Archive for June, 2010

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!

Small is Beautiful

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Most days I spend my time working from home. DigitalOrigins is a small company, and if I’m being honest, I like it that way. I’m not a traditional businessman, ever searching for a larger slice of the almighty dollar at the expense of everything else. I love the term “small is beautiful”, and I’m lucky enough to be working in an industry that shares the sentiment. The devices of the day are getting ever smaller and more beautiful, and giving people like me, and companies like DigitalOrigins, the opportunity to stay small, but still afford to pay the bills and enjoy the work being produced.

I read a short article recently about a small design company, Sagmeister Studio. Two designers share the workload, both do the work, both have a major stake in the business. On the rare occasion they will take on interns if they can commit full-time to the studio, otherwise it is just the two of them. And it is a conscious choice for the studio head, Stefan Sagmeister, as it is for me, both enjoying the challenge as well as the efficient and focused work ethic that the situation enforces. But for me probably the biggest driver is actually being instrumental in the creation process. Stefan put it better than I could:

If I would want to become a manager I would much rather go to business school and work on Wall Street where you actually have some challenges.

The work we do is challenging and creative, and being involved at the grass-roots level just feels right. Such intimate connection by everyone in the company can’t help but be good for my colleagues, DigitalOrigins as a whole, and especially our customers and clients. As Sagmeister adroitly put it, “We love our job”, and I hope when dealing with me, as well as the company, a little of that shines through.

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.