Trials, Testing and Premium AppsComments

One major failing of the AppStore is the lack of a proper mechanism to trial software.

Yes, you can purchase an app and, if you don't like it, try to claim a refund under whatever pretext the system will allow, but this is no substitute for a genuine try before you buy option.

(Please, don't mention free, ad supported versions as an option. These are just an abomination!)

For many apps it's not that much of an issue - we are willing to risk 99p or maybe £1.99 in the hope of getting something half decent. When it comes to premium apps, however, it's entirely a different story.

Most people balk at the notion of spending more than just a couple of pounds on a mobile app unless they are absolutely confident it fills a specific need; even then justifying £5, £10 or more will often be a struggle.

In a mobile world filled with myriad throwaway apps premium offerings stand out as anomalies, no matter how good they might actually be.

It was in this context that I found myself intrigued by Ulysses, the premium writing app for Mac and iPad that recently also found itself on the iPhone.

As I wrote previously, when writing in Markdown, one text app is largely the same as the next so there needs to be a real differentiation or benefit to the workflow to warrant switching - let alone stumping up a price such as £18.99 (yes, that's how much Ulysses costs in the U.K.)

I may have said that "I need very little" but, being realistic, a little only goes so far. I may have managed with what I already had but to foster a truly streamlined, seamless workflow you need that little bit extra.

Testing

It may well have been cheeky to use the recent Ulysses beta as a way to trial the app rather than diving straight in and committing to a purchase. Indeed, the team at The Soulmen could have easily rejected my application and chosen to stick only with those who had already bought the app.

But they didn't, and by not doing so have gained themselves a new paying customer.

I would urge more developers, especially those of premium applications, to open up their beta tests in this way.

I signed up because I was looking for something, well two things:
- specific functionality
- an exceptional user experience

I knew the app was getting the first from the beta announcement and I certainly hoped I would be receiving the second - spoiler, it didn't disappoint.

Because of this I came to the product with a vested interest, I wanted to love it and this made me a better tester, more likely to submit bugs (even silly little things that some might overlook) and provide meaningful feedback.

Now I have put my money where my mouth is and can't imagine my phone without Ulysses installed.

But none of this would have been possible without being able to give the app a thorough workout prior to purchase, even if by non-standard means.

Trials, Testing and Premium Apps

Apple Maps, Waze, life with iOS 6 and the ‘social gap’.

iOS 6Rather than rewrite full posts, here are a few recent items that have been posted on Google+.

I am giving myself a week with iOS 6 to see how things go. It is not intended as a tear-down of all the new functionality but, instead, an honest account of my reactions while I use the new OS beta. Once the week is up I will downgrade back to 5.1.1 to see what functionality I miss. You can read the first three days here:

iOS 6 - initial impressions (day 1)

iOS 6 beta - day 2

iOS 6 beta - day 3

Waze is one of the data providers for the new Apple Maps app in iOS 6 and it is interesting to see how the changes in the latest version bring the standalone app closer to Apple's new offering.

Apple Maps and Waze - growing closer.

While the features in our favourite social networks seem to be getting ever closer it appears that the usage gap between them is widening users having different types of conversations in the different locations.

Is the social network gap widening?

Join in

If you haven’t already done so, check them out and have your say.

Apple Maps, Waze, life with iOS 6 and the ‘social gap’.

iOS 6 – a personal perspectiveComments

While the tech press examines every detail of iOS 6 I wanted to present a personal view of key features from my own perspective.

iOS 6Now that the dust has settled after the WWDC keynote and I have slept on the announcements there are a few observations I wanted to make regarding iOS 6 whilst deliberately avoiding the arguments as to whether it is just playing catch-up with Android.

Safari

Firstly, there are a couple of glaring omissions in Safari that should really be low hanging fruit:

  • pull to refresh, and
  • a universal omnibar

Now that we have pull to refresh in the Mail app it would seem obvious to have a bit of consistency and introduce this for the browser.

It is now the expected norm for a browser to use a single combined location and search bar - iOS 6 would have been an ideal opportunity to streamline Safari and introduce this.

There are some "nice to haves" and other features which I personally will probably never use but here's what has me excited:

Maps

The new maps app looks great and you just know that the partnership with Tom Tom (and others) will bring a quality experience. While the 3D views look very impressive I can't envisage it being used that often so see it more as a curio than a really functional tool.

Native turn-by-turn is the big news here.

When I had made the decision to move to the iPhone from Android Navigation was the only feature I was concerned about losing. Consequently, I stopped using the native navigation in Google Maps and switched to the excellent Waze so that the transition from one platform to the other would be as seamless as possible. This has paid dividends and I have been happily using Waze on the iPhone ever since.

The introduction of native turn-by-turn navigation and the integration with Siri is going to completely turn that on its head. You can't beat going native for functionality if it is done well and you just know that this has been done well.

Tom Tom will have been getting worried about their prospects in a world where smartphones were rapidly making the company irrelevant; the deal with Apple to supply mapping data is no doubt massive so will ease the pressure significantly.

Siri - a beta no more

It's great that Siri is coming to the new iPad, it's also great that it will now be able to open apps and search for more things thanks to additional partnerships but that's not what's really important.

As a non-US iPhone user Siri was little more than a curiosity, something you'd use once in a while but never able to escape the feeling that the experience was being hamstrung.

So often those of us outside the US are made to feel like second class citizens by the likes of Apple or Google as functionality and services are introduced that we cannot use; expanding local search to more countries is the key feature to come out of this and will really propel Siri to the forefront in my opinion.

Facebook

I am starting to use Facebook a little more than I have ever done thanks largely to a new group of friends built up over the last 6 months thanks to our shop but I have no doubt that OS level linking of Facebook into iOS 6 will have exactly the desired effect and make me use it more.

The integration is going to be huge for both companies. It is obviously a huge boost for Facebook after the disappointing IPO and a ideal opportunity to really start making a mark on mobile. Apple gets the advantage of being able to leverage the social power of Facebook including Likes within the app store so that Ping can finally be swept under the carpet. While Twitter will probably have been expecting that the special relationship would come to an end at some point, there's no denying that the service is now playing second fiddle thanks to that little blue thumbs up button - such power in a single click.

As I have said before, I seriously doubt that Facebook is looking to build its own phone but I believe it is no coincidence that the App Center appeared just days before the start of WWDC. Even though Likes are going to be included throughout the app store itself and will help to serve the same purpose as the App Center I feel Facebook is making a stand here with regards to its independence from Apple.

What about you?

What excites or disappoints you with iOS 6. We're you expecting more? Discuss this over at Google+.

iOS 6 – a personal perspective

my6sense – of consumption, curation and the needstream.Comments

my6sensemy6sense recently hired tech blogger and influencer Louis Gray as VP of Marketing and it is easy to see why.

The Android version of the my6sense application was released to the Android market at 8am last Monday (PST) but Louis had given his Google Buzz followers (myself included) the opportunity to download it early and put it through it's paces. The only condition was that it couldn't be blogged about or otherwise publicly discussed until after the official 8am release time.

Well, within minutes of launch the blogosphere was littered with buzzes, blog posts and tweets about posts. I couldn't open any of my social streams without being bombarded by coverage. Good call my6sense - when the Louis Gray engines roll you'd better get out of the way or you're going to get squashed. Having not had much time to get to grips with the app prior to launch I decided to hold off until I had been able to form a balanced opinion. I fired off some initial thoughts to Louis but didn't want to make my first impressions public as they would not have been accurate. Also, having my phone die on me and need to be replaced threw an additional spanner in the works.

Back in July 2008 a friend Julian Baldwin coined the term "needstream" - those things we actually need from the web as opposed to frivolous browsing or random consumption. As the social web expands the need for a "needstream" - or personally filtered news - has never been greater. Queue services like my6sense.

This is the news you're looking for

As you've no doubt read elsewhere, and in much greater depth, my6sense is an intelligent feed/stream reader that uses technology and algorithms collectively called "digital intuition" to learn what you like in order to perform jedi mind tricks on your news and social streams (Twitter, Facebook and Buzz) and show you the items you will be most interested in: sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Even though we may be careful with those we follow the chances are that we will not be interested in, or want to read everything those people post; cutting out the irrelevance is, therefore, incredibly welcome.

Patience my young Padawan

my6sense is not for those seeking instant gratification, it takes a while for digital intuition to kick in and even longer for it to really find its feet. The more you use it the better it gets. After using it for a few days I was still only half way up the intuition scale; now I am up to about three quarters.

Fortunately, the app allows you to view your streams in time order (like your traditional news/social clients) as well as by relevance; I personally found that starting out by viewing items sequentially made for faster training in the ways of the digital intuition force. Initially, the application was designed as a news reader with an intelligent consumption engine but, at the behest of Louis and others, there is a push for greater engagement functionality - hence the ability to retweet, share on your social networks and, in the latest incarnation, to comment on Facebook and Buzz posts.

I follow relatively few RSS feeds and people on social networks so probably don't get the full benefit but, even though my feeds are already very strictly filtered by myself, I can see how digital intuition is altering the way I see things. It does a great job of learning your reading patterns and showing you what is relevant.

I have a bad feeling about this

As I have privately expressed to Louis, my main concern with an application such as my6sense is that it creates a division of labour between itself and whatever application you use to participate on your social networks - in my case this, whilst mobile, is Tweetdeck for Android. my6sense is not intended as - or probably ever will be - a full social client so you need to weigh up what it is you will be doing and whether the application fits in to your daily routine. Personally, I can't see it replacing the current blend of Tweetdeck and Google Reader but that is just my preference, if you consume a lot of feeds and have a large number of people in your social circle then I would highly recommend that you give it a try, especially if you consume more than you create.

As with any beta product my6sense has its share of bugs and niggles but the team are working hard to get these ironed out. Currently my biggest frustration is that items are brought in inconsistently; sometimes there is full text, others not. Even if the original item is published as a full feed I find that I am frequently jumping out to my browser in order to get the whole story. It also appears to be a bit of a lottery as to whether there are external links to the original item. These problems will no doubt be corrected in upcoming releases.

Rule the galaxy

We all have differing usage scenarios so what works for one may not work for another. To say that products such as this will take over and make other forms of consumption irrelevant is impossible - they are not a one size fits all offering and, therefore, not always applicable even to those who advocate their use. There is a sweet spot between subscription and curation - but that's for another post.

We can say, however, that relevance engines by whatever name are becoming increasingly important as we are more inundated with information.Without some form of order, the more we try to tighten our grip the more news will slip through our fingers.

my6sense – of consumption, curation and the needstream.

Initial thoughts on Tweetdeck for Android.Comments

TweetdeckRather than write a full review and duplicate the good work of others elsewhere I wanted to share a few thoughts and opinions and how I arrived at them.

The journey

I've always been a geek and have spent (too) many an hour just tinkering and tweaking to get something just the way I want it - whether it be a self build PC, website or phone. In fact I spent a long time building custom Windows Mobile 6.5 roms for my old HTC Touch Dual before the OS was released.

When my Touch Dual died (probably as a result of repeatedly re-flashing too many roms) I was still in contract so couldn't afford another Windows Mobile device. It was disappointing at the time but ultimately did me a big favour. I ended up with a Nokia XM5800 after being surprisingly impressed by the one my wife (@SallyWalker) had bought. Okay, Symbian is far from the best mobile OS but the ability to side load apps from any source was a blessing.

Without a doubt, the best application I have ever used on Symbian is the Twitter client Gravity written by @janole. The interface and design was a masterclass in what Symbian could achieve and should have become a template for how apps look on the platform. I strongly believe that Symbian themselves should really have looked at this and redesigned the OS itself.

Gravity was the perfect Twitter experience for me; it just felt "right". Using accounts from multiple services, GPS, image sharing and URL shortener integration were all there and the app was, quite honestly, way ahead of the competition and really set the standard for how Twitter clients should be, and not just on the Symbian platform.

Gravity was so good that it was the single reason I was hesitant to ditch my Nokia and move to Android. Ever since I have been searching for that perfect Twitter experience on Android but never found it - that could now be about to change.

A new hope

For some reason I can't fathom I've never been a fan of desktop Twitter apps, don't ask me why but I've just never gotten on with them and always preferred to use the web site. I installed the Tweetdeck desktop application but very soon found myself removing it.

Twitter on a phone is different and, while I have still been using the mobile website from time to time, I believe a client is the way to go to get the best from the service. However, being disappointed with the alternatives I stuck with the default HTC application Peep - it was simple and did the basics reasonably well so why waste space installing something else. Just as with desktop clients the rest didn't feel right; perhaps I had just been spoilt by Gravity.

I was intrigued when I heard that Tweetdeck would work in a similar way to Gravity: multiple accounts, swiping from side to side to switch between different columns etc. and I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. Tweetdeck feels so much like Gravity to use that it is almost a homecoming.

The current build may still be a beta with a few bugs and an incomplete feature set but I can honestly not now imagine myself using anything else on an Android device. Not a statement I make lightly.

As well as the overall experience fitting the way I see a mobile Twitter client working there are a number of features which instantly resonated:

  • performing a search and saving the results as a new column so you can keep an eye on a topic in real time
  • the Buzz notifications (I don't have my Facebook account added but it's the same thing) in the 'Me' timeline indicating, for example, if someone liked your post
  • choosing either exact coordinates or a Foursquare "Place" when geotagging
  • the little indications when you have unread items: the dots indicating pages and the yellow scroll bar at the side - the longer the bar the more unread items

The beta support forums are busy already and a lot of the requests mirror things I would personally like to see such as improved support for lists (I may even start using them), the ability to separate different services out to different columns and to show which tweets are geotagged directly in the timeline. Don't get me wrong, the combined Home column works really well with the different colours for the different services you are using but it would nice to have the choice to split them into their own streams.

The single biggest problem with Tweetdeck is the inability to change the refresh times. Currently, the application update your stream every few seconds which, on a device that has known battery life issues, is not a good call and effectively prohibits you from leaving it running in the background. Fortunately, this has already been acknowledged on the support forums so I envisage there being more options in the next build(s).

The future

As long as the key issues get resolved before Tweedeck hits version 1.0 the applications is, in my opinion, streets ahead of any other Twitter client for Android and can only get better.

Initial thoughts on Tweetdeck for Android.

Are we too demanding?Comments

It never ceases to amaze me how demanding we can be as IT users and early adopters; to put a twist to the Queen lyric we want it all and we want it now!

We have gone beyond just having an opinion and have all become armchair experts in just about everything - it's no longer just reserved for sports fans thinking they can manage their team better than the "incompetent muppet" standing on the sidelines.

We feel that we can design things and suggest features better than those getting paid to do the job. In some cases users do have valid points and companies have used customer suggestions to improve their products but we should never lose sight of the fact that we are just one person and the designers and developers are catering for the needs of millions. What might be right for you may not be right for some (hmm, wasn't that in the Different Strokes theme song?)

So, when a new product gets released in beta when does helpful, constructive criticism go too far and border of the realms of being over demanding?

Take Google Chrome for example.

Now I'm not going to remark on the feature set or the pros and cons of the fledgling browser as many others have already done that and better than I could (although I must admit that I like where Google are coming from) but I would like to comment on the reactions and expectations that are being thrown around the web.

Yes, this is Google and we should expect big things - in some respects I think we already have them, but we must never lose sight of the fact that Chrome is just a first beta; it's an artists sketch before committing to getting the brushes dirty.

The first beta of Chrome has laid the foundations and put down some very good groundwork which will be fleshed out and perfected over the course of development so statements like "Chrome Not Ready For Enterprise" are pointless.

Of course it's not and no-one should be suggesting otherwise.

Chrome will not be ready for enterprise for quite a while and will not be considered for enterprise use for even longer - at least in any enterprise with any integrity and a decent IT infrastructure. There are many more factors at play that just the features built in to the browser.

An enterprise environment will have procedures in place to test and approve any new software prior to deployment - beta software will never be considered. Not only do you have potential security or data corruption issues but you must also consider the reputation of your company. How would it look if you were connecting to third party services to access and manipulate sensitive data using an incomplete product? Not only would you tarnish your reputation but you would most likely be kicked off the service.

All we are saying...

Give Chrome a chance. Give any new product or service that comes out as beta a chance and stop making ridiculous demands of something which is, by definition, just a work in progress. This is what beta is all about regardless of who is behind it.

First look reviews and constructive criticism should be encouraged but outlandish statements and ridiculous demands get us nowhere.

A public beta is just the external face of a project and there will be a lot more going on behind the scenes both in terms of advancements of the technology involved and where the project is heading. As I have mentioned in the past, just because a company hasn't said they will be doing X, Y or Z doesn't mean it isn't already on the table; you don't want to give away all your secrets too early. You may not be able to deliver on all your promises (remember the Longhorn saga) so under promise and over deliver but, more importantly, you don't want to give too much of a heads up to the competition.

Are we too demanding?

Adobe Photoshop Express goes truly social.Comments

Photoshop ExpressThe reach of social media is growing ever wider and this is evident in the direction that software and services are taking. The Adobe Photoshop Express beta, for example, has been updated but the only 'functional' change advertised is that you can now perform a 'Save As' in order to preserve your original image.

No, the real news here is that Adobe are hooking in to the desire to go social. It seems that we are no longer happy with software or services that just do X - we demand more and we are increasingly demanding a social aspect.

The new features announced are as follows:

  • flickr integration: you can now import images directly from flickr, edit them in Photoshop Express and then fire them straight back to flickr
  • embeddable player: rather than just show off your slide show on the Photoshop Express site you can use an embeddable widget to take you slide show with you across the web.

What's intersting with the widget is the choice of examples given by Adobe where you would like to display your pictures; they could have mentioned anything but instead refer to "Facebook, MySpace, and other sites where your audience awaits". Adobe are obviously trying to cash in on the social movement. How long before we get a Photoshop Express Freemium option? Once you're hooked in to editing your images online will we get a version which charges you for key functionality post beta? Only time will tell.

Photoshop Express is an ideal target for a social application but I think we should all be concerned if many other applications try to force a social element upon us where it just doesn't fit to do so.

Adobe Photoshop Express goes truly social.