these apps. Placecast CEO Alistar Goodman offered a prediction about location and real-time at the recent Street Fight Summit:

Location and time are far more predictive of intent than any other past behavior ... We're fast approaching a time where you're going to be able to bid on a user on a street corner at a particular point in time in real time.

The age of virtual barkers is upon us.

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

Survey: Mobile users say take my location but not my money

Oracle released results of a global survey of 3,000 mobile phone users, which highlights a few key trends:

  • Customers are becoming more comfortable sharing location data about themselves, but most still don't trust mobile security enough to buy stuff on them.
  • While tablet ownership remains fairly low, lots of people are planning to buy them and they want apps that work well on them.

It's no surprise that the survey found subscribers downloading more data and apps this year than last. But I was surprised at the timidity around mobile apps: still only 55% of users had downloaded a mobile app, and only one in four had paid for an app. (I'm guessing their iOS 5 upgrade went quicker than mine.)

Where consumers want to use popular types of apps (Source: Oracle Communications survey, "Opportunity Calling: The Future of Mobile Communications — Take Two.")

Shopping is obviously becoming more important, but for most the mobile shopping experience is still limited to pre-purchase research. Depending on the region, the survey found between a third and a quarter of survey respondents used their mobile phones for comparison shopping and reading customer reviews. But only one third believed their phone was secure enough to make a purchase on. In a related note, 84% bought their phone in a retail store, though most said they did their research online.

Smartphone ownership is rising quickly, but I wonder if the survey overstates it at 70% globally. According to Oracle's research, the U.S. and Europe have 56% and 57% smartphone ownership, respectively. That sounds in line with other reports. But the survey attributed 95% smartphone ownership in the Middle East. (The survey appears to have taken its entire Middle East sample in the United Arab Emirates, which may not be representative of the region as a whole.)

The survey also found that smartphones are outpacing owners' expectations of them.

  • In 2010, 52% thought their mobile phone would replace their digital camera; this year, 43% said it already has.
  • In 2010, 54% thought their mobile phone would replace their digital music player; this year, 34% said it already has.
  • In 2010, 54% thought their mobile phone would replace their GPS; this year, 24% said it already has.

Finally, the survey revealed rising enthusiasm for tablet usage. While only 16% said they have a tablet today, 41% plan to buy one over the next 12 months. Reading, watching television and movies, and banking ranked high on the list of things users wanted to use their tablets for, and in most cases they want these sorts of applications to work equally well on both tablets and their mobile phones.

You can download the report's executive summary here.

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 PayPal DevZone on X.commerce, a collaboration between O'Reilly and PayPal.


October 26 2011

Mobile analytics unlock the what and the when

When applied appropriately, mobile analytics reveal both what happened and when it happened. Case in point: "Let's say you have a game," said Flurry CTO Sean Byrnes (@FlurryMobile) during a recent interview. "You want to measure not just that someone got to level 1, 2, 3, or 4, but how long does it take for them to get to those levels? Does someone get to level 3 in one week, get to level 4 in two weeks, and get to level 5 in four weeks? Maybe those levels are too difficult. Or maybe a user is just getting tired of the same mechanic and you need to give them something different as the game progresses." [Discussed at the 2:21 mark.]

This is why a baseline metric, such as general engagement, deserves more than a passing glance. The specific engagements tucked within can unlock a host of improvements.

Byrnes touched on a number of related topics during the full interview (below), including:

  • Why mobile developers are focusing on engagement: Once you engage a user, do they stick around? If it costs you $1 to acquire a user, how much return will you get — if any? Byrnes said app engagement has grown in importance as developers have shifted their thinking from apps as marketing channels to apps as businesses. [Discussed 30 second in.]
  • Tablet apps vs smartphone apps: A tablet app isn't the same as a phone app. Flurry has found that tablet applications are being used "a number of times longer" than phone applications, but tablet consumers use fewer applications overall. [Discussed at 3:28]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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.

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October 20 2011

Jason Huggins' Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

I've used Selenium on several Java projects, so I was just assuming that the topic of Selenium would be germane to JavaOne. I sent the co-creator of Selenium, Jason Huggins (@hugs), a quick email to see if he was interested in talking to us on camera about Selenium and Java, and he responded with a quick warning: He wasn't into Java. "Python and JavaScript (and to a lesser extent, CoffeeScript and Hypertalk) are my true passions when it comes to programming," he wrote. I thought this was fair enough — very few people could call Java "a passion" at this point — and I could do my best to steer the conversation toward Java. Selenium can be scripted in whatever language, and I was convinced that we needed to include some content about testing in our interviews.

He also was wondering if he could talk about something entirely different: "a Selenium-powered, 'Angry Birds'-playing mobile-phone-testing robot." While I had initially been worried I'd have to sit for several hours of interviews about Component Dependency Ennui 4.2, here was an interesting guy that wanted to not only demonstrate his "Angry Birds"-playing robot but also relate it to his testing-focused startup Saucelabs. I welcomed the opportunity, and here's the result:

From what I could gather, Huggins' bot is driving two servo motors that control a retractable "dowel" finger covered in some sort of skin-like material that can fool the capacitive touch sensor of a mobile device. He sends keystroke commands through this Arduino-based controller, which then sends signals to two servo motors. The frame of the device is made of what looks like balsa wood. He's calling it a "BitBeamBot." You can find out all about it here and you can see it in action in the following video:

Relating BitBeamBot to Saucelabs and Selenium

In the course of the interview it became clear that BitBeamBot was the product of an off-time project. Here's how Huggins explained it: Imagine a wall of these retractable dowels, each representing a single pixel. if you could create a system to control these dowels, then you could draw pictures with a controller.

While working on this project, Huggins attended a Maker Faire and found some suitable technology. His creation of a single-arm controller then led to his big "eureka" moment: This same technology could create a robot that can play "Angry Birds," and if a contraption can play "Angry Birds," it's a simple leap to create a system that can test any mobile application in the real world.

Huggins went through a similar discovery process with Selenium. Selenium is a contraption that supports and contains a browser. You feed a series of instructions and criteria to a browser and then you measure the output.

With BitBeamBot, Huggins has taken the central software idea that he developed at Thoughtworks and applied it to the physical world. He envisions a service from Saucelabs, the company he co-founded, where customers would pay to have mobile applications tested in farms of these mobile testing robots.


Saucelabs is focused on the idea that testing infrastructure is often more expensive to set up and maintain than most companies realize. The burden of maintaining an infrastructure of browsers and machines can often exceed the effort required to support a production network.

With Saucelabs you can move your testing infrastructure to the cloud. The company offers a service that executes testing scripts on cloud-based hardware. For a few dollars you can run a suite of unit tests against an application without having to worry about physical hardware and ongoing maintenance. Saucelabs is trying to do for testing what Amazon EC2 and other services have done for hosting.

Toward the end of the interview (contained in the first video, above) we also discussed some interesting recent developments at Saucelabs, including a new system that uses SSH port forwarding to allow Saucelabs' testing infrastructure to test internal applications behind a corporate firewall.

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


September 15 2011

ePayments Week: Three startups bet on commerce

Here's what popped onto my radar in the commerce space this week.

Commerce startups at TechCrunch Disrupt

Openbucks, Rewardli, LemonThree startups in the commerce space caught my eye at TechCrunch Disrupt:

Openbucks lets users pay for credits in online games with gift cards purchased from some major retailers (Subway, Circle K, Sports Authority, etc.). CEO and cofounder Marc Rochman told me that the service was designed primarily for the "unbanked" — teenagers or others who don't have credit cards or bank accounts. But feedback from customers during the service's beta period this year showed him it also has legs with people who want a little privacy in their gaming. Rochman said they intend to branch out to other digital goods, including music and other media, as long as it's appropriate for the brands. That rules out one fairly large online industry where users would want to pay for online content while remaining anonymous — and Rochman confirmed, they intend to stay far away from adult content in order to protect their own brand.

Rewardli creates buying groups for small businesses to get volume discounts from retailers, tech vendors, and travel companies — the places that small businesses already buy from. George Favvas, cofounder and CEO, said this isn't another daily deal program. First, it's aimed at helping businesses save on the things they're already buying, like plane tickets, PCs, and paper. Second, it's not focused on limited-time offers or daily deals. Once you've signed as part of a group, you can buy from any of the 60 retail partners, including Staples, Lenovo, Virgin Atlantic, Expedia and GoDaddy. The size of your group and its activity with that retailer determines the size of your discount. You don't see your discount immediately, but you do get a bulk refund deposited in your PayPal account after a few weeks. It's a good idea and easy to join, but it will be interesting to see if businesses save enough to make it worth the wait.

Lemon is a service for organizing your receipts online. Retailers are beginning to follow the Apple Store's lead in offering to email receipts, and you can have yours sent to an address to keep them all organized. Co-founder Meyer Malik said they are developing smartphone apps (Android is ready; iOS, Rim and Windows are on the way) to digitize snapshots of your physical receipts and add them to the records. While I can't think of anyone (with the possible exception of myself) who would spend time photographing grocery and gas receipts, I think there's potential here in managing receipts for returns and warranties. Maybe that's where Lemon got its name: one of its best uses could be to help recover the value of products that don't outlast their warranties.

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Daily deals still rising

A couple of weeks ago I wondered whether daily-deal fatigue was setting in, given Facebook's abandoning of its program and an anecdotal sense that the offers were too niche and too expensive to fit into consumers' monthly budgets. But perhaps the wave hasn't crested yet: research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey projects strong growth for daily deals. Back in March, the firm had predicted that deals would grow from $873 million in 2010 to $3.9 billion in 2015. This week, they goosed up the 2015 figure to $4.2 billion, based on a few new developments: more people signing up than expected, more active users, more targeted deals, and (to my surprise) a rise in the average price per transaction. Even so, BIA/Kelsey's chief economist Mark Fratirik sees "a ceiling on how many deals consumers will buy." At some point, presumably, people will decide it's cheaper to buy their own kayaks.

Feature phones

A few weeks ago, telecom research firm Ovum reminded us that there is still life in the feature-phone (or, non-smartphone) app market, predicting that the market would double to $1 billion by 2016. The report noted that the combination of large numbers of feature-phone owners and an uncrowded playing field offer lucrative potential for developers. Widgets from Nokia and Opera, along with the advent of HTML5, could also make feature phones more capable competitors to smartphones.

A report this week from comScore MobiLens, paired with analysis by Asymco, however, suggests the feature-phone market is quickly yielding ground to smartphones. ComScore's report focused on the growth in smartphone usage in Europe's five largest markets, particularly among Android users. Asymco looked at the flip side of that gain and found that Android hadn't taken its share from other smartphone operating systems as much as it had taken it from feature phones. Still, Asymco notes, there are billions of people on the planet without phones, and the first one they're likely to afford will probably be a feature phone.

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.


September 09 2011

ePayments Week: Who will own your mobile wallet?

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

What's in your mobile wallet? (MMT) hosted a mobile payments conference in New York this week that brought together a diverse group of people from a few points along the value chain, including payment providers, credit card issuers, and consumer marketing services. With the mobile wallet at the center of the conversation, three questions recurred throughout the event:

  1. Who will control the mobile wallet?
  2. How do you get people to adopt it?
  3. What new features will a more intelligent wallet enable?

First, whose name will be on it? Google Wallet owns a tremendous amount of mind share given that virtually no one actually has it on their phone yet, and few people, even those in the conference's crowd, have any idea when it will reach wider distribution. David Schropfer of the Luciano Group, author of "The Smartphone Wallet — Understanding the Disruption Ahead," suggested that familiar brands will be key in helping consumers switch from a physical wallet to a digital one. "People don't like to make two significant changes at once — how they pay and what they pay with." If they're switching from plastic cards to their mobile phones to make payments, consumers will almost certainly want a brand they trust with their money involved, someone like Visa or MasterCard. But while credit cards are trusted, those companies so far have had little success in promoting their own digital wallet solutions. They're more likely to be an option on some other branded mobile wallet from Google, PayPal, Amazon, or even Isis.

How Google Wallet works

The second key question on everyone's mind was how to get people to use the services, whether that's how to get them to notice and download an app, how to get them to favor the app, or how to get them to respond to things the app wants them to do. Google again appears highly favored, given the number of times every day the average person interacts with the brand's services. PayPal or Amazon would seem to have a higher hurdle, given they have fewer touch points with consumers, but both have more than 100 million user accounts through which they could extend offers.

In terms of getting users to make transactions, it's clear that the mobile wallet of the future will have a lot more "pull" to it, as opposed to the "push" nature of our physical wallets. I wrote recently about Placecast, which uses geofenced locations to trigger alerts when opted-in subscribers enter a particular zone. I was interested to hear from Placecast's Blair Swedeen at the MMT conference that of the consumers who took action on offers, only 27% did so that day, with another 35% responding up to three days later — a longer shelf life than one might have expected for location-triggered offers.

Opinions differed as to whether or not mobile payments would replace cash. Tom Meredith of P2PCash suggested it wouldn't replace simple cash transactions, and Schropfer showed data indicating that while debit card usage had replace plenty of credit card usage, cash purchases remained fairly steady in the US. The story may be different in other countries. Schropfer also presented a slide showing a dramatic rise in the volume of Safaricom's M-PESA text-message payments in Kenya from 2007-2010, while cash usage in the country dwindled significantly. This suggests that the M-PESA payments have indeed replaced cash payments when available for small, simple transactions like taxis and bus rides.

There is no shortage of answers to the third question — what features will a more intelligent wallet enable? Certainly, those features will include the ability to set limits on payments (where and how much), better ways to prevent fraud (since phones offer a variety of ways to confirm identity), and obvious marketing tools like location-smart marketing and automated rewards and loyalty programs. Schropfer suggested another feature: retailers steering customers to their preferred method of accepting payment. In the physical world, retailers are pretty much at the mercy of consumers' payment options. But in a smart-wallet purchase, merchants will have a greater ability to dynamically offer discounts based on a consumer's choice of payment. A company might offer a bigger discount if you pay with, for example, PayPal, if the merchant can redistribute that value within the PayPal system without paying any fees. The retailer might offer a smaller discount with Visa and none at all with American Express since those options cost the merchant more. And, of course, those conditions might vary from day to day as different payment providers offer different incentives.

In short, there will be far more options and capabilities with a mobile wallet. But it also seems clear that, as often happens, a technology that enters the scene promising to make life simpler winds up making it more complicated.

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Pew survey: One quarter of US adults use location services

About a quarter of Americans use the location-smart capabilities of their mobile phones to get directions or recommendations; far fewer use them to share where they are with friends and contacts. That's one conclusion from a Pew Research Center survey based on phone interviews with 2,277 U.S. adults last spring. The percentages are higher for smart phone owners. Only 4% owned up to checking in on services like Foursquare or Gowalla, while a slightly higher number had set up their social media services (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) to show their locations when posting. (I have to wonder if that number has jumped higher since Facebook changed its posting settings to make location-aware posts easier.) The Knight Digital Media Center for digital journalism picked up on the Pew results to urge news media publishers to geotag their content.

Got news?

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

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August 23 2011

Is your Android app getting enough sleep?

Android developers have unprecedented access to smartphone resources, but this access carries responsibility. The potential to unwisely hog available resources, like power consumption, is a real concern.

I recently spoke with Frank Maker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis, who is doing systems research with Android on low-power adaptation techniques. Our interview follows.

What are the main power consumption issues Android developers should be aware of?

Frank MakerFrank Maker: The number one thing developers should do with their app is allow it to sleep. On a desktop computer, you just launch the app. It runs. You close it. You open it. But on an Android device, you actually go through states where it has focus, it doesn't have focus, things like that. A developer needs to handle those states appropriately instead of trying to make an app work like it would on a desktop. So, if the activity loses focus and the user is going on to another application, then your app should respond to that if it has anything that's going to use serious power. You can bundle up the state and put the app to sleep rather than letting your app's tasks run in the background.

What are the risks associated with poor power optimization?

Frank Maker: The biggest risk is that you'll get eaten alive in the Android Market. There are many applications in the Market that are marked one star because of bad battery performance. Even worse, if your app has a reputation for poor power use, you're going to completely lose your market share to competitors with better reputations.

On the user side, are there tools for monitoring and managing power consumption?

Android battery screenFrank Maker: There's a battery usage screen on Android. If you go to "Settings," "Application Settings," and then "Battery Use," there's a nice little display that shows you the ranking of the different applications. I've looked into it as part of our research, and while it's simple and not super accurate, it will definitely tell you if one app is using way too much power.

Battery life basically isn't a problem until you make it a problem. By that I mean it's not something users think about initially, but if their battery starts going down really fast and they just installed your app, they're generally going to put two and two together. They'll then go to the Market and see if other people have posted about their experiences with that app.

Tell us a little bit about the research you're doing at UC Davis. What exactly are you working on?

Frank Maker: I sit on the border between hardware and software. We're trying to solve the problem of taking one piece of software and putting it on lots of different platforms without changing the software each time. Right now there's a lot of refactoring that goes on when you deploy an application to a new mobile platform. We are trying to create automatic methods instead. One of the things we've looked at is building a model for the power usage in real-time on the device. So the idea is that when you launch the software on the device, you figure out how much energy it takes to do tasks on the device, rather than trying to know it beforehand.

Related to porting across platforms, do you think Android's fragmentation issues will improve over time?

Frank Maker: I'm pretty confident that the Android platform will solve the fragmentation problem. Google is addressing it. For example, on the Android developer blog, Dianne Hackborn recently wrote about new tools that help you adapt to different screen sizes. There's also the battery usage meter, which I mentioned earlier, and Android has always provided a directory structure for your resources to adapt to different configurations. You can automatically select the right resource for the right device and pinpoint exactly what you want to do for each device.

Broadly, I feel like Android is in a transition period. It's evolving from a young, scrappy platform into something more established, and now it has to really solve these issues as it moves into adolescence.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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August 22 2011

MagAppZine's goal: From PDF to app in about 15 minutes

MagAppZineLogo.PNGThe next TOC Sneak Peek webcast on August 25 will feature startup company MagAppZine, a platform that allows publishers to create custom apps without a lot of overhead.

In the following interview, MagAppZine founder Paul Canetti (@paulcanetti), who worked at Apple during the birth of the iPhone and the subsequent app revolution, talks about how the MagAppZine platform works and the benefits he sees for publishers.

How did MagAppZine get started?

paulcanetti.jpgPaul Canetti: I was working at Apple when the iPhone was first released and I got to see the effects of the "app revolution" firsthand. I left in 2009 and started creating apps for hire, and that is when I realized the huge potential for publishers — but the costs and demand on resources were just too high. So I set off to create a platform where publishers can actually create apps themselves and manage their content over time, quickly, easily, and affordably.

MagAppZine really aims to get publishers of all shapes and sizes up and running in the digital age as painlessly as possible. Anyone that tells you it's hard is just doing it wrong.

What's the process for creating an app through MagAppZine?

Paul Canetti: There are five basic steps:

  1. Sign up for an account at
  2. Once logged into MagControl, our web dashboard, click "Create New App"
  3. Enter basic information like name, description, and upload your logo, app icon, etc.
  4. Start adding issues by uploading PDFs
  5. Click "Submit" and we send your app off to Apple

The whole process takes about 15 minutes, assuming you already have your icon and such ready to go. I should also mention that starting in September, it is going to be free to sign up for an account and try out the MagControl tool. You can make an app and upload issues using your free account. Only when you want to actually submit it to the App Store in step 5 will you be charged.

Is the platform targeted toward a specific kind of publisher?

Paul Canetti: Clearly the name brings in magazines first and foremost, but the tool itself is really applicable to all sorts of publications. Anything that can be a PDF is fair game. I have a lot of conversations with small book publishers looking to create a bookstore app on a particular topic or as a branding tool for the publisher or a specific author. It is my philosophy that you should be everywhere your readers potentially are, so when someone searches for you on the App Store, it's you that they find.

How can book publishers use the platform?

Paul Canetti: The bookstore app is really cool, and chunking up books into collections fits nicely under the umbrella of the app. I'm also excited to start seeing sub-divisions of books — selling chapter by chapter — or using the subscription functionality to have a sort of book club app or a series where new content is being released regularly. The possibilites are really endless. Not only that, but using our new multimedia and link tools, you can add audio or video to your books, skip around within the book — remember the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series? It really opens up the doors for being creative and taking advantage of the format.

What's your launch schedule?

Paul Canetti: Our most basic app package launched in April of this year, but in September we are re-launching MagAppZine 2.0, which will include the new links and multimedia, an InDesign tool, and integration with Apple's upcoming Newsstand feature. We're also rolling out a new tiered monthly pricing structure that has plans starting at $99 a month.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Webcast: TOC Sneak Peek at BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine — Sneak Peeks are a TOC webcast series featuring a behind-the-scenes look at publishing start-ups and their products. Our next episode will feature presentations from BookRiff, LiquidText, and MagAppZine.

Join us on Thursday, August 25, 2011, at 10 am PT
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  • The ascendance of App Inventor
  • Apple's in-app shift: What does it mean for publishers?
  • The secret to digital publishing success? Don't start with the book
  • Ubiquity and revenue streams: How HTML5 can help publishers

  • 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.

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    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 10 2011

    FCC contest stimulates development of apps to help keep ISPs honest

    Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the winners of its open Internet Challenge.

    "The winners of this contest will help ensure continued certainty, innovation and investment" in the broadband sector," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski at the awards ceremony. "Shining a light on network management practices will ensure that incentives for entrepreneurs and innovators remain strong. They will help deter improper conduct helping ensure that consumers and the marketplace pick winners and losers online, and that websites or applications aren't improperly blocked or slowed."

    The contest received twenty four submissions in total, with three winners. MobiPerf, a mobile network measurement tool that runs on Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile devices, won both the People's Choice Award and best overall Open Internet App. MobiPerf collects anonymous network measurement information directly from mobile phones. MobiPerf was designed by a University of Michigan and Microsoft Research team.


    Two apps and teams shared the Open Internet Research Award. ShaperProbe, which was originally called, "DiffProbe," is designed to detect service discrimination by Internet service providers (ISPs). ShaperProbe uses the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) research platform. All of the data collected through ShaperProbe will be publicly accessible, according to Georgia Institute of Technology, which developed the app.

    Netalyzer is a Web-based Java app that measures and debugs a network. Notably, the Netalyzer Internet traffic analysis tool has a "Mom Mode," which may make it more accessible to people like, well, my own mother. Netalyzer was built by the International Computer Science Institute (ISCI) at the University of California at Berkeley.

    More details about the winners and the teams that built them is available at

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    Open Internet questions

    It almost goes without saying that this contest carried some baggage at the outset. Last December, the launch of a new contest by the Federal Communications Commission was overshadowed by concerns about what the new FCC open Internet rules could mean for net neutrality, particularly with respect to the mobile space that is of critical interest to many developers. Nonetheless, the FCC open Internet challenge went forward, focused on stimulating the development of apps for network quality of service testing.

    Amidst legitmate concerns about the sustainability of apps contests, the outcomes of this Open Internet challenge offers a couple of important data points.

    First, the challenge does seem to have stimulated the creation of a new resource for the online community: unlike the other two winners, the MobiPerf app was created for the contest, according to FCC press secretary Neil Grace.

    Second, when this challenge launched, collecting more data for better net neutrality was a goal that organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and M-Lab supported. The best answers to questions about filtering or shaping rely "on the public having real knowledge about how our Internet connections are functioning and whether or not ISPs are providing the open Internet that users want," wrote Richard Esguerra.

    Now the public has better tools to gather and share that knowledge. Will these apps "shed light" on broadband providers' tactics? As with so many apps, that will depend on whether people *use* them or not. The two winning apps that existed before the contest, Netalyzer and ShaperProbe, have already been used thousands of times, so there's reason to expect more usage. For instance, Netalyzer can be (and was) applied in analyzing widespread search hijacking in the United States. In that context, empowered consumers that can detect and share data about the behavior of their Internet service providers could play a more important role in the broadband services market.

    Finally, the FCC has established new ties to the research and development communities at Berkeley, Georgia Tech and other institutions. It connected with the community. Integrating more technical expertise from academia with the regulator's institutional knowledge is an important outcome from the challenge, and not one that is as easily measured as "a new app for that." It's not clear yet whether the outcomes from the Apps for Communities challenge, set to conclude on August 31st, will be as positive.

    The expertise and the data collected from these apps might come also in handy if the time ever comes when the regulator has to make a controversial decision about whether a given ISP's service to its users goes beyond "reasonable network management."

    Reposted bykrekk krekk

    July 14 2011

    There are bigger issues surrounding the .gov review

    The United States federal government is reforming its Internet strategy. In the context of looming concerns about the debt ceiling, high unemployment, wars abroad, rising healthcare costs, and the host of other issues that the White House and Congress should be addressing, that might seem like a side issue.

    It's not. The federal government spends some $80 billion dollars every year on information technology. If you're paying any attention at all to government IT, you know that Uncle Sam is not getting his money's worth from that investment. Furthermore, the federal government has not been getting the kinds of returns in productivity or efficiency that the private sector has enjoyed over the past decade or so. Former White House OBM director Peter Orzag called that disparity the "IT gap" last year. So when the Obama administration launched a new initiative on Web reform this summer, it might have seemed a little overdue.

    Better late than never, and better now than later.

    Citizens are turning to the Internet for government data and services in unprecedented numbers, and they're expecting to find answers, applications and, increasingly, people. While public servants can join the conversations on social networks to address the latter demand, delivering improved information and e-services confronts the federal government with some tough choices, given budget constraints. That challenge is one reason that they're looking to the general public and the private sector for some ideas on how they can improve their strategy.

    This week, in service of that goal, the White House hosted a livechat on improving federal websites with Macon Phillips, White House director of digital strategy, Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, and Sheila Campbell, director of the GSA’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government. The chat, which has become a standard tool in the White House's online communications toolkit over the last year, included a livestream from, a Facebook chat and an active Twitter backchannel at the #dotgov hashtag. The White House also took questions through a form on and its Facebook wall.

    These issues aren't new, of course, even if the tools for discussion have improved. And if you've been following the Gov 2.0 movement over the years this issue of how the government can use the Internet and associated technologies to work better has been at the core of the discussion throughout. Success online used to be measured by having a website, said federal chief information Vivek Kundra. As he observed immediately afterwards, "those days are long gone."

    If the federal government is going to reform how it uses the Internet, it will need to learn and apply the lessons that Web 2.0 offers to Gov 2.0, whether it's standing up open government platforms, leveraging the cloud, crowdsourcing, or making data-driven policy.

    Government is also going to need to stop creating a new .gov website for every new initiative, particularly if they're not optimized for search engines. There's some good news here: "Every month, historically, federal agencies would register 50 new domain names, said Kundra on Tuesday. "That's been halted."

    This proliferation of federal .gov websites has been an issue for some time — call it ".gov sprawl" — and that what's driven the .gov reform effort in the context of the Obama administration's campaign to cut government waste. This week, for the first time, a dataset of federal executive branch Internet domains has been published as open government data online. The dataset of federal gov domains is hosted on and has been embedded below:

    Federal Executive Branch Internet Domains

    "This dataset lists all of the executive branch second-level domains within the top-level .gov domain, and which agencies own them," commented General Services Agency new media specialist Dan Munz in the Community page for the dataset. "As White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Philips has pointed out (see ""), while many of these domain names point to sites that are valuable, some are duplicative or unnecessary. That makes it harder to manage the .gov domain, impairs agencies' ability to distribute information, and creates a user experience for citizens that just isn't as good as it could or should be. How can we fix that? Over the coming months, we'll have a plan for streamlining the federal executive branch webspace, and we want to invite you into the conversation. We're releasing this dataset as a first step, so that you can explore, comment, remix, and maybe even use the data to map the .gov domain in ways we haven't seen before."

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    Why reforming .gov matters

    This effort is not impressing all observers. Micah Sifry, the co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, has called the move to delete redundant websites "cheap, dumb and cynical" at techPresident. "Redundant government websites probably cost the taxpayer a fraction of what we spend on military bands, let alone what we spend on duplicative and unnecessary government websites promoting the Army's, Navy's, Air Force's, Merchant Marine's, Naval Academy's, and Coast Guard's bands' websites! (According to NPR, the Marines spend $50 million a year on their bands, and the Army $198 million." In a larger sense, Sifry argued, "if you are really serious about eliminating stupid and pointless spending, then you'd be pushing for laws to strengthen protections for government whistleblowers (instead of going an stupid and pointless rampage to prosecute them!), since insiders know where the real waste is hidden."

    Sifry is absolutely right on one count: the amount of money up for savings through reducing federal .gov websites is dwarfed by what is saved by, say, reducing Medicare fraud using new data analytics tools, or in finding cost savings in defense spending. Reducing the number of federal .gov websites by 90% would not significantly address the federal deficit. The biggest federal cost savings from this week's .gov livechat were likely cited by Kundra, when he said that 137 federal data centers were closed by the end of this calendar year, each of which consumes immense amounts of energy.

    Where Sifry may have been overly harsh in his critique is in not acknowledging how progressive a perspective the White House appears to have embraced here. (Progressive meaning "forward-thinking," not political ideology, in this case.) Democratizing healthcare data so that it showed up in search engine results or is integrated into applications makes it more useful, argues Kundra, citing the improvements to Moving from a static website to a universe of applications and services provisioned by open government data is shifting from a Web 1.0 vision to 2.0 reality. In a country where 35% of citizens have a smartphone, delivering services and providing information to a mobile audience has to be factored into any online strategy, whether in the public or private sector. And, in most cases, it's the private sector that will be able to create the best applications that use that data, if government acts as a platform to empower civic coders. Phillips acknowledged that explicitly. "The best mobile apps," he said, "are going to be driven by the private sector making use of public data."

    If e-government is going to move toward "We-government" — as Sifry has described the growing ecosystem of civic media, technology-fueled transparency advocates and empowered citizens — government data and services will need to be discoverable where and when people are looking for them. That is ultimately, in part, what getting .gov reform right needs to be about, versus straightforward cost-savings.

    Kundra asked the broader community to "help us think through how we're going to provide services over the mobile Internet." If, as he said, search is the default way that people search for information now, then releasing high quality open data about government spending, the financial industry, healthcare, energy, education, transportation, legislation and campaign finance would be a reasonable next step. Tim O'Reilly has been sharing a simple piece of advice to the architects of platforms for years: "Don't make people find data. Make data find the people."

    The .gov reform, in that context, isn't just about reducing the number of websites and saving associated design or maintenance costs. It's about reducing the need to ever visit a website to retrieve the information or access a citizen requires. In the years ahead, it will be up to Congress and Kundra's successor as federal CIO — along with whomever he or she reports to in the Oval Office — to get that part of "web reform" done.

    July 08 2011

    Open government data to fuel Kenya's app economy

    Open KenyaFrom Brazil to France to Australia to India, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. The open data movement has truly gone global, with 19 international open data websites live around the globe. This week, the world will see another open government platform go live in Kenya.

    On July 8th, the government of Kenya will launch an open government data platform. Open Kenya is powered by Socrata, the Seattle-based startup that has been instrumental in standing up open data platforms at the state, city and federal levels in the United States. With the launch of Open Kenya, Africa will have its own story of promoting transparency through open data to celebrate, learn from and share.

    Newly open data will enable the comparison of different counties in Kenya, in terms of how they use resources, said Bitange Ndemo, secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications, at a press conference on July 7th. Ndemo said that the Kenyan government is committed to releasing more open data on an ongoing basis. With open data, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector can increase its contribution to the gross domestic product to 15%, asserted Ndemo, pointing to the development of local Web and mobile applications.

    "The Kenyan Parliament has been pushing the open data as part of a larger policy," said Paul Kukobo, chief executive officer of the Kenya ICT Board, in a phone interview this week. "We have been giving grants to people who develop applications that meet citizen needs for years. Many people asked us to give them access to data that they could then use for developing applications."

    As with governments around the world, the technical challenges of data collection, structuring and publishing were balanced with another issue: the beast of bureaucracy. A similar phenomenon can be seen where open government is taking root in India, with the passage of India's Right to Information Act. New digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and their governments.

    "The whole culture of government is that they are the data originators and data collectors," said Kukubo. "Sharing internally was a problem in the first place. That was why the parliament secretary taking a huge role was a big deal, in terms of talking to colleagues about opening up this data. Technical challenges were not where the headache was — we have plenty of skill and partners here to do that — it was in getting the data in the first place, in the form that we needed it. Plenty of data wasn't in digital form or usable, and was trapped in agencies."

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    Open Kenya will fulfill many of Tim Berners-Lee's expectations for open data, including machine-readable data structured in .CSV files and XML, and available through APIs. Notably, the concept for Open Kenya offers context, rationales and a definition for open data, including the apt observation that "publishing PDF files do not constitute 'open data' and are not helpful to large-scale users." The Open Kenya concept states that open government data must be easily found through search engines, machine-readable, interoperable and available for use and re-use under non-commercial and commercial licenses, i.e. "Creative Commons."

    That perspective is a progressive one for Open Kenya to take and will set a standard for other open data efforts. Making government data searchable changes how citizens can access it in important, potentially disruptive ways. While Open Kenya will only contain five or six datasets at launch, government officials say more will go online over the coming months. The United States open government data platform,, started with just a few data sets as well; now there are thousands.

    "The project involved a significant effort to make geo-coded data available and present it using new geospatial boundaries for 47 counties," said Safouen Rabah, vice president at Socrata. "Since 98% of Internet access in Kenya happens through mobile phones, location awareness on the site and through the API is really critical to make the data contextually relevant to ordinary Kenyans."

    Open Kenya isn't simply about meeting data standards or publishing data online. Ultimately, it's about changing the compact between citizens and their government. The World Bank, no small enterprise itself, was featured in the New York Times this month because of its own open data initiative. The Bank assisted the Kenyan government with its efforts. Aleem Walji, practice manager for innovation and technology at the World Bank Institute, wrote that Kenya will provide a live case study for open data, picking up the same theme and focusing on the newfound importance of opening county-level government in Kenya:

    A Freedom of Information act has been sitting with the Government for years. The country recently passed a new constitution devolving significant fiscal and political authority to newly created counties. Elections are scheduled for 2012 and there is considerable demand for greater efficiency in the delivery of public services, youth-focused job creation, and improved governance. Against this backdrop, the Kenyans heard about Open Data, Open Government, and saw them as opportunities given their booming IT industry and youthful population. Over a period of 6 months, a handful of Government reformers working closely with a World Bank team paved the way for Kenya to launch one of the first and most comprehensive Open Data portals in Sub-Saharan Africa. The portal will make available multiple years of detailed government expenditure data (at the county level), household survey data, and the 2009 census mapped to the district level.  Citizens will be able to download information directly, compare data within and between provinces, create visualizations including maps and graphs, and most importantly understand the relationship between spending and public service delivery. This is where the rubber meets the road with Open Data. It's a shift from opening datasets towards a more open and inclusive model for citizen-centric development.

    "I'm most excited about the reaction that people have had," said Kukobo, "particularly at the business level. Tickets for the launch of the website are sold out." He found that he's personally gaining from the change. "I'm learning a lot myself, in terms of what the data is telling me," he said. "You can't be clear about something you can't define. What is going on in my country? Income levels? How many hospitals or schools are there in a county? The development community is excited about building applications so data can be useful to citizens."

    Several members of the Kenyan technical community views this launch as an historic day. "In Kenya, accessing public records even those that are about you is difficult," tweeted Muraya Kamau, a web and mobile apps developer in Nairobi, in response to a question. "Tomorrow we get access and not just that, we get a chance to build apps that disseminate that info through various platforms."

    Open data in Kenya "means a great deal," tweeted Juliana Rotich. "Kenyans can disaggregate the big data pronouncements into relevant info. Dev com is already using open data. Our devs have already been hacking and will showcase today."

    Open data drives the innovation economy

    Wired Kenyans are wondering if open data will "give rise to great stuff," as it has in other countries and municipalities, notably in the healthcare apps generated by the release of open data by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

    "Data will fuel employment and wealth creation like never before," tweeted Ndemo, this week. That's a bold prediction. It may will be aided, however, by the kind of open data released, which draws from fundamental sectors in the Kenyan economy.

    "The nature of Kenya open data effort is really cool, simply because of the quality of the data and how it's presented," said Rabah. "Open data will be available about schools, access to drinking water, hospitals — basic things that relate to daily life in Kenya."

    The prospects for mobile apps driven by open government in Kenya gaining traction are good, given a population that primarily accesses the Internet over mobile devices. "The whole reason they've released the data is to empower people to create social change," said Jessica Colaço, developer evangelist at iHub, Nairobi's online Innovation community, in an interview. "The biggest step that the Kenyan government has taken is giving data to the development community, allowing them to make visualizations and to make the data usable and useful to society."

    Colaço said that iHub has a database of 4,000 developers right now, with around 200 members interested in using this open government data. While not everyone is subscribed to data on their mobile devices, Colaço thinks that the more than 20 million mobile subscribers in Kenya will be interested in these apps. Most Kenyans with Internet access get in through their phones. In urban areas, phones are running on the Android platform, she said, including devices from Samsung, Nokia and HTC. "Currently, there's a craze for the Android app store," she said. "Developers will definitely get people to use open data apps." In rural areas, however, data connections are in short supply and expensive. "I think mobile phones will be used for lot of querying of data using SMS via a USSD platform," said Colaço. "Mobile web and SMS will be used to reach rural areas."

    There's plenty of local technical talent to make great apps, she emphasized, pointing to the growth of M-PESA, Kenya's mobile banking system, and the success of the Ushahidi platform for crowdsourced information gathering as evidence of Kenya's vibrant mobile ecosystem and local development community. "An innovation such as Ushahidi being so simple and being used worldwide goes to show that when there's a problem and a need for it, we have the resources in house to solve it," she said.

    Robert Alai, a Kenyan blogger who covered the Open Kenya press conference, said via Skype that a $100 Android smartphone device launched in December led in smartphone sales by March. "There's a very big community," he said, with one government agency estimate that by the end of 2012, almost every Kenyan household will have a smartphone. And at least some of that adoption was being driven by the demand for access to Facebook on mobile phone. Alai put Kenyan success on the World Stage with Ushahidi and M-PESA in the context part of a larger push towards joining the innovation economy. "Kenyans are very excited about making money from applications," he said. "A Kenyan won a prize in the World Bank competition, in Nokia's competition and others."

    Alai predicted that the open government data Kenya is releasing will find even more use in the development community. "Developers have been saying that when they want to create applications, it's very difficult to get data," he said. "When we process data, we can create applications that will make it useful." Alai focused on the importance of releasing county level data. "Existing applications is applications are not being used to solve real life problems or used locally, yet," he said. "They need local data. Costs are currently very high to get it. There's a very big hunger for the data. I hope as the platforms are built that they'll pan out well."

    In the future, Colaço hopes to see apps that create feedback loops between citizens carrying mobile phones and their government, where health, water, sanitation and education projects are monitored by everyone. "Open data does make government more accountable to the citizens, increasing trust between the government and citizens, and enhances collaboration, acting as a kind of the audit," she said. "If you see inconsistencies, feedback in your application could report it."

    Here come the apps

    Data visualizations will be among the first applications to use the open data, Colaço said. "You can actually see what's being utilized intensely in different areas, using heatmaps. In the northeast, for instance, funds have been used for drought and famine."

    It's in that context, perhaps, that one of the value propositions of open government data will be tested first. This week in Kenya, police tear-gassed maize and fuel price protestors as millions of lives are threatened by historic draughts in the Horn of Africa. No application can bring the rains nor data visualization deliver food to a starving child. Citizens equipped with mobile phones can, however, tell their governments where and when aid has or hasn't arrived. In time, they can look at the government's resource allocations in different regions and see if it matches up with reality on the ground. With better data and tools to analyze it, government itself can track what's happening and where.

    Those kinds of apps may not be long in coming. Eric Hersman (@WhiteAfrican), co-founder of Ushahidi and founder of the iHub, published a comprehensive review of Africa's first national open data initiative that demonstrates that apps are already online:

    • The Ushahidi team took census data and mashed it up with healthcare institution data on their Huduma site
    • An SMS query apps allows Kenyan to text the name of their county or constituency to 3018. In return, they'll receive a text with the demographics and minister of parliament of that location.
    • The iHub community built a mobile app called "Msema Kweli" that allows a citizen to find Constituency Development fund projects near them and add pictures of them

    "There have been many people pushing for this, over many months, and it's been an exciting process to watch unfold," wrote Hersman. "Foremost amongst the drivers on this has been Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary of Information and Communications. This is indeed a very proud moment for Kenya, and a leading position to take on the continent."

    When the needs of the many are great, the empowered have a civic responsibility to help. Open government data offers those who want to help their fellow citizens a new form of civic participation. Science fiction author William Gibson famously said that "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." Perhaps this week, and in the years ahead, even more Kenyans will be showing the world what it looks like.


    Reposted bymurdelta murdelta

    July 07 2011

    ePayments Week: AliPay gets physical

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

    China's AliPay develops barcode payment system

    AliPayChina's search engine giant, Alibaba, has launched a barcode-based mobile payment system for paying for real-world goods. Alibaba's payment subsidiary, Alipay, isn't waiting for near-field communications (NFC), and has developed an app on iOS, Android, and Nokia platforms. Similar to the well-known Starbucks app in the U.S., Alipay generates a unique barcode that merchants can scan with a barcode reader or their own smartphone camera. The system draw funds from a user's credit card or a prepaid AliPay account.

    Like everything in China, the opportunity is tremendous. There's more than 420 million Internet users, including some portion that spent 400 billion yuan ($62 billion U.S.) online in the first quarter of 2010. Within this market, AliPay (which some U.S. readers may know as the subsidiary that was spun off from Alibaba without notifying key investors Yahoo and Softbank) held 45.5% of the market for online payments in China in 2010, followed by number two player Ten Pay. Earlier this year, AliPay announced that, having signed up 200 million users, it has more registered users than PayPal.

    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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    An acoustic footprint for hyperlocal navigation

    Batphone screenshotResearchers at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University have developed an app for recording an acoustic "fingerprint" of a room to see if this method can be used for indoor navigation. Stephen Tarzia, a computer engineering graduate student, developed the app — called Batphone — as a proof of concept. It records the ambient sounds in a room (air systems, computers, lights, appliances), filters out transitory sounds (like people talking), analyzes how the sounds are distributed, and creates a fingerprint. A release from McCormick says the current app is just a proof of concept, but that acoustic fingerprints could be used in the future to assist in check-ins or other hyperlocal apps in situations where GPS tracking is unavailable.

    Juniper report: $670 billion in mCommerce in 2015

    Digital goods like music, subscriptions, and gaming will continue to make up the largest part of mobile commerce over the next four years, but the growth rate in non-digital physical goods will rise much faster, according to a new report from Juniper Research. The report says that rising sales in physical goods, fueled in part by the advent of NFC technology that will let consumers pay for goods and services by tapping a reader at the cash register, will help spur "mCommerce" from $240 billion this year to $670 billion by 2015.

    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.


    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.


    June 08 2011

    Four core takeaways from Apple's WWDC keynote

    WWDC logosThe Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote by Apple CEO Steve Jobs was pure "shock and awe," a showcase of the overwhelming power that has been assembled and orchestrated by Apple, the industry's emerging Post-PC gorilla.

    Most impressively, the event and the specifics presented (iOS 5, iCloud, OS X Lion) during it were clearly staged to deliver an inspiring but chilling message: Whether you're a prospective customer, developer, channel partner, or competitor, "resistance is futile."

    What follows are my four core takeaways from the keynote.

    No. 1: The halo effect

    Three years ago, I wrote that Apple had made, and was brilliantly executing on, a handful of trend bets that left it uniquely positioned within the marketplace.

    These bets included:

    1. Making the mobile Internet caveat-free.
    2. Harnessing rich media as the "my stuff" bucket that matters.
    3. Treating everything in their arsenal as an integrated platform (from PC to device to online service).
    4. Leveraging and deriving core technologies from one product family to cross-pollinate another.

    At the WWDC keynote, Jobs and company repeatedly asserted that "it just works" (the ultimate caveat-free mantra) when presenting this feature or that. They noted that no one else can assemble all of these pieces to deliver this type of solution.

    Similarly, a heavy emphasis was placed on extending the utility, reach, and integration of:

    • Personal media: Via camera enhancements, which use Apple's Core Image camera technology, and a new Photo Stream service, which will run on iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Mac and the Apple TV.
    • Personal documents: iWork now runs on everything from the iPhone and iPod Touch to the iPad and the Mac, and it'll soon be cloud-enabled via Documents in the Cloud.

    • Messaging/scheduling/contacts: Via the new iCloud service, which revamps and subsumes the company's disappointing MobileMe service. The new iMessage offering is poised to disrupt the SMS business.

    • Professional media: Via iTunes in the cloud and a new iTunes Match service; a new magazine and newspaper subscription service called Newsstand, which complements its iBookstore; and unique to Apple, liberal rights to use the same media now and into the future on multiple iOS devices.

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    No. 2: A coherent Post-PC vision

    John Gruber has a great analog for how Apple approaches markets, strategies and tactics that he calls, "Measure Twice, Cut Once." The basic premise is that while most companies have a tendency to fire, then aim, Apple is diligent in assessing all of the moving parts of a strategy, and ensuring they have extreme confidence in both the viability of the path and their ability to execute on that path.

    Hence, while many mocked Apple's slow path to copy and paste in iOS, their handling of Antennagate, and their seeming lack of urgency in responding to Google's cloud ambitions, the truth is that Apple begins with a 3.0 vision that guides 1.0 execution.

    This "begin with the end in mind" sensibility and patience has repeatedly rewarded the company and its constituency. This week's announcements were no different.

    In announcing both iOS 5 and iCloud, Apple for the first time gave users clear workflows that don't force false dichotomies between the PC as proxy, and the cloud as the hard drive in the sky. You can cut the cord or not. Software updating and iTunes and App library syncing don't demand a host PC. Nor does photo or video editing. Nor does creation of calendars, mailboxes, documents or the like.

    At the same time, they have delineated the cloud as The Truth, relegating rather forcefully the PC (and the Mac) as just another device from a backup, syncing and service perspective.

    Categorically, this puts them in a real sweet spot between the lowest common denominator web tilt of Google, the PC legacy catholicism of Microsoft, the device-agnosticism of Facebook, and the digital disruptor that is Amazon.

    No. 3: Amazon beware

    Two storylines always seemed obvious when Apple began its assault on becoming the digital hub. One was that long-time friends, Apple and Google, were destined to become frienemies. The second was that the only company positioned to fight Apple in terms of both style and substance was (and is) Amazon.

    Why? Amazon, like Apple, is singularly focused on how to sell stuff. Both companies are somewhat agnostic to rigid categorical definitions of the types of products that they can sell and the lines of business that they can play within.

    Equally important, like Apple, Amazon has a relentless focus on customer satisfaction, not to mention, the all-important billing relationship.

    Plus, like Apple, Jeff Bezos and company know how to execute on platform strategy, are adept at pioneering cloud services, have their own device and integrated app store strategy (via Kindle and their Android app store) and have secured the all-important media relationships across music, books and movies.

    With Apple moving aggressively into PC software sales, ebooks (the WWDC keynote touted 130 million downloads from iBookstore) and magazine subscriptions, and an Android-derived Amazon Kindle tablet rumored, Amazon seems to represent a potential fly in the ointment of Apple's ambitions.

    Whether Apple represents a serious threat to Amazon, however, remains to be seen. This will be my favorite industry storyline to watch unfold in the year ahead.

    No. 4: The cannibal

    Two tweets that I saw stood out in the waning moments of the keynote, both speaking to Apple's willingness to kill stuff. The first, by the New York Times' John Markoff, underscores the admirable quality of Jobs to see beyond long-held conventions and thus to kill sacred cows (even his own in the case of MobileMe).

    Steve's great strength? He kills things ... Floppy , hard disk, etc. Next up? The file system..less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

    More chilling, however, is Apple's ready willingness to cannibalize its partners. While inherent in any platform play is the risk that the platform provider will see your sandbox as strategic and co-opt it for themselves, the news wires were legion with stories about the "body count" from Apple's announcements.

    Apple's announcement about their new feature that enables the iPhone's volume control to activate the camera shutter led to this sarcastic tweet by Chirag Mehta:

    Step 1: Reject an innovative app. Step 2.:Copy that functionality in the core OS Step 3: Claim Innovation. #WWDC #Camera #TapTapTapless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

    In case you don't know, this is a direct dig at the fact that iOS developer Tap Tap Tap, makers of the popular Camera+ app, innovated this very same feature several months back, but Apple blocked the app's release until the feature was removed. Now, however, Apple has added it to iOS as their own feature.

    To be clear, as platform maker Apple is both within their rights and responsibility to decide which features are best left for third-parties to extend, and which are core and thus should be universal within the platform. But I suspect that it speaks to the growing unease that an all-powerful Apple may not be so great for third-party developers, especially given Apple's past track record of co-option during the PC wars.

    Such is the paradox of astounding success. One moment, you are being celebrated as a revolutionary, and bringer of a golden age. The next, you're being taken to task. Apple's relationship with its developers and corresponding role in their success (or failure) is a topic certainly worth further exploration. But that is a post for another day.


  • Apple's Halo Effect

  • Apple's Segmentation Strategy (and the Folly of Conventional Wisdom)

  • Understanding Apple's iPad

  • Five reasons iPhone vs Android isn't Mac vs Windows

  • May 31 2011

    10 ways to botch a mobile app

    App StoreWith the phenomenal growth of smart mobile devices, mobile apps, and their respective app stores over the last several years, just about everyone has an idea for a mobile app. And with each idea comes the belief that it may in fact be the next big thing — a million dollar app that can save its creator from the daily 9-5 grind. It's true that a fortuitous few have indeed realized their million dollar idea, but for many others their ideas remain dreams alone.

    Working in the mobile app industry through these early days of the latest technological gold rush, I've seen the same app mistakes made time and time again. Failure, like success, follows a particular pattern. And so, I set out to distill the top 10 reasons why apps often falter or fail, with the hope that this list brings more reason and less emotion into the process of building mobile applications.

    Mistake 1. Begin coding immediately

    Many fail in the mobile space because they start developing their app as soon as they have an idea. In the extreme case, those with programming skills will actually start coding the app immediately. The first steps, however, should be focused on business and strategy aspects; pixels and design or coding and development come later in the process.

    Mistake 2. Ignore competitors and alternatives

    One of those business and strategy aspects that many pursuing apps ignore is to identify and use competitor apps. Understanding what competitors do well and where they've come up short will provide guidance on what features to develop and how to differentiate an app. Similarly, learning from top apps in app stores or even real-world alternatives, can reveal opportunities for innovation.

    Mistake 3. Be purposeless

    Wanting a million dollars shouldn't be the sole motivation for building an app. At the same time, app stores are likely one of the best places to pursue a new venture right now. Ultimately though, it is still a new venture and any new venture comes with a certain amount of risk. Outlining clear short- and long-term goals, that are aspirational yet attainable, will provide a much better foundation for success.

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    Mistake 4. Consider project plans useless

    It's not necessary to create a Gantt chart, but having a project plan for an app is critical. A project plan will demand accountability and set expectations, especially if working in a team. It should also help with one of the biggest problems in software development: actually shipping the app to the app stores.

    Mistake 5. Start marketing after the app is launched

    Many begin marketing their apps after they are in app stores. Doing so will result in not taking advantage of the initial bump provided by the app store new release lists. Getting marketing moving earlier will allow interested media outlets to have reviews ready when the app hits the stores, thus providing a better opportunity for the app to rank in its category.

    Mistake 6. Spend little time thinking about branding

    The app name, app icon, app description, and even the app interface are often developed independently of one another. As I've written in the past, however, these elements should be considered together because they help create the branding identity of the application. And that's even more important if there are plans to eventually have more than one app.

    Mistake 7. Don't talk to customers before and after the app is launched

    It's amazing how often people build their apps in isolation. They may get feedback from a couple of friends or family members, but they really don't develop serious beta testing programs with potential customers. Then, they launch the app and find reviews complaining about buggy or even missing features. Increasing the number of those looking at and using an app through a beta program will result in a more solid and compelling application by the time it hits the app store.

    Mistake 8. Include zero contact points within the app

    Not hearing from customers can be a symptom of an unhealthy app. It also might be because customers simply don't know how to get in touch with the creators of the app. Including basic support channels such as in app email or a link to a website can ensure customers will share thoughts, feedback, or bug reports quickly and easily.

    Mistake 9. Forget to install analytics

    Apps often generate qualitative feedback such as customer reviews, blog posts, and emails. Unless analytics are installed, quantitative feedback is typically only available through download and sales numbers. Analytics tools can offer basic insight into usage patterns or provide very detailed data about specific actions customers are doing inside the app. In either case, hard data is extremely valuable.

    Mistake 10. Never update the app

    After pushing out an initial version of an app, people give up on it if it’s not a runaway hit right away. To keep customers engaged, it’s a good practice to release one or two updates per month, related to either bug fixes or new features. You can cut back on app update investements if the app continues to show no signs of life, but that decision should not happen a week or even a month after the launch of an app.


    May 27 2011

    Radar's top stories: May 23-27, 2011

    Here's a look at the top stories published on Radar this week.

    Mobile apps and the quiet handling of data
    PC-based applications often have to get clearance from users before they can gather and transmit data. Mobile apps, however, follow a different path. Peter Bennett takes an in-depth look at the differences.

    Want to know where to build a new store? Check your human density data
    During a recent interview, Skyhook co-founder and CEO Ted Morgan discussed "human density data." Learn what that is and how Skyhook's SpotRank product harnesses it.

    Lessons of the Victorian data revolution
    Transaction costs. Crowdsourcing. The politics of data. You might think these are modern concepts, but Pete Warden traces all of them back to the Victorian age.

    At the eG8, 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy
    While the first eG8 Forum in Paris featured hundreds of business and digital luminaries, some of the policies discussed should be of serious concern to citizens around the world.

    Google opens its Wallet
    Dave Sims digs into Google's new Wallet to see if this latest combination of mobile devices and a payment system is ready for mainstream adoption.

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    May 26 2011

    Mobile apps and the quiet handling of data

    iPhone settingsThe web was never designed to be personal. Until Netscape added cookies to its servers and browsers in 1994 there was no way for a web server to store data on a user's computer. In 1996 there was a bit of a ruckus in the media about the privacy implications of cookies, then everyone relaxed a bit and got used to them.

    Fifteen years later, the European Union has leapt into action and is now keen to enforce legislation in this area (despite a last-minute reprieve for the UK). As cookies are clearly defined and limited in scope, they make a good attack surface for legislators.

    The Internet, and mobile in particular, have moved on a bit in the last 15 years, however.

    Mobile apps, scattering data

    I would happily predict that even in 20 years there will not be a 100% reliable, always-on, cheap wireless broadband option.

    So unless you reside in Mountain View, Calif., luxuriating in virtually unlimited mobile data connectivity, I think you're going to find living 100% on the mobile web to be a pretty miserable experience.

    Conversely, it will be harder and harder to find examples of apps on mobile devices that do not benefit from connection to data networks. So, unfortunately for the legislators, the once-clear boundary between device and service continues to blur and morph.

    Software and data on iPhones and other devices are going to remain smeared across devices, the open web, and various other data services. Let's look at how this currently works.

    Unique Device Identifiers (UDIDs)

    To track a user across multiple apps you'd need some way of putting a unique tag on each device so that no matter which app read it, you'd know you had the same person.

    This is precisely what the Unique Device Identifier (UDID) number on iOS devices can do. It's easily available to the writer of an app, and it cannot practically be changed or deleted.

    These UDIDs allow developers to link data collected by different apps. (Interestingly, as the UDID acronym gets bandied about it will probably become irrationally feared.) Apple forbids the sharing of this data between companies, but within a company there is no effective means of preventing this.

    The Shared Keychain in iOS allows apps published by a single developer to share data if they find themselves installed on the same iOS device — no network required.

    Here's a theoretical example of how this might apply to apps from an insurance company:

    • You provide your date of birth to a motor insurance app to get a quick quote.
    • A year later you download a pension calculator app from a different division of the same company.
    • The pension app already knows your age, so it can get straight down to convincing you to buy savings products.

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    Data access to the Internet, with local storage on the device

    The elephant in the room when talking about data protection is the fact that any app can silently connect to the Internet and send and receive data to its heart's content.

    Developers are encouraged to show a spinner to indicate that the network is being accessed, but this is a guideline rather than an enforced requirement. This is not all about tracking users, of course. These capabilities allow things like remote throttling of app usage, enabling of new features, binding of sponsor data to parts of the app, updating media in the app, syncing with other services, etc. As there is no clear way to identify personal or tracking data within the app's local storage, any focused privacy legislation will be tricky.

    The bottom line is that your iPhone apps are increasingly likely to be using a full set of web services without you ever setting up accounts, accepting terms and conditions, logging in or even being aware of it.

    Apple Push Notification Service (APNS)

    One of my personal favorites in terms of potential unexpected consequences is the Apple Push Notification Service (APNS), which allows developers to remotely pop up messages on iOS devices, or add badges with numbers to the icons of their apps.

    Angry Birds notificationsThat's all relatively straightforward, but there is also the ability to make the iPhone play any audio file included in your app, whether the app is open at the time or not. Check the push permissions for "Angry Birds" for an example (Settings > Notifications).

    When you installed "Angry Birds," Rovio explicitly asked for your permission to play sounds from Angry Birds on your phone whenever they like.

    As an aside — If you're looking for true Internet notoriety, then gaining control of Rovio's servers would allow you to remotely command all iOS devices with Angry Birds installed to "tweet" (audibly, not via Twitter) in unison.

    Data handling on PCs vs. data handling on mobile apps

    Given all that's happening right now, how are we doing on transparency and consent? Let's compare some of the warnings and alerts you might get from three different use cases:

    Case 1: Installing software on your PC that uses data on the Internet

    • Warning: this software was downloaded from the Internet
    • Please enter your administrator password to install
    • Antivirus warning: new software identified
    • Firewall warning: Unauthorized software trying to connect to the Internet

    And when you run your new PC-based software:

    • Please provide your email to register your account
    • Please set a password
    • Click the confirm link in the email we've sent you to authorize your account
    • Accept the terms and conditions

    Case 2: Accessing a website through a PC

    • Please install Flash plugin / authorize Java applet / install Silverlight
    • Register or log in
    • Provide email address / password
    • Click link in registration confirmation email
    • Can I set a cookie on your PC? (Thank you, EU)
    • Please accept the terms and conditions

    Case 3: Installing an Internet-enabled app on your iPhone

    • Tap to install app
    • Errr...
    • That's it

    Some final thoughts

    The comparison between PC-based software and smartphone software shown above is stark, with many implications. There's a lot to work out, and there's a lot to debate. With that in mind, here's a few discussion points I think are worth exploring:

    • The "app way" of working could be great for business, but it only works if you trust the app delivery platform and the app developer. Organizations create and destroy trust in many ways, and we might benefit from a more explicit review of or focus on this.
    • Developers could be more open about what they are doing, but explaining technical issues in plain English can be tough. Frankly, most users aren't that interested, either.
    • New laws to control use of cookies are focusing on what legislators can see and understand. Legislation will always trail technology, leading to more "privacy theater."
    • Broader technology legislation that relies on applying judgement and intelligent interpretation may succeed more than narrow, knee-jerk legislation and zero tolerance.
    • The iPad brings the smartphone approach closer to the standard PC. Expect Mac OS X Lion to bring it all the way.
    • Just because it fits in your pocket, doesn't make it private.


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