Thursday, June 20, 2013

Goodbye Google Reader, Hello Feedly and Digg

Google Reader was introduced through Google Labs on October 7, 2005. Since then it has become the dominant RSS feed reader on the web, and is the go-to web app for millions of people around the world. Such is its dominance, that alternative readers have long since abandoned the cause. It is especially popular among tech journalists, who use the service to ensure they monitor all their online sources for every bit of news.

I have been using Google Reader since February 6, 2007, and in that time I have read an astonishing 236,470 articles - a little over 100 articles every day!

On March 13, 3013, Google announced that it would be closing Reader on July 1, 2013, due to declining use. This is the sad reminder that greets us when you open Reader now:

For some reason, Google have never offered a compelling mobile app for Reader, but many developers have launched apps that use the Google Reader backend. Reeder, Feedly, and my personal choice, Mr. Reader, are some of the leading iOS apps in this market.

Feedly has been hard at work to introduce its own service to replace Google Reader, and interestingly, has seen its user base jump from 4 million to 12 million since Google's March announcement. Unfortunately, the "new" Google measures users in hundreds of millions, so these figures apparently are insufficient for them to retain an interest in the sector. Perhaps Google thinks users will flock to Google +, but for me Google + doesn't have the focus of a good RSS reader. Perhaps apps like Flipboard and Zite can offer similar content, but neither one allows me to scan through articles with the same speed.

So where do users go?

The aforementioned Feedly yesterday announced via their blog the introduction of Feedly Cloud, and the Feedly web app which offers a very similar service to Google Reader. Users can now migrate their feeds from Reader over to Feedly Cloud, and they have already been approached by more than 200 developers since they announced their API.

Similarly, the team at Digg have been hard at work building their app, to be called Digg Reader (of course). In their blog they announced that they will be rolling out Version 1 shortly, but have promised everyone will have access by June 26. They will also offer migration from Google Reader, and their interface looks very clean and simple. Mobile apps are in development, and will offer cloud syncing. The service will be following the freemium model, but the team have said that all the features offered at launch will remain free. You can register for the service here.

For now, these 2 are the frontrunners for replacing Google Reader, and both offer plenty of promise. For the RSS faithful, this may even be a blessing in disguise. Google gave up on developing Reader long before their March announcement. The last update to the interface was on October 31, 2011, as part of the visual redesign of all Google products in 2011. The renewed competition in the sector might lead to some new innovation, and as consumers we should benefit.

Goodbye Google Reader, we hardly knew you.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why iOS 7 Is Going To Be Awesome

Apple is a company like no other. Love them or hate them, you have to admire their courage. How many companies with a product as successful as iOS would dare to disrupt themselves? And yet that is what they have done. The original version of iPhone OS was revealed in January 2007, and over the last 6 years it has been developed to a point of near perfection.

In October 2012 Apple announced  that "Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design." Jony clearly had an idea of where he wanted to take iOS, and that just wasn't possible as a mere iteration of iOS 6. For a designer, there comes a time when there are things you want to do that you can't, and your only option is to tear down the exisiting structure and start again. The version of iOS 7 that was revealed at WWDC is the result of that rebuild, and although it is labelled a Beta version, it is very clearly incomplete. Considering that the development team had less than 8 months, it is truly remarkable that they had anything to show at all!

At the keynote at WWDC, Apple concentrated on the features of the new design that were fit for the general public. The tech press have been less than enthusiastic, with most criticism directed at the colour palette and design of the icons. However, the developers that attended the sessions that followed, which are unfortunately protected by NDA, are hugely positive. Why the difference in opinion?

If we break it down into it's various components the picture is clearer:

Gone are the faux leather and felt; replaced by translucency, animations, and layers. The structure of the UI make more sense: the layers are functional and hierarchical. The translucency gives a sense of place and an almost three-dimensional appearance, and the animations make it all more engaging. Despite all the changes, however, the UI remains familiar and intuitive, and isn't such a big departure from iOS 6 that it would confuse or disorientate current users.

Unfortunately, the design is the let-down. The use of neon colours is painful, and the icons, while definitely "flatter", are confusingly inconsistent. Ian Storm Taylor has a great breakdown here. The good news is that many of these problems can be corrected before iOS 7 is released to the public in September, although it may be too late to change the colour palette as this has already been released to the developers as a design guide.

Possibly the biggest new feature is Control Center. Swiping up from any screen, including the lock-screen, brings up one-tap access to to do things like switch to Airplane mode, turn Wi-Fi on or off, or adjust the brightness of your display. This has been a much requested feature, and while Android fans may denounce it, the implementation is far better than on any Android device I have seen.

The update to Notification Center also now includes access from the lock-screen, and adds a "Today" tab that is somewhat familiar to Google Now. It will be interesting to see what functionality Apple adds.

Multitasking is another big change. Visually, there are now preview screens of each app, and to quit them you just swipe it up. However, the bigger change is that iOS 7 now updates your apps in the background, based on your usage. Gone, hopefully, are the days of waiting for Twitter or Facebook to refresh each time you open it. Apple claim they can schedule these updates intelligently, so as not to unnecessarily drain your battery.

The Camera app has been updated to add filters, and the Photo app adds collections, similar to iPhoto. AirDrop allows easy sharing to other iOS devices, and Safari now includes iCloud Keychain to remember your account names, passwords, and credit card numbers across devices, including OS X.

Finally, Apple have introduced iTunes Radio music streaming (for US only), and as expected it'll be free with ad support, or without ads for Match subscribers.

Apple have made more than 1500 new developer APIs available, and the reaction from developers has been overwhelmingly positive. As previously mentioned, most of the detail is protected by NDAs, but iBeacon for microlocation using Bluetooth, MFi Game Controllers, and the Xcode 5 app builder were amongst the new features publicly announced, and have no doubt given the developers lots of additional new tools to work with.

To see iOS 7 as merely a set of brightly coloured icons is very short-sighted. iOS 7 is the start of a new design direction for Apple, and they have constructed the tools and established the parameters to start the development of a new generation of apps. I am sure we will see a lot more to iOS 7 when it is released later this year, and I'm excited about the new features Jony Ive and the software development team will introduce in later updates in the years to come. As with previous versions, Apple will continue to iterate; the hard work has been done, the new platform has been set, and the polish and magic will come.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

WWDC And The Importance of iOS 7

On Monday, 10 June, the annual gathering of Apple's developers kick's off with CEO Tim Cook's keynote speech at 10:00 PST in San Francisco's Moscone Center.

As usual, there is a huge amount of excitement surrounding the event, and rumours of what might or might not be announced have dominated the tech news for the last few weeks. Being a developer's conference, the focus is on software, rather than hardware. Few expect new iPhone or iPad announcements, although Apple might use the event to preview updates to the MacBook line, with updates to the Haswell line of processors most likely. There might even be an announcement regarding the US manufacture of a new, and long overdue Mac Pro. An announcement regarding the release of OS X 10.9 is also expected, but the changes will be more likely be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

Apple and Wall Street
From a high of 705 in September 2012, after the launch of the iPhone 5, the Apple share price plummeted to a low of 385 in April of this year. Since the announcement of the share buy-back scheme, the has been some improvement, and the shares are trading in the 440 - 450 band this week. This is enough to still make Apple the most valuable tech company in the world, with a market cap of over $415bn.

One of the main reasons for this high value is the above average margins Apple makes on its products. In March 2012 Apple's gross margin was 47,37%, but this fell to 37,5% by March 2013 (link). However, Apple's net profit for the year ending March 2013 was $39,5bn, compared to $38,5bn for the previous year (link). So, despite a reduced profit margin, net profit increased. This is due to the increased sales of Apple products, as they push into more and more markets around the world.

So why the volatility in the share price? Analysts are nervous that the iPhone and iPad, Apple's two main sources of revenue, are losing their appeal. If sales drop off, the net profit falls, as there is little to no room to increase margins.

The Importance of iOS 7

The real importance of iOS 7 will therefore be how Apple adds value to the ecosystem that has grown around the iPhone and iPad, and convinces the buying public to continue paying a premium for Apple products. In short, Apple needs to add new features that will retain its current users and attract new customers.

iOS today looks almost the same as it did back in 2007 when Steve Jobs announced the iPhone more than 6 years ago in the same venue. As competition in the segment has grown, other smartphone manufacturers have added widgets and newsfeeds to their home screens, and the iOS grid of icons has grown stale. One update that we might see will be an update to Notification Center, and the inclusion of more widgets, beyond the weather and stock ticker. There has been a lot of speculation about Sir Jony Ive's "flattening" of iOS and the move away from skeuomorphism (digital interfaces that replicate the physical look), and the "modernisation" of iOS will be a very welcome move.

Key new features could include the facilitation of mobile payments through Passbook, the free but ad supported "iRadio" music streaming service linked to iTunes, and possibly the release of more API's for Siri and iCloud to developers, which could lead to the development of new apps that take advantage of these features.

One More Thing

Steve Jobs was famous for his "one more thing" announcements in his keynote speeches. While Tim Cook is unlikely to copy his predecessor exactly, there is also speculation that Apple might announce a move into "wearable" technologies, perhaps the "iWatch".

I am also hopeful that Apple's "hobby" project, the Apple TV, might get some love. Opening that platform up to developers would be a big move, especially for the gaming community.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Is the Windows PC Doomed?

The "post-PC era" predicted by Steve Jobs at the launch of the iPad 2 in 2011 referred to the move from desktop/laptop to smartphone/tablet, and the research agency IDC has confirmed this trend; tablet shipments will exceed those of portable PCs this year and will exceed all PC shipments by 2015.

This must be a huge concern to Microsoft. All their traditional markets are receding, and they are struggling to get a foothold in the tablet market. The Surface RT has been a failure, and while there might be some demand for the Surface Pro, it's not nearly enough to offset the loss of sales in the laptop market.

I believe that Microsoft's marketing and product strategy might be flawed. Originally, it seemed like they might be on the right track. Commonise the look across their PCs, tablet and smartphones, and add touch to everything. It worked for Apple, right? Not quite. The requirements for work are very different to the requirements for personal. Like millions of people, I have a Windows PC at work that I am chained to for 8 hours a day. I despise that machine. After plugging away in Excel, it's a pleasure to switch to iOS for my personal needs. I seldom need Excel or Word in my personal life; Google docs will suffice in most cases. I don't want to have the same experience as on my work machine. Microsoft thought that people wanted familiarity, but in actual fact I think people want the opposite.

Microsoft are making the right move with Windows Blue, or 8.1, especially allowing users to boot to the desktop. My company will skip W8 altogether if it boots to a start screen full of social networking apps! 8.1 will bring W8 into enterprise, and I expect we'll see an increase in sales. Microsoft should concentrate on the enterprise market; a stable and secure OS and their dominant Office Suite. Their problem is that the desktop/laptop market has matured to a point where there is not a pressing need to update your system every couple of years anymore. In contrast, tablets are still evolving, and new technologies are helping manufacturers cut weight without sacrificing battery life. My 3rd generation iPad is awesome, but the iPad 5 will be very tempting!

However, I don't see tablets replacing desktops or laptops in enterprise anytime soon. People may use tablets for some tasks, but more for note taking, email, etc. Even if I could use Excel on my iPad, I would still need a PC to do the heavy lifting. For the foreseeable future there will still be  a need for Windows PCs, and Microsoft may be losing some of the consumer market, and the replacement cycle in enterprise has increased, but there is still some life left for the PC.