When good enough is… good enough (and the power of convenience and platform lock-in)

The Guardian published a very eye-opening piece yesterday on the usage of the Google Maps app on iOS devices. The summary is: despite the massive consumer backlash when Apple ousted Google and launched Apple Maps in iOS6, and the huge number of downloads the Google Maps iOS app attracted, usage of Google’s app has been falling steadily. It is now estimated that only 6M users used the Google Maps app in September – a loss of 23M users. Meanwhile 35M people used the built-in Apple Maps app.

The lesson here is that consumers are not always willing to sacrifice convenience for a better experience.

If your app or service wants to compete against functionality that’s built into the system, then the experience must not just be better, but must be an order of magnitude better to encourage people to switch. Or, ideally, it needs to be something completely different.

You won’t change default user behaviour and you can’t compete against baked-in functionality. Sure, a portion of power users might go to the effort of using an extra app for certain key tasks – but that won’t be the majority of users.

Think about it: why use a special app for managing your calendar when your phone’s app is good enough?

What else does this tell us?

It tells us that the OS platforms have a clear advantage on engagement for built-in experiences – and that the engagement platforms that can attract usage independently from the OS platforms are those which need to be platform agnostic to work – the best example being messaging apps. Whatsapp would have a fraction of the value if it only ran on iOS. It needs to be on all platforms fulfil the promise to the user.

This is maybe Google’s advantage over Apple. Google is about reach, and is happy to provide services that work on all mobile OS platforms. Apple, on the other hand, is set up to keep their proprietary experiences within the walled garden… which is why there is no (official) iCloud app for Android, but there is are Gmail, Google Drive, Google+ and other Google apps for iOS.

In the mobile value chain, the long(er)-term strategic differentiators will be those built on engagement platforms that cross across the mobile OS platforms. Or, said another way: the apps that will drive large numbers of users will be engagement platforms built around utility that is not, or cannot, be provided by the OS.

Google is trying this with Google+.

So why doesn’t Apple build a messaging service, for example?

Well, they have one – iMessage – but it only works between other iOS devices, and as such will never be a threat to Whatsapp, or indeed Google. A more interesting question is: how long before Apple makes iMessage available as an Android app? Would Apple take on the expense in order to drive further platform engagement and possibly convert a few more Android users?

So far they don’t need to – but as social messaging platforms become distribution channels, they may start to feel the threat.

Why I’m addicted to Rando, a different kind of photo sharing app

The web is awash with photo sharing services designed to broadcast your photos to as many people as possible. Even before the ubiquitous Instagram services like Flickr and Facebook were flooding you with photos from your friends of their holidays, their achievements, their pets, or whatever… photos that were liked, re-shared, posted, re-posted, pinned, re-pinned, tumbled, re-tumbled, tweeted, re-tweeted…

Among all the noise, the beautiful simplicity of sharing a moment with another human being – the supposed core mission of Instagram – was lost underneath the “social” deluge.

Enter Rando: a very different way to share a moment with someone.

Rando works like this: You take a photo and send it to the service. That photo will be sent (sort-of) immediately to another random Rando user, somewhere in the world. In return, you receive a so-called ‘Rando’ back from another user somewhere in the world. You have to send one to get one. Randos are always sent to exactly one person only, and they are always anonymous. You will never know who sent you the Rando, or who received yours. All you know is from what city it came.

You cannot select a photo from your gallery to send – you must take a photo with the camera right then and there. Most interestingly, all you can do with the randos you receive is look at them. You can’t share them, like them, reply to them or ‘re-rando’ them. They’re yours to keep – but only to look at.

When I heard about it, I thought two things:

  1. This app will take about 20 minutes to become all about porn
  2. It’s a bit pointless, isn’t it?

After sending a few Randos however I found I was becoming strangely addicted. I realised it’s really beautiful in a way.

When you receive a rando, you know that it was a photo that was taken moments ago (because you cannot choose from your gallery). This gives the moment that is captured a sense of immediacy – what you’re looking at just happened. And because you’re sharing with exactly one person, and that person is waiting for your rando, it makes the exchange more like a gift, thoughtfully prepared and delivered with a touch of altruistic love.

Compare this interaction with sharing your moment on Instagram or Facebook (ie blasting your whole network of friends and colleagues or indeed the whole internet with your ‘special moment’/interruption). Instead you’re sharing it with one special person who is literally waiting for your photo – your moment – to come in.

I found myself wanting to share special things with random people on Rando. This morning I happened by a strange Superman statue with its head blasted off. Cool, I thought. But instead of spamming my network with it, I felt immediately compelled to share this special find with someone on Rando. And the best part is that when I do, I get a rando back.

I’ve received randos from Russia, South Korea, Brazil, Venezuela, England, Scotland, Finland, Holland and even a random tiny island somewhere in the pacific. Looking at my growing rando collection I see incredible diversity of culture, architecture and people. It makes you realise that things and sights that for you are totally mundane and ordinary are for people in other parts of the world new and fascinating.

Rando is a beautiful idea that finally makes sharing pictures ‘social’ in the sense that you actually create a meaningful connection with another human being. It fights against the trend of making every object likable, sharable and distributable to as many people as possible, and instead lets you gift a moment to another human in a way that adds human meaning.

It’s available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, and comes from the UK based design studio ustwo.

Is it Google’s plan to index the world’s information, or to curate it?

I just heard (via @montymunford) that Google will start ranking mobile websites lower in search results when they use a “download our app” popup on the page. Read about it here.

One of Google’s justifications is that the experience of seeing a pop-up banner may be ‘disruptive’ to the user experience.

Is it Google’s job to play User Experience police to the whole internet?

It’s one thing to deprioritise sites with poor or duplicate content. But to de-rank sites based on user interaction decisions of the developers? Isn’t that taking it a bit too far?

Some argue that it’s a good thing… that it helps us find better content. Maybe that’s true… but where would it end? What if Google started de-ranking sites because the navigation was unclear? Or because there was no ‘about’ page?

It’s a slippery slope.

Google already controls access to a huge proportion of the internet. They are the gatekeepers… the ones who decide what we get to see, and what not. To me, consolidating all of this power in one gate puts the freedom and openness of the internet at risk.

Device fatigue and the next connected device form factor

A pile of devices
Photo: Wikimedia

I suffer from device fatigue.

Not just the kind where I cannot deal with the sheer number of connected devices, gadgets and gizmos being released every day – but the kind where I am overwhelmed with the number of devices that I actually already own.

I have a Macbook Air, a Sony Vaio running Windows 8, a Surface Pro tablet, a Nokia Lumia 920, a first-generation iPad and a Kindle, and in my living room I also have an XBOX 360.

And that’s not counting devices that I have temporarily for testing or benchmarking… the iPads, the Galaxies, the Kindle Fires…

Now, I like devices, and I work for a device company and my job is building device software, so i’m trying to build them into my life… but I just cannot deal with having so many different devices. The basket under the bookshelf where I put old devices is overflowing with dead, partially working or even fully functional devices that I just can’t find a good reason to carry anymore.

They all have their specific use cases and particular strong points: the MacBook’s power and good quality hard keyboard; the tablet’s big screen but relative portability; the smartphone’s ultra-portability and LTE connection… But the real problem is that there is maybe 80% crossover in the use cases and usage contexts of the different form factors, and this is frustrating and tiring.

I want one device that does everything – but I don’t want to trade the specific benefits of particular form factors, like the portability of my Lumia 920 and its amazing camera, or the stylus/drawing input of the tablet, or the physical keyboard and relative horsepower of my Macbook.

One of the greatest challenge now facing connected device manufacturers I think is the next form factor. The form factor that truly converges the fragmented connected device space.

While the last 5 years or so since tablets started their meteoric blast into consumers’ living rooms the focus has been on device divergence – building devices of every conceivable form factor, with increasing household incomes (in first-world markets) driving a huge increase multi-device ownership.

The next 5 years will be about device convergence. The search for the next form factor that unites your devices into a single, adaptable and flexible touchpoint.

The road to Robocop: how connected devices and sensors are the bionic enhancements that are evolving us

Robocop Statue

Detroit City is about to erect a gigantic statue of their three-time hero Robocop – the part man, part machine crime-enforcing cyborg. As fantastic as the story is, every day there is more and more science in the fiction.

Peter Weller’s character had to die before being packed into the giant metal suit and coming back to life as the bionic-enhanced supercop; but in the real world, it turns out we are all actually becoming more bionicly enhanced every day.

Take the well-known artificial cardiac pacemaker, a device which is implanted into the body that uses electrical impulses to regulate the beating of the human heart.

Part man, part machine?

The first experiments concerning artificially regulating the heart were conducted in 1899, and the first working prototype was assembled by some Aussies in 1926. Since then this man-made bionic improvement has helped save the lives of thousands of people.

Luke Skywalker bionic hand

Or take the humble hearing aid, which has improved or returned hearing to millions of people since the first one was invented in the 17th century. Then there are bionic limbs, helping people like Oscar Pistorius do what they do. Medical scientists are actually getting closer and closer to having real Luke Skywalker-type bionic limbs.

Although these bionic technologies have been around for a long time, until now they have focussed primarily on restoring or correcting defects (hearing loss, amputations, etc). Now, the internet and the variety of connected devices we carry with us every day are opening up a new world of bionic enhancements, accessible to everyone.

We already use our smartphones to replace our memories. Who knows anyone’s telephone number off the top of their head anymore? To-do applications like Wunderlist and note-taking applications like Evernote are becoming our long-term memory, and turn-by-turn navigation has not only replaced the paper street directory but most of our sense of spatial recollection as well (unless you’re a London cabbie).

With our smartphones constantly on the internet, the answer to any question is just a few taps away. Who was the last King of the Tudor dynasty? When did the Boer War end? Google or Wikipedia are with you – on the couch, on the bus, or in an exam.

Is this a form of bionic memory enhancement?

While our smartphones, tablets and PCs, and our always-on connection to the cloud, replace our memories and more and more become our primary interface to interact with the world, new forms of wearable technology will enhance us and our bodies even further.

Sports-sensors like the FitBit or the Nike+ Sports Watch track our movements and give us feedback on performance. They can even be programmed to tell you when you haven’t walked far enough or drunk enough water today.

Star Trek Tricorder

A $10 million X-Prize is fuelling a race to make the famous ‘Tricorder’ from Star Trek, a hand-held scanner that can detect any known human illness, a reality. The leading entries focus on using complex sensors to generate gigabytes of data about the body in a scan to be used to diagnose illnesses like cancer, or detect a heart attack before it strikes.

Is using sensor data to monitor your body a form of bionic enhancement?

The watch-phone, or ‘smart watch’, like Samsumg’s planned device or Apple’s rumoured ‘iWatch’, embeds our smartphone and, by extension, the whole power of the internet, closer to us (in us?) than ever before. Now we can communicate with each other wirelessly, just by telling our wristwatch to call somebody, and without having to get out our phone or hold it to our ear. It’s almost as good as telepathy.

Luke Skywalker bionic hand

Augmented reality headsets like Google Glass give us the power to retrieve information from the web at a glance, and layer it over our field of vision in a constant heads-up display. Smart contextual algorithms will decide what to show us at any time. We can be notified of our upcoming appointments or upcoming changes in the weather, or the in-built camera could even identify the person we are talking to and start to lay over important information about them in your field of view.

Building on visual heads-up displays like Glass are technologies like Augmented Reality Audio (ARA). Using binaural headphones ARA headsets can blend additional audio sources with what you’re hearing in the actual world, and do so based on our location, the time of day or even how you’re holding or moving your head. These headsets also have microphones built in that can not only create noise cancellation, but potentially give the wearer vampire-like super-hearing, or even allow you to select a single audio source from the environment (a barking dog, for example) and just blend it out.

An ARA headset can not only help improve our abilities, but can actually start to change our perception of the environment around us. This is not only a true augmentation of reality, but a significant enhancement of ourselves.

We’re entering an age now where our bodies and our perception of reality will become continually enhanced by the devices and sensors that we wear or that we are connected to. I hope that we are able to retain our humanity and our humility as we continue to defy Darwin and evolve ourselves into the future.

Soundtrack: Life – give your life a soundtrack

Soundtrack: Life - give your life a soundtrack

Have you ever wished your life was a movie? In the movies, there’s always the right sound effect ready to roll for every moment. Sometimes our lives need a soundtrack too.

That’s why I created my first ever Windows 7 mobile application called Soundtrack: Life. You can install it on your Windows 7 phone here.

Soundtrack: Life is an application to let you give your life the soundtrack it deserves. With Soundtrack: Life, you always have the appropriate sound effect or musical score ready whenever your life needs it.

Soundtrack: Life - give your life a soundtrack
Soundtrack: Life - give your life a soundtrack

I chose Windows 7 Phone as the development platform mostly because that is now the standard platform for Nokia smart devices, and Nokia is gearing up to announce our first Windows 7 phones at Nokia World soon. I expect the numbers of Windows 7 Phone users to increase dramatically when Nokia starts bringing out great new Windows 7 devices.

Learning to program in .NET (had never used .NET or Silverlight before) was an interesting experience. It proved to me once again that learning something new is a hugely rewarding experience. I don’t much like letting my mind stay idle for too long, and little projects like this keep my energy and attention up.

I’ve got more Windows 7 apps on the way… stay tuned!