Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Infinite Possibilities

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Strange as it may seem, there is no exclusive recipe to creating a great app. There is no company that has a monopoly on new-tech expertise. To my mind it merely takes three things: a great developer, great content and great vision.

The world is beset with great content by great content creators. To date this content has focused on TV, print, websites. Now the focus has shifted to handheld devices – smartphones and tablets – and so must the content. But it’s not the end of civilisation, neither is it a paradigm shift that many would have you believe, that only they have control over. It’s an adjustment to be sure, but put a touchscreen in front of the uninitiated, and you’ll see just how small that adjustment really is.

There is no exclusive recipe.

And once you have content, acquiring a vision is easy; want to create an interactive touchscreen experience that draws people in and keeps people talking about you and your product throughout the subsequent awards ceremony? See? Easy.

But you have no digital experience? No idea of how to mould your content into a product that impresses? No understanding of the current technology or what it’s capable of? This is where the third and final element, the developer, comes in.

And by “developer” we’re talking about people that actually eat sleep and breath the technology that they work with day in day out. Good developers know their market and their craft intimately. They know how to work with content providers to create great apps, the best ones have been doing it for years. They work hard to understand the needs of their clients, they hold the keys to interactive nirvana, and they know how to get the job done, with what technologies, for what audience, for the right budget.

Great developers are like great authors or designers. They’re professional, they work hard and compliment the team perfectly, and not only do they want to do a great job, but they want everyone to benefit from that great job. When it comes to learning and information cross-pollination, the opportunities for any company partnering with a developer, are huge, and far-reaching. Want to keep up to speed on new tech trends? Partner a developer. Want to know how to move from paper to iPad to Android, to include videos, websites, and social media in your game-plan, not just for this product, but across your organisation? Partner a developer. Want to create and learn and grow internally whilst keeping overheads low? Well, most developers simply don’t have many overheads, so it’s a no-brainer.

The world of technology may be complicated and unforgiving for some. For others, for developers, it’s just another day of infinite possibilities.

A Journey through the Exoplanets

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Sometimes you hit it lucky.

You find a great client, working with a great customer, commissioned to create a great product.; in the development world, the perfect triumvirate.

Journey to the Exoplanets on Apple’s iPad had the potential to be good right from the off. Along with my client Brandwidth, and their customer, Scientific American, this perfect triumvirate served to create an unusual level of expectation that, despite going unvoiced, managed to hover over our heads from the first line of code through to the final submission process.

It wasn’t perfection, I’m not even sure such a situation is possible, but it’s about as close as any project is going to get. The artwork was done with passion and intensity. The development was pushed hard by a design that in many respects went way outside the conventional app thinking. But perhaps most importantly, everyone involved, the client, the customers, the team, all saw the potential, and worked hard to realise it. People basically gave a damn, and for that to happen right across the board is rare. To get a chance to be working on such projects amongst such people is rarer still.

So it was of course a pleasure to work on. The design goals were met, and in many places exceeded. We all set out to make a great app that would blow people’s minds, and I think we did that in spades. Three months of ups and downs, trials, errors, backward steps and breakthroughs, all with a finished product to show for it.

I’d always expected there to be euphoria on releasing a product, particularly one that I’d built myself from scratch. In this case it’s actually more sadness than anything, good things have to come to an end after all. Possibly the hardest thing to reconcile is that, from now on, I’m going to have such high expectations with everything I touch. Is it really possible to hit a home run twice in succession?

As a final note, a quick thank you to the guys at Brandwidth and Scientific American. These last few months really have been an absolute pleasure, and I look forward to breaking expectations together again in the future. And of course a big shout out to Caleb Sharf ; having the assistance of the Director of Columbia University’s Astrobilogy Center really did push the Planet Builder above and beyond.

Update: some great reviews are coming through for the app, so feel free to check out the article on, as well as a great review by author Greg Bear on

Apple’s MobileMe + iTunes + App Store = ???

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

This is a great question to pose now that Apple is putting the finishing touches to its billion dollar data centre.

Of Apple’s three current cloud offerings, MobileMe is probably the most notorious, having been around for rather a long time now, first free, then not, then given an overhaul, repackaged, and again dutifully ignored by many of their faithful.

iTunes and the App Store have, in contrast, seen meteoric rises to fame over a very short period of time, enabling Apple to deal first in music, then video, and now in pretty much anything from books to pdfs as well as apps from the newly tagged-on app store. Despite its rather outdated and inaccurate nomenclature, iTunes really is pretty special, particularly for Apple, but it is merely the start of things to come.

Now, buried within the settings of Apple’s recently updated iBooks app, you can switch on “synching”. This rather innocuous feature may not seem particularly significant when iBooks is used on a single device, but used on both an iPhone and an iPad you now have the capability of reading a book on one that then automatically updates the current page on the other wirelessly with no user intervention required. The synching technology behind the scenes? Your humble iTunes account.

Quietly, and rather nonchalantly, Apple has slipped its first piece of MobileMe-esque cloud communication and synching technology into iTunes, at this stage giving them a small test bed to enable them to eek out any behind-the-scenes issues, but ultimately giving them one hell of an expansion opportunity.

And expand it they will, because right now they are staring down the barrel of two cloud technologies. MobileMe, has a subscription fee, has become a little crusty and underpowered, has low uptake and is desperately in need of a revamp to keep it inline with its competitors. The second, iTunes, well, nearly everyone has it, nearly everyone has an account with it, nearly everyone likes it, and it is far in advance of the competition, whilst being completely free. And now it is starting to be used to delve into the world of wireless synching across the multitude of Apple devices.

It would seem that Apple are readying themselves for one rather awe-inspiring software merger, and with the new data centre later this year, they will finally have the capacity to make it a success. And it’s a smart move. They have consumer’s homes in the palms of their hands right now, and a multi-tiered move like this would very quickly shore-up their advantage against the likes of Google who are desperately trying to get a foothold into an extremely lucrative technology segment.

So, renaming iTunes to iMedia, folding the current MobileMe offerings into it, and pushing forward on not just app synching, but full multi-device, multi-OS synching, along with cloud storage for all, with access to all personal documents and data, all of the time, wherever you are in the world on whatever device you have to hand, and, well…

Kinda takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

How an iPhone App gets developed

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

It is often said that ideas are ten-a-penny, that development is where the real magic happens. I’m not sure things are quite so black-and-white, after all I’ve known some pretty magical ideas (and their owners) in my time, but it is definitely fair to say that some magical development can turn something humdrum into a major-league hit.

But behind the scenes, what makes the magic happen? How can a company like DigitalOrigins turn an idea into a killer App?

First off, we like most companies, brainstorm an idea with a client and mould it, poking and prodding until we understand everything our client is aiming for. Here it’s about aims, not techniques; as long as the aims remain true, the techniques can be whatever is required to get the job done. Once the aims are understood, we start on a simple design and prototyping loop to help contextualise those aims and bring them into something that the client can actually experience. Here we’re simply creating bare-bones interfaces and workflows to illustrate areas of contention, and generate simple movement through an App giving a feel for what could be expected at completion. Things not feeling quite right? Back to the design phase. The idea not quite as strong as expected? Tweak the idea and adjust. As any professional developer will be able to tell you, getting aims and objectives right here, saves time, money, and a whole heap of heartache later. By the time we’ve reached the end of this process, we are in a great position to make time and cost estimates and draw up a general development plan.

Now some companies move onto full development fairly early in this design phase, preferring to hone and adjust details and timescales whilst full-scale development is in progress. These agile-focused companies tend to prioritise the maintaining of close ties with the clients, working alongside them on a short but regular basis to ensure that the design matures over time like a fine wine, and as new features are designed and implemented, they are demonstrated, discussed and adjusted where necessary alongside cost and timescales. I personally like this way of working; it builds trust early on in the development cycle, and lays the foundations for strong communications and relationship-building throughout the project, two major features inherent in any successful contracting project. The drawback is that the cost-estimates and development plan become less black-and-white, only natural when building in the ability to adjust mid-flow. My experience has shown though that the additional transparency and flexibility more than makes up for this rather more “fixed” planning process, even if it can be somewhat less predictable.

Whichever way the company chooses to work, the development phase is where the aims, the design ideas, the code and the artwork are all brought together piece by piece, tested, demonstrated and added into the coherent whole, building the core app up slowly over time. This is a good time, a time of communication and sharing, a time of changes, adjustments, of iterating, but of ultimately moving forward and creating something special. I have yet to find anyone that didn’t get a buzz out of this phase; being able to create something out of nothing with a client really can be a rather invigorating process for all involved.

Once iteration has produced an app that hits all the aims (adjusted and tweaked where necessary during the development phase), the product is nearing release. For most development companies this is the application’s Beta phase, the phase where the app is poked and prodded from all directions, squeezed over and over to force bugs from the system. For some it is also an opportunity to add polish, to add speed where necessary, to add that final layer of gloss that turns a good product into something great, all before sign-off and handover take place.

And for many this is the ultimate goal; completing Hogs of War for Infogrames simply saw the handing over of the gold-master followed by a project post-mortem before moving onto the next project. For others this is just a step along the overall project lifecycle; NavisWorks saw this sign-off process as simply a gate to move through prior to further design, development, testing and release iterations. With today’s electronic distribution, particularly with the App Store enabling ongoing feedback and bug reports, as well as bug fixes, additional features and further releases, all within relatively short timescales, it makes sense to have this milestone as a more open-ended project goal. But at some point the first release must be pushed out, to the clients, to the public, and this is where it happens. Simple.

To some it may seem like a rather complex process, but actually, when working with a good professional software company, one who wants to work with you rather than just for you, much of these elements are managed behind the scenes, and, from a client’s perspective, the whole process can tend to flow rather gracefully. I’ve worked with many companies over the years that have marvelled at just how smooth and efficient the whole process can be. The key? Work with someone that knows what they’re doing, someone who wants to work with you not just for you, and someone that has a passion for making something that’s great, rather than just making something.

As I’ve always found, follow those three elements and you really can’t go to far wrong.

Do one thing well

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Someone mentioned this “key to success” to me a while ago now, and it kinda bumbled around in my brain until recently when I decided to Google it. Actually, I rather enjoyed the irony in using something that epitomises that statement; type in a word, get a list of pages back, nothing more, nothing less, and this statement throws back one heck of a list that’s even got Janis Joplin in there.

Well the latest DigitalOrigins iPhone App TrendFlow was finally submitted today. It has been a rather tricky birth, though perhaps more so because of the sheer plethora of things going on around the business at the moment than any technical hurdles. Bending a touch of OpenGL and internet communications to your will, encased in a shell of multitasking, has its spanners, but nothing that a few hours and a jug of coffee can’t fix. Despite the delays though, it seems to have turned out rather nicely.

The main thing I’m pleased with is that it fits perfectly with the aforementioned “Do One Thing Well” philosophy. When I set out to create this rather svelte app, I had no intention of creating a huge Twitter client, with bells and whistles having their own bells and whistles. There’s already some great software out there doing the job really rather well indeed (thank you Tweetie and Tweetdeck). No, what I wanted, actually for myself, was simply a real-time animated view into what was going on in the Twitterverse. Something attractive that I could have running on my iPhone whilst next to my laptop, something to simply glance at to get an instant impression of what people were talking about online.

And it’s rather gratifying how it just works. The use of size and colour of the Trends, along with the text and background animation communicates everything it needs to. If I see something trending upwards in pink or orange I can touch the screen and see what people are saying. If I want to, I can go another step further and open any website links that may have been tweeted, before heading back to the flow of Trends. Otherwise I can just leave it sat there, just in view, flowing and updating as the day rolls forward.

And that’s it. That’s what it does. Simply, One Thing Well.

We’ve never had it so good

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

It has been and continues to be a fascinating time to have one’s head in technology.

The fight over consumer hearts and minds rages on. It actually seems slightly otherworldly that the Google empire has replaced that of Microsoft as Apple’s sparring partner in this arena, but perhaps only for someone that has watched them as they’ve all scaled their technological heights. Now they both cover front pages with their technologies, and stand toe-to-toe on what has become a multitude of platforms, but they are most certainly not alone.

With the release of Apple’s iPhone4 this week, touting, amongst other things, the long-awaited multitasking support, eyes look back to Google to spy their next step in the race to the consumer’s pockets. They’ve some way to go if the queues are to be believed, and the figures still sit on Apple’s side of the fence with regards to usage, but we all stand to win with the honed edge that such competition typically brings. Even Microsoft with their recently announced Windows 7 phone looks like a potential contender. Their OS technology looks particularly attractive, even if the rather crass throwing of money at developers is somewhat less so. There’s no doubt they’re right to try such tactics, these days the value is in the software as much as the hardware, and they will never be able to compete unless they have apps that people will want to use. Whether developers can cope with a three-horse mobile market long-term (for some on top of the desk-based ones already supported) is another question entirely.

The iPad has succeeded in creating a furore around the oft-maligned tablet space, so much so that not only are the usual third parties attempting to get on the bandwagon, but Google are creating a whole new operating system of their own for it, and RIM are looking to release their own incarnation before the end of the year. And all before anyone has figured out why consumers would even want such technology. That’s some mind games these people are playing, though there’s no doubt it’s working. Regardless of the success or failures of the tablet space, the experimentation has its own intrinsic value, and if the tablet in its current incarnation doesn’t win, something that follows and builds on it almost certainly will.

Even the humble TV, stalwart in the corner that all the furniture looks towards, no longer resembles the archetypal black box, and is being poked and prodded from all angles. I find it ironic that the last ten years has seen me dragged off to sit in front of the PC, only to now be dragged back again with the content and presentation managed by some of the hottest technology companies on the planet. Some even took another bold step and questioned if Apple might actually develop their own TV set to go with their AppleTV and Mac Mini products. One wonders if GoogleTV would be able to run on them…

The other major upheaval right now is actually going on online, and yet again sees the ever bolder Apple in the fray. Ever since the original iPhone came out of the gate lacking Flash support, the masses poured their hearts out. Some came out on Apple’s side, “Flash is buggy!”, “Flash is bloated!”, “Flash is a security risk!”, others came out on Adobe’s side, “Flash is universal!”, “Flash is flexible!”, “Flash is creativity personified!”. They were all right of course. Some will know, or think they know, the real reasons Flash was avoided on Apple’s mobile devices, but I doubt that it is the people that are actually doing the shouting. The simple fact is, Apple can do what they want. They aren’t connected to Adobe in any ways that force any kind of commitment. They’re both businesses doing what they feel is right for themselves and their consumers. Even articles eschewing the wonders of Adobe’s technology only seem to be able to argue things from a developer / communicator standpoint. Yes there are a lot of Flash developers in the world, and I will be the first to console them on the lessening of Flash’s import, but really, in twenty years time, will anyone care? How about ten years, or perhaps even five? Consumers will hardly notice even now. Sure they may see an ever-rarer lego brick when browsing the internet on their iPhone/iPad, but I know many are thankful that the garish flashing has disappeared, and YouTube is racing to convert content away from the proprietary format, and if some views are to be believe, HTML5 will replace it very quickly whilst having one eye firmly fixed on the future. There’s surely more value in focusing on that, along with the resultant opportunities such a move opens up to us all, than focusing on Adobe’s bank balance?

I guess that’s the price we all pay for being in the technology industry, consumers, developers and tech giants alike; things simply never stop. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend, today’s Facebook is tomorrow’s MySpace, and it really is anyone’s guess as to who’s technology will ever win out. VHS beat out BetaMax, Google overcame pretty much everybody, television is on the internet, the internet is coming to the television, and I’m writing all of this on a touchscreen device with a glass plate for keys.

But you know what? We’ve never had it so good!

Cometh the WWDC, cometh the iPhone 4

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Steve Jobs has completed another Worldwide Developer Conference keynote speech and leaves us with another iPhone to fawn over. The day after the night before gives us a chance to look over the goods with a slightly more measured eye.

To reveal…?

Well, pretty standard upgrade-come-evolutionary fayre this time, all-told, with nothing that I would call a big surprise (particularly considering the behind-the-scenes-broo-haha). The screen has a higher resolution in the same 3.5 inch form factor, doubling the pixels in each direction, the body is a new design, but of a similar size to the 3GS. It sports a front facing camera to enable video calling over wifi for the first time, and the camera on the back is now 5 megapixels, up from 3, set alongside an LED flash. Oh and the battery is improved over last years incarnation, powering a new faster processor sipping juice ever more frugally. In short, the same excellent package we’ve come to expect from Cupertino.

On the software side, iBooks is popping up on the handset, along with iMovie, allowing some pretty complex movie editing in-situ for those with good eyesight and small fingers, and there’s no denying that the new operating system, iOS4, is another step in the right direction, pushing multitasking and folders, plus some 1498 other additional new features at us come June 21st. So, it’s all good in the land of the tech giant.

Market-wise, the iPhone sees its current US smartphone marketshare sitting at 28% (compared to RIM’s 35%, Microsoft’s 19% and Google’s 9%), and mobile browser usage at 58.2%. Not too shabby. How they’ll hold next to the continued onslaught of Android, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 entrant sometime in the not-too-distant is anyone’s guess, but no doubt they’ll be happy with the way things are looking right now. Steve Jobs smiling as he talked through the figures gave at least a fair indication.

As a consumer, I’d expect huge numbers of iPhone 1 and 2 owners to be plunking down their notes for this release; it’ll provide a nice speed and visual boost, and give them access to a bunch of features they’ve been missing for a while now. On the other hand, I would expect most rev. 3 owners, of which I’m one, to hold off; the new operating system, iOS4, available to us before the end of the month, will give our handsets a fresh new lease of life, and for the most part enable us to cope with being one marginal step behind, at least until our current contracts run dry.

As a development studio, it’s pretty much business as usual. We’ll be updating our graphics pipelines to get the most out of the new display, and the combination of the new OS and faster processor will enable us to squeeze more out of an already capable platform. We’ll be looking at what we can do to incorporate the new gyroscope device, and no doubt will be touching on the new calendar, camera and video APIs at some point, though all with one eye firmly on the published OS and handset uptake figures.

So, how about you? Are you headed to your local friendly Apple provider come the end of June? Anything about it in particular take your fancy? Can we throw our development efforts in any particular direction to sway your mind?

Cometh the iPad, cometh the consumer

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

DigitalOrigins acquired its first iPad last week and I had a chance to be Mr Consumer and spend much of the weekend delving into its nooks and crannies, getting a feel for what the fuss is all about.

First off, when someone says the iPad doesn’t feel like a first-gen product, they’re absolutely right; the weight, size and feel, of it are all absolutely spot on. The screen is fantastic, the buttons do their jobs, the battery life is all kinds of good and, contrary to many people’s experiences, I’ve had zero issues with the wifi connection.

So all good then?

Not quite. Because when we talk about the “product” here, we’re really only talking about the hardware, and lovely though it is, it only makes up half of the overall experience. The other half, the software, currently has a bit of catching up to do.

First off, many of the products people use on their iphone and/or laptop either don’t exist in iPad form yet, or are in various states of Beta, and for “Beta”, see “Unstable”.

In addition, iBooks, arguably one of the iPad’s killer apps, is, well, sometimes a bit of a pain. The interface is a joy to behold to be sure, but when you start delving behind the scenes trying to manage an actual book library (as opposed to individual books), things get a little wobbly. Right now my collection of epub documents are languishing somewhere on my external harddrive bunched in with Leo Sayer and Michael Jackson, each being treated as just another music file by iTunes, Artist and Track Numbers included. Not a huge problem for sure, but I’m a bit troubled by what I’ll have to do when I want to update some of those documents with newer versions. I foresee many consumers living with multiple copies of documents in iTunes and on their hard drives simply because they can’t find the location of the original. Oh, and, at least for the time being anyway, don’t try to add too many documents to iBooks; when I say that iBooks takes longer to boot to the bookshelf the more documents synched, I’m not exaggerating.

Easily-fixable niggles aside, the thing that surprised me the most, and one that may not be so easily dealt with, is the realisation that I don’t actually want to use the iPad as a “consumption” device as first anticipated, but as a “consume-and-share” device. Unfortunately, right now, this is a bit of a problem.

To illustrate why, consider my typical laptop-based consumption loop: first thing in the morning I’ll grab the laptop and head to Google Reader to go through my RSS feeds. I’ll scroll smartly down, moving swiftly past each item, letting Reader mark them as “read” as they go off the screen (I am the bearer of far too many RSS feeds, so the more efficient this process the better). As I come across interesting articles, I may copy the link into MarsEdit for a future blog article, I may copy the link into a Twitter post, or I may just save the article in a separate browser tab to go back to at a later date.

On the iPad, right now, Google Reader is a real dog. According to popular opinion, the least “doggy” incarnation is a version optimised for Nintendo’s Wii browser. The trouble is, even this hurts; the two-fingered scrolling is a horrid experience, emphasised all the more when used alongside the rest of the iPad’s usual fluid interface, and as such is to be avoided where possible. Interacting with the contained feeds is no better either. If I touch on a link to read the full article, Safari takes me out of my page, creates a new page, and takes me into it. Very smart. But boy is this slow when repeated two, three, five times in a row.

Interaction niggles aside, Google’s software illustrates very well probably the biggest issue common to the entire iPad package, and that is that there are currently no clean mechanisms for passing information amongst installed apps. For instance, taking a look at a typical news tweet using TweetDeck: start off by copying the news link in question from the Safari address bar, simple. Then open up a new page to get to the link shortener (the TweetDeck link shortener doesn’t work yet), paste the large link and copy the resultant shortened link. So far so good. Close down Safari, open TweetDeck, open a new tweet and paste the shortened link, tweet, close TweetDeck, open Safari, close the current page that the link was cut from, choose the Reader page in the Safari page finder, and on to the next RSS feed item.

Now do that a second time.

And this is just me sharing a single individual news feed. What about when people want to share multiple feeds via email, or digg, or IM? Or quickly make notes on an article they’re in the middle of? Or keep a history of interesting articles in a spreadsheet? The iPhone is a delight and doesn’t suffer from these bigger-picture issues, because, well, it’s a phone. With the iPad, the bar has shifted, and so have expectations.

So right now we’re in typical early-adopter land, learning to work around problems, sucking up the niggles, and putting on brave faces to our peers. But it really is all okay. I’ve been here before, as I’m sure have many of you. Because you see, the beauty with Apple’s new baby, and the thing that makes everything just fine, is that the hardware, the thing you simply can’t change once you’ve plunked down your cash, is absolutely fantastic right off the bat. And although the software, the youthful, energetic, and sometimes temperamental sibling, may be a bit of a pain right now, well, we’ll survive because we know that that is just plain easy to fix, and once the software catches up, boy will this be a serious piece of kit to own.

From the Top

Friday, May 28th, 2010

When I first touched technology back in the early 80s, I cared more about avoiding the Wacky Amoebatrons and climbing the Banyan Tree than what Apple or Microsoft were up to. On reflection it was surprising I even had access to my rubber-keyed friend; Norfolk was certainly not renowned for its presence on the country’s technological stage. Tractors? Yes. Personal computers? Not so much.

However a teenage life spent working in a newsagents surrounded by technology magazines soon opened the eyes to the possibilities of spending entire weekends typing in games from Sinclair Programs that then had to be re-typed as they failed to load from the tape drive. In hindsight at the rate I went through those D60’s I may have been better off spending my time buying shares in TDK. Ah well, vive la patience/typing/BASIC skills.

Failed save/loads aside, the hardest parts en-route to turning dabblings into professional endeavours were the A-level and Degree Computing courses. My technology chops were driven by the colour and passion of the burgeoning games industry at the time, only to then be rudely slapped in the face by courses that had the divine capability of sucking the very light out of the day. Looking back, I’m astonished I made it through University, not because I couldn’t manage the course, but because it was just so grey. Really, really grey.

Fortunately my first position in a small, youthful games company near Oxford recharged the batteries somewhat, and by the time I’d left there to move on to Gremlin up in Sheffield, things were looking far brighter. Gremlin kinda set the scene of life from that point on; the teams were bright, focused, and enjoying themselves. I was lucky enough to be working on some great projects with some great people, and Hogs of War was a real peach, sat as it was amongst the many sports games being developed at the time.

So all told I consider myself extremely fortunate; I was lucky enough to get my break in a very creative industry very early on, and had the opportunity to be involved with some great products on many of the big platforms around today. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of lines of C-variant code to throw 3D missiles around, to make Medic Pigs behave differently to Commando Pigs, and to play entire symphonies in stereo surround sound. It’s been a fascinating and eminently enjoyable journey so far, and a big shout out to everyone that I got close to along the way.

So now with the advent of Apple’s new technology winging its way around the world, it seems I have a chance to take everything I’ve learnt to date and start something completely new with the iPhone and iPad, alongside yet another bunch of great people. Can it really get any better than this? I think we’re all looking forward to finding out…

Google and Apple; same coin, different sides

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Holy moly Google are a busy bunch. They throw Google Search at us, Google Maps, Google Earth, we have the new Google Chrome browser, the soon-to-be Google Chrome OS, we have Android, GMail, Buzz, Docs, TV, and I lose focus and head into a fuzzy trance-like state; clearly a case of Google-overload.

Apple are quite the contrast: they carefully mould one single item, and then proceed to wring every last piece of juice out of it. They hit the world with the first Mac back in 1984, built on it, and continued to focus focus focus to the present day. The iPod took centre stage seven years later and consequently got polished, honed, trimmed. And the iPhone has been no different, every year a new layer of lacquer, a new fresh smell. That’s not to say that the improvements have been mere aesthetics, not by a long shot. But on releasing each single product, their end-game has always been to not stop until perfection has been reached.

Nothing encapsulates the difference between the two companies more than their respective smartphone ecosystems, Google’s Android, and Apple’s iPhoneOS.

It seems clear that Google are, as with the rest of their work, throwing out their Android technology as fast and as far as it can possibly go, in as small an amount of time as possible. Updating it, re-updating it, improving it, followers be (somewhat) damned. And as a follower of technology, I must say there is something utterly alluring about this mentality. The speed of improvement is nothing short of exhilarating, with the perpetual promise of something new on waking up in the morning ever present. As a customer and a developer, after the initial rush of sparkle and glitz, well, not so much.

See, software development can be tough. Back in the days when every PC was different, with no fluffy Windows unification to rely on, developers had to cater for an infinite number of home and work setups. Sometimes your products worked, sometimes they didn’t and it was always a bit of a lottery as to which way things would fly. Trust me when I say, the hours spent trawling through the specs list on the side of a box were nothing compared to those spent taking software back for a refund because it still refused to install correctly. And Google are walking exactly the same path even as we speak. Sure, some might say fragmentation didn’t hurt the PC industry, but back then, the whole personal computing industry was in its infancy and people took whatever they could get. Now, they have alternatives.

And Apple’s iPhone really is one hell of an alternative. In stark contrast to Google they release one tightly controlled version of the handset every year, at the same time, in the same place. Everyone who buys one buys the exact same experience; the same operating system, the same upgrades, the same screen, built-in software, everything. Because of this there are certain unwritten guarantees for both the consumer and the developer: we won’t change anything overnight, there will be no surprises, your software will work and you will spend more time enjoying yourself. Simple and effective. Does this overt control that Apple provides make any of it less appealing? Are their predictable releases or updates any less exciting? Ask the swathes of people attending Apple’s sold-out WWDC on June 7th.

Yes, there may be some developers leaving Apple’s ecosystem citing too much control, but I think the sentiment is somewhat overblown. Really, for those with development history stretching back thirty years or so, we have never had it so good. To have a system so personable to end-users, and so predictable for developers, to know that virtually every system out there will run your software and give a near identical experience to everyone else, that’s simply too good to pass up, even on principled grounds.

On balance I don’t think there will be any losers in this competition. Customers win because they get choice, and really choosing either ecosystem will provide plenty of returns for hard-earned cash. The speed of Google’s progression will invariably slow as their system matures making life calmer and more predictable for developers and consumers alike, and by the time that happens it’ll likely be on an infinite number of handsets from an infinite number of providers around the globe. Apple will in all likelihood have to relinquish at least some of its control, thereby giving back some of what it had taken away, and appeasing many of the doom-sayers around the wires at the same time as selling huge numbers of their singularly focused handsets. Any distinct software or hardware improvements on either side will likely be duplicated by the other in short shrift.

So if you ever hear anyone arguing vehemently for one or the other, feel comfortable in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter which side faces upwards, they are both technological giants in their respective fields, and will, in all likelihood, forever be part of the same coin.