Articles in the ‘iPhone’ Category

Handling iPhone App Ideas

There’s one question that I get asked a lot:

I’ve got this great idea for an app…… what do you think?

I run the mobile development team at my employer, a role that I really enjoy and feel privileged to be doing. I get to work with cutting edge technology, forward-thinking clients and brilliant developers and user experience experts. There’s always a flip side, and for this role it is filtering out the bad ideas from the good ones.

I've got an idea for an app

The process
I have a simple process for capturing and evaluating ideas: listen, write it down and do a quick estimate of effort and benefits. If the benefits do not heavily outweigh the effort, say thank you and move on.

That’s it in a nutshell, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Lets step through the process.

An idea will come from one of two sources:

  1. The media, or
  2. A personal need

Ideas based in the media
The request goes a bit like this:

Hi Steve, have you seen this article about this cool iPhone/android app? Well, I think we could do something similar (for the other platform)! It’d be great for [publicity/marketing/a demo/this client I have/making lots of money]. What do you think?

If I get a request like this alarm bells start ringing in my head. Clearly, someone else has already done this, and therefore has 3-6 months development time ahead if we were to start developing a rival app. Requests based on the media tend to be for porting android apps to iOS, and unless it’s an android-only developer, there’s likely to be a good reason why there’s no iOS version. Take the BBC 3G strength meter app. It’s only on android and I was asked if we could do an iPhone version. The answer was simply “no”. The long answer was, “do you really think the BBC wouldn’t have tried to make an iOS version? Of course they would have. It’s not possible. iOS doesn’t allow you that level of access to the phone’s hardware.”

The only time that an idea from the media would meet the benefits/effort threshold is if there was a direct client opportunity and the idea came from demand, rather than porting an app. Augmented Reality was a big buzz topic a few years ago, but finding a useful application for it for a client was a challenge, hence I didn’t make an AR app.

So, unless there’s a direct need for an app, it’ll go into my big black book of ideas for a rainy day.

My big black book of ideas

Ideas from personal need
The best ideas for apps come from genuine need. You can quote me on that. When someone comes up to me and says,

I’ve got this problem, I need to …… I thought it could work as an app?

I listen and I’m always much more hopeful. If someone has a need, then you can bet that other people have that need too. It may be something like large manuals or reference information for a specific sport e.g. SCUBA diving, or an app that collects a lot of information together and displays it usefully. These are the kinds of apps that I like people to talk to me about, and that straight away get to the top of the to-do list.

Which app to do first?
This is a tricky question, but it should be one that you can answer. Follow this formula:

Potential audience * USP / effort

  1. Your potential audience, on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is “just you” and 10 is “every phone owner”
  2. USP (Unique Selling Point) on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is “It’s a twitter app” and 10 is “best idea ever, never been done before, it’ll revolutionise the way we live”
  3. Effort is a 1-10 scale of how long it’ll take you to make the USP work (1 is short time, 10 is long time). It is not how long until you can get a first release out, it is how much effort will it take to create the hook for users.

So, for a basic twitter app, you will end up with a formula of 8*1/4 = 2. For an app for flight controllers, you’d get 3*7/7 = 3, so you’d be better-off spending your time on the flight controllers app. Either way, they’re both not very high scores, so you may want to keep looking for better ideas.

Yes, I know it’s a contrived example, and that it won’t apply in every case, but give it a go if you are given a few ideas and don’t know which one to do.

What next?
Once you’ve got your good idea, don’t ignore any other ideas that come your way. Keep writing them down, keep doing the analysis, and you’ll always have an idea in your pocket to fall back upon. You may have so many good ideas that you’ll have to hire some more developers to work on more apps, and that is a very good problem to have.

iPad 2: the Porsche school of “all new design”

iPad 2 - an "all new design"

The iPad 2 may be an “all new design”, but Apple attended the same school as Porsche, making few changes on the surface and lots under the hood.

Does anyone here own a Porsche? No, me neither. However, I have been lucky enough to have driven one and I watch top gear all the time (which clearly makes me an expert in such matters). I can confidently say that since 2003, two “new” Boxster models have been released, and the shell shape, which apparently is better than ever, has not changed. In the same way, the iPad 2 is a complete redesign, and yet nothing has really changed. Though that’s not a bad thing.

What changed on the Boxster is the same that has happened on the iPad, the engine and electrics got a big tweak, and it’s whats under the hood that really matters.

White 2010 Porsche Boxster

For the iPad, they have a new processor, the heart of the beast. It is (likely to be) a ARM Cortex A9 dual core CPU, meaning it can multi-thread better and reduce power consumption per calculation thanks to architecture improvements. This gives it the same 10 hour battery life as the old model. That means it’s faster too, a bit like every new Porsche is faster than the last. It’s also a bit lighter, thanks to improved manufacturing processes meaning they can get rid of the wall and taper the edges of the device. it’s not a big improvement there, only 60g saved, but the feel of the thing has changed for the better, another thing that Porsche will tell you makes the new model an essential purchase.

Yes, the iPad 2 has new features: the cameras and gyroscope. However, these are sanity factors and the iPad is simply catching up with it’s older siblings. There was nothing unexpected in the announcement, a very nice looking cover and an HDMI connector being welcome but nothing out of the ordinary. This is very much a “tock” product, with the innovation to come in the next version.

Is it worth it?
Is it an essential purchase? Well, like with the Porsche, if you already have one and want a new one, you have more money than sense. But if you don’t, like all Porsches, it’s very, very tempting and will make you the envy of your friends for the next 6 months until the next one comes out

Emily vs the iPad

Emily and the iPad

Emily and the iPad

Aaargh! I hate this stupid thing! Why won’t it do what I ask it to do!

I heard this cry coming from the living room one evening. My fiancée, Emily, was trying to use my beloved iPad to write an e-mail. “What’s it done this time?”, I politely inquire in response.
“Everything!” came the reply, “All I want to do is send an e-mail, how hard can it be!”

Always wanting to help (like the loving husband-to-be I am) I show her how to copy and paste, move the cursor and find the comma key on e-mail layout keyboards, but then it struck me, why is this so hard? So, I asked her to sit down with me and tell me all of the problems that a real person(tm) has with Apple’s latest gadget.

“Firstly, before I met you, I hadn’t ever used a Mac. I had heard they were just for designers and arty-farty people, but they’re just normal computers for every-day use. This is not about not understanding Macs, this is about the iPad. Also, I love the long battery life, and I really like the screen, it’s brilliant.”

“I’m a Hotmail user, and I can’t get more than 50 messages when I’m using the Mail app. Your GMail account works fine, searches on the server and everything, but Hotmail is a second-class citizen and doesn’t get all the features it should. It also doesn’t sync read/unread items back to the web interface (which I use most of the time) so I don’t know what I’ve read and what I haven’t.”

“There’s no iPad app for Facebook. The iPhone version on the iPad looks rubbish, as do all iPhone-specific apps. The visual quality is really poor and not what I’ve come to expect from the iPad.”

“I’m left-handed, and sometimes the iPad doesn’t pick up the gestures that I make. Tapping on an icon sometimes sends me to the search screen! The whole interface seems to have been made for right-handed people.”

“Moving the cursor around when entering text is painfully slow and really inaccurate. When I’m moving it the magnifying glass is right under my finger so that doesn’t help at all! When my wrist touches the screen the whole screen moves and suddenly jumps to the bottom which is infuriating.”

“It’s heavy. For a girl, it’d be nice to have it in a handbag, but the iPad is too large and heavy for that. It wouldn’t fit in 80% of my handbags and any it would fit in would also take a 13″ laptop, which would be far more useful.”

“I’ve not played many games on any platform so I can’t compare the iPad to anything else like that. Still, the games I play on it are fun, if a little pointless.”

“Getting stuff on to it is hard. iTunes is an issue and if you don’t use Google/MobileMe, something like Dropbox or have your work e-mail on it, it’s even harder to put stuff on it. It needs a USB port to load documents on. The camera connection kit is good, but it’s pretty slow.”

“There’s no Flash support for it, and to me that’s critical. For example, checking the weather on the BBC, I can get the basic information but the radar weather map doesn’t work. Sites that have their own video player, like Wedding TV1 don’t work, and for me, that seriously hampers its usefulness”

“I want web sites to work the same on the iPad as they do on the PC. These ‘Mobile-optimised’ sites are suitable for the iPhone, but not for the iPad and they shouldn’t come up (N.B. this is referring to the Hotmail mobile web interface). I don’t want to have to learn another interface. If I wanted just e-mail, I’ll use the Mail app, but since I want the web site in the browser, show me the actual web site!”

“It’s just not an improvement on a laptop for the situations where I’d use it. If I wanted something that size I’d take a laptop instead as it’s has a DVD drive, all my music and all my web sites.”

“All that said, it’s a brilliant device that has its purposes and has generally replaced the laptop for general Internet browsing, but for what I want something that kind of size to do, it just doesn’t do it.”

1 Yes boys, it exists, it’s on Sky.

These aren’t the typical usability problems that his lordship Neilsen came up with, they represent problems of someone who uses Macs, works with a computer every day, and still has issues getting things done on the iPad. To be honest, some days I do too (discovering that yet another web site uses Flash is a classic).

What gets me is that many of these can be resolved by Apple and their close partners: making Hotmail work better with Mail, doing more testing with left-handed users, Facebook releasing an iPad app, Hotmail turning off the mobile site for the iPad, making the iPad render pixel-doubled iPhone apps properly (I refuse to believe that text can’t be made smooth), and finally making iTunes work better for file management (or enabling people to use explorer/finder).

The moral of the story is whilst you can’t please everyone with your designs, don’t think solely about your target audience. Try to think about the people around them who will use the device and make sure it works for them too. If you’re after a more practical use for this story, learn that the iPad isn’t perfect, in fact, it’s far from it. I still believe it’s the best that’s out there, and I’d love Emily to get her hands on a Galaxy Tablet to compare the two. We’ll have to wait to see what 2011 and Android 3.0 and the BlackBerry Playbook can bring to the table to gauge if the iPad has a real competitor which can make my fiancée happy!

Executive Summary: Flash vs HTML5

Flash CS5 boxSo, infamously, the iPhone OS doesn’t support Flash, encouraging its users to use the advantages of the webkit-based Safari to overcome any challenges that a lack of Flash can present. Last year, Adobe announced that in Flash CS5, you’d be able to convert it to run on the iPhone. In April, with a revised iPhone developer agreement, Apple put the brakes on, saying only apps written in one of three languages would be accepted on the App store. Adobe’s solution would compile directly to the CPU bytecode, hence being illegal.

Adobe weren’t too pleased about this, yet launched the product anyway, hoping Apple would change its mind. Since then, Steve Jobs wrote an open letter, explaining their position, claiming six points:

  1. Flash is closed source (like the iPhone), HTML5 is open
  2. Flash is the number one cause of crashes on OS X
  3. Flash is not designed for touch
  4. Need to maintain app quality on the store
  5. HTML5 can do everything that Flash can
  6. Battery life suffers

In the letter, there’s a bit of pretending that the iPhone is the only phone in the market, but otherwise, in my opinion, it’s accurate.

Adobe’s response was somewhat deluded; laughing that Flash wasn’t an open platform (someone should break the news to Adobe’s CEO) and saying that Flash 10.1 will ship to mobile devices later this year, focusing on multi-platform development. Adobe’s CEO also points that Apple’s developer restrictions are cumbersome and have nothing to do with the technology.

Even worse for Adobe, Microsoft has weighed in, saying HTML5 is the future of the web.

So, who’s on the right side? I believe that Apple have got it right this time, even implementing a half-finished specification is better than a platform that Apple have no control over, especially when the user experience is so important for the iPhone’s success. HTML5 genuinely can do everything Flash can, and do it all on hardware. It goes beyond Flash with geo-location and JavaScript access to more hardware features like the accelerometer and camera.

Personally, Adobe needs a re-think of their strategy. Flash enjoyed enormous success as a video player (thanks to YouTube) but they should have seen HTML5 coming. It’s been on the cards since the first iPhone in 2007 and Adobe has done through an entire release cycle (CS5) with little though for HTML5. If they’re smart, which they are, Flash CS6 will be able to create SVG graphics and Canvas apps using web databases and fonts, having Flash fallbacks for non-HTML5 capable browsers. Dreamweaver will have HTML5 structure tags available and Illustrator and Photoshop will do SVG too.

If Adobe don’t keep up with developers, the devs will simply find other tools to use. Adobe can avoid this, and it’s in their hands.