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!