Technological innovations, you know those things that are supposed to make our lives easier, usually end up becoming the bane of our existence not too long after they’ve lost their novelty. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that they’ve lost control of their email inbox or how they’re constantly distracted by people trying to contact them over the phone, damning the technology for allowing people to interrupt whatever the heck it was they were doing. What amuses me though is I use many of the same technologies that they do yet I don’t feel the same level of pressure that they do, leading me to wonder what the heck they’re complaining about.
Now I’m not saying that email, IM, Twitter et. al. are not distracting, indeed our techno-centric culture is increasingly skewed towards being a distracted one by a veritable tsunami communications tools. I myself struggled with Twitter not too long ago when I attempted to use it the “proper” way over a weekend, seeing my productivity hit the floor as I struggled to strike a balance between my level of engagement and the amount of work I got done. However I soon realised that using said service in the proper way meant that I just ended up as distracted as everyone else, with almost 0 benefit to me other than the small bit of self satisfaction that I was totally doing this social media thing right for a change.
In essence I feel that the reason people get so distracted by these tools is that they feel obligated to respond to them immediately, rather than at a time which suits them best. Thus the tool which is meant to help your productivity becomes a burden, interrupting you at the worst possible time and breaking you out of the flow of the work you were in. If you find yourself in this position you need to set up strict rules for interacting with that particular technology that suit you rather than what suits everyone else. How you go about this is left as an exercise for the reader, but the most effective tool (I’ve found, at least) is to only check your email/Twitter/whatever at certain times during the day and ignoring it at all other times.
The retort I usually get for advocating this kind of stance is “What if something important happens in the interim?”. Thinking really hard about it I can’t think of anything really important that’s come to me via the medium of email, IM, Twitter that didn’t first reach me through some more direct means (like my phone). If you’re relying on these distinctly one way, no way to verify if the person has actually received your message platforms then the message you’re sending can’t really be all that important and can wait a few hours before being responded to. If it can’t then use some more direct means of communicating otherwise you’re just forcing people into the same technological hell that you yourself feel trapped in, continuing the vicious cycle that just doesn’t need to exist.
However sometimes people are just looking for a scapegoat for their situation and it’s far easier to blame a faceless technology than it is to look internally and work out why they’re so distracted. I can kind of sort of understand people getting caught up with communications clients, especially when it’s part of your job, but when you think something like RSS is too distracting (you know, where you choose to subscribe to a site because you’re interested in it) then the problem isn’t the technology it’s your lack of ability to recognize that you’re wasting time. I get literally hundreds of items in my RSS reader every day but do I read them all? Heck no, at most I’ll skim the titles and if I recognize a story I’ve already read then I won’t go back and read it again.
Just seems like common sense to me.
It’s also not helped by the fact that many of us now carry our distractions with us. My phone has all the distraction capability of a modern PC and if it weren’t for my strict rules about only checking things at certain times I’m sure I’d be in the same distraction hell that everyone else is. Of course even though the platform may be different the same rules apply, it’s the feeling of obligation that drives us to distraction when realistically the obligation doesn’t exist, and we’re just slotting into a social norm that ends up wrecking havoc.
Thus all I’m advocating is taking back control of the technology rather than letting it control us. All of these distractions are tools to be used to our advantage and the second they stop being helpful we need to step back and question our use of them to see if we should change the way we use them. Otherwise we just end up being misused by the tools we wish to use and end up blaming them for the problems we in fact caused ourselves.
Nothing can create a stir in the technical press more than when one tech giant decides to buy out another one. The last such buy out I can remember is when Microsoft said they were going to buy Skype which spurred a good week of articles from all my usual sources. There was also a whole bunch of people blaming Microsoft for ruining Skype as the service hit some troubles soon after the deal was announced, forgetting that the deal still hadn’t been finalized and Microsoft still had no say in how it was operated. Today’s buyout news has triggered a veritable tsunami of news, blog posts and speculation and this time around it’s not just all fluff.
As it turns out Google is going to be buying Motorola’s wireless division (and what then shall we call them: Googorola, GoogMo or maybe Gotogola?).
The news flooded my feed reader with dozens of articles ranging from simple regurgitated press releases to full blown analysis and speculation of what this will mean for both companies’ futures. I then spent the next hour or so devouring and digesting these articles to see if I could make sense of the massive reaction that this proposed buy out has triggered. From what I can tell it boils down to three key issues: Motorola Mobility’s patent war chest, Google’s desire to be a handset manufacturer and the effect that this is going to have on the Android platform. These are all rather meaty issues and whilst I might not have the cred of the larger blogging institutions I felt like I should throw my hat into the ring anyway.
The issue that everyone seems to mention at least once is Motorola Mobility’s rather impressive collection of patents, with 17,000 granted and 7,500 currently pending. The trove includes such pearlers as the mobile phone itself and patents that already have licenses with some of their biggest rivals (namely Nokia and Apple). On the surface acquiring the vast patent archive of Motorola Mobility seemed to be a reaction to Google losing the recent bidding war for the Nortel patents that were up for sale. Indeed Google did complain rather vocally that the partnership of mega-corps that did get those patents (some direct rivals, some users of Android) were only doing so in order to take down Android. However Google never appeared to be totally serious about acquiring those patents anyway, bidding strange amounts like pi and other mathematical constants. They were also apparently approached by the winning consortium to bid along with them (by Microsoft no less) which they turned down and sparked a rather public flamewar between them.
It then follows that Google, whilst not happy that it could have several companies breathing down its neck, didn’t just up and buy Motorola because of it. In fact it looks like Motorola has been under some pressure to monetize it’s vast patent cache for some time, even courting other big names like Microsoft. In the end they settled on Google as Motorola Mobility will retain some level of autonomy whereas Microsoft, still fresh from minting their deal with Nokia, was really only interested in their patents. Had Motorola gone with Microsoft in that instance it would’ve been a massive blow to the Android platform as a whole, as Motorola commands a respective 29% of that market. Motorola’s patents then are more a defensive barrier than anything else but that’s not the sole reason Google bought Motorola Mobility.
Google’s attempt to revolutionize the handset market, whilst commendable in their own right, has faced some problems when trying to break current industry norms. The Nexus One was meant to be sold unlocked for a mere pittance, as low as $99 outright, but the carriers would have none of that leaving Google handcuffed and the Nexus One made available at industry level prices. Their follow up phone Nexus S, whilst an impressive handset in its own right, suffered the same fate and it seemed that Google’s hope of changing the mobile game was just pure fantasy.
However with their acquisition of the Motorola Mobility section they now get the ability to manufacturer handsets themselves as well as getting all the carrier relationships which, up until now, they have sorely lacked. This means that Google now has a lot more leverage when it comes to negotiating with carriers and they could possibly use this in order to see their original dream of cheap, unlocked handsets realised. I doubt that we’ll see anything like that for a while to come yet (the deal has to pass a lot of scrutiny before it’s official) but the potential for such a thing to happen is far greater with Motorola under Google’s belt than it was without it.
The final issue that everyone has picked up on is what this acquisition means for the greater Android platform. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking Motorola isn’t that big of a deal, I certainly haven’t considered any of their phones and that holds true for my social group anecdotally. However they are indeed a powerhouse when it comes to Android, commanding some 29% of the market placing them second only to HTC at 35%. Google’s acquisition of them then means that they now have a direct influence over a sizable chunk of the Android market and this has had some speculating that this would mean trouble for other handset manufacturers.
For the most part though the other Android handset manufacturers have been positive about the acquisition and Google has stated that it wants Motorola to operate mostly independently. This is probably the best idea for Google as Android’s popularity can be easily attributed to those handset manufacturers and upsetting them in favour of Motorola would do far more harm than good. Many analysts have also speculated that the Googorola partnership will mean that Motorola will get preferential treatment over other manufacturers but I can’t see Google being that short sighted. The Motorola acquisition seems to be more of a defensive move to save the wider Android platform, not Google’s first steps into dominating the platform that others have helped make popular.
The Motorola Mobility acquisition looks like a positive move for Google, Motorola and the Android platform. With Motorola’s extensive patent chest Google will be able to defend the Android platform against any other mobile player that would seek to dethrone it. They also now have enough power to be able to realise their dream of cheap, unlocked handsets for the masses, leveraging off Motorola’s deep carrier relationships. Of course we’ve still got a while to wait before this deal is finalized and we start to see the fruits that this relationship will bear but I’m positive this will lead to good things for everyone involved.
For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week 😉
I’m not usually one to comment on rumours since most of the time they get us no where and have great potential to disappoint, something I like to avoid. Still if there’s a plausible root to a rumour that warrants investigation I’m more than happy to have a go at it since the sceptic in me loves debunking stuff and the geek revels in future possibilities that have their base in reality. Today such a rumour fell right into my lap with the usual lack of any official confirmation (or denial) and just a few tenuous clues as to how this reality could come to be.
That rumour was that Microsoft’s next iteration of Windows would be able to play Xbox games.
Of course the first part of any rumour is to try and track down the original sources to see if there’s any more information you can glean from them. After starting at Destructoid and working my way down the rabbit hole of back links I eventually came to these two sites who don’t even classify this idea as a rumour but give little else on the details. It’s long been known that Xbox Live would be coming to Windows 8 (much like it has come to the Windows Phone 7 platform) but the idea that you’d be able to load up your Xbox games on your PC or tablet device was a new and novel idea that no one had really considered before. Since this information is coming to us via reports of finding Xbox360 code references in the leaked Windows 8 builds it would be easy to write it off as pure rumour milling, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.
I’ve long talked about Microsoft’s Three Screens vision for the future world of computing, an idea where no matter what your viewing device (being either that of your PC, portable device or TV) the experience remains the same. Windows 8 was the first step towards this with the Metro inspired UI that will be available across both PC and tablet devices alike. One piece of the puzzle was missing however, the TV, and if I’m honest I wasn’t sure what strategy Microsoft was going to go for in order to bridge the gap. The answer, I believe, lies within Xbox Live as with its debut on the PC it will become the very first Three Screens enabled application, being available on all of them with a comparable experience on each. Once the path is paved by Xbox live it should be a lot easier to bring further applications into the Three Screens world, especially if they’re able to bring the .NET platform to those same platforms.
One of the big questions that looms over this rumour is how a PC will be capable of playing Xbox games, especially some of the more recent titles. Many of the games on the Xbox and Xbox360 make heavy use of the specific architecture of the platform in order to gain significant performance benefits. Whilst you could emulate the entire system in software it’s more than likely that any recent title would run quite poorly, to the point of not being playable. Taking this into consideration I believe it’s more likely then that, at least initially, the only games that will be available will be those developed on Microsoft’s XNA framework. It can be argued that most of the games built on this framework are more than likely already available on the PC (indeed this is the main reason many choose XNA in the first place) but since there’s no market currently the visibility of such games is a lot lower than it could be. Thus the introduction of Xbox Live (along with its Arcade section) coupled with the availability of XNA titles is a very real possibility for Windows 8, but how Microsoft will go about this remains to be seen.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts to this rumour as whilst they’re not usually into playing the rumour game they’re definitely more loose lipped than say, their Cupertino counterparts. Personally I’m more excited about the possibility that Microsoft is pursuing their Three Screens vision with the beach front into this world being one of my passions. Whether this rumour has any shred of truth to it though remains to be seen and we could be waiting up until the betas before we know any more about it. Still with the amount of interest this has generated in such a short time it would be interesting if Microsoft didn’t pursue this at least in some fashion since it would be a massive step towards their platform unification strategy.
The last two years have seen a major shake up in the personal computing industry. Whilst I’m loathed to admit it Apple was the one leading the charge here, redefining the smart phone space and changing the way many people did the majority of their computing by creating the wildly successful niche of curated computing (read: tablets). It is then inevitable that many subsequent innovations from rival companies are seen as reactions to Apple’s advances, even if the steps that company is taking are towards a much larger and broader goal than competing in the same market.
I am, of course, referring to Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was just demoed recently.
There’s been quite a bit of news about the upcoming release of Windows 8 with many leaked screenshots and even leaked builds that gave us a lot of insight into what we can expect of the next version of Windows. For the most part the updates didn’t seem like anything revolutionary although things like portable desktops and a more integrated web experienced were looking pretty slick. Still Windows 7 was far from being revolutionary either but the evolution from Vista was more than enough to convince people that Microsoft was back on the right track and the adoption rates reflect that.
However the biggest shift that is coming with Windows 8 was known long before it was demoed: Windows 8 will run on ARM and other System on a Chip (SOC) devices. It’s a massive deviation from Microsoft’s current platform which is wholly x86/x86-64 based and this confirms Microsoft’s intentions to bring their full Windows experience to tablet and other low power/portable devices. The recent demo of the new operating system confirmed this with Windows 8 having both a traditional desktop interface that we’re all familiar with and also a more finger friendly version that takes all of its design cues from the Metro interface seen on all Windows Phone 7 devices.
Looking at all these changes you can’t help but think that they were all done in reaction to Apple’s dominance of the tablet space with their iPad. It’s true that a lot of the innovations Microsoft has done with Windows 8 mirror those of what Apple has achieved in the past year or so however since Windows 8 has been in development for much longer than that not all of them can be credited to Microsoft playing the me-too game. Realistically it’s far more likely that many of these innovations are Microsoft’s first serious attempts at realizing their three screens vision and many of the changes in Windows 8 support this idea.
A lot of critics think the idea of bringing a desktop OS to a tablet form factor is doomed for failure. The evidence to support that view is strong too since Windows 7 (and any other OS for that matter) tablet hasn’t enjoyed even a percentage of the success that the dedicated tablet OS’s have. However I don’t believe that Microsoft is simply making a play for the tablet market with Windows 8, what they’re really doing is providing a framework for building user experiences that remain consistent across platforms. The idea of being capable of completing any task whether you’re on your phone, TV or dedicated computing device (which can be a tablet) is what is driving Microsoft to develop Windows 8 they way they are. Windows Phone 7 was their first steps into this arena and their UI has been widely praised for its usability and design and Microsoft’s commitment to using it on Windows 8 shows that they are trying to blur the lines that current exist between the three screens. The potential for .NET applications to run on x86, ARM and other SOC platforms seals the deal, there is little doubt that Microsoft is working towards a ubiquitous computing platform.
Microsoft’s execution of this plan is going to be vital for their continued success. Whilst they still dominate the desktop market it’s being ever so slowly eroded away by the bevy of curated computing platforms that do everything users need them to do and nothing more. We’re still a long time away from everyone out right replacing all their PCs with tablets and smart phones but the writing is on the wall for a sea change in the way we all do our computing. Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s way of re-establishing themselves as the tech giant to beat and I’m sure the next year is going to be extremely interesting for fans and foes alike.
It seems like the classic genres of games are undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the now extremely viable independent game developer market. Whilst a lot of gamers will still go for the current staples (FPS, RTS, RPG) many independent developers are making a good living out of things like top-down shooters, adventure games and the good old fashioned platformer. What’s really surprising though is what sets them apart from their classic brethren and one such example of this is Trine which takes the idea of a platformer and turns it on its head by adding in all sorts of curious game mechanics.
You start off the game by being introduced to the 3 characters you’ll be playing throughout the game. They are (from left to right in the picture above) simply named as The Wizard, The Thief and The Warrior. The thief, in attempting to steal treasure from the Astral Academy, stumbles across a mysterious artifact that when touched bound her to it. Hearing the noise the warrior runs down to protect it, only to himself be bound to the object. The wizard, who has remained in the academy to study the skies, also came down to see what was going on and upon touching the object all of them vanished. From then on only one of them could exist physically while the rest would have to reside in the artifact, which the Wizard recalls being named The Trine.
It’s an interesting set up for the core mechanics of the game which are heavily physics based. You can only control one of each of the three characters at any one time and each of them has their own set of unique abilities. The wizard has the ability to conjure objects (platforms and planks) and control them via levitation. This also extends to a good number of environmental objects throughout Trine which will need to be used in order solve certain puzzles. He also lacks any form of direct combat ability being only able to thwart enemies by dropping things on them or conjuring objects that fall on them. The Wizard then is almost wholly dedicated to solving puzzles.
The warrior is at the complete opposite of the spectrum, being almost entirely used for combat. His initial abilities are quite simple, he has a sword which he uses to kill things and a shield that he can use to deflect things trying to kill him. As you progress he gets the ability to charge at enemies, useful for when they get a bit tougher and have shields of their own, as well as a two handed hammer that does more damage and can be charged up to shake the ground when released. Considering there are times when you’re swamped with enemies the Warrior is far from useless in this predominantly puzzled based platformer.
In the middle of these two extremes is the Thief being both a capable fighter as well as an essential part of the solution to some of the puzzles. Her main weapon is the bow which can be upgraded to fire up to 4 arrows in one shot. She also has a grappling hook which can latch onto any wooden or other appropriate surface which she can then use to swing around from. Her bow can also be upgraded to fire arrows for those few levels where there’s little ambient light but torches sprinkled around for convenience. Out of all the heroes I found myself using her the most since she was so versatile, even if I don’t have a single screenshot of her here (thanks to her being a bit tricky to use whilst also mashing the screenshot key).
The game itself is quite pretty especially when you consider that it was released back in late 2009. All of the environments are lush and rich with little bits of detail from the forests with plant life littering every corner to the dank dungeons with bones and all sorts of nasty things strewn everywhere. Trine also has an extremely vibrant colour palette which is amplified by the extensive use of bloom throughout the game. Whilst this might be seen as gaudy by some Blizzard has shown that a lively colour palette keeps people interested whilst also making it a lot easier to distinguish enemies from a bland background. Personally I quite enjoyed it, even if it seemed a little too outlandish at some points.
Trine also combines a few RPG elements so that they can throw ever increasingly harder puzzles at you as the game progresses. Littered through each level are green experience jars that you have to pick up with some of them dropping directly from enemies. Every 50 of these will grant you a level and a point to spend in upgrading your characters skills. These allow you to do things like conjure more boxes as the wizard, shoot more arrows as the thief and be more effective in combat as the warrior. There are also various chests hidden around each level that contain special items that can augment your abilities, grant special powers like resurrection or reduce downtime like restoring health if it drops below a certain level. Whilst you can complete the game without hunting all of these down they do make the game quite a lot easier if you do, as you can see below.
Thanks to its heavy reliance on physics for the basis of nearly all its puzzles Trine is also subject to the same emergent game play phenomena that all its predecessors were prey to. Whilst it’s obvious that the level designers had a certain solution in mind it’s obvious that there are easier ways of doing them if you mix certain abilities in an unusual way. The screenshot above showcases one such idea where I built a bridge using 5 of the wizards objects which I carefully counter balanced so it wouldn’t fall to pieces when I ran over it. This starts to take on a whole new level when you get the conjure floating platform ability as the wizard, especially when upgraded so the thief can hook onto it.
Whilst this game play idea does make the game infinitely intriguing at points it is also its ultimate down fall. The heavy reliance on the physics engine means there’s always quirks in the way it functions such as when you hit a ledge there’s a moment when your character is considered “standing” for a brief moment allowing you to jump again. This trivializes many of the puzzles and whilst you can avoid doing it the tendency to spam the space bar is not unique to me, so I’m sure many people have found it before. Additionally whilst the game designers coded a fail safe to stop you levitating objects you’re standing directly on you can put a single platform on top of anything and the levitate to your hearts content, wizard surfing your way past almost anything.
Combat, whilst well done for the most part, also let’s Trine down in some parts. Initially it feels like any other part of the game but towards the end there are points where enemies will continue to spawn endlessly until you get far enough away from that point. That’s all well and good but when you’re right at the end of a puzzle and the next check point in sight it’s a damned shame to have to cut through 50 skeletons just to get there, especially if you’ve killed 45 of them not 5 minutes ago. It’s the same complaint that many had with Dragon Age 2 spawning multiple waves of guys, ruining the idea of planning a strategy out before engaging.
Despite these complaints however I still enjoyed Trine throughout the 7 hours I spent with it. The wonderfully lush environments and emergent game play made me feel like I was figuring out solutions that had never been thought of before. Whilst there would be some frustrating times where I’d die over and over again I still kept coming back, trying every avenue I had available to me. The story, whilst simple in its ideas and execution, was enough to carry Trine through to the end and wrap it up succinctly, a rarity in today’s market. Overall Trine is an enjoyable experience for both the things it gets right and the flaws you can so lovingly exploit.
Trine is available on PC right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with about 7 hours of total play time. I’d guess I got about 80% of the total experience and secretes available in the game.
The multiple years of experience that came prior to it.
It’s no secret that whilst I’ve been developing for a long time I’m no rockstar when it comes to the world of web programming. Indeed my first foray into this world was a bastard of a page that was lucky not to fall on its face constantly and the experience had me running to find better solutions, eventually falling to Silverlight. The reason for this was obvious, it allowed me to leverage my desktop development experience into a new platform. Sure I struggled with the ideas that just couldn’t be boiled down into the desktop world (like that whole REST thing) but it was a quick way to get myself into this world and expand from there.
So of course when I saw people saying they built this incredible website in only a weekend when it took me several months worth of weekends just to get mine working I was intrigued. I even made the foolish mistake of reading up on some of their “how I did it” posts on Hacker News and saw all these wonderful frameworks that they had been using, assuming this would make me a master overnight. Stepping through some of the tutorials and looking at the tools available started to raise some eyebrows since they were unlike anything I had seen before, and this is where I got suspicious.
You see I could whip up a simple desktop app or PowerShell script in minutes that would do some function using the tools I have in front of me, but that doesn’t mean you should be using those tools to create your site. Neither does that mean you would be able to whip up the same thing using the same tools in the same amount of time, no matter how skilled you were in other languages. The simple reason for this is that whilst you might be a rockstar in ruby or an expert in PHP your experience is confined to the environment to which you’re most accustomed and should you need to retool and reskill for a new language it’s going to be several months before you’re at your maximum competency again.
Sure good developers are able to adapt much faster than so-so developers but there’s a significant opportunity cost in switching away from your current knowledge comfort zone in order to try and emulate those who you idolize. I came to this realization a couple months back after staring at so many Ruby/Python/SomeDynamicLanguage web sites, wondering at how the heck they got them looking and functioning so well. In truth the platform they were using had little to do with it, these guys had just been in the game for so much longer than me that they knew how to get these things done. With me still in the grok stage of my first really truly web framework I really shouldn’t be comparing myself to them just yet, not at least until I can get my new application functioning the way it should.
It’s so easy to get disillusioned with what you’re doing when you see others progressing so much faster than you ever thought you could. My new application was supposed to be a testament to my coming of age as a web developer, having giving myself only a short time to get it off the ground before actually launching it. Since my deadline for that has come and past I’ve been forced to change the way I view myself as a developer and have come to realize that unless I’m working in something I’ve developed with before I shouldn’t expect myself to be a rockstar from day one, instead recognizing that I’m still learning and pushing through the pain barrier until I become the rockstar I thought I was.
¹If you’re interested, what’s hot right now is photo sharing apps. What’s not? Location apps, go figure.
If I’m honest I can’t really tell you where the inspiration for Lobaco came from. Sure the idea itself is pretty simple (what’s going on there?) but I can’t really tell you what place or event first inspired me. The pursuit of the idea itself is much easier as it basically comes down to my inner dialog that constantly shouts put up or shut up at the back of my head and I felt hypocritical telling people to aggressively pursue their goals if I myself didn’t do the same thing. The 3 redesigns and one renaming Lobaco have much more solid roots having all stemmed from taking a break from developing and then taking a fresh look at the work I was doing.
Most of the inspiration came from a conscious desire to improve the product. In an effort to duplicate what I currently perceived as success many of the changes came from me taking ideas from places like Twitter and Foursquare and wrangling them into my product. Some of these ideas worked quite well like the UI redesign that took some serious cues from Twitter (large post box in the middle of the screen, 3 column layout) and others like the achievement service which mirrored Foursquare’s badge system (only has one unlockable, First Post!) proved to be a whole lot of effort for not a whole lot of gain. If you’re one of the brave souls testing the iPhone client (you can sign up here) you’ll notice that the latter feature is completely absent, for that exact reason.
Unconsciously however I believe I was thinking that Lobaco would end up being the platform upon which location based communication would be done. Sure many of the design decisions I made like making the API RESTful and JSON based were to increase cross-platform compatibility but ultimately I knew that the real power was being a platform, and even blogged to that effect. Whilst I don’t believe Lobaco suffered unduly because of this I hadn’t really considered the influence that outside forces were having on me subconsciously until 4chan creator Christopher “moot” Poole said this:
One of the biggest startup cliches is that every other startup wants to become a platform for other startups to build on. But to Christopher Poole, the founder of Canvas and 4Chan, that is the wrong approach. “People get caught up in trends—game mechanics, building a platform,” he tells Chris Dixon in the Founder Stories video above. Instead of trying to copy what works for others, founders should “focus on building what you love, focus on the product and building the community.”
He doesn’t understand “this obsession with building platforms. Focus on building something worth scaling. You don’t even have something worthy of an API yet. Focus on users and have them fall in love with your thing.” Amen.
Indeed many of the ideas I had emulated in Lobaco were done because I saw other successful companies doing them and figured that they would work for me as well. In reality I would have been much better served by focusing on the core product, refining the idea to the point where its utility was obvious to anyone. Since the idea was hinged on the idea of localized information I probably should have done things backwards, getting the core handset product right before attempting to bring it onto the web. That would have forced me to cut all of the fat out of the application, lest I create a cluttered and useless handset experience.
No matter how hard you try to fight it you will always be influenced by your experiences and for an information junkie like myself this meant that the service I was building emulated those which I considered most successful. My latest endeavor (which shall remain a secret, for now) is already showing signs of this kind of influence but I’m at least taking the lessons learned from Lobaco and applying them aggressively. I’m hoping this current project will be the fast track to self-sustainability that I’ve been hungering after for almost 2 years now and hopefully the time spent in the trenches for Lobaco will pay dividends in bringing this project to fruition.
Whilst the only current smartphone platform I’ve had any decent experience with is Apple’s iPhone I’m still not completely tied to it. Sure the platform is great and I’ll always be keeping an iOS device around for as long as I keep developing for the platform but my next handset purchase is more than likely not going to be another Apple device. The case is strong for a Windows Phone 7 handset thanks to its great tool set and general esoteric-ness (I don’t yet know anyone who’s bought one) but that same air of mystery is a double edged sword. Sure most of my general applications will be available on it, like Twitter and Facebook, but past that there’s not a whole lot of interest in the platform.
It’s not surprising really considering that slice of the mobile market pie that Microsoft commands is only a mere 5.5% according to the IDC, which includes all handsets that come under the Windows umbrella. The nearest rival to them is RIM (creator of the Blackberry handset series) who nearly triple their share at a whopping 14.9% and even they don’t seem to command a 3rd party developer army comparable to that of Android or Google. Still with them sealing the deal on a partnership with Nokia recently the IDC has reported that Microsoft’s WP7 platform will begin to surge ahead, overtaking iOS and being second only to Android.
The intial reaction to this was of course, utter disbelief:
In the close to six months that WP7 has been available, it has failed to set sales on fire. In fact, Microsoft hasn’t provided any metrics on how many WP7 handsets have been sold. Also, the 5.5% market share that Microsoft has now represents both WP7 and the old Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x systems, which are still being sold on enterprise handhelds.
Further, Microsoft has stumbled badly with the first two system updates for its smartphone platform. First by delaying it for nearly two months, and second by bungling the actual delivery of the updates. Things are not going so smoothly for Microsoft. Heck, WP7 champion Joe Belfiore actually wrote a public apology to its WP7 customers about the whole update debacle.
Zeman makes some good points about the WP7 ecosystem and the troubles Microsoft has faced in dragging their Windows Mobile platform into the modern age. The sales figures aren’t that impressive when you compare them to iOS and Android, heck they’re not even that impressive compared to single handsets on either platform. Still this ignores the fact that WP7 is still a nascent platform and it will be a while before it reaches the maturity level that everyone’s expecting of it. If we’re fair and compare the initial WP7 sales to the initial release of Android you’ll actually find them quite comparable with the G1 selling some 600,000 handsets in the first couple months and WP7 cracking 1.5 million in its first 6 weeks. It took quite a while for Android and even the iPhone to hit the fever pitch that they have today so the current market share of WP7 devices shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
I can’t provide an excuse for their botched update schedule however. Apple seems to be the only major competitor that’s nailed this completely with Android and WP7 both suffering from the same carrier induced delays and fragmentation problems. It’s actually one of the reasons why I haven’t already lashed out for a WP7 handset since the main carrier of them here in Australia, Telstra, is still testing the pre-update update and has no schedule for the release of the coveted Nodo update. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to route around the carrier and install the patch manually (although I’ll admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this) it means I’m wholly dependent on someone other than Microsoft to get my handset updated. With Telstra’s track record that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the platform.
Both Android and iOS faced similar problems in their infancy and I’m sure WP7 will be able to overcome them in the future. Whether it will become the second most popular platform though remains to be seen as whilst the Nokia relationship means they have a strong possibility of gaining some serious traction it’s not a sure bet that every current Symbian customer will convert over to WP7. With Microsoft being particularly coy about their sales figures its hard to get a good reading of how their new mobile platform is trending but it will definitely be interesting to see how their market share changes as Nokia begins releasing their WP7 handsets.
I remember my first mobile phone well, it was a Nokia 8210 that I got myself locked into a 2 year contract for mostly because I wanted to play snake on it. After having the phone a month (and subsequently having it stolen) I grew tired of the game and resigned myself to just using at it was intended, as a phone. This continued with all my following phones for the next few years as I favoured function and form over features, even forgoing the opportunity to play old classics like Doom on my Atom Exec. However after picking myself up an iPhone early last year I started looking into the world of mobile gaming and I was surprised to see such a healthy games community, grabbing a few free titles for my shiny new gadget.
Primarily though I noticed that the vast majority of games available on the App Store were from small development houses, usually ones I’d never heard of before. Whilst there were a few familiar titles there (like Plants vs Zombies) for the most part any game that I got for my iPhone wasn’t from any of the big publishers. Indeed the most popular game for the iPhone, Angry Birds, comes from a company that counts a mere 17 people as its employees and I’m sure at least a few of them only came on since their flagship title’s release. Still the power of the platform is indisputable with over 50 million potential users and a barrier to entry of just one Apple computer and a $99 per year fee. Still it had me wondering though, with all this potential for the mobile platform (including Android, which has sold just as many handsets as Apple has) why aren’t more of the big names targeting these platforms with more than token efforts?
The answer, as always, is in the money.
Whilst the potential revenue from 50 million people is something to make even the most hardened CEO weak at the knees the fact remains that not all of them are gamers. Heck just going by the most successful games on this platform the vast majority of Android and iPhone owners aren’t gamers with more than 80% of them not bothering to buy the best game available. Additionally games released on the mobile platform are traditionally considered time wasters, something you’re doing when you don’t have anything better to do. Rarely do you find a game with any sense of depth to it, let alone does such a game strike it big on the platform’s application store. Couple that with the fact that no mobile game has gotten away with charging the same amount as their predecessors on other platforms has and you can start to see why the big publishers don’t spend too much time with the mobile platform, it’s just not fiscally viable.
For the small and independent developers however the mobile scene presents an opportunity unlike any they’ve seen before. Whilst there is much greater potential on other platforms (The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have user numbers rivalling that of the iPhone and Android platforms) the barriers to entry for them are quite high in comparison. Microsoft, to their credit, has reduced the barrier to the same level as the iPhone ($99/year and you bring your own console) but thus far it has failed to attract as much attention as the mobile platform has. Other platforms are plagued by high investment costs for development such as any Sony or Nintendo product, requiring expensive development consoles and licenses to be purchased before any code can be written for them. Thus the mobile platform fits well for the smaller developers as it gives them the opportunity to release something, have it noticed and then use that to leverage into other, more profitable platforms.
I guess this post came about from the anger I feel when people start talking about the iPhone or Android becoming a dominant player in the games market. The fact is that whilst they’re a boon for smaller developers they have nothing when compared to any of the other platforms. Sure the revenue numbers from the App Store might be impressive but when you compare the biggest numbers from there (Angry Birds, circa $10 million) to the biggest on one of the others (Call of Duty: Black Ops $1 billion total) you can see why the big guys stick to the more traditional platforms. There’s definitely something to the world of mobile gaming but it will always be a footnote when compared to its bigger brothers, even when compared to the somewhat beleaguered handheld, the PSP.