Posts Tagged‘focus’

Google+ and The Future of Google Services.

In the mere months that it has been released Google+ has managed to accumulate quite the following, grabbing 40 million users. It’s still quite small compared to the current incumbent Facebook (who’s users outnumber Google+ 20 to 1) but that’s an incredible amount of growth, more than any other social network has ever been able to achieve before. Google has finally got it right with this attempt to break into the social networking world and it’s paying off for them in spades. What’s got everyone talking now is where Google is heading, not just with Google+ but also with the rest of their vast service catalogue.

Over the past 6 months or so, ever since co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO of Google, there’s been a rather interesting/worrying trend that’s been developing at Google. For as long as I can remember Google had a habit of experimenting openly with their users, cheerfully opening up access to beta products in order to get the wider public interested in them. However most recently they’ve begun to shutter these types of projects with the first signal that this trend could end coming with the closing down of Google Labs. In the months that followed many of Google’s other ancillary services, like Google Health and Google Power Meter, have been shut down with many more facing the chopping block.

For anyone following Google the writing had been on the wall ever since Page announced back in July that they were going to be focusing more closely on their core services. What’s really interesting however is that the direction that Google’s now heading in is not Page’s thinking alone, but one that was heavily influenced by the late great Steve Jobs. Just before Page took the top job at Google he placed met up with Jobs to get some advice on what he should be doing and it’s easy to see where Page’s motivation for cutting the fat from Google had come from:

Jobs didn’t mince words when Page arrived at Jobs’ Palo Alto home. He told Page to build a good team of lieutenants. In his first week as Google’s CEO, Page reshuffled his management team to eliminate bureaucracy. Jobs also warned Page not to let Google get lazy or flabby.

“The main thing I stressed was to focus,” Jobs told Isaacson about his conversation with Page. “Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft. They’re causing you to turn out adequate products that are adequate but not great.”

Just over a week ago Google announced that another 5 services (Buzz, Code Search, University Research, iGoogle Social and Jaiku) would be shut down in favour of the features of those applications being taken over by Google+. Indeed any Google service that has some sort of social bent is getting integrated under the Google+ umbrella, with many of the sharing features in things like Google Reader being moved out to Google+. For Google this is done to both encourage people to use their still nascent social network as well as reducing their large application portfolio. Integrating everything they can into Google+ may seem like a desperate move to try and grab more market share away from Facebook but Google is betting a lot on the Google+ platform, and I believe it will pay off for them.

The momentum that Google+ has gained over the past few months has shown that Google can do social and do it well. After nailing that down it makes a lot of sense to combine services, especially those ones that are considered core to a social network, under the Google+ umbrella as that builds out the product and makes it far more enticing to end users. It’s sad to see some other services get completely shut down but that does open up the market to start-ups who can take up the slack that Google leaves behind as they increase their focus on their core products. 

Lytro: Light Field Technology Becomes a Reality.

One of my not-so-secret passions is photography. I got into it about 5 years ago when I was heading over to New Zealand with my then girlfriend (now wife) as I wanted a proper camera, something that could capture some decent shots. Of course I got caught up in the technology of it all and for the next year or so I spent many waking hours putting together my dream kit of camera bodies, lenses and various accessories that I wanted to buy. My fiscal prudence stopped me short of splurging much, I only lashed out once for a new lens, but the passion has remained even if it’s taken a back seat to my other ambitions.

According to posts made by Boudoir photographers in CT, one of the greatest challenges is getting the focus just right so that your subject is clear and the other details fade into the background, preferably with a nice bokeh. I struggled with this very problem recently when we threw a surprise party for my wife and one of her dearest friend’s birthdays. Try as I might to get the depth of field right on some of the preparations we were doing (like the Super Mario styled cupcakes) I just couldn’t get it 100% right, at least not without the help of some post production. You can imagine then how excited I was when I heard about light field technology and what it could mean for photography.

In essence a light field camera would give you the ability to change the focus, almost infinitely, after the picture had been taken. It can do this as it doesn’t capture light in the same way that most cameras do. Instead of taking one picture through one lens light field cameras instead capture thousands of individual rays of light and the direction from which they were coming. Afterwards you can use this data to focus the picture wherever you want and even produce 3D images. Even though auto-focus has done a pretty good job of eliminating the need to hand focus shots the ability to refocus after the fact is a far more powerful advancement, one that could revolutionize the photography industry.

I first heard about it when Lytro, a light field based startup, mentioned that they were developing the technology back in June. At the time I was thinking that they’d end up being a manufacturer or licensor of their technology, selling their sensors to the likes of Canon and Nikon. However they’d stated that they were going to make a camera first before pursuing that route and I figured that meant we wouldn’t see anything from them for at least another year or two. I was quite surprised to learn that they have their cameras up for pre-order and delivery is expected early next year.

As a camera it defies current norms almost completely. It’s a square cylinder with an LCD screen on the back and the capture button is a capacitive notch on the top. From that design I’d assume you’d take pictures with it by using it like a ye olde telescope which will be rather comical to watch. There’s 2 models available, an 8GB and 16GB one, that can hold 350 and 750 pictures respectively. The effective resolution that you get out of the Lytro camera seems to be about 1MP but the images are roughly 20MB big. The models come in at $399 and $499 respectively which, on the surface, seems a bit rich for something that does nothing but take really small photos.

However I think Lytro is going the right way with this technology, much like Tesla did when they first released the Roadster. In essence the Lytro camera is a market test as $400 is almost nothing compared to the amount of money a photography enthusiast will spend on a piece of kit (heck I spent about that much on the single lens I bought). Many then will be bought as a curiosity and that will give Lytro enough traction to continue developing their light field technology, hopefully one day releasing a sensor for the DSLR market. From the amount of buzz I’ve read about them over the past few days it seems like that is a very real possibility and I’d be one of the teaming masses lining up to get a DSLR with that kind of capability.

They’re not the only light field camera maker out there either, heck they’re not even the first. Raytrix, a 3D camera manufacturing company, was actually the first to market with a camera that incorporated light field technology. Looking over their product range they’ve got quite the selection of cameras available for purchase although they seem to be aimed more at the professional rather than consumer market. They even offer to convert your favourite camera into a light field one and even give you some rough specs of what your camera will be post conversion. Lytro certainly has its work cut out for them with a company like Raytrix competing against them and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.

On a personal level this kind of technology gets me all kinds of excited. I think that’s because they’re so unexpected, I mean once auto-focus made it easy for anyone to take a picture you’d think that it was a solved problem space. But no, people find ingenious ways of using good old fashioned science to come up with solutions to problems we thought were already solved. The light field space is really going to heat up over the next couple years and it’s got my inner photographer rattling his cage, eager to play with the latest and greatest. I’m damned tempted to give into him as well as this tech is just so freakin’ cool.

Focused Simplicity.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to build something you think is simple that ends up being a complicated mess. Us engineers are amongst the most common offenders in this regard, often taking a simple idea and letting the feature creep run out of hand until the original idea is coated in 10 layers of additional functionality. I’d say that this is partly due to our training as modular design and implementation was one of the core engineering principles that was drill into me from day 1 although to be fair they also taught us how quickly the modular idea fell apart if you took it too far. There’s also the innate desire to cram as much functionality as you can into your product or service as that would make it appear more appealing to the end user, however that’s not always the case.

When Geon was starting out I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do: see what was going on in a certain location. That in itself is a pretty simple idea and the first revisions reflected that, although that was probably due to my lack of coding experience more than anything else. As time went on I got distracted by other things that forced me away from my pet project and upon return I had one of those brainwaves for improving Geon in ways I had not yet considered. This lead to the first version that actually had a login and a whole host of other features, something I was quite proud of. However it lacked focus, was confusing to use and ultimately whilst it satisfied some of the core vision it wasn’t anything more than a few RSS feeds tied together in a silverlight front end with a badly coded login and messaging framework hidden under the deluge of other features.

Something needed to change and thus Lobaco was born.

Increasingly I’m seeing that simplicity is the key to creating an application that users will want to use. On a recent trip to Adelaide my group of friends decided to use Beluga to co-ordinate various aspects of the trip. Beluga really only does one thing, group messaging, but it does it so well and in such a simple way that we constantly found ourselves coming back to it. Sure many of the functions are already covered off by say SMS or an online forum but having a consistent view for all group members that just plain worked made organizing our band of bros that much easier. It’s this kind of simplicity that keeps me coming back to Instagr.am as well, even though there’s similar levels of functionality included in the Twitter client (apart from the filters).

Keeping an idea simple all sounds like it would be easy enough but the fact that so many fail to do so show how hard it is to refine a project down to its fundamental base in order to develop a minimum viable product. Indeed this is why I find time away from developing my projects to be nearly as valuable as the time I spend with them as often it will get me out of the problem space I’ve been operating in and allow me to refine the core idea. I’ve also found myself wanting simple products in lieu of those that do much more just because the simple ones tend to do it better. This has started to lead me down the interesting path of finding things I think I can do better by removing the cruft from a competing product and I have one to test out once I get the first iteration of the Lobaco client out of the way.

I guess that will be the true test to see if simplicity and focus are things customers desire, and not just geeks like me.

Maybe I’m Doing Things Backwards.

I’ve been working on my burgeoning web service idea for just over a year now and I’m finally at the point where I feel like I’m actually making in roads into a fully usable system. It took 3 complete code dump and rewrites to get to this point but I’m finally satisfied with the way it works and how the client has turned out. Each iteration brought with it a rethink of what the application was going to be and a much better focus on what would be important to it. The decision to dump the last code base and start anew was probably the best decision I’ve made in a long time as the resulting product from it is strongly focused on what initially drove me to build this application.

Still after diving head first into the world of handset programming I can’t help but feel that I might have been going about this the wrong way. I initially started coding up the web client first because it would be the easiest of the lot and would ensure that I had the majority of the APIs working properly before I tried my hand at coding for a completely different platform. For the most part that was true as the API I have created facilitates all the functions I require and will work across platforms so long as they’re able to access the Internet. However had I developed a handset application first instead of going for the web client I would have been forced to make some of the hard decisions quite a lot earlier, possibly saving me those 3 code dumps that led to the current incarnation.

You see the first 3 versions I created were heavily focused on the idea of aggregating information around a particular location. I did this mostly because it was a good programming exercise and got me thinking in right direction for coding services destined for the Internet. At the same time however it had me lost in adding in numerous information streams all of which took a significant amount of time to implement. In the end once I got to the core feature that had been rattling around in my head (that whole location based communication thing) it was lost amongst the noise of the other features and the small trials I did with people didn’t even notice it as a feature.

After taking a month long break from coding I had a look at what I was doing and knew that it needed to change. This, I have found, is referred to as a pivot:

That’s the pattern we see in so many successful startups. They did everything they could to take advantage of what they’d built so far. Most engineers naturally think about repurposing the technology platform, and this is a common pattern. But there are a lot of other possibilities. I’d like to call out three in particular: pivot on customer segment, pivot on customer problem, or pivot on a specific feature.

In particular I was pivoting on a particular feature. Up until that point all I had been doing was finding an information feed and adding it in as an option. The core location based messaging feature became an afterthought but that was the hook with which I felt people would find the most use for it. After reading countless articles and looking to those who had come before me for inspiration I knew that if I intended to use such a feature as the main draw it had to actually be the most prominent aspect of the application. Thus Lobaco was born and I feel as if I’m finally taking steps in the right direction, rather than stumbling in the dark.

Working first on the handset would’ve forced my hand with this as you can’t afford to have a scattered focus when you’re working with such a limited environment. Still the lessons learned from those failed attempts have proven to be quite valuable and the coding experience wouldn’t have come any other way. It’s quite possible that I might have been a lot further down the track had I gone for a handset first but that’s not something I’m going to dwell on. Right now I have 3 handsets and a web front page to code up and I’m looking forward to doing each and every one of them.