Archive for October, 2010


October 31st, 2010 dotted line

The iPad and Favorite Apps

I’ve had an iPad now for three months. In that time, I’ve barely touched my laptop.

Some observations:

1. For content consumption, the form factor is compelling. The book analogy is apt – I hold it like a book, it’s closer to my face and eyes, and it encourages and facilitates sharing with others. I use it in a much larger range of situations than I would a laptop, and more often – in bed, on the street, at a cafe. It’s tactile – using my fingers to touch and interact and engage with media / content can seem more direct when compared to keyboard and mouse.

However, while it facilitates increased consumption, it isn’t always the best tool for efficient consumption – if I have a backlog of Google Reader articles I want to go through, I’ll use the keyboard and mouse on my desktop, which are vastly more efficient still for most tasks. Ironically, it’s given me a greater appreciation of how important the development of the mouse, keyboard and windows-based UIs have been to the overall advance of the computer age. The iPad encourages shallow consumption – if I need to analyze and synthesize information, this usually means flicking between several web pages and applications at the same time, which means my desktop.

Pages in Mobile Safari also load more slowly than on my desktop and laptop. The difference is that I can be lying in bed or at a cafe with my iPad, in a relaxed state, and on my terms – that alone is compelling.

Native mouse and keyboard support in the OS is really needed if the iPad is to become an efficient content creation tool. I’m creating this post in the WordPress app, but using the Bluetooth keyboard without a mouse is cumbersome and much slower compared to a laptop.

2. Portability – 1.5 pounds, which is just light enough to not have to think about slipping in a bag when going out. It’s still much better than most netbooks or laptops, will only get lighter (and include more features – front and back cameras), and is reasonably robust (a one-piece slab, with flash memory).

3. Instant on, casting the computer as personal information appliance. I took it on a holiday to NYC, and got into the habit of taking it out of my bag, using GPS to quickly figure out which street I was on, and getting directions to my next destination. It removes the time tax on using a computer to get information.

4. Battery life, something less to worry about because the iPad seems to go for days on a single charge. Not true for laptops and cell phones, where I have to remember to plug in every night.

5. Fit-for-use OS. The UI is finger-centric, and you won’t see many carryovers from the mouse and keyboard world, one of my frustrations with Windows Tablet PCs.

6. Unlocked with no contract, for me, the tipping point. I’m able to reactivate my monthly data plan with ATT whenever I want and as I need (if I’m holiday elsewhere in the US, for example), and when I was in Australia, simply slipped in a Micro SIM from Optus to get 3G coverage there.

7. GPS, and location-based apps, which are going to be huge as smartphones continue to become a bigger part of our lives (although I’m still a holdout). Take for example, Zillow, which allows me to see every house for sale overlaid on a map of my current location, along with photos, description, agent contact details, price history, and a price estimate.

8. Many native apps appear to exist to address the fact that a browser web app is not the most effective way to access information on the iPad. However, more websites are being created specifically for iPad use – Yahoo mail and Gmail have particularly good implementations – and this should be a growing trend, as it allows companies to bypass the App Store’s restrictions.

Which apps have gotten the most use? Here are my top fifteen, in rough order of use, with category classification and listings of other apps of note:

Reading

1. Instapaper ($4.99) – One could argue that reading is the iPad’s raison d’ĂȘtre, and Instapaper is the reading app I use the most. It allows for deep reading by presenting downloaded web pages and with all advertising and other site context removed. Every article, no matter where it comes from, is presented the same way – simple text on a page. With many other apps providing Instapaper support, and article recommendation websites (eg. longform.org) built around Instapaper, an ecosystem is developing, which augurs well for folks who appreciate the written word.

2. Feeddler RSS Reader Pro ($4.99) – My second-most used app. I’ve purchased and tried Reeder as well, but in the end, Feeddler best suits the way I browse my feeds – by folder, then by feed.

3. Amazon Kindle (free) – Seems to have a larger range of eBooks than iBooks, and more free books to boot. I’m currently reading The Rational Optimist, which was available free for a limited time – the hardback list price is $26.99.

Browsing

4. Atomic Web Browser ($0.99) – Addresses a number of Mobile Safari deficiencies: full-screen browsing (which Mobile Safari does not have), multi-tab support with tabs shown onscreen for quick switching, and concurrent loading of multiple pages.

Social

5. Twitter (free) – The UI is different, clean and effective. Along with InstaPaper’s Editor’s Picks, longform.org, and Google Reader, I use it to discover new articles of interest.

6. Friendly ($0.99) – A more iPad-friendly UI on top of Facebook.

7. Skype – For overseas calls – unfortunately, an iPad-native version doesn’t exist yet, and I use the iPhone app.

Media

8. Netflix (free) – If you live in the US, a NetFlix subscription is a no brainer, especially with a an imminent streaming-only option. When I was at home sick earlier this week, I watched The Thin Red Line in HD streaming, propped up in bed, coughing my lungs out. The NetFlix app also supports HDMI-out to your HDTV.

Others – ABC Player (current season episodes, in HD), VLC.

Discovery

9. App Shopper (free) – How I discover the majority of my apps, and my free apps.

Others – Wikipanion, Open Table, Zillow, Cool Hunting, Houzz, Kayak, TED, Flixster.

Music

10. GoodReader ($0.99) – A PDF reader which is in the music section because I use it to access my musical scores. The iPad screen is only 10 inches diagonally, and GoodReader distinguishes itself from other PDF readers by allowing you to create custom crops / viewport dimensions for each PDF. This lets you optimize the use of screen real estate and aspect ratio so that all notes on a page are displayed, but zoomed in to their largest possible size. I can see the iPad being a boon to musicians – instead of lugging around a number of books, all your scores are available to you and other collaborators in a drastically lighter package.

Others – AccuPlayer, Pandora. The streaming music apps will really come to the fore when Apple releases iOS 4 for the iPad, allowing this apps to play music in the background.

News

11. NYTimes (free) – A native UI on top of my favorite newspaper, with all current articles available (some opinion pieces are not).

12. ScoreCenter XL (free) – A native UI on top of ESPN; video highlights are available on the same page as the game recap.

13. WunderMap (free) – A map of your current location overlaid with temperature readings from weather stations in the area, and forecast information. Lightweight and ad-free, compared to some of the other weather apps, which are ad-heavy.

14. World Clock (free) – Includes a world map with areas of daylight and night.

Others – Flipboard, NPR.

Content Creation

15. Office2 HD ($7.99) – A number of document editing apps exist, but this one appears to have the most seamless integration with Google Docs. When you edit a doc and save it, it uploads it directly back to Google Docs – some other apps I’ve seen force you to download the file locally, and then manually re-upload it (where it then gets saved as a new Google Doc).

GamesTap Tap Revolution, Stick Golf, Angry Birds Halloween ($1.99).




October 17th, 2010 dotted line

No End in Sight (2008), Charles Ferguson

Also on Netflix Instant.

The most surprising thing about this film for me – in Charles Ferguson’s narrative, how seemingly clear and direct the causes were for the current tragedy that is Iraq – egregious, depressingly mundane, and avoidable. The initial post-invasion goodwill was rapidly, almost systematically dismantled and destroyed, creating an environment for insurgency.

The mistakes made provide learnings which can also be applied to any undertaking where a number of people are involved, and planning is needed.

  1. Insufficient (and bad) planning. An example: martial law was not immediately established, with no good reason for this other than senior leadership thinking it wasn’t necessary. This left a void for law, order and security, which was quickly filled by religious extremist groups.
  2. Advice of experts and people on the ground was ignored. During the planning stage, General Shinseki’s recommended number of troops for the occupation was questioned and dismissed, even though he had direct and recent experience with post-war occupation – and he was later proven right.
  3. People were not treated with dignity. The Iraqi army was dismissed, as well as the incumbent government, completely disregarding people’s basic needs – an opportunity to make a living with respect and dignity. The Green Zone post-invasion immediately created a clear “us and them” environment.
  4. Insufficient communication, both within senior leadership and through the entire organization, and among the key leaders, a general lack of critical thinking and thoughtfulness.
  5. No desire to seek out differing opinions, or speak with others to build consensus and buy-in. Not toeing the company line meant being removed from your position, eventually resulting in an organization of yes men – nepotism in government.




October 17th, 2010 dotted line

I Live in the Future (2010), Nick Bilton

Bilton has a good thesis, one which isn’t fully fleshed out until the end of the book. “We are all storytellers”. That’s what matters. At the heart of the digital revolution is simply the desire to find the best ways to consume and create our stories.

Notes

Google calls it “dog-fooding” – engineers using their own product (eg. Gmail). When creators choose not to use their own product, you know there’s a problem. Bilton himself, an editor at the NY Times, canceled his paper subscription – a clear sign things weren’t well in the newspaper business.

Storytelling is Nick’s common thread through his career, the common link through his forays into advertising, writing, photography, video, programming, UI design, etc. I suspect it could be mine too.

One of the reasons I like SF so much – it’s a place on the cutting edge of tech change, and tech change is a key driving force behind today’s media and social change. For a storyteller, this is unbearably compelling. Access is the key, and why China and other authoritarian countries are trying to control access to the Internet.

Digital is the distribution channel for content today, and its cost of delivery is virtually negligible. This is a wrenching change for many knowledge industries.

Nick’s introduction gives a summary at the chapter level of the entire book, something I’ve seen in other books of the same ilk.

Reporting (aka journalism)! Something I’d like to look at more.

“Morality sherrifs” (in his chapter on the porn industry).

Beginning a story without seeming to, so the flow of thought isn’t broken. I hate it when an author telegraphs this – it feels like they’re making you wait before they make their real point.

There is a long tail even in the porn business (niche tastes). Apparently this is where revenue is these days – these consumers will pay if the price is reasonable.

Two strategies for fighting the porn pirates without taking them to court (legal fees can cripple a fledgling business, and if you can’t fight ’em..) – 1) Upload preview clips from new, upcoming content to promote them, 2) post high quality clips for films which have low quality bootleg versions, to show consumers what they’re missing out on.

Gawker has a family of niche-targeted blogs, which are doing very well.

Niche, quality, immediacy and price. To that, add an experience for the consumer, whether its through social media to build a relationship with the customer, or live concerts.

The book is itself the story of the months Bilton spent doing the research for it. A person and personality comes through his writing, which makes the experience enjoyable.

When I have time (30 minutes+), I often choose long form reading (eg. a New Yorker article). However, in most cases I have less time than that, and prefer the immediacy and lower time requirements of RSS, Twitter, news articles, etc.

Compulsive consumption is a manifestation of “an effort to not miss anything”. The solution for this is what Bilton calls “anchoring communites”, which help him navigate the information flood. My term – “filters”. However, I can appreciate the reference to community – I feel I’m getting to know the people I follow on Twitter – sportsguy33, kottke, etc. Note that even filters are getting overloaded these days, and you could easily see filters on top of filters.

We have different relationships and dynamics between online and real-life friends, and it makes sense that the way we engage and treat them is different too.

Tipping points for adoption are different for everyone. For me, I got the iPad because it was unlocked, unlike the iPhone, which requires a contract. I finally started using Twitter because an iPad app (the official Twitter client) came out whose UI was universally praised.

Brands sell trust. These days, more individuals are becoming brands unto themselves. Eg. I trust Mick LaSalle’s movie recommendations, and so he is one of my filters.

Following. Often you just go with the group because you have no set agenda – if someone has more knowledge and starts moving with purpose, the group will follow.

“We were never born to read” – Proust. Similarly, our brains will also adapt to the needs of the new information age.

FPS games don’t work for me, because mastery of the interface (controller) hinders me. If there was a more intuitive interface (Wii, Natal), I would be more likely to enjoy the gaming experience.

A campfire experience (movies, concerts, etc.) – a group of people sharing a realtime experience – has now evolved to an experience shared in bits, and in non-realtime (sharing, social sites, etc.).

Price, quality, timeliness (current, latest, can purchase immediately), experience (which must be priced correctly). Price and fairness – many consumers will happily pay (the success of iTunes) if the price is just and commensurate with the experience. If pricing is egregiously high – eg. the WSJ annual subscription of $99 – they will stay away in droves.

Instapaper subverts the pay mechanism of eReaders. Instead of paying a subscription to read the New Yorker in book form, I use my iPad and Instapaper to download articles (the process of marking and saving articles is painless, which is key) and read them in a book format, a very similar experience, for free.

Digital speed is fast. It stands to reason that change also takes place quickly in this realm.

I am at the center of my digital world.

Idea: charge for personalization (ie. on the NY Times site), and price it appropriately.

Teenagers and young adults represent the hotbed and laboratory of change today – a dream anthropological field experiment if they happen to be your target audience.

“Brain research has been catapulted into the mainstream.”

Being able to tune out distractions, immersion, and control over the process, are hugely important in experiencing a movie in an enjoyable way – people are able to enjoy films on their iPods.

Some thoughts at the end of the book.

Stories and people drive human interaction, engagement and relationships (though not all stories are equally important). Digital media is evolving at a rapid and fascinating rate. Technology is providing ever increasing opportunities for individuals everywhere to reach and touch others with their stories.