Articles in the ‘Mobile’ Category

So, you want an app?

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to meet Josh Clark at FOWD. I’d been reading his articles about flagship apps and content first, and I was very keen to have a chat with him about a discussion I’d had with a client. I had been discussing which platform they should be targeting, and depending upon who I was talking to at the client (and their opinions on the goals of the project) the decision on a choice of platform was different.

Josh, and his mobile vs native talk, positioned this decision as an “audience/content/budget” question, which matched the conversations I’d been having with my client. At the end of his talk I said to Josh, “this would make a great flow-chart, like that one that Jessica Hische did!”, “Yeah, that’d be awesome!”, said Josh.

I’m very pleased to say, that after some delay, it’s ready for public consumption.

So, you want an app?

With a lot of help from my company and colleagues Ed Hartwell-Goose,  Fin Edridge and Simon Dring we made an interactive flow-chart to guide our clients, other industry professionals and their clients through the minefield that is choosing the platform for your app. We called it, “So, you want an app?”.

It’s still a simplification of the whole process but, in researching it, three things became abundantly clear:

  1. You must know your audience – there are no exceptions to this. People use different phones for very different things. Blackberries are used by teenagers for BBM and by corporations because of it’s security and low data usage; iPhones are very high-end consumer devices; and Android phones are thought of as being for very technically minded people, but they’re also entry-level smart phones. Picking a platform without knowing what your content and its audience is a recipe for disaster.
  2. Your content needs to be simple to access – all end-points on the flow-chart will need some form of content platform behind them to drive engagement, re-use and to keep the app up-to-date. If you’ve got an old CMS, you may have to build a light-weight web service to let your app access the content easily, quickly and efficiently. People use apps to get at content, and whether they’re a game or social media, your content is king.
  3. You cannot do this half-heartedly – and by that I mean you’ve got to have a decent budget. Also at FOWD, Matt Gifford was joking that the £50 website was now a £75 website; apps are suffering this problem. Apps are viewed as small, simple bits of functionality that you can knock-up in a weekend; this is simply not true. Apps are often full-sized websites with the added complexity of fitting the core content onto a tiny screen, but since they look small clients think they’re easy to make and do, and are therefore cheap. Stories in the news of 14-year-olds making games in the app store top 10 aren’t helping either. Start with a 5-figure sum, and keep going upwards if you want your app to really succeed.

I also mention PhoneGap a lot in the flow-chart, and that’d because I genuinely believe it’s a great solution to the “discoverability” problem. This is where you have a mobile web site that isn’t getting enough exposure as people think of “apps” as items in the “app store”. PhoneGap fills this hole nicely, and gives you access to device hardware as a brilliant bonus. The tools are easy to use and PhoneGap Build now takes all of the hard bits of building for Blackberry and Windows Phone away.

Still, there are gray areas in the platform selection process, especially when it comes to tight budgets and enterprise apps. If there’s only one thing you take away from this tool it should be this: Content is King, know your audience and how they will use your app. The rest flows from there.

You can find the tool here: www.paconsulting.com/so-you-want-an-app – I’ll post the full poster version here when it’s completed.

Please, let me know what you think, and let me know if you use it for a client as well, share your stories and share the tool with your friends.

 

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.

Ideas
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.

Hardware, then UI, will drive mobile forward

It’s Mobile World Congress 2011 this week, and amongst the throngs of Honeycomb tablets, Nokia and Microsoft square dancing on the showroom floor, there are a few announcements that may not be hugely exciting to the general public, but that the tech community should be giggling with glee about.

I’m talking about this:

Kal-El benchmark, courtesy of Anandtech

Kal-El benchmark, courtesy of Anandtech

This is Nvidia announcing the Kal-El SoC (System on Chip), a 12-core Tegra 2 GPU mixed with a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU, all on one chip. Even better yet, this chip will be seen in tablet computers in 6 months time. That’s an incredibly aggressive timeline considering the brand new Tegra 2 chip is only 9 days old, and yet it’s performance has already been doubled.

The even bigger news that has slipped by, is that that’s not all.

Tegra 2 roadmap

Tegra 2 roadmap, courtesy of Anandtech

Notice the scale on the left hand side. Whilst the new chips are rising in a linear fashion, that’s a logarithmic scale, so every year, these chips will double in power. By 2014, we should have SoCs in mobile computers that are 4 times as fast as a Core i7 CPU and 25 times faster than a Core2 Duo. That’s an amazing amount of computational power in a chip the size of a peanut with a TDP of ~1W.

Modern UIs need this power
So what are we going to do with all this power? Whilst it’ll be like having an XBox 360 in your pocket, games aren’t the only thing that will use this power.

Just take a look at Microsoft’s Beauty of the Web demo site, showing off IE9’s hardware acceleration enabling it to make blizzards with HTML5 web technologies. That’s just the start of what we’ll be able to do with this power. Think how useful Honeycomb’s 3D Google maps will be, and think how it can be used to empower a mobile workforce, being able to take your entire desktop with you and have it work like your desktop pc. It will enable the mobile user to process huge data sets which previously would have been a server job, letting the workforce make complex decisions quickly and on the move.

Of course, don’t expect things to change overnight. The first things to happen will be “true” multi-tasking, then a proliferation of HD video including Skype. It’s taken years for web developers to embrace CSS3 functions, it’ll take another few years to truly embrace canvas, SVG and WebGL.

The future vision is coming
At CES 2009, Microsoft showed off a video for their Office of 2019 concept (below). The hardware announced today will drive this forward and enable developers to make these UIs of the future. I can’t wait to be part of this future

Images in this post are from Anandtech.com

Droid Doesn’t do tablets

No Android on tablets As a developer and iPhone fan, nothing pleases me more to say that Android has caught up with the iPhone. Android hardware has been great for a while, the Motorola Droid and Nexus One being the first in a wave of great devices, but the software hadn’t been right. Android took its sweet time to develop but finally has all the great features iPhone users have enjoyed since the iPhone 3G and more (wi-fi hotspots for example).

Thing is, the iPhone, and iOS, has moved on.

Since the launch of the iPad, every Android-lover has been waiting for a tablet with Android on it. They want the brilliance and openness of Android on a more useful (day-to-day) form factor. To those people, I say wait, it’s not ready yet. In order to put iOS on a tablet, Apple had to fork the code base into two versions, iPhone 3.1 (later 4.0) and iPad 3.2. To date (though that may change at the September 1st event), these two branches have not converged, nearly 9 months later. Apple did this for a very good reason: the native controllers and views are not suitable for tablet devices and new paradigms needed to be created.

The SplitView Navigation controller

The SplitView Navigation controller, necessary for much of the good UI interaction on the iPad. Courtesy of Apple

Android tablets, on the other hand, are content with throwing the same old mobile-centric code at tablets. For example, today Archos unveiled five new Android 2.2 devices from 2.8″ to 10.1″ and Samsung is about to unveil their Galaxy tablet which is a 7″ Froyo device.

So, why isn’t this a good idea. For one, the Android developer API says it doesn’t support screens larger than 4.3″. That should be a pretty good first clue. Take the iPad HCI guidelines for a second clue. It states that full screen transitions are bad, interfaces have to be tailored to the device, and you have to do more than just blow up the interface to twice the size. Take a look at how iPhone apps look on the iPad for that one.

iPhone app on an iPad

iPhone app on an iPad, now think of an Android app, just blown up.

Truthfully, the current Android SDK just can’t cope with the demands of a tablet UI. Little things like smooth transitions when rotating to big things like having universal apps which cover multiple screen sizes well. Android has support for multiple screen sizes, but it relies on relative positioning for this and is an inelegant solution compared with Apple’s interface builder.

A bigger screen will accentuate the differences in the quality of iOS and Android apps. If you have a mediocre Android app and put it on a tablet, it’s going to look poor, but put a mediocre iPhone app on the iPad, and it’s at least usable. Take a look at this video of a $50 Android tablet from India Do you want a UI like that on your tablet? Didn’t think so.

So, my advice, is wait. Wait until Android 3.0 (Gingerbread) comes out in Q4 this year, then wait until 2011 for some good hardware. 3.0 has set precedent by disallowing vendor customisation, forcing a much-more Apple-esque standard set of controllers which will suit more purposes. Acer and Motorola have already announced that they’re delaying the launch of their Android tablets until 3.0 is available.

Still, when that time comes around, the second generation iPad will be out, and then Android will be playing catch up again.

Update: Just seen the ViewSonic ViewPad 7, a 7″ Froyo tablet. Take a look at the video in the link: it’s full-screen all the way, sluggish and, I quote “a plastic rebadge me-too Android tablet”. When you’re watching the video, think about how that’s going to work on a tablet the size of an iPad (or the Archos 101 for that matter). It’s not going to be pretty.