Entertainment Technology Thoughts

Apple gets it right

News about Apple is every where today, as they are after all of their press conferences. Though today was supposed to be about their new line of iPods the real winner was the release of the new AppleTV. Oh, they also announced an update to iOS that should fix the horrible performance on iPhone 3G. The iPods were an evolutionary step, everything has touch, cool but not worthy of a repurchase. The AppleTV on the other hand is a brand new beast.

Even without plugging it in, at only 20% of the original size it’s clearly not the same device as it’s predecessor. Internal hard drive, gone. Instead everything streams to the device via WiFi leaving you with the device, a power cable and the HDMI to the TV. All pretty cool but not a whole lot different then Roku, Boxee or WD-TV. Also not too different is the ability to access Flickr, Netflix and YouTube.

Technology Thoughts

Brilliant Solution by AT&T

Smartphones are everywhere. The most popular being the Apple’s iPhone, which just released it’s latest version and sold around 1.7million in the first three days. One issue with the new iPhone is the reception should you hold it a certain way to which Steve Jobs suggests holding it differently. Regardless of how you hold it iPhone users and AT&T in general have been complaining about reception, dropped calls etc since the first iPhone was released. Being that AT&T is currently the only service provider for the iPhone in the States their network is being pushed beyond it’s limits. Anyone with AT&T in New York City or San Francisco Bay Area can probably go on a tare about how AT&T’s network sucks. I have no doubt that should Verizon have been the sole service provider they too would be feeling this network strain, but I digress.

To combat the network problems AT&T has come up with a solution…the AT&T 3G MicroCell™. It’s your own personal cell tower, allowing you to sit in your basement (or where ever) and still have a working phone. For anyone living in one of these soft spots in AT&T’s network this is a great workaround till AT&T upgrades their network with thousands of new cell towers.

The MicroCell serives is also great for AT&T, rather then having the expense of putting up another cell tower in your area you can do it for them. Even better, you have to pay them $150 to do so. There’s also an additional monthly fee if you’d like to have unlimited calling from your MicroCell otherwise the minutes used while connected to your personal cell tower still count against your monthly plan. Yes, that means (without the added plan) you’re paying for the minutes even though you are hosting the call through your own broadband connection.

If that wasn’t shady enough, even if you have the plan and you initiated a call on your MicroCell when you go outside your phone may switch back to the true AT&T network. Once back on AT&T’s network it won’t switch back to you MicroCell till the call is complete. So you’re back to your original lack of reception and since it doesn’t switch back to your MicroCell you’re (unknowingly) back to using your plans minutes.

You have to hand it to AT&T for turning there biggest thorn into a new revenue source. That is brilliant thinking. Steve Job’s righteous retort has nothing on AT&T’s brilliance with this solution. Sure charging for the hardware is somewhat understandable, but the true magic lies in the added fees and how the system always works to AT&T’s benefit.


Quick Thoughts on Swirl

An Unexpected Find

One thing about working for a Fortune 100 company is that there is going to be swirl, red tape and politics. Granted, this is true for smaller companies but the stakes are smaller and the separation between disciplines are grayer. The bigger the company structure the deeper the divisions between teams, it’s just the economy of scale rather then any malevolent corporate doing.

Well, for the last few months I’ve been working on the next generation of one of the Interwebs more trafficked sites. The idea was for my team to create the ideal “concept car” that would inform the current and future production versions. Our concept was more prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) then couture, still it needs about a year of back-end catch up before the vision can be realized. During the conceptualizing phase of the project we’ve tried to connect with as many of the teams that would be affected by the new site, find out what they needed, their concerns and when possible give them a glimpse at what we were working on. Our goal was to be inclusive and make sure we weighed the often divergent requirements we received. It’s a been a great experience and overall it’s moving alone surprisingly smooth considering all the pieces we’re juggling to keep everyone on the same page and this is where the swirl comes in.

We present a stage of the concept by walking the teams through the thinking and aim to clarify any questions or concerns that come up. Still, once we present a concept what becomes of it through the interpretations of the various teams is beyond our control. Team A translates it based on their needs and fears with no knowledge of Team B, who are doing the same thing. Add to this layers of management, where the concept is distilled and re-presented in a telephone game style of communication. Now add to that politics and territorial pissing contests. Give it a week and there’s chaos. Assumptions and fears swirl through the departments like it was a virus. The next few days are a mix of moving forward and attempts to reign in the swirl created by our latest concept presentation.

Swirl is the worst part of the process. As a team, we’d gladly walk the other teams through our concept but the reality is we can’t. They’ve got projects of their own to work on and we have an aggressive deadline in which to move from concept to production. Swirl is guaranteed, at least as far as I see it.

Social Thoughts

Getting to know Facebook’s Open Graph

Last week Facebook announced Open Graph, a way for external sites to connect Facebook’s users and services. Open graph takes what was previously called Facebook Connect a bit further. First, it’s based on using OAuth rather then Facebook’s proprietary system. Secondly, it allows tighter integration with Facebook’s data as well as allowing 3rd parties to locally retain user data for more then 24 hours. This is a huge perk to 3rd party developers; on the flip side this is a huge privacy concern for members. Other additions include the ability for any site to embed some Facebook functionality without requiring OAuth or compromising user privacy, this is done through iFrames.

It’s this last one that initially will be Facebook’s biggest win. It includes the ability to add a “like” button to any page with a simple line of JavaScript. For external sites, like this one, the addition of a “like” button allows for a simple way for readers to share the site/page with their (the readers) friends on Facebook. Much like the Digg, Buzz Up, “post to Twitter” and other social buttons previously available. The big difference is access to Facebook’s membership numbers, especially since Facebook users encompasses a broader spectrum of the masses then most of the other services. Granted the “like” button is little more then a marketing/promotional tool for the sites that use it. For Facebook, on the other hand, it provides endless user preference data, which can be used for better ad targeting or be sold to 3rd parties. It also positions Facebook as the go to source trending information.

In addition to the “like” button, Facebook’s Developer’s guide offers a number of other widgets via iFrame/JavaScript for 3rd party sites to connect with Facebook. One widget offers a view of what other pages on the site your friends (and the world at large) “liked.” Almost instantly there was, a site displaying multiple instances of this widget listing what friends “liked” on some of the Internet’s bigger sites. All this is done without ever directly knowing who you are as each instance of the widget is actually an iFrame containing Facebook. I say “directly” because the data is readable via JavaScript post rendering. Facebook also offers a recommendations engine based on all the data collected that 3rd parties could implement. Though I need to learn more about this one myself before I can explain its particulars here.

One thing Facebook is requesting as part of the “like” button spec is the addition of meta data about the page/site that is hosting the button. The more accurate the info included the better you’ll be found within the Facebook universe. This reminds me of the early years of search engines where they relied on the honesty of the poster’s meta data for the integrity of their search algorithms. Regardless of the potential for hacking the system, Facebook has a list of requested meta data fields to be associated with the “like” button. The “type” field is potentially linked to the content listed in the user’s profile. For example, if you “like” a movie on IMDB, it can potentially be added to your profile’s list of favorite movies. Though I believe this type of connection to user data is reserved for OAuth connected clients rather then the JavaScript based “like” buttons.

The OAuth connection allows for more access to user data then ever before. OAuth now has access to profile data and the ability to locally store Facebook user data for periods longer then 24 hours. This empowers developers with the ability to parse through all the user data and make analytical connections that were previously impossible. For example if User X allows access and a week later User Y allows access, if User X is friends with User Y the data is now available to make this connection and any others that come along with the increased dataset. Additionally as an admin for pages that were “liked” you can push page updates to those users.

Overall, Facebook’s Open Graph looks like it’s worth using even if it’s only for the simple marketing benefits by adding a “like” button. Granted the real power lies in the OAuth integration. The biggest winner in all this is Facebook, as all these services places Facebook at the center of it all. As Facebook’s gravity increases they can always switch to a pay system so I don’t suggest relying solely on Facebook for the future of your site/service, but until then no reason not to take advantage of all that Open Graph has to offer.

Facebook: Open Graph
Facebook’s Developer’s guide

Creative Design Thoughts

Metro: Guidelines to the Next Generation of Mobile UX

With Surface, Zune HD, Bing…and now Windows 7 Mobile it seems that Microsoft has finally embraced the design/experience side of technology. While most people will never encounter a Surface device, at least not at it’s current state, this was a huge leap for Microsoft and human/computer interactions in general. For the most part it’s a living experiment of what the future may hold. The Zune HD and Windows 7 Mobile, on the other hand, are designed to be used by the masses, in the present and take their respective markets to a new level.

Inspired by the simplicity and universality of transportation graphics Microsoft calls there new design guidelines Metro. Beyond the name is the focus on creating a modern, stripped down, easy to navigate user interface based on common elements and typography.  The use of typography as a key design element in the digital world is almost unheard of ; I would think design geeks should be overjoyed with this though I’ve barely seen any references to this from the general design world.

Along with typography here are a few of the highlights of Metro:

  • Based on transportation signage: simple, universal, easy to skim
  • General feel: Clean, light, open and fast
  • Experience: should lead the design
  • Consistent: common design treatments and transitions
  • Flexible: Inviting developers to personalize their use of the guidelines to allow them to make their apps unique yet consistent
  • User focused/Task focused: one primary action at a time
  • Panoramic: apps not locked to a single screen
  • Typography: as an element of beauty as well as to demonstrate hierarchy
  • Transitions: are as important as the static page. Guidlines request to keep them simple and related, noting “the more you use it (transitions) the less special it becomes”
  • Simplify, Simplify, Simplify: fierce reduction in unnecessary UI elements (chrome, non-related actions…)

Here is a link to a long but worthwhile video
(Silverlight required for inline, but you can also download non-Silverlight version)

Here’s the official Window’s phone site:

Overall, I’m excited to see smart-phones continue their evolution and Metro looks to be a great step forward.  It’s also nice to see Microsoft (or anyone) not play catch up by porting over the status quo, but rather innovating beyond it.

Code Thoughts

Looking to game consoles to predict the future of the iPhone

With section 3.3.1 of the iPhone SDK terms of service agreement Apple has once again ruffled the feathers of those that support them. 3.3.1 mandates that no intermediary language can be used in the creation of iPhone/iPad applications. Steve Job’s suggests that this to maintain quality control, but technically that’s what the App Store review process is for. Personally I think “quality control” is just a cover up for marketing insecurities. My buddy Arpit captures this point with a touch of humor

“He really should go and look at the crap apps that currently flood the apple app store, so much so that Apple has started to remove apps with “limited functionality” and “objectionable content”. But hey, iFart is still one of the top sellers but at least it was done in Objective C. “.

Since the release of 3.3.1, the bloggosphere has been flooded with people’s opinions and there is no need to reiterate these points. One of the best reads on the subject comes from The Tao Effect, as it covers both Steve’s responses and makes some solid points on the subject. And others are reminded of the 80’s when Apple (under Steve Jobs) followed a similar path with the desktop market only to watch the market be completely overtaken by windows/intel based computers. TechCrunch waxes more deeply on this subject. One thing I haven’t seen referenced yet is the history of the game consoles and how closed/”locked-in” system worked or better failed to work.

If you look at the gaming console market you can see how “locked-in” versus cross-platform support plays a bigger role in the success of the console then the hardware or even market dominance. When Microsoft entered the market Sony’s PS2 and Nintendo were the dominant players. And Microsoft had zero clout in the gaming world, especially against Nintendo, Sega and PlayStation. But what Microsoft did have was a way game developers could code the game once and get it on both the new XBox console as well as millions of PC. Fast forward to today and XBox is now the platform of choice to gamers the world over despite the PS3’s better graphics and hardware. Why?

Because it’s the games that draw the users just like it’s the apps that make the iPhone what it is. Sure the iPhone revolutionized smart-phones and is the current market leader, still there are more non-iPhone smart-phones everyday. With Android being offered free to phone manufacturers it’s sure to increase market share despite anything Apple does. As developers start realizing they can reach a larger audience (make more money) by developing cross-phone applications the iPhone will start to feel the pain Sony felt with the PS3.

As a customer I want to get the most for my money, currently that’s an iPhone, but when my contract is up and I’m looking at the next few years will the iPhone continue to offer me the best deal? Based on moves like section 3.3.1 the iPhone’s future just got a little dimmer.

Links Thoughts

Curiosity explained

Kids have it in abundance and it killed the cat but what is it?

In a recent blog post Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, waxes poetically on the matter. Explained through examples he succinct and clear enough for just about anyone to understand. More importantly he points out how curiosity can be used to judge a person’s true interest.

link: Scott Adams on Curiosity

Personal Photography Thoughts

Organizing Photos on Flickr

Currently I have 1,500 photos on Flickr and the stream has become a mishmash of photos.  Some are quick snapshots.  Some are from my cellphone.  Others are photos of events or places I’ve traveled to share with friends and family.  Lastly there are my good photos.  Combined everything starts looking a little snapshot’ish.  To limit this confusion I now post most of my quick cellphone photos to Twitpic, Pegshot or Facebook.  Still, I’m sure there is more that can be done.

I’ve been thinking about re-organizing everything.  With thoughts ranging from creating a new Fickr account just for the better stuff, to reworking the folders and sets.  I can’t be the only one with this issue, any suggestions?

Creative Entertainment Personal Pop Culture

We’ve come a long way since 1977

In 1977 computers were far from personal.  They offered 40/80 lines of green or amber text.  Around that time I got my first computer, the Commodore Pet.  It was all metal, big and heavy with a giant stand alone hard drive that held nothing in today’s standards.  There was also a separate cassette player for loading/unloading programs.  It’s graphics were limited to that classic shade of green and the alternate characters displayed on each of the keys of the keyboard.  I would spend hours either drawing pictures with those alternate characters or writing programs in BASIC and saving them on my cassette drive.  Even the highest end systems of the day were less capable then my iPhone.

Also in 1977 Star Wars was released.  Star Wars is a classic film.  I was too young to see it in theaters or remember much of it even if I had.  Still, as a child I loved the original trilogy and always loved it’s visuals.  For the time and may years after it’s visual effects were still some of the best.  George Lucas and team did amazing things with film to create all those special effects.  Computer generated EFX wasn’t even an option back then.  Well, I stand corrected.  The computer projections of the Death Star were actually done on a computer.  Below is a eye opening video of both their process and the technology that was available at the time.

Creative Personal Photography

Photos of/from the Ben

A few weeks ago I got together with a few buddies to walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge and do some night photography around Philly.  Here are some of the Results:

Streetside Gallery

Philly at Dusk

Ben's SuspensionLove, lit from behindFrom Love to City Hall

Factory at night