Category Apps

Xbox App = Pure Brilliance

The Xbox community is pretty rabid and many use the service for way more than just gaming. As such Microsoft just released an app for iOS devices to give access to your account from anywhere. Not only does it increase the value of having a XBox account they slyly put WindowsPhone 7 on your iPhone.

The app itself is build using the Metro framework but it also includes the default nav bar from their OS. So visually other than the status bar at the top of the screen you’re in WP7 land. What a way to introduce the masses to WP7 without them having to give up their iPhones in the process.

Outside the visuals, the app is pretty impressive. From the animated avatar that reacts to your actions (shake phone, poke, etc.), to full access to your account including messaging and setting of beacons. Beacons on their own are a brilliant move, but together Microsoft has a killer marketing tool disguised as an app that you’ll want to use.

Check it out for your self.

First Look at Adobe Edge


On Monday, Adobe opened up their beta trial of Adobe Edge, their latest tool for creating animations for the web. Being that they are getting hammered on all sides about Flash, instead Edge uses HTML5/CSS/JavaScript as it animation engine. HTML based animation has gotten dramatically better, my test animation ran surprisingly well across browsers and mobile devices. Whether this is Adobe’s little white flag on the end of Flash is yet to be seen but for now we options.

At first glance Edge seems closer in structure to After Effects then to Flash which could be a nod to where Adobe is heading or a way to separate the apps, again we’ll have to wait and see. The application is laid out in four sections: Properties, Timeline, Elements, and the editor window, which is Webkit based. The basic premise application is the simple, add items to a stage and then animate them via keyframes along a timeline. There are no interactions or ability to add scripts with this version of the application. Nor can you create new objects/shapes outside of rectangles, so all your assets will need to be created externally.

The timeline offers auto-keyframing and each attribute can be animated separately. Edge supports the standard set of easing which can be applied individually or to a group via multi-select. Each object/layer is a different color and their attribute list can be contracted/expanded to maximize work space. Attribute values are displayed both in the properties panel and inline within the timeline. Similar to After Effects, you can filter the timeline by typing within the timeline’s search field. Another nice AE style feature is the ability to scale the timeline and manipulate your existing keyframes in bulk.

Since the main editor is Webkit based text is true HTML text as are the CSS styles connected to it. Adobe’s handling of object positioning within the stage has a few quirks. The biggest being an object’s Zero Point being based on where it was initially introduced to the stage and not to top-left or other standard. This make is difficult to quickly create animations or layouts based on numerical coordinates from either external applications (Fireworks) or from object-to-object. For now you’ll need a PNG/JPG to create your gradients. I’m not sure if this is due to the complicated CSS to support gradients between browsers or just something missing from this release. There’s also a few glitches revolving around scaling images but text and divs work as expected.

Code wise, Adobe hides most of the magic in pre-minimized JavaScript files with the external CSS file only defining the initial elements. As long as you keep the stage and associate includes untouched you can edit the rest of the page at will. Which will only help Adobe gain support of this among larger web shops. Despite this flexibility HTML based animations still lack the self-contained nature of Flash’s SWF, which means to view my sample animation you’ll need to click to a page outside of WordPress’s CMS.

Overall, I think this is a great example of where I think web content creation apps need to go. Live HTML in the editor means there is no guessing on how things will look when it hits a browser. I hope they follow this thinking with the next version of Fireworks allowing less web savvy designers to get a better feel for what how their designs will really look outside the false perfection of the current design tools present.

Though Edge is only in its first beta release it’s pretty solid app and could easily be used to create complex animations for websites, banners and other strongholds of Flash. You can view the my test animation I created for this review. Future versions promise support for increased support SVG and the Canvas tag which will only make this more powerful tool for web animators. Will HTML5 really be the death of Flash? If so, Edge is a smart bet for Adobe to keep relevant in this new world.

Quick Take on Spotify

Last week Spotify launched in the United States, though It’s been available abroad for years. If that wasn’t enough buzz, invites were hard to come by so congrats if you were lucky enough to get an invite, find a loophole or paid your way in. For those that haven’t had a chance to check it out here’s a quick rundown of the service.

Spotify is a subscription/free streaming music service boasting over 15 million songs in its catalog and offline listening (subscription only). According to Spotify’s promos “Spotify is any song, any album, any time”. I tested out a few of the more obscure bands from my college years and it found most of them that had more than one major label release. Song wise there were more gaps but overall pretty impressive. Their catalog also loaded with new releases, not just forgotten tracks from yesteryear.

The Spotify application is pretty simple and it layout is reminiscent of iTunes and other music apps. Rather then having the play controls front and center, they’re located across the bottom of the app, similar to Grooveshark, which took some getting used to. The search box is located at the top left, hinting that it’s a primary tool for getting around Spotify’s offerings. When using search it returns a list of potential artist, albums and in the main window all the songs that are a potential match. This allows you to go from search to playing pretty quickly.

Despite the top placement of Search the UI seems focused on playlists. To help you get jump started you can import you music and playlists from iTunes. Though beyond the jump-start I don’t see much value with this feature unless you pony up for the premium subscription giving you at-will offline access to your music on your phone. Additionally, located above the playlists is a “What’s new” and “inbox” where you’d find the latest pop hits and music friends shared with you (respectively). Overall it’s a solid service with a large catalog of music that is worth checking out but it does have some issues.

I know Spotify isn’t alone in their pricing model treating mobile as a premium feature. Regardless it still tops my list of issues. Though the app on both Android and iOS are nicely designed they do little more than offer access to music you already have on the device. Streaming and offline access to Spotify’s music are $5 and $10 a month. On the plus side it does offer the ability to sync via WiFi. Who knows this could change as popularity of free services similar to Amazon’s Cloud Player and Google Music gain more traction.

Another issue is how focused the app is on playlists and albums. Honestly I don’t always have time to create playlists and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. They need to add a “genius” feature, basic stations or any sort of lazy mode if only to showcase the vastness of their catalog. Currently, despite having 15 million songs if I can’t think of it, I don’t know they have it or I’m stuck listening to albums which isn’t always what I’m looking for. If you love Pandora’s ability to create an instant playlist based on a single song/artist I’d say stick with Pandora for now.

My last big issue with Spotify is their advertisements. I know they have bills to pay so I’m not complaining that there are adverts in general but they are either three in a row, feature samples from songs I have zero interest in or worse yet fail completely and not time out forcing me to restart the app to continue to the next song. Their ads also bounce around the user interface, great for advertisers, horrible for the user. With advertising it’s all a game of balance and it wouldn’t take much to fix that balance.

There are a few things smaller things they could fix and be easy wins for the service. An iPad version of the app would be welcomed a welcomed addition, especially since the service is so playlist focused the added screen real-estate would be a blessing. The share feature is a nice addition but the method to do so is a bit retro and more obscured than it needs to be.

Though the big issues aren’t enough for me to stop using the service immediately they also don’t drive me to becoming a paid subscriber. The ironic reality is even though two out of three of my issues would be alleviated by subscribing their existence keeps me from wanting to subscribe. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know I’m not alone in this either. Overall, Spotify isn’t dramatically different than other services available (Rdio, Napster, Rhapsody, Grooveshark or even Amazon and
Google’s new music offerings), it does work well and has a huge catalog. Will that be enough for Spotify to convert people into subscribers?

Pros:

  • Huge catalog (15+ million songs)
  • Connection with social networks
  • Quality search results
  • Off-line access (paid)

Cons:

  • No streaming to mobile without subscription
  • Off-line access additional
  • Playlist/album/search focused
  • Obnoxious commercials
  • No error detection

– – – – –

Ways to get a Spotify invite:
Don’t Have A Free Spotify Invite? Use Your Klout Perks
Get a quick and easy invitation to Spotify
Spotify Invite Fever Strikes: How to Get In Now

Links:
Spotify
Rdio
Napster
Rhapsody
Grooveshark
Amazon Cloud Player
Google Music

Your TV’s New Best Friend

Yesterday Comcast released their XFINITY TV app for iOS. Basically it’s a cleaned up TV Listings grid, updated On Demand guide, the ability to change the channel, set your DVR and (coming soon on the iPad) streaming content. These options are also available online via XfinityTV.com but having them in your phone makes it so much more relevant. Though I’ve seen the demo versions for months (I work at Comcast) it’s something else to use it in the real world.

The set-up was simple, especially since I’m already using the remote DVR service that was released earlier this year. Once inside the app the TV Listings scrolled through channels and hours with ease. After seeing the smoothness of this interaction you’ll wish all other grids could work this well. There’s still a ton of channels to browse through but way simpler then anything a set-top box can offer. There’s also a search feature should you already know what you want to watch but need to know where. The On Demand section is also way quicker to navigate then via the standard remote.  And since you can instantly tune your TV to anything you can pull up in the app you may never pick up the old remote again.

Unlike many other iPhone remotes this one works over the Internet rather then your local WiFi so there is no start up time every time you take the phone out of sleep mode. It’s also great tool to mess with people watching TV as you can change the channel even if they’re the ones holding the TV remote. Granted my girlfriend didn’t enjoy this feature as much as I did.

I’m not the only one that seems to like it:

The app is free, so if you’re a Comcast/Xfinity customer there’s no reason not to give it a try.

Last but not least, I need to give props to all my co-workers that have been working killer hours to make this a reality.

Power to the People

With App Inventor, Google has put the power into the people’s hands. One no longer needs to learn a complicated computer language in order to turn their idea into something real. This is a polar opposite to the approach Apple has taken with their most recent terms of service (v3.3.1), which made for many headlines on how they cut Flash from being a potential development platforms for the iPhone. Will App Inventor empower the masses or as Job’s stated (regarding flash based apps) flood the market with substandard applications?

More then likely there will be a hundreds of quickly put together dumb and/or kitschy apps. Ideally this is where Darwin’s laws of survival will come into play filtering out the deluge of iFart type applications. On the flip side, there will also be some quality apps that may not have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the reduced skill set needed to create them. In general, I see App Inventor being used by designers and developers to quickly prototype an idea before having it developed via traditional methods.

Regardless of how App Inventor is ultimately used, it’s the democratization of technology that is the game changer.

Links:
Google App Inventor

Retro Geek for a New Year

Video Terminal Sample

It’s New Year’s Day 2009, and people are busy making and breaking their resolutions for a better future. Others are already saying 2008 is passé. Well to counter all this futurism I instead offer you this look back to a time when computers lacked all the visual power of today. Back when screens were all black and green. When images were either all blocky or made up of keyboard characters. For some this is a past that you’ve never had a chance to enjoy…

…well now you can with Video Terminal, a little app created by Arpit and myself that lets you watch video in three old school styles: Mosaic, ASCII and ASCII in color. Directions and additional info available at CIM Labs.

Note: you may need to install Adobe AIR to run the video terminal app.

Links:
CIM Labs
Video Terminal
Arpit’s Blog