Tuesday, April 28, 2009

....in which the mobile e-book needs Mr Whoopee's 3-D Blackboard

You would think by now I'd have become a convert to reading e-books on an iPhone or BlackBerry. I mean come on,

  • I'm an avid reader, I generally am working through two or three books at a time, and there's always a book on my nightstand
  • I'm certainly not technophobic....I am on my laptop most of the day and being in the smartphone app development business I generally have a BlackBerry and iPhone with me most of the time
  • I travel fairly often and hate to carry more baggage than absolutely necessary, but always take a book or two
  • I already do a lot of reading on my smartphone, I subscribe to a good twenty or more blogs or newsfeeds which I check on almost daily
  • I have a vested interest in promoting and using smartphone apps myself, even to the point of making myself use them when they aren't always productive for me.
So why is it that it is the year 2009 and despite owning every smartphone manufactured since the dawn of time I am still happily doing my part in deforesting the planet by ordering more paper-based books every month?

As a person deeply committed to the success of smartphones and mobile applications, this question bothers me, so every six months or so I try once again to get past my inability to enjoy reading on my mobile device. Now I have not yet tried Amazon's Kindle, although I've heard good things about it, and I suppose someday I will break down and buy one, its kind of inevitable. But the success or non-success of Kindle doesn't bother me so much. My real nagging question is why can't I seem to get hooked on e-books in the first place?

About a month ago I read where Amazon had released a Kindle-compatible reader app for the iPhone. "Aha!" I figured, "this will not only give me a chance to try out the Kindle purchase process, but maybe it will also finally wean me off of my paper book habit!"

So I downloaded the app to my iPhone, and within an hour I had purchased a couple of books on Amazon.

To give credit where credit is due, the purchase and downloading process could not have been simpler. I selected some titles I was interested in on amazon.com, purchased them, and literally within minutes the titles appeared on my iPhone in the Kindle app. Very painless. Couldnt be easier. So far so good. Now I can read whenever and wherever I want!

More than a month later, I haven't gotten past page 20 of either of the two books I purchased!

How can this be? I swear I have given it the old college try several times now. And its not that the books didn't turn out to be any good - I have since purchased and read both books in paper-based formats and enjoyed them. And its not even about eye-strain - honestly I haven't even been able to force myself into a long enough reading session with an e-book to worry about eye-strain.

I wish I had an explanation, but I don't - my latest attempt at e-book reading was about as (un)successful as my similar tries with my BlackBerry, as well as various Windows Mobile and Palm PDA's and smartphones over the years. The purchase process this time definitely was improved, but somehow the reading part (which is the whole point) just isn't working for me.

Here are some theories:

1. The smartphone form factor is just not suited for long-form reading. Jeff Bezos was interviewed on Charlie Rose earlier this year about the new Kindle 2, and Bezos was adament that the Kindle screen and body are designed the way they are because it provides a pleasurable reading experience. I believe he must be right about this, reading anything more than a short news clip on my iPhone just doesn't seem pleasurable at all.

2. The small screen just doesn't allow the book to become immersive enough. To enjoy a book you really have to be able to lose yourself in its pages, to the point where you don't even think about turning the pages themselves, it just happens as part of your devouring of the books contents. On an iPhone, there just isn't enough content on any one page to allow you to lose yourself in the story before you have to "turn the page". Even the smallest paperback books have way more on the printed page than can fit on a single iPhone screen.

The general sensation I get when I try to read a book on an iPhone is like if I was trying to read a sentence where I was only able to see one word at a time. Yes I could read that sentence and at the end even comprehend what the sentence meant. But reading that way is much too mechanical, you can't really soak up enough of the content at any one time to give your brain enough to chew on before you have to get back into the mechanical page turning part.

Yes I am aware that there are people out there who are enjoying e-books on their BlackBerry or iPhone. Unfortunately I'm not one of them, and its kinda disappointing because if enough people enjoyed reading e-books, it would be another really great reason for more people to own one of these wonderful devices. I suppose if I was shipwrecked on desert island with nothing but my iPhone and a bunch of e-books, yes I'd learn to enjoy reading that way as best I could. But with real books as an alternative in real life, I just don't see it.

Way back, probably before any of you were born, there was an old cartoon tv show Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had many wonderful and funny characters. One of the characters was professor Phineas J Whoopee (aka "Mr. Whoopee") who would use his magical 3-dimensional blackboard to explain various scientific principles to Tennesee Tuxedo (a penguin) and his buddy Chumley (a walrus). Mr. Whoopee's 3-d blackboard was small enough to put in your pocket, but when you took it out you could stretch it and resize it to be as big as you wanted.

I solemnly promise, as soon as Apple announces a version of Mr. Whoopee's 3-D Blackboard, I will definitely give this e-book thing another try.


Friday, March 27, 2009

The iPhone 3.0 Announcement

Apple recently pre-announced their iPhone 3.0 smartphone operating system, and as usual there was much speculation, rumor and misinformation about what would be in it and what would be out.

Having gotten pretty deep into this iPhone world myself as both a developer and as a real consumer, I had my own "Christmas Wish List" for what I would have loved to see in the next major version:

1. Multitasking/background support for 3rd party apps
2. Native document support (word, excel, etc)
3. Some sort of file access/file syncing capability that is more obvious and mainstream than mobileme.
4. Server push data model
5. Support for different screen dimensions (pave the way for future models)

Well, as it turned out, I went only 1-for-5, which is a pretty poor batting average. In my defense, my thinking on this list was very much centered on Apple's prior stated intentions of making headway into the enterprise market, and the items on my list are for the most part all supported today by BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, Apple's main smartphone competition in the corporate world.

Instead, Apple announced the following:

1. Copy and Paste. For the life of me I don't get what all the hoopla was about with this feature. Its a minor utility feature on other phones, certainly nothing worthy of being a major new feature. Frankly I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually used copy/paste on my BlackBerry or other smartphone devices. In any case, not terribly relevant from a 3rd party application development perspective.

2. Push notification service. OK, this is something important, its something RIM has had forever in its BES/BIS server products, and it does enable a variety of interesting new ways to integrate local apps with server side functionality and content. All well and good, except for one thing......along with the push announcement came a pretty clear signal from Apple that they were *not* going to be supporting background processing anytime soon, and from their tone, perhaps not ever. Its hard for me to really understand, but Apple seems to have convinced itself that background app processing is evil, sucks the life from your battery, and causes global warming.

This is simply not true.

Yes, it opens the door for somebody to write a piggish app that runs in the background and which unnecessarily runs the battery down. But this ignores the fact that well-designed apps are well-behaved and use background processing sparingly. I get easily a full day out of my BlackBerry Bold, and thats with several apps "running" in the background. "Running" is a strong word, as for the most part these apps are idle and doing absolutely nothing. Some of them, including The Weather Channel app that we designed, periodically request new data from the server and thus can proactively update my weather content without me having to constantly ask for it. This periodic server request has virtually no impact on performance or battery life, and is a key feature of the app. The way Apple has described Push, this feature is simply not possible on iPhone. Yes it is possible to send a weather update notification from a server to the iPhone, but the user would have to get notified and must physically stop what they are doing, close their current app, and launch into the weather channel app in order to retrieve the new forecast. If the user decides to ignore the notification, they don't get the update.

Not good. Apple, if you are listening, please add multitasking support for 3rd party apps. By not doing so, you rule out and make impossible a whole slew of interesting and useful kinds of applications and features.

3. Accessories. Apple is now opening up the device a bit to allow for 3rd party hardware accessories to work with the iPhone. This is great, it offers all kinds of possibilities ranging from healthcare monitors to peripheral connections to fitness accessories like Nike Plus.

4. Maps. Another nice move, as there are now hundreds of apps that use maps and location based services, all of which have had to figure out how to integrate maps and do their own geocoding. Again, BlackBerry has had this for a while.

5. In-App Purchase. This sounds good at least in theory. The 3.0 announcement seemed to indicate that this opens the door to apps allowing users to purchase additional features or extended app usage or accessories, right from within the app. But its not clear to me yet how this will work or what types are scenarios will truly be allowed. From what I've read, I don't believe this will allow for try-buy scenarios, nor is it terribly clear that it will support a subscription based commerce model, or whether it will be possible to check a consumer's payment status from within the app.

There were other things announced as part of 3.0, but these were the main announcements (or in the case of multitasking, non-announcements!). Stay tuned as more details come out, along with presumably some new iPhone models later in the year.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Weather Channel 2.0, great brands, and why the long silence....

Wow, a long time since I last wrote anything in this space!

Lame for a blog, yes I know, but all I can say is that its been an incredibly busy six months for me and for my company Bachmann Software. Bucking the current economic trend, we have literally been inundated with great iPhone application development projects, as well as BlackBerry work and even Android seems to be coming up more and more.

At times I feel like we are trying to drink from a firehose, but one good thing about seeing so many potential projects cross my desk is that we are fortunate to be able to choose some really cool ones. One client in particular, The Weather Channel in Atlanta, has partnered with Bachmann Software now for three years, and during that time we've created most of their native mobile weather applications for BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm and other platforms.

About 6 months ago, TWC tapped us to create their first iPhone application, and while we worked hard to complete it, it was a great experience, and both we and our client were so pleased with the results. TWC for iPhone even enjoyed some time in the top 10 download list on the App Store, and enjoyed excellent reviews.

Last week we completed version 2.0 of The Weather Channel for iPhone, which adds animated radar maps, traffic cams, improved graphics, and many other improvements. It also featured integrated advertising banners (which predictably elicited howls of protest from many users, which I will talk about in an upcoming blog post!)

Seeing great brands and great content like The Weather Channel make their way onto mobile devices is a fairly recent trend, and my belief is that its an important one. For years, third party downloadable applications for mobile devices have been a hodgepodge of titles from companies with unfamiliar names and even individual programmers.

While this has resulted in lots of innovation in the market, from the consumer standpoint my observation has been that finding a good software product is a confusing process. How is a consumer to know that XYZ Software's mousetrap is better than ABC Company's mousetrap? Often it comes down to trial and error, and unfortunately a few bad experiences is enough to sour some smartphone users on the whole idea.

Seeing well known brands and popular content come to market as mobile applications by no means guarantees a quality experience for the user, but its a familiar face in the crowd, and I believe it encourages more users to take the plunge and try out both unfamiliar as well as familiar titles. If an iPhone user has a good experience with The Weather Channel, I think they will be that much more likely to go back to the app store and try out some less familiar titles.

Anyway.....the bottom line is we've been crazy busy and thats a Good Thing, but its high time I recommitted myself to writing my thoughts down on this wonderful crazy insane mobile industry. Expect to see much more activity here!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

iPhone 2.0 -- First Day Challenges and Initial App Store Thoughts

Last Friday, like thousands of other owners of the first-gen iPhone, I was caught in the 2.0 upgrade mess, which for several hours wound up "bricking" my phone. ("bricking" is a tech-lingo word for your phone being totally disabled, it turns into a brick). Luckily my iPhone is not my primary phone so I was able to patiently wait until the iTunes network became unclogged enough to allow the upgrade to proceed and reactivation of my phone to complete. But I sympathize with iPhone owners for whom it is their primary phone for business or personal use, what a fiasco, and how stressful to lose your phone for a day or more.

Lots of griping and yelling on the internet boards about this, and this time its well deserved. Although Apple can certainly spin it and crow about the outage being caused by unprecedented demand for the iPhone 3g and 2.0 updates, that would be really twisting things around. Apple and its fanclub seems to enjoy the high drama of 1st day product launches with lines of people sleeping outside stores for the chance to buy their products. But I'm sorry, purchasing an Apple product should not be like trying to score front row seats to a U2 concert. Most people just want to buy the product, have it work, and go on with their lives. Friday was simply mayhem, and its hard to fathom how Apple could not have been better prepared for high demand on their iTunes network based on the huge hype that preceded launch day.

After completing the upgrade, existing iPhone owners may indeed find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about. A casual review of the 2.0 home screen and built in apps doesn't reveal much has changed. Yes there is MobileMe as a sync option, but I don't know what percentage of iPhone users will feel the need to spend money on this service. Two other improvements are support for 3G and GPS, but if you have a 1st gen iPhone, these aren't going to be there anyway.

So that leaves the new App Store as being arguably the most significant new feature for iPhone users (for 1st gen owners, but also perhaps for 3G owners as well). Once I had 2.0 loaded on my iPhone and the requisite 7.7 iTunes upgrade, I spent a considerable amount of time over the weekend nosing around the App Store to see what was available and what the purchase/download/install process was like.

The App Store gave me a lot of timeouts when trying to purchase/download apps. These problems seem to be easing up now a few days later, but on the first couple of days, I frequently was unable to purchase or download an app due to the iTunes network being busy. iPhone enthusiasts will no doubt persist and be determined to get those apps, but the unfortunate downside is you have people out there who have no time or patience to figure out why they can't buy "Super Monkeyball", and they will give up and never return. As iPhone sales grow, its inevitable that they will fall into the hands of people who aren't enthusiasts and simply don't have the time to push past these initial problems. In my view, its really unacceptable to have these problems on such a long-anticipated launch day. Imagine you open your own store on main street and the store is jammed with eager buyers on opening day....but the cash register doesn't work and your employees don't show up. Not a good start.

Getting to a more positive note, I was pretty impressed with how easy it was to get apps onto your device, it melded pretty well with the existing iTunes purchase process. Apps download to the device just like music does, they automatically transfer during sync. Pretty streamlined, and transparent to the user. I saw no sign of any "installer", which has always been an ugly part of purchasing any apps, whether desktop or mobile.

In particular, the iTunes app purchase and installation process puts RIM's offering to shame. RIM has a basic online storefront for BlackBerry apps, but that's all. You purchase there, download to your PC, then you have to figure out how to use the BlackBerry Desktop to locate and install your app. There are many steps in this process, very error prone, especially for non-techie users. I've always felt that iTunes was the secret to iPod's success, and here once again, iTunes demystifies and simplifies the complicated process of getting 3rd party apps onto a mobile device. Kudos to Apple on this one, great job.

So what kind of applications are available on the store? After browsing through most of the categories on the store, they got facebook, they got myspace, they got namco games, they got sega to do a game. Handmark has a version of Express. But out of 500 apps, the vast majority of it appears to be fairly humdrum stuff that performs some small task or convenience or amusement for the user. These apps got a lot of attention because of the big launch, but these aren't apps that would normally excite your average user.

I noted many versions of the same app: lots of "todo lists", "shopping lists", "show me where restaurants are nearby on a map", and "calculate the tip". I had imagined that Apple was going to take a strong stance on the level of polish and quality required for apps on the store, but its not apparent to me that Apple put too strong a filter on what it would allow. Maybe they did do some quality checking, but they certainly didn't do the customer any favors by making them decide which of 30 tip calculators to download (an exaggeration, but I'm making a point).

This is a big problem with competing stores like Handango and Motricity, there's just too much stuff up there and it confuses the customer. I was hopeful (and I still am) that ultimately the App Store will not become another "software flea market", and instead will be a place where iPhone customers can go to learn about and purchase high-quality applications that deliver high value-add to the iPhone experience. With apologies to the many developers out there who want their moment in the sun, my view is that an anything-goes open store policy is not what the marketplace needs.

App prices are shockingly low. I saw almost nothing that’s more than $9.99. And *lots* of complaining about high prices from early reviewers of those 9.99 apps. Given that most of the "name" apps are native app clients for website services, I guess I'm not surprised. There's nothing here that is so clearly momentously high-value to charge much for. Hopefully that will change (I am biased being in the software business of course), as I believe customers will want to pay money for high-value apps as long as they get quality. That's how it works in the non-software world anyway. Regarding the app reviews, Apple needs to step in and make sure that the review section does not become a pile of garbage. Legitimate product reviews should come from customers who have tried the app. There's no place for people posting garbage reviews like "$9.99 for xyz app? Are they crazy?".

Regarding the free applications - there are lots, and I'm not against free, but I have to wonder whats the business model and how are those apps going to be sustained and supported. Most of them are not geared towards advertising revenue. If you aren't charging anything for an app, and have no upsell strategy to a paid-for version, what's the relationship between the developer and the customer? There is none. That has its place in the world, but thats not the model I want new iPhone customers to come away with. If a first time app downloader grabs a bunch of free apps that don't work well, don't have the necessary features, aren't supported, or never get updated, that will sour them on 3rd party apps overall, and that would be a shame.

Where are the "business apps"?. Kind of shocking given the big "We are going after Enterprise" noise Apple has made. No document editing/viewing/anything. I guess as far as Apple is concerned, documents do not exist? How are you a year into the launch of iPhone, yet you aren't recognizing that Palm, Windows Mobile, Symbian and (finally) BlackBerry all bundle document support on their devices? Hopefully this will be rectified soon.

Stepping back, I'm probably being too hard on Apple, after it all the whole thing is only 1 day old, and I'm the last to complain about a company that has clearly paid a good amount of attention to getting apps in their customers hands. But its as if they paid only just enough attention to make sure that the app store came into existence, but that’s where it ended.....I still smell a whiff of the same "flea market" atmosphere that is found on other mobile app stores. Apple threw open the doors, but didn't go out and really get enough serious 3rd party apps on the shelf in categories that count to serious application buyers, and at the same time they allowed hordes of developers to sneak in and set up shop with fairly inconsequential apps. So at least as of my first experience, I'm kind of disappointed. I hope and assume things will get better with time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Apple iPhone, Take 2

Yesterday at the Apple developer conference, Steve Jobs publicly unveiled the iPhone 3G. Scheduled to be widely available on June 11th, the new version of the iPhone introduces the following key features:

GPS radio for location tracking
3G wireless for faster internet
Microsoft Exchange integration for enterprise customers
App Store for purchasing and downloading add-on native applications

(along with other more minor improvements, go to www.apple.com to get the full specs)

It seemed like the entire world was on hold yesterday waiting for the big announcement. Others may differ, but the unveiling was a bit underwhelming for me. Don't get me wrong, I have an iPhone and I think its a really nice product. But GPS and Exchange Integration is really just playing catchup with the other leading devices out there in the marketplace. I've had GPS on my BlackBerry for quite some time now. With regard to 3G, we will have to see what coverage and real performance improvements over EDGE it will bring in the US market. For sure though, even if its just an incremental rather than revolutionary improvement, the new features are welcome for those who already have bought into iPhone.

Many are writing about and comparing the "iPhone 2.0" with the newly announced BlackBerry Bold. Although perhaps an interesting comparison, the solutions are extremely different, and its not even just about what the device is like.

Let's talk about enterprise sales. Many are wondering if RIM should be worried now. Well, let's give RIM some credit here....they've been working in the enterprise mobile market for years and years....this is Apple's first try. Apple has some things to prove, not the least of which is that corporate america is ready and willing to buy Apple products. Palm tried mightily but overall failed to capture more than a fraction of enterprise, they simply were not able (for many reasons) to crack the market.

Will Apple do better? Its easy for them to say they will, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Competition is good for the marketplace, and there is certainly room for a solution like iPhone in the enterprise, but RIM has done EXTREMELY well in this realm to date, and I don't think anyone should be writing an R.I.P. for them anytime soon. Few talk about it, but RIM has their Enterprise Server (BES) which provides a huge competitive advantage over other smartphone devices in that it provides the control, configuration, integration and management that enterprise customers need to deploy mobile devices and applications to their employees.

From my perspective as a mobile applications developer, the most interesting advance announced here was the availability of an "App Store" for customers to purchase add-on native apps for the iPhone. Neither RIM nor any other player in this market has executed successfully on the concept of driving sales of add-on applications, short of bundling them outright on a device. I am very hopeful that Apple will be successful with their applications store, and we for sure will be creating applications for this platform and storefront. What I haven't seen yet is how the App Store will be relevant to enterprise customers and how they procure and install add-on apps.

What I can say is if Apple is not successful in cracking the enterprise market, it still is perhaps the best consumer-oriented solution available, given its integrated media capability and fantastic user interface.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

WES 2008, Final Day

Today wrapped up WES 2008, the yearly BlackBerry conference. A half-day's worth of sessions, and I sat in on some good ones, like yesterday the best one was run by RIM's Mike Kirkup and focused on some best practices in BlackBerry application development.

Overall a really great show, and BlackBerry is a great platform and represents significant opportunity moving forward, not just for RIM, but for solution providers and application developers. There seemed to be extra emphasis on ISVs this week - an expanded Solutions Showcase, many sessions geared towards commercial software application development, the addition of Documents To Go to the BlackBerry platform, and the announcement of the new BlackBerry venture capital fund.

I've been a mobile application developer since 1996 and along with my company Bachmann Sofware we've watched many mobile platforms rise, some failing immediately, some thriving for a while then failing, and some continuing to gain strength and momentum over the years. BlackBerry at present falls into this latter category. There is an aura of excitement about RIM, its BlackBerry devices, the platform, and the overall ecosystem which I have not seen since the early heady days of Palm in the late 90's. We as application developers dream about opportunities like the one BlackBerry presents, so I return from WES today excited about continuing to work with this growing platform.

I also leave the show with many ideas for new blog topics....watch this space for more thoughts on the Mobile Movement!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

WES Show coverage continued

Today I continue my report from the BlackBerry WES show in Orlando.

After Monday being devoted to RIM Alliance member business, the past two days saw the show open up to a more general audience. There are a lot of attendees, I'm not sure of the number but it sure feels like more than last year's show.

The sessions I've attended have been well presented and contained good information. In my company I am a software developer, a business owner, business/partner development, and I even do some marketing, so I try to attend sessions covering a pretty wide range of topics. I learned about some areas of the BlackBerry solution that I had not known very much about, including BES and how "server push" works, some new areas of LBS/GPS functionality, and some presentations on clever products and solutions from different vendors.

The best session today was chaired by Mike Kirkup at RIM and included a panel of RIM's platform development group managers. To their credit, they stood up there and listened to a litany of problems, gripes and complaints from a fairly large group of developers who were struggling with development issues.

I'll give you an example of a big problem BlackBerry developers face: there are floating out there BlackBerry devices in use that have a very wide range of operating system versions on them. The new Bold runs OS 4.6, and 4.5 is about to hit the market as an upgrade to existing devices. Most 8800's, Curves and Pearls today ship with 4.2 or 4.3, depending on what the wireless carrier supports. An 8700 or 7130, which were the hot devices only a year or so ago, run 4.1 but are possibly running 4.2, 4.3 or even 4.5 (shortly). Older devices such as the 7290 are most likely running 4.0, but could be running a 3.x OS.

Why is this a problem?

Well, the way the development tools are set up, you have to specifically decide which target devices and OS versions will need to run your app, since this dictates the features your app can access. Yes its possible to write an application that runs on all devices new and old, but you would be sacrificing the ability to access any of the newer features that have been introduced along the way. If you decide you want to use a feature in your app that is only available in OS 4.3 or later (video streaming, for example) then your app will *only* run on devices which run OS 4.3 or later. This is all fine if you are a corporate developer writing an in-house app where you know exactly the devices used by your organization. But if you are a commercial application developer creating a business or consumer app, you have to worry about the range of devices and users that may attempt to download and install your app.

The folks at RIM have stated that roughly 75% of the market is running 4.2 or better. So putting it bluntly, if you use features in your app which require 4.2 or better, 25% of the BlackBerry users out there will not be able to use your app. In fact, if they try to install your app on their device, they will get strange and confusing error messages, or a crash, or both. Not good. Essentially, this forces many BlackBerry developers into a situation where they need to build and post multiple versions of their applications, each of which supports a different OS version. This is confusing to customers, a hassle for developers, and bad for RIM.

I'm the first to agree that its unreasonable to be expect to be able to create an app that magically runs on all OS versions....RIM could do it, but it would be a tremendous effort and a drag on their efforts to move the platform forward. But there needs to be a happy compromise....developers need to be able to produce an application with confidence that it will run on a reasonably large percentage of devices out there. Further, they need to be able to include features in their apps that take advantage of the newer devices, but which will still run on older devices. I know it sounds simple, but I realize its a burden on RIM. The panel at the session I attended recognized the problem, but it does not appear there is a near-term solution in sight. Lets hope they go home to Waterloo and talk about the problem some more....an awfully large percentage of the developers in the audience indicated this issue is a problem for them.

Thats all for now - one more day at WES tomorrow, then back to the real world. Again, if you are at WES, give me a shout at glenn@bachmannsoftware.com.