Monday, November 22, 2010

The Mobile Gardener - A Basic Comparison

A Basic Comparison

After considering a response to my analogy, I felt it was important to hash out a much simpler, clearer version of the observation.  Let's take the two hottest mobile OS platforms on the market and use the metaphor for a basic comparison.

Apple's iOS is a walled garden that provides an optimal climate for cross-pollination, abundant sunlight, excellent support systems and the security needed for healthy growth. Conversely, Android OS is a free and open field with little to protect developers from communing with pervasive weeds, unpredictable climate changes, and outbreaks of blight that not only prove to be unwanted but endemic to its very nature.

You can truly love the freedom of an open field, celebrate the contributions of its benevolent benefactor, appreciate the fact that they are available almost everywhere, but there's no denying the efficacy of a professionally run property whose rules may be more restrictive but which produce a track record of positive results that can't be ignored (or easily duplicated).

Hopefully that sounds clear and rings true. More than a simple analogy, I think its the true nature of what we're seeing as it plays out in the marketplace. A pervasive and sprawling Android footprint, and an intentional and efficient iOS evolution that sets the standards the industry will continue to watch and react to.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Mobile Gardener - Part 1: Competition As Metaphor

As I've always said... we're in an exciting time in the tech industry, with disruptive innovations springing up left and right.  On the one hand, companies like Microsoft are winning praise for devices like its new Kinect while competitor Nintendo and its ground-breaking Wii platform seem to have plateaued (Nintendo experiencing its first quarterly loss in 7 years). On the other, Google has managed to upset the Apple cart by halting the advance of the iPhone with the explosive rise of its Android OS.  That said, we're beginning to see a somewhat worrisome trajectory and a pattern to go along with it.

Why "worrisome"? Well, in the mindset of futurists, we all accept that we inevitably reap what we sow. That in mind, I wanted to take a considerate look at extending a basic metaphor... gardening... to what's happening in the most vibrant industry sector, namely, mobile computing.

The Gardener's Constants

While any attempt to imply a one-to-one relationship from a metaphor always ends in disappointing incongruities, it certainly doesn't preclude the usefulness of extracting basic lessons and insights.  Disclaimer extended, let's dive in and see if we can't discern something of value.

Here is the crux of my comparison:
  • Landlords: Platform Vendors
  • Gardeners: Platform Developers
  • Land/Gardens: Platforms
  • Plants: Applications
From that, you can draw a few additional distinctions:
  • Water: Support 
  • Soil: Ecosystem (SDK, Sales Channel, Marketshare)
  • Sunshine: Revenue
  • Growth: Expansion
  • Weeds: Spam/Spyware/Malware/Viruses
  • Harvesting: Sales / Downloads 
  • Unauthorized Harvesting: Piracy
But what about "free" applications?  They're important and appreciated by everyone, so you might ask... how can any application/plant exist without revenue/sunlight? The answer is that "even with indirect[revenue], respectable growth is possible." So, let's begin.

For the purpose of simplicity, let's focus on the United States for our discussion.

Sony Corporation,  Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., Nintendo America, Research In Motion Limited, and Apple, Inc. are the leading platform vendors in our modern consumer mobile applications market.  If you're a gardener... er... mobile applications developer... you'll want to deal with at least one of them. When it comes to the burgeoning mobile sector, they are by far the landlords with the most viable plots of land whether you're trying to develop on the PSP, the HTC Surround, the EVO 4G, the DS, the Blackberry Pearl, or the iPod Touch. No one else matches the influence and innovation these players introduce into the space.

While its plausible, as RIM has recently asserted, that the amount of native applications on its new Playbook platform isn't necessarily relevant to the likelihood of a successful or useful product... its probably safe to assume the comment closely resembles Apple's attempt to elevate the prominence of "web apps" when it first launched its iPhone platform (and did not yet see an emphasis on native applications as viable given the product's nascent security model).  But, as we all know, when Apple launched its App Store in mid-2008, it changed everything.  Research firm ChangeWave conducted a recent survey that implies that applications are the prime reason consumers choose a particular smartphone, followed by "ease of use".  Exclusive titles are the bread & butter of all game systems and "killer apps" are often the deciding factor in the rise and fall of any popular electronic device.

Walled Garden: The Rise of Awareness

It's important to get this comment out of the way so that its not a hanging punchline.  The most overused expression in this gardening metaphor, is one we all hear on a regular basis.  Namely, that those developers and customers who choose to do business with Apple, Inc. and their iOS platform, are operating in what is called a "walled garden".  By this, the commenters are usually referring to the nature of the platform Apple provides and the degree of control it often chooses to assert with all parties.  This level of control is often portrayed as an endemic criticism towards Apple itself.  In horticulture, however, a walled garden is used to provide security and contributes to what is referred to as a microclimate, allowing for the thriving of plants that would not otherwise survive in an unmodified climate.

The irony in this criticism however, is that with the recent exception of Google's Android Marketplace, the entire smartphone and mobile gaming industry has always leaned towards a walled garden approach.  No developer had a reasonable expectation that his/her application concept would be naturally be approved for distribution on any platform, and in those instances where there was no walled garden to nurture growth, those developers often suffered from market lackluster performance and/or poor harvests.

It's also worth noting that early iOS developer Neven Mrgan, made an interesting point in his blog on the metaphor earlier this year:
I’m assuming we’re supposed to compare this approach to the freer alternatives such as community gardens and city parks. Ignoring for a moment the fact that these gardens are also regulated by serious restrictions on what one can and can’t do, it still puzzles me that the “walled garden” is presented as an obviously undesirable structure.
He concludes by saying:
I’m not saying the [Apple] App Store is a beautiful garden. That is not a very good metaphor at all — but insofar as it applies, it doesn’t strengthen any App Store detractor’s case… unless they’d also argue that the Portland Japanese Garden should open its doors, run on monopoly money, and turn from a meditative oasis into a busy bazaar.
This reality is at the center of certain bellwethers coming into play.

Five Gardening Basics for Beginners

There is a nice article on gardening available at It seeks to give budding gardeners (ha, ha) some rudimentary rules on how to get the kind of results everyone can appreciate.

Here are the bullet points they've layed out, along with my summaries.
  1. Prepare your Soil - Till, analyze, and build it up to improve its composition of nutrients and ability to retain moisture.
  2. Watering Matters - Less can be more. Too much watering leads to immature root systems that are overly dependent on you. Give extra attention during dry spells.
  3. Let the Sunshine In - Consider the availability of direct sunlight with regards to how much you want to grow.  Even with indirect sunlight, respectable growth is possible.
  4. Care for Your Garden - Weed your garden. Thick planting can help blunt ambitious weeds.
  5. It All Takes Time - Proper timing makes all the difference. Know which seasons to plant, and when something has grown to maturity.
In the next part of this article, I'll layout exactly how the companies mentioned approach the concepts mentioned above, and what it spells for the future of mobile computing as a whole.  This is really a fun exercise for those interested in the industry, so give it some thought yourself.  You'll probably see where this is going.

Next Up:
The Mobile Gardener - Part 2: Surveying the Landscape...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Technology Helps Empower Adults & Children with Disabilities

So many of these stories have been coming out lately, its been truly gratifying to stop and take it all in. I thought I'd take a moment and highlight some of the great things mainstream technologies have been doing lately, as reported in the media.

Apple iPad

Several months ago, I saw a YouTube video that chronicled the story of Virginia Campbell, a centenarian, for whom the iPad was her first computer. Fox News further detailed that she suffered from Gloucoma, and that the device helped her to see books she had to previously use a loupe to see. She marveled at writing her limericks using Apple's Pages word processing app.

Another interesting development I noticed, involved the iPad being used with Autistic children. One mother created a video of her discoveries, in an effort to help spread the word about the wonderful worlds opening up to her son. As a personal aside, I was really taken aback by how my niece (who has developmental disabilities), took to the iPad app "I Hear Ewe". This says nothing about the legions of other children learning and reading stories on the iPad. It's like a window into another world.

Many parents seem to be using the world "miracle" to describe the marked difference in the degree of engagement their children are having with the new device. Considering the expense traditionally involved in technology on this level, it begins to feel like the start of something special.

Shannon Des Roches Rosa describes her experience here:

My son Leo's life was transformed when a five-dollar raffle ticket turned into a brand-new iPad. I'm not exaggerating. Before the iPad, Leo's autism made him dependent on others for entertainment, play, learning, and communication. With the iPad, Leo electrifies the air around him with independence and daily new skills. People who know Leo are amazed when they see this new boy rocking that iPad. I'm impressed, too, especially when our aggressively food-obsessed boy chooses to play with his iPad rather than eat.

Apple iPhone

A little over a month ago I came across a story about Austin Seraphin, who purchased an iPhone this summer... something he claims has "changed his life". One of the most under-appreciated technologies built into Apple's iOS, is its Voice Over screen reading capabilities. More than the often gimmicky "haptic" feedback employed by competing OS devices, Apple has implemented something that truly extends its platform past the visual world.

Another blind iPhone user named Victor Tsaran, was only too happy to demonstrate using his new iPhone 4G with a braille display, allowing him to use his new cutting-edge smart phone in a way way that is as powerful as it is effective.

An article on SmartPlanet helps to put a finer point on the details:
Apple really has changed the world in a dramatic way. I don’t know that any of us, even four or five years ago, would have guessed it would have been such a dramatic change. They built the screen reader technology into their operating system. For the Windows environment, there are third-party screen readers that are usually expensive. But Apple put VoiceOver right into the Mac.

Then when the iPhone came out, a lot of us were really frustrated, because there was a touch screen, but it was impossible for us to use. We put a lot of pressure on AT&T (Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act requires manufacturers and providers of phones to be accessible) and Apple to make the iPhone accessible. They promised it would be, and in a year or two, it was. They not only took VoiceOver and moved it over to iPhone, but they changed they way you use the touch screen so it was accessible for someone who can’t see it.

They have changed the world and shown a path that really has surprised and delighted the vision loss community. You can’t go anywhere without seeing iPhones in the hands of blind people. It’s become the phone of choice.

Microsoft Kinect

Well, this is my last stop for today. This is actually the article that prompted me to make this post. Yet another parent flabberghasted by the quality of good engineering and UI design. GamingNexus received a post from a contributor named John, who elatedly described Kinect as the best $150 console purchase he's ever made. John concludes his article by writing:
For the first time, I was able to play something with my son and not spend any time with him being frustrated on not being to do anything or have a character get stuck on the screen. He had fun with all the games and actually did well with them. The joy in his eyes as he was able to complete the tasks and move around in the menus is something I’ll never forget.

Kinect isn’t targeted to me, but it’s brought my son into the gaming fold with its intuitive controls and simple games in Kinect Adventures. Even though I haven’t found a launch game that I’m interested in spending a lot of time with alone, I know that I’m able to spend some great time playing along side my son and see him thoroughly enjoying his time on a console.While he still struggles in communicating, I know there’s one thing he can do without having to deal with any of the frustrations Autism has brought upon in his life. And for me, that’s worth much more than the $150 I spent in picking up the peripheral.

On some level, it never seems to be enough. Trying to retrofit accessibility onto technology not already friendly to it often seems a herculean task. It's just refreshing to see that there is well-intentioned innovation happening out there in the most approachable and popular places. As we move towards the future, its an interesting epiphany that we don't have to leave anyone behind. In fact, its calling us all.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Kinect Experience: The Revolution Will Be Digitized

So, I'm almost surprised to say Microsoft has knocked it out of the park with the new Kinect system. While Wii has had a strong running and Sony's Playstation continues to be a draw for gamers, I think the sum and total of the newest Xbox 360 (with built-in wifi), combined with the audio and visual sensing capabilities of the Kinect are a huge win for the hottest selling game console on the market. Kotaku did an interesting article on the new Kinect accessories and how Microsoft plans to apply its lessons to future solutions.

Gizmodo posted a recent blog commenting on the nascent efforts from one developer to create open source drivers for the Kinect. One commenter made a very interesting point about how low-cost consumer devices provide a tremendous opportunity for robotic researchers.

Vebyast wrote:
Why we care about open-source drivers for the Kinect: robotics. Speaking as a robotics developer, $150 for a working time-of-flight sensor of this quality is incredible. Every researcher at my university is waiting eagerly to put one of these on their robot. Most of the current solutions for getting depth data cost a few thousand dollars. Bringing that cost down to $150 is amazing.

Also, again speaking as a robotics person, the software isn't that hard to write. For example, we already have a working system that reads sign language using a single, standard webcam. Doing body posture detection with a Kinect would be trivial compared to doing sign language recognition with a webcam.

With Apple's multitouch iOS, full gesture recognition would have been a natural for their efforts, but its hard to argue that Microsoft's XBox environment clearly made the more natural fit seeing where we are at this point in tech history. Microsoft XBox 360 being "top dog" and Apple still taking baby steps into the living room.

Part of my concern moving forward, is that Microsoft will push its advantage with the "Kinect", by shoehorning it into a number of places it doesn't fit, or treat the device (and no-doubt its algorythmic patents on echo cancellation and time-of-flight sensing) closed and proprietary to outside developers yearning to patch into them. Microsoft has always been good about supporting developers though, so... here's hoping.

One Wired: Game Life blog commenter speculated:

This is Awesome news. I abandoned robotics as a hobby a few years ago because I wasn’t happy building small and useless robots. I wanted something that could see. The hardware cost required for SLAM (robot vision) was way beyond my means. Scanning laser set-ups cost more than an entire hobby-grade robot. Microsoft just opened up advanced robotics to a whole lot of people. I would prefer open source software for Kinect but I’ll be temporarily placated if they let you talk to it with MS Robotics Studio.

Motion sensing isn't for everything... just as multitouch isn't for everything. But, you can feel the "right" UI for the "right" reason steadily moving past lingering issues of best-of-breed implementation, leaving only questions of "best of outcome" to be solved.

For me, that's a tremendous win for productivity.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Corporations Face a Technological Opportunity

iPad, iPad, iPad. Seems to be all anyone can talk about lately. Here again, is yet another situation where Apple, Inc. has taken the industry by surprise and reset expectations for personal computing. Today in Sydney Australia, analyst Garter held a symposium examining the impact of new mobile devices in the Enterprise.

Like the iPhone before it, the iPad is an iconic device that redefines markets. Media "gurus" and forecasters struggled to categorize this device at the time of launch — and some made the mistake of assuming that, like all tablet-format devices before it, it would remain a niche product for a limited market.

According to Gartner analysts, the iPad is not a notebook replacement for most users, but a valuable companion device. As it is much less intrusive in face-to-face environments than conventional notebooks, it is well suited to a sales or information-sharing environment. It also makes electronic media consumption effortless and casual, thereby increasing consumption.

After years of having their Mac OS X operating system shunned by the Enterprise in favor of "standardizing" to Microsoft Windows, Apple has moved passed somewhat encouraging adoption of its iOS operating system via the iPhone, to almost manic adoption of the iPad. In its symposium Gartner actually encouraged CEOs to get directly involved in specific device decisions, and to "strongly consider" the benefits of the iPad.

Blackberry, meanwhile, is still set to debut its Playbook tablet next year, using Adobe Air as a development platform, Samsung debuts its Galaxy Tab this month, and Windows 7 is struggling into the market with HPs mediocre Slate offering.

I don't think I've ever seen such a time in the industry where so many companies were caught off guard, and a manufacturer had an entire product category to itself. It's kind of frightening.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Who Needs a Crystal Ball to Predict the Obvious?

This is my first official post to this blog, but I'll make this brief.

Precursor, this blog, is about "the future".

By this, I don't mean some far-off, always out of reach vision of tomorrow... I mean that tangible set of steps we're all taking every minute of everyday we live on this great earth. The subject matter will primarily be about technology, but I will occasionally touch on issues of culture and and personal self-improvement.

As someone once said, we often think about the future, because we're going to spend the rest of our lives there.

Now that that's out of the way... hey, hope you enjoy it!

Have a great day!