Application Stores – Purveyors of Innovation

One of the reasons I’ve remained enamoured with the computing space is the potential for software to do amazing things. It’s one of the few subjects in which a single person can formulate a vision, undertake its design, and carry out the implementation of a complete, functional system, a system that can change the way people use technology to solve real world problems. However, the software developer is faced with a pretty big challenge.

Distribution.

How does that developer, with near-zero capital, get his application into the hands of people who might find it useful? In the past, it was nearly impossible to reach more than a handful – you could host the application on your personal webpage, and hope people find it. If you were giving the program away for free, you might get a few nibbles. If you were charging for it, you’d have to think about a secure payment system (PayPal, perhaps?). You’d almost certainly get very few users, unless you were discovered by some larger publication.

In fewer words, it was difficult as hell to make any money from your software development efforts.

And that’s why there were relatively few indie developers making anything decently worthwhile. The distribution method for most successful software has been shiny media in retail stores, or bundled on OEM computers.

Shiny Media

Say what you want about Apple’s closed application ecosystem on the iPhone OS, it opened up the floodgates of eager developers who had amazing ideas but no way to show the world their creations. More importantly, the Apple App Store provided these individuals and small organizations a way to effectively monetize their work. If necessity is the mother of all invention, but then (monetary) incentive is probably the father.

Apple iPhone Applications

It is my firm belief that the App Store is a purveyor of innovation, not in the platform itself, but the applications that are enabled by the model. No longer does a developer question whether they can make some money from a great idea. Don’t read this wrong. The App Store model doesn’t guarantee earnings from just any idea.

Many other software platforms are either in the process of, or have already imitated the App Store model. It’s unreasonable to assume the developer of any platform is going to be able to implement or even determine all the potential use cases for their software system. The centralized application store provides a community that creates its own demand and provides its own supply. It’s a circular effect, and creates new scenarios in which that software system is useful to the masses. The system that emerges is significantly more agile, not relying on a single entity to provide functionality, and even more so than an open platform, with no proper distribution method. Furthermore, many of the applications that come about arise from grass-roots movements, evolving with community input. These new use cases help sell the devices, as Apple has shown.

Whether that application store needs to be the only source of applications is debatable. I contend that it is the small minority of developers that would actually take advantage of 3rd-party distribution, but the possible issues of code quality, security, and dilution of one key characteristics of the application store, singular, centralized repo, outweigh that advantage, for less general-computing platforms such as the iPhone and iPad.

Apple Application Store

Long story short, the Apple App Store has empowered individuals and small organizations to create software solutions to their problems. These applications were previously undiscoverable, and thus lacked the monetary incentive necessary to foster this sort of interest in development by non-traditional developers. Whether the closed-platform model is the right one is contentious, but it’s hard to argue against the innovation that exists in 140,000 applications in the Apple App Store today.

The next step is to bring the development learning curve and overhead down even further. There are about a billion computer users who have a better way to do something with their computing devices, but can’t turn those ideas to reality.

Microsoft Zune HD – Thoughts on Integration

Disclaimer: The following are my thoughts and opinions and are in no way those of Microsoft, nor are they endorsed in any way shape or form by the company.

I played briefly with the Zune HD at the launch yesterday. Surprisingly, the events at the Microsoft campus were quite muted. There was a tent set up and quite a bit of swag given out, but the actual Zune HDs were few and far between. When I finally got my hands on one, the lady I spoke with told me that every effort was made to get as many of the devices into customers’ hands as possible. Hence, even the launch crews were short-Zuned! Given that most of the stores in the region that were supposed to be carrying the Zune HD did not have them on launch day, this course of action was probably prudent, yet still insufficient. But enough on the shortages, what about the device?

Microsoft Zune HD

The thing that strikes you first is just how light the device is. Seeing as it’s sheathed in metal, I expected it to be pretty hefty, but instead, it feels substantially lighter than my Nokia E71, which I had for comparison. A glance at the specification plays that out. At 73.7g, it’s only 1.5x as heavy as the flash-based Zune I have, or about 65% the weight of the iPod Touch. That’s a hefty difference. Still, fit and finish is great; there’s no creaking or play in the device at all.

The OLED screen is superb, with one caveat: it suffers under direct sunlight. Launch day turned out to be a scorcher, with unhindered sunlight. I started off in the launch tent, but I asked permission to take the player outside to test it in the sun. The demo lady obliged and followed me out, where the screen washed out under the sun. With no transflective property, it’s going to be pretty hard to use the device in those conditions. You can still see the screen if you try real hard, or more realistically, shield it with one hand. Still, that’s a slight downer for usability. You gotta pay somehow for the fantastic colors in less-than-direct sun, it seems.

The operating system is what I was/am most excited about, and it delivers excitement in spades. There is no sign of hesitation in any of the transitions. The fluidity creates a user experience like no other Microsoft mobile device. You saw parts of the UI design pattern in the previous generation Zunes, but the Zune HD takes it a step further, and the more natural touch interface works really well with the slick animations. The integration with Zune Marketplace is seamless, grabbing albums by the same artist, bios, photos and more. There is a big emphasis on the Zune Marketplace, something I’ll explain in a moment. I wasn’t able to try the on-screen keyboard in the web browser, as there was no Wifi available in the middle of the soccer field the tent stood on.

Microsoft is increasingly focused on the integration of the three screens (PC, TV, and mobile) and the cloud. The recent Zune development is one of the most visible products to come out of that mentality. Zune Marketplace exists on the PC and can also be accessed through the Zune. The TV will soon get Zune integration, via Xbox 360. The value proposition presented by seamless media portability across these three device types is mouth-watering. The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future. Apple was actually way ahead of the integration game with their computers, iPods and Apple TV, along with iTunes. However, Apple TV didn’t sell terribly well, so Microsoft has a chance to capture some of the home theatre market with the already established Xbox user base.

I mentioned previously that I had signed up for the Zune Pass. It was a great choice. With the focus on the Smart DJ and mix-view in the Zune 4.0 software, I’m discovering so many new artists and albums. There’s no obstacle preventing me from downloading or streaming music nearly at will. On the 10mbps+ connection we have here now, I can listen to most songs instantly. The QuickPlay screen of the Zune 4.0 software mimics the design goal of the QuickPlay feature of the Zune HD – it’s an easy way to get at your most commonly played media. Shown below is the Smart DJ listings I’ve set up. Clicking the albums below the DJ lists makes the recently played, recently acquired, and pinned content swoosh in.

Zune 4.0 software

Many people have openly questioned Microsoft for not putting a cellular module in the Zune HD and swinging for the mobile fences. Now, my immediate reaction to that is simply of a feeling that it’s really not the hardware that is the main driver behind the Zune HD, it’s the software/firmware. You can be sure that the Zune software DNA will find itself in Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile 7 (and even in small part, in 6.5). Microsoft still believes it has the correct mobile market model is in providing software for hardware partners, as they do in the PC market. I tend to believe given Microsoft’s completely different position in the mobile market (compared to their domination in the PC market) that it’s not the most effective model. That aside, the interface and user experience will carry on into devices that other companies will manufacture, which I believe will make the difference in the user perception of Windows Mobile down the road. The hardware is really nothing terribly special. That’s the really compelling part of the Zune experiment. It may not end up becoming a popular mobile media device, but it will set the tone for Microsoft’s next generation of mobile and media-centric software. In that integrating capacity, I look forward to it. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the new features of the Zune HD release.

The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future.

Microsoft’s Biggest Threat

I had a Microsoft product planning interview for an intern position this past Monday, and while I’ve not been informed of the result, I have been thinking about one of the discussion questions posed during the interview: ‘What do you see as Microsoft’s biggest threat?’

I thought about the question for a moment and came up with my answer – offline web applications. Think Google Gears, Adobe AIR, and Firefox’s local store enabling the use of centrally stored data in disconnected situations. Microsoft’s core software business could be severely affected by this new application paradigm. Applications without network capabilities would go by the way of the dodo and Microsoft would have to revamp its business model to adapt. However, as I was walking home after the interview, a new threat crept into my mind.

This year’s Computex really drove home what I believe will be Microsoft’s biggest challenge over the next 5 to 10 years: the next billion. And I don’t mean the next billion in revenues or net income. Those are easy to come by. I’m talking about the next billion internet (and computer) users and the current idea (which I really think owes its existence to the OLPC) of delivering that vision through cheap sub-notebooks is gaining significant traction.

Computer makers are seeing the potential in the low-cost ‘netbook’ market and while Windows will continue to be an option on these devices, those configurations typically occupy the higher-end portion of the market. Take a look at MSI’s Wind or HP’s offerings. The lower end is dominated by one Linux distribution or another. While Linux isn’t doing so well on fully-featured systems sold by the likes of Dell and Lenovo, the simplistic interface found on devices like the ASUS Eee PC is well suited to their typical use of web browsing, email and productivity work. When a consumer spends $1000 on a computer, they expect a certain level of functionality, comfort and application compatibility that Linux just can’t quite satisfy, yet. However when the device in question is a sub $500 mini-laptop, the requirements are quite different. Ease of use (intuitiveness) and cost become major considerations. Being able to install Photoshop isn’t likely to be a high priority.

I would challenge that for a completely new computer user, the Eee PC’s user interface is significantly more intuitive than Windows. The Eee PC’s operating system is function-based, which makes more sense to a new user than the Windows interface. Windows’ design makes the assumption that the user has either used a previous version of Windows or has at least come in contact with some version of it. This is usually a fair assumption in the developed world but certainly not for the next billion computer users, many of whom may have never seen a computer at all, much less used Windows.


Which one is more intuitive to you?

Microsoft’s biggest threat is the potential loss of dominance of its Windows operating system and subsequently its whole software ecosystem built around that platform. Netbooks, outfitted with simplified Linux distributions will flood the market and find computer users, both new and existing. In many ways, Microsoft’s current operating system dominance is self-perpetuating. Many migrate along the path set out by Microsoft as it is what’s most familiar and easiest for them. But the next billion users may find the Linux operating systems outfitted on many netbooks to be sufficient and perhaps even better suited to their needs than Windows.

If you look at something like Windows Vista, it’s clear that it was not intended for the netbook market. Its features are intended to take advantage and even push the progress of computer hardware, not simple machines designed for simple functions. Even Windows XP, which will be kept around for the netbooks only, isn’t well suited to the function-orientation of the netbook market. Granted the netbook market is still young, having only recently exploded onto the front page of just about every online tech publication in existence, I think Microsoft needs to think about how it can modify what it currently has, or even start development on a new operating system altogether. To be honest, I’d be surprised if there were no prototype OSes for netbooks floating around Redmond right now. Their work on a customized version of Windows XP for the OLPC shows that the market is definitely on their to-do list.

So that’s what I would answer if I had another chance at the question – ‘What do you see as Microsoft’s biggest threat?’ I think it’s time Microsoft’s consumer operating systems were differentiated by a bit more than media centers and ultimate extras. The netbook market needs these function-oriented operating systems at a low price and currently, Linux is eating Microsoft’s lunch.

When Lotus Notes Crashes – ZapNotes

I have the misfortune of having to use Lotus Notes at work. A developer at IBM realized that it’s buggy software, and provided a wonderful application called ZapNotes. For those times when Notes crashes so hard that you can’t even restart it, ZapNotes will go through the system processes and kill any lingering Notes threads. I especially like the program tagline:

ZapNotes 3.4 – Now people from around the world look forward to their Notes client crashing! 🙂

Loving Firefox 3 Beta 3

It may be a beta, but for me, it’s working better than the real thing. Firefox 3 Beta 3 was released several days ago, and I’ve been using it since. You can read a more detailed list of feature additions and changes from Firefox 2 over here, but I’d like to touch on a few of the features that have had an impact on my usage habits.

Firefox 3

Memory, memory, memory. I’ve always hated how Firefox 2 would consume upwards of 300-400MB after surfing the internet for a day. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate this is to go to Google Maps’ Street View and move around for a couple minutes. What’s worse, closing the tabs don’t have any effect. Memory usage stays up there and doesn’t come back down until you close and restart the browser. Mozilla’s stuck with its line of “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” mantra over the terrible memory leaks in the past, but have actively reduced the memory footprint and memory leaks in Firefox 3.

With computers coming with more and more memory these days, some will argue that a few hundred megabytes of memory usage isn’t all that significant; however, for usability, it makes a huge difference. After using Firefox 2 for a day, it really starts to get sluggish. Opening and closing tabs is no longer instantaneous and even switching between tabs can skip a beat. Now, the interface is significantly quicker – I’m certain at least part of that has to do with the vastly improved memory management. Now, after a day of surfing with 10-15 tabs open, I’m barely reaching over 100MB of memory usage.

Firefox 3 Memory Usage

Improved security is a cornerstone of Firefox 3. A list of sites known for distributing malware is being served by Google, triggering a warning when a user navigates to a listed site. Furthermore, to prevent phishing, secure sites such as PayPal will display their credentials in the favicon button. Finally, dodgy site security certificates now pop up in a full-screen warning, requiring some intrusive user interaction to access the site in question. Security has always been a balancing act between protecting the user and limiting the annoyance factor. I think Firefox 3 has hit on a fairly good balance.

Firefox 3 Security

User interface changes have also been a widely touted improvement for Firefox 3. I’m a little more reserved on the changes. First, the icons and button designs don’t really affect me – the only time I see the default icons is after a fresh install, before I apply another theme. Sure, the new default theme does look a bit better, but I’d imagine anyone who wasn’t happy with Firefox 2’s default theme has since found a theme they are happy with.

Firefox 3 User Interface

Another big change can be found in the address bar. Start typing and a list of choices will appear, and winnow itself down, based on recently visited sites, your bookmarks and tags. The autocomplete also displays the name of the page, as opposed to only the URL. This helps in identifying a page, if you don’t know the actual URI. For my browsing habits, the auto-suggest is actually slightly intrusive – when I type something in the address bar, I expect a certain order for the resulting drop-down, which isn’t necessarily the case with the new system. I’m sure after getting used to it, it will make the address bar much more effective, but for now, it’s a bit of an annoyance.

Firefox 3 passes the Acid2 web standards test. Along with Opera 9 and the future Internet Explorer 8, standards support should get a lot stronger in the web browser space in the near future. That’s good news for web developers (I’ll tentatively lump myself in that category). Bookmarks, history and tags include a more complete search function so you can find exactly what you’re looking for a bit quicker. The majority of the extensions I use with Firefox 2 are not compatible with Firefox 3 Beta 3, but thankfully, the essential ones, including Adblock Plus and Tab Mix Plus both have compatible versions. The Tab Mix Plus listed at the official Firefox add-ons site isn’t supported, but a modified version, which you can find here, is working fine for me.

So seeing as my main issue with Firefox, memory management, has now been addressed, I’m very happy to be using Firefox again, after a brief stint with Internet Explorer 7 and IE7Pro.