June 19, 2012
Group Chat, the Mobile Motivator
It's interesting to watch the tides of public opinion around mobile devices ebb and flow. What has Apple done right, was has RIM done wrong, what is Google going to do with Android, and - the great unknown at this point - where does Windows Phone fit in? I don't have any answers, just some observations...
I have two young daughters, not quite yet teenagers, and they both own iPods (purchased themselves by saving up). I asked my youngest daughter how many of her peers own an iPod? About 75%. That's a pretty huge number, and these youngsters are growing up knowing only iPods. iPods replace their Nintendo DS and after that they are downloading free apps like crazy, instead of heading to Best Buy and laying down $15 each for games that they need to haul around in a separate case.
Games, however, are not the biggest reason my daughters love their iPods. To them, staying in touch with their friends is crucial, and they use iMessage exclusively. Since none of their friends own anything other than iPods, messaging (they call it "texting" even though it isn't SMS) between friends is uncomplicated; there is no platform fragmentation. Group messaging is very easy within iMessage. And yes, they can and do keep in touch with Mom and Dad through iMessage as well.
Video chat (FaceTime) has replaced picking up the phone for my oldest daughter and her friends. This is kind of nice for us parents, too - it means that the kids aren't tying up the phone line. I remember my Dad chastising me for this when I was their age. Video chat with iMessage is also so easy to use that even Grandma can use it without a problem. And last night, my daughter and her project partner were collaborating on their homework over video chat. What a great thing.
I used to use a Blackberry curve, and I would use BBM to chat with my sister. What a royal pain it was to set up with the exchange of PINs and such. However, one day last year I wasn't able to reach her on BBM so I sent her a text, and she replied, "oh sorry, I switched to iPhone!" So I called her and talked about it, and she said much the same peer pressure had happened to her (in her late 30s) as had happened to these elementary school kids: most of her friends had switched to iPhones and iMessage, so when her contract came due she switched.
If Microsoft's acquisition of Skype means that they will be bringing an easy-to-use messaging and video chat application to Windows Phone, I think they will be in great shape to take over a some portion of market share. Once a few people in any social circle get onto Windows Phone then they can exert that pressure on their friends to switch. And if the Windows Phone app does SMS as well as non-SMS messaging from within the same app, making it painless and seamless like iMessage does, then the switchover is relatively easy.
Perhaps some people will resist the urge to stay tied to platform-specific messaging and switch to Text Plus, Kik or WhatsApp. I don't see many taking the multi-platform route, though. Back when I was using my Blackberry I was running a multi-protocol chat app called Trillian. I used it to chat on ICQ, MSN and Jabber; I was able to chat with any and all of my friends, regardless of what device they were using. However - and this is a HUGE however - I couldn't do any group chat between protocols. So then I tried to get my friends to switch to Trillian, but none of them would. Getting people to learn to use a new chat app was a pain they just didn't feel like enduring.
Regardless, these teens and younger don't actually have a platform issue, since they're all already on iPods. The real test will come later when they start to have their own cell phones: will they all choose iPhone? If not, how will group chat be handled? There is a possibility that some closed social circles will agree and migrate to one of the multi-platform apps, however I think it's more likely that they would as a group simply all migrate to the same phone type instead - one that delivered on easy to use group chat and video chat. Windows Phone could be ready and waiting for them.
Fancy features and camera specs may lure some people to new phones, but I think that group chat is a very strong social motivator, and will continue to coalesce groups of people onto specific platforms much more strongly than processor speeds or camera megapixels ever could. The possible side-effect of an awesome Facebook mobile presence could upset this, but that's a whole new discussion.
June 14, 2012
Mobile Social: Practice What You Preach
Today I listened while David O'Neill from Viafo talked to a group of us about social sharing in mobile apps. He made some great points, and I will be able to apply at least one of his ideas immediately. But the session wasn't completely one-sided, I think David also has some homework to do.
I was at the second of two conferences for me this week: MoSo (the Mobile Social conference). While I'm attending sessions I try to concentrate on the speaker, listen and truly understand their points. Today's speaker, David, made excellent points about how sharing should be done from within mobile apps:
- allow users to share to as many services as you can support
- however, only let them share to the services for which this content makes sense
- allow them to personalize the message
- share compelling content, not just "hey I clicked share from this app!"
- you should know what content your users are sharing (analytics)
- build sharing in from the start, not as an afterthought
These are all great points, and he drove the message home with a good anecdote on an app that Honda had made for one of their vehicles. David also said that users want to share, and if you aren't allowing them to share from within the app, you're missing out on the cheapest and best marketing available today.
As David was talking, I was wondering of Viafo practiced what they preached. Did they have an engaging mobile presence? Were they allowing me to share their content with other developers that I know?
I searched and found the twitter account @viafo which looked pretty official. Except the last tweet from this account was May 30, 2012 (44 days previous!):
I also checked out the company web site, and there was no way for me to share the page instantly. How strange.
So there I was, listening to David tell us that we needed to let our users share content or nobody was going to find our apps. I waited patiently, and then at the end of his talk I asked about Viafo's mobile strategy - why was their Twitter account so out of use?
"Oh. Well, that twitter account isn't really used," he explained.
"Why? It looks like your company account to me," I retorted.
"Well I guess so, but we just use it for testing," was his answer.
Really? That's it? Well dear Viafo, you are missing the boat. You need to start practicing what you preach. Don't forget that mobile developers are people, too - we like to share things with our friends as much as anyone, but it just so happens that some of us share geeky things. Developer type things. Things like "hey, I found this great service for building social sharing into mobile apps!"
Except I can't. I can't share this with my developer friends because your twitter presence is "just for testing", your Facebook page hasn't been updated in just as long, and your web site is anything but sexy. Even the developer documentation is out of date and unpolished.
This is not at all a criticism of Viafo's technology - it DOES look very cool and useful. I know that David is telling the truth that supporting a matrix of social sites across a few different mobile development platforms is painful because I'm already feeling that pain. If Viafo has the answer to that then I do believe that they're positioned to expand and profit greatly in the marketplace.
But in order to do that, they're going to have to start practicing what they preach.
If you want to listen to David talk about the problem and their solution, please see this interview on Mobile Industry Review.
Posted by Hammer at 10:57 PM
June 12, 2012
Mobile Dev From An Era Past
This past weekend I had the good fortune to talk with another mobile developer - but not a developer for iOS or Android, but rather from a mobile era already gone by.
I was sitting and talking with Josh because we're both involved in enterprise mobile development. As we were relaxing and enjoying our coffee, I asked if he was aware that I made mobile apps for consumers in addition to enterprise mobile apps - he wasn't. So I showed him Wizard's Orb and he had fun walking through the first few levels. Then he mentioned that he wanted to get back into consumer apps again.
"Oh?" I asked "What do you mean 'again' - have you made some apps already?"
"Yes, but not for iPhones. My apps were made before we were calling them 'apps', they were still 'programs' back then. Did you ever do any development for the Palm OS?"
I thought for a second and then replied, "yes, actually I have. The program that I made for Palm OS was a two-way calendar sync connector; it kept the calendar on your Palm OS device in sync with your calendar at work. I sold a few copies of that program, but really the sales volumes were insubstantial."
"Well I made programs for Palm OS and Pocket PC. Small games and novelty programs like 'spin the bottle'. It was great!" Josh was beaming at this point in our trip down memory lane. "I formed a company in 1999 and called it BittySoft - you know, because I was making itty bitty programs. But I haven't made anything since about 2005."
So I brought up the web site bittysoft.com on my iphone while he was talking, and I stared in wonder:
"Hey your site is still up!" I exclaimed.
"Oh yeah, I still get a few sales each month."
When I looked at one of the product pages, my jaw dropped a little:
"Wow, $15 for a mobile app... um, I mean program. What does it do?"
"Mobile Moods? It plays relaxing sounds, and you can set a timer so that you can fall asleep listening to those sounds."
I was still in awe, staring at the screen on my iPhone. I didn't want to insult his work, but I told him that $15 seemed pretty steep by today's standards. He laughed and agreed.
"However," he said, "mobile development was a LOT harder back then. The vendors didn't supply us with slick drag-and-drop IDE's, their APIs would change and break things a lot, and they also didn't have an app store with huge market exposure. The price was fair at the time."
I wondered what a "typical" current iOS developer's web site would look like a number of years from today. If they didn't keep it current, the effect might be about the same as it has been to the BittySoft web site - stuck in time, and a glimpse into mobile development from an era already largely forgotten.
Posted by Hammer at 12:22 AM
June 09, 2012
The Indie Author Social Contract
Growing up (yes, decades ago now) I knew some people who called themselves writers. I somehow did not connect those people with the mainstream published authors who wrote the books I was reading on a daily basis.
Back then, "writers" and "authors" were two different things to me. Writers were quirky people in my school who wrote poetry (some of it didn't even rhyme!) and attended writing workshops and events. Authors were people like Isaac Asimov, Jack L. Chalker, Piers Anthony, Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien. Authors were people who wrote these fantastically famous novels. Authors must have somehow magically been born with the novel writing talent, and everything they had ever written was always a best-seller!!
Of course this isn't true. Every author is a writer, and every author had to start somewhere. It's such an obvious truth to me now. However, decades ago I was a literary zombie: I consumed whatever the marketing / publishing machine churned out, blissfully unaware that I was indeed missing a ton of other tables at this buffet. Not to say that what I read was crap - much of it I did enjoy. But there is no denying I was being force fed at times.
I want to believe that even in my youthful naivety I tried to branch out by randomly roaming the library. This may have helped somewhat, but these were still mostly books put out by large publishing houses, not independent authors. Only within the last year have I truly embraced the concept of actively seeking out indie authors in an effort to widen my literary exposure.
I remember reading something like "a writer's greatest problem is obscurity" from Cory Doctorow and it made a lot of sense. The same is absolutely true for indie software developers. With so many people writing (both books and software) the problem becomes "how does one stand out in the crowd?"
While on this quest I've also discovered that a lot of indie authors will give away copies of their books. Of course they should, if you accept the obscurity problem posed above. So I've gone from buying $15 best-selling paperback books to downloading free ebooks from indie authors.
Personally, I see a problem here. It's a social problem - an unspoken contract, if you will. I could in fact keep on downloading free ebooks ad nauseum - and I'm quite sure some people do - but if I did, I would be selfishly ignoring the question "how do indie authors ever survive?" People do need to make a living.
So I've decided that I can hold up my end of the bargain in three ways:
1) For every free ebook that I download and like, I will leave a favorable review for it online and tweet a link to that review.
2) For every free ebook that I download and love, I will leave a favorable review, tweet about it, AND I will find at least one other non-free ebook from the same author and buy it.
3) For every free ebook that I download and don't like, I will simply delete the ebook and move on.
I think that actions #1 and #2 help the indie author out considerably with their fight against obscurity, which will hopefully lead to other people finding their book and potentially being converted into fans (and fans are paying customers!) Of course action #2 also directly addresses the question of how indie authors end up making a living.
As a direct example of action #2, I stumbled upon Dumb White Husband vs. The Grocery Store by Benjamin Wallace when it was on sale for free. I loved it. If you search you'll find the review I left of it on Amazon. After I reviewed it I followed that up by buying Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors I loved that too! So I reviewed that and then followed up... well, you get the idea. I have a few of his books now.
Action #3 acknowledges that I will inevitably find some works that simply don't appeal to my taste but which other people may still enjoy. It's also not really worth my time to post a negative review - I get nothing out of it, and neither does the author. If I truly wanted to vent my frustration I could simply contact the author directly and complain. I can delete the free ebook quicker and easier.
So that's it: what I think my end of the social contract looks like with indie authors from whom I received a free book.
If you've read this far and you're an indie author, feel free to connect with me on Twitter: follow me and then send me a link to something you wrote that you think I may like. If that feels too forward for you then just say hello.
If you've read this far and you're a fellow reader like me, I'm not trying to guilt you into anything, I'm just explaining what's going through my head.