1. Are mobile apps here to stay?

    Posted December 17, 2009 in mobile  |  3 Comments so far

    A few weeks ago a guest speaker came to our office to talk about mobile apps. His company produced a lot of them, for pretty big brands. He knew his stuff: the team here was both impressed and engaged.

    But an exchange during the following Q&A session stuck in my mind later. One of our directors asked a question: is the mobile app destined to be a transitory phenomenon, something that will fade away as mobile browsers become capable of delivering the same functionality?

    The speaker was adamant that this was not the case and that mobile apps were here to stay. He felt that Google’s increasing preference for mobile browser apps over native apps was misguided and that Google were wrong on this one. Mobile browsers were so far from rivalling the functionality of native apps that it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

    I was tempted to counter this point by bringing up the iPhone’s support for HTML 5 and starting a detailed discussion about in-browser capabilities. But this wasn’t the main subject of the talk and I’m in no way an expert on HTML 5, so I decided to keep my mouth shut instead.

    In the weeks since the talk, however, I’ve often found myself turning this question over and over again in my head. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that mobile apps are basically doomed – or at least I hope they are.

    Don’t get me wrong – they play an important role. It’s good that so many people today see phones as devices for more than just calling or texting, and the iPhone and its suite of native apps is largely to thank for this. But in the longer run, the publication and distribution model they are based on has to go.

    The idea of tying software to a single hardware platform is anachronistic, uncompetitive and limits user choice. This is bad enough when you’re dealing with computers, but it’s even worse when the devices are as personal as mobile phones. People should be free to choose a different phone without needing to buy new versions of the software tools that have become integral to their lives.

    Aside from user choice, there’s a more practical reason why the native app model is unsustainable. Developers won’t want to keep maintaining multiple codebases for the apps they produce, especially when there’s the option of building an equally functional in-browser app which any standards-based client can run. And although Apple might hope to render this point irrelevant by establishing monopolistic domination of the smartphone market, relieving developers of the need to consider other platforms, current research indicates that they won’t succeed.

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    The smartphone OS market will be more fragmented in 2012 than in 2009

    A more fragmented smartphone OS market will increasingly compel developers to support separate codebases for Windows Mobile, RIM, Android, Symbian and the iPhone. But as mobile browsers become capable of delivering similar interactivity, serious developers will become inclined to start using the browser as the platform instead. This will be a good thing for users and the industry alike.

    If I’m correct and native apps do fade away over time, we may look back on the era of pointless mobile apps as just one among many strange blips in the history of technology. But despite some early rumblings from notable developers, native mobile apps will be with us for some time yet – and, in the medium term at least, they still have an important role to play in encouraging mainstream adoption of the mobile internet.

    Edit: This article was later reposted on Android and Me and attracted numerous comments. Click here to see the conversation on Android and Me

    Edit 2: Stephen Fulljames shared a couple of links related to this post. PhoneGap is a toolkit for developing mobile apps in HTML & JavaScript. And this post from front-end consultant Peter-Paul Koch provides some background to his work with Vodafone on mobile browser compatibility and W3C widgets.

  2. Google Flu Trends

    Posted November 13, 2008 in strategy, webapps  |  No Comments so far

    In this post, I’m going to try to outline a convergence between two separate trains of thoughts. It might get messy, so bear with me.

    Train one (think of this as the Edgware branch of the Northern Line) is search engine optimisation.

    One of the areas I’ve been working in a lot recently is search engine optimisation. I’ve carried out three fairly in-depth assessments of different search markets in the last few weeks.

    It’s been an interesting learning experience in a lot of ways—the last time I was heavily involved in SEO was a few years ago and the tools available for carrying out analysis have come a long way since then. Perhaps the most potent new weapon in the arsenal of a search market analyst is Google Trends. Try it, it’s fun.

    Train two (this is the High Barnet branch) is corporate social responsibility (CSR).

    For a while now I’ve held the view that companies are not doing enough just throwing money at CSR initiatives—donating to charity, that sort of thing. After all, money isn’t the only thing that successful companies have to contribute. They are also rich in expertise and capability. Companies should therefore look for ways to apply their know-how to social problems.

    An example of this that I often refer to is TNT Express Worldwide’s work with the World Food Programme. It assigns staff to work with the WFP and contributes its expertise in the fields of distribution and logistics, helping to manage the distribution of food in geographically remote and challenging regions. The value of this contribution is inestimably higher than it would be if it were purely financial.

    And here’s where the two trains of thought converge. To torture an already stretched metaphor, imagine this as being Camden Town station.

    Google launched Google.org some time ago as its philanthropic arm. It’s headed by epidemiologist/technologist Dr Larry Brilliant and seeks to do the sort of thing that TNT are doing with the WFP, namely using Google’s unique capabilities to bring a fresh approach to various social problems.

    A great example of this is the recently launched Google Flu Trends, an analysis of how Google Trends can help point to flu outbreaks around two weeks than conventional epidemiological analysis.

    It’s nice to see companies bringing knowledge and not just money to the table when it comes to health, hunger and other real-world problems.

  3. Gmail’s new Labs feature – Mail Goggles

    Posted October 7, 2008 in webapps  |  No Comments so far

    Ever sent an email you later regretted? Well you might like the new Gmail Labs feature, Mail Goggles. It’s activated whenever you try to send an email late at night, when you’re most likely to be under the influence of alcohol.


    How does it stop you sending indiscreet, inarticulate or embarrassing emails? It forces you to solve a number of simple mathematical problems within a set time period. If you pass, it judges you to be sober, but if you fail it silences you… most likely for your own good.

  4. Skyfire – a browser for Windows Mobile

    Posted September 25, 2008 in mobile, software  |  No Comments so far

    Yep, I’m a Windows Mobile user—although I may not be one for too much longer. It looks like there’s going to be a long wait for Windows Mobile 7 (I’m on version 6) and the new HTC/Google Android device has piqued my interest. But for the time being I’m stuck in WinMo world.

    I was therefore glad to read that Skyfire, a Windows Mobile browser that’s been in private beta for several months, has now been released to the public. And although it’s still in beta, it’s pretty much complete.

    Skyfire aims to provide a “real” web experience on a mobile handset. Rather than viewing (at best) mobile versions of sites or (at worst) the mangled results of mobile devices trying to display bad HTML/CSS code, Skyfire seeks to render sites in the same way as your desktop/laptop computer might. And from what I’ve been able to tell so far, it does this pretty well.

    How does this work? Well, the rendering engine for Skyfire doesn’t actually reside on your mobile device itself – that would put way too much strain its CPU. Instead, your device only connects to one of Skyfire’s servers. That server then loads the web pages you request, renders them in full, and streams the rendered output down to your phone.

    The server, of course, doesn’t have the same CPU limitations as your phone, and is therefore able to fully render web pages containing Flash and video. Even bad HTML & CSS code doesn’t cause it problems. It’s quite an interesting experience, seeing Flash and video run so well on a phone.

    There is a downside, however. Server-side rendering takes a horrible strain on a phone’s battery life, and my HTC TyTN II is already struggling to last a whole day without charge. Also, if you’re not on an unlimited data plan, this could be a more expensive way to browse the web than simply using pocket IE.

    So, although I’m pretty impressed by Skyfire, I think I’ll be restricting my use of it to when I’m on a wireless LAN and have my phone on charge.

  5. My Google Chrome experiment

    Posted September 4, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    Late yesterday afternoon I joined the rest of the internet and downloaded Google’s new browser, Chrome.

    I’d initially thought that I’d play around with it for a while, eventually forming an opinion which I’d then broadcast to all and sundry. But while I was doing this it struck me that this was pretty futile. Internet browsers are applications that most of us use so heavily, they’re the software equivalent of a second skin. It’s not really possible to have an informed opinion on one unless you’ve used it fairly extensively (or gone through the hell of optimising a fairly complex website on one – but that’s another story!).

    So, I’ve decided to put Firefox 3 to one side and use Google Chrome exclusively for a few days. Then I’ll write up my thoughts on how I feel it measures up.

    But one thing I can say about it now is, what’s up with the browser crashing when you type “:%” into the address bar? I’m amazed they didn’t pick that up in QA…

    Edit, January 2010: So, a while after writing this post, I went back to Firefox. I just missed add-ons too much. But without really noticing it, I gravitated back to Chrome to the point that it was my sole browser by around October 2009. It was mainly to do with speed; when feeling impatient I’d open Chrome while waiting for Firefox to load, and after a while I’d just open Chrome. When Google launched extensions for Chrome recently, I became even happier with it. I haven’t even installed Firefox on my new PC at home. It’s a shame though as I want Mozilla to succeed; I just think that Firefox has crossed the line into bloatware.

  6. RocketDock – Close but no cigar

    Posted August 28, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    RocketDock is a nice idea. Billed as a “peace offering” from the Mac community to Windows users, it’s a recreation of the OS X dock – the customisable ribbon of icons allowing quick access to files, folders, applications and URLs.

    Rocketdock screenshot

    I’ve just installed it on my Windows XP machine and for the first five minutes or so I found myself warming to it. You might think it’s a needless duplication of the Quick Launch section of the Windows taskbar, but it’s not. There’s a lot of scope for customisation of icons and actions, and the ability to position it anywhere you’d like on the screen is a useful one.

    However, once I’d removed most of the default icons and added several of my own, I encountered some strange behaviours. Dragging shortcuts to the dock, which had earlier on resulted in their appearing as icons, no longer worked. However, after a failed drag, a blank space appeared on the ribbon which did nothing and made the interface harder to use.

    Mucking about with RocketDock’s settings, removing some more icons and even restarting the application didn’t help matters. It seems to have decided that the set of icons in there is definitive, and is no longer willing to countenance even the idea of change. Bit of a prima donna if you ask me. Fail!

  7. Don’t be afraid of your Freedom

    Posted August 12, 2008 in software  |  No Comments so far

    Yesterday, Lifehacker featured a free Mac OS application called Freedom. You specify a time period and the program then shuts off your network connectivity until it elapses. I heard about it here and the Daily Telegraph has published a link to it too.

    Pretty simple, isn’t it? But is it useful?

    Not everyone thinks so. The majority of commenters on the Lifehacker thread have laid into the application. Most of the remarks can be paraphrased as “this is not something that I would use, as I have something called ‘willpower'”.

    What I find confusing, though, is the fact that so many people have used their time to log in and post comments to that effect. If I tried to actively communicate my non-interest in everything that I didn’t like or wouldn’t use, I’d die before I did anything else.

    If the application was buggy, expensive, or easily surpassed by rival products, then these comments would make sense. But it’s free, and it doesn’t seem to replicate features already offered elsewhere. So, as things stand, this is like me logging on to a Harry Potter forum and spending my time writing posts about how I’m not interested in Harry Potter.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t have too much of a problem being productive when the chips are down, but could see myself using a Windows version of this application every now and again.

  8. Online mind-mapping tools

    Posted July 14, 2008 in software, webapps  |  No Comments so far

    What are mind mapping tools? In short, they aim to visualise the conceptual relationships that make up the structure of thought.

    When used for project planning they allow you to break down the central objective into a set of smaller, inter-related items – these items can then be arranged hierarchically. The end result is an at-a-glance overview of your project which is conceptual in nature, as opposed to the linear and temporal visualisation provided by a Gantt chart.

    A vast array of mind-mapping applications can be found online, some of which are free. However I’m more interested in their web-based counterparts, not only because the potential for sharing, publishing and collaboration is much greater, but also as the user can access their mind maps from any location (at least in theory).

    Over the next few weeks I’m planning to try out the following online mind-mapping tools and post some updates on my experiences. I’ve been interested in mind-mapping for some time but have never embraced it wholeheartedly, so maybe these tools will persuade me to become a fully-fledged convert…