Archive for July, 2010

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 Despite its rather outdated and inaccurate nomenclature, iTunes really is pretty special, particularly for Apple, but it is merely the start of things to come.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.

Is gaming beginning to run out of ideas?

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

This was a question posted in a recent discussion on LinkedIn. I enjoy these discussions. They often throw out a plethora of views and opinions, many worth taking note of. And of course I am fortunate enough to be endowed with a smattering of industry knowledge that can lend grist to the mill. So, my take on gaming running out of ideas?

Well, the simple fact is, the games business is now far more about the “business” than it is the “games”.

Way back in the 80s when the whole gaming shebang kicked off, backroom boys were writing games that they wanted to write, then selling them to the highest publishing bidder. Elite, one of the most famous, was originally a labour of love of Braben and Bell, before being bought and released by Acornsoft and Firebird et al.

But since then, AAA projects have simply grown too big and too expensive to be developed by two college kids in a garage. Because of this, funding is typically required to take teams through from beginning to end, and such funding will, in all likelihood, need to be repaid, usually with interest. So, the less risk with the project, the more likely it is that the funders will get a return on their investment.

And such risk is the milk on the cornflakes of marketers, managers, lawyers, financiers, people to whom the latest blockbuster game, with cutting edge ray tracing, full physics, and orchestras blaring out in Dolby surround sound, is simply a sku, an RRP, a target demographic and a sales forecast. In all my years I found very few that actually played games, or had that much interest in what their company was actually producing. And to be fair, this is no different to any other industry, after all, what financial controller really cares about the internals of the EMU that sits in the submarine engine they’ve just funded? (thank you Discovery)

So the bigger the business has got, the further away the “creatives” have got from the people steering, funding and controlling the ship. And they have people they need to answer to, and so do they, and so on. So, is it any wonder, when the ships are so big, the funding so large, the risks so great, and so many people need to be kept happy, that companies such as EA and Disney stick to tried and trusted formulae? Not at all. But does that mean the games industry is running out of ideas? Of course not. The flash, mobile and social spaces are all throwing out fresh, new ideas ten-to-the-dozen, and even in big business many interesting new ideas get through the net; back when I was working for Gremlin and Infogrames, my team were fortunate enough to be able to develop and release Hogs Of War at a time when all the other teams in the studio were producing sports games.

There’s always something new and interesting out there, and we as interested parties have two choices; we can keep our eyes and wallets peeled, supporting the less mainstream releases as much as we can (here’s looking at you Ico), or we can take a step out of the corporate machine and head out on our own with only our wit, creativity and development tools to guide us towards creating the Next Big Thing.

Either way is perfectly fine by me.