The Sad State of The Tech Journalism

I’ve been insanely busy for the past 2 months (gotta love moving), but I should be back on track for regular posting now. Since my last post the iPhone 4 has been released to the world and has been selling very, very well. 3M units in 22 days is nothing to scoff at.

Of course, the release was covered by just about every tech outlets in excruciating details, but before the iPhone had become old news, these sites got a gift : the AntennaGate. I don’t plan on spending too much time on the problem itself, although I have to say that as someone who has an iPhone 4 and who has a friend who has one (in Canada, the phone isn’t out yet so it’s not common), I have had no problem with the signal. The proximity sensor issue is much more prevalent in my opinion.

That doesn’t really interest me though, I don’t care about the issue enough to spend a lot of time discussing wether or not there’s a problem. As I said, I have no problem and it seems there’s a lot of people that are quite happy with their phone. Then again, the signal degradation does exist under certain conditions (if your signal is weak in the first place).

My biggest issue is the coverage of the problem. The problem with tech journalism is that it’s all on the Web and everything on the Web these days is driven by the number of clicks you can get. Because of this, Techcrunch, Mashable, Endgaget, Gizmodo, Twit.tv and all the others decided they needed trashy headlines and incendiary content. Thus was born the “AntennaGate”. It’s not enough anymore to just report the news, you have to drive clicks. You have to create a problem where there is none or make a small issue a big one. After all, who would read a story titled “iPhone 4 antenna can be attenuated under certain condition. Might affect some users.”.

And I’m not just saying this because it was bad coverage against Apple. It’s true for every tech businesses out there, from Microsoft to Google to Apple to others. I really wish there was a respectable tech news site out there, one that isn’t about getting the most clicks. It’s sad that we’re to the point where tech journalism is at the same level of professionalism than tabloids in Hollywood.

Make it More Expensive : A Valid Strategy

Today, the great team over at 37signals launched their first iPad app : Draft for iPad. It’s a nice little app, that allows you to quickly draw on a black background using either white or red pen color. The key feature in this case is the tight integration with BaseCamp. The kicker? The 10$ price point for the App.

That’s an interesting move because there are some very good competitors that are much less expensive. Penultimate is my current favorite, but there are others. Twitter users quickly reacted to the price, with many saying it was too expensive. @dhh (37signals co-founder & Ruby on Rails creator) actually answered me with this line:

Thanks, Jonathan. We built Draft for us. Selling it at a higher price means less customers w/ poor expectation fit. That’s good.

37signals are not the first to use that strategy. Apple is doing this very same thing in a way. If you want to buy a computer, it’s easy to find one cheaper than even the cheapest Mac. On the App Store, the also-excellent OmniGroup also used this strategy with OmniGraffle for iPad (50$). Last I heard, OmniGroup was quite pleased with their results.

So is the strategy good? Well, certainly I suspect 37 Signals will sell a lot less units, despite strong initial sales. Once the buzz goes down, they’ll sell a steady stream of units to their customers, but have a smaller set of customers is not always a bad thing. As long as you make money on the App and that your customers are happy, then why not? Less noise, less distraction.

At 0.99$, the app would have attracted a lot of new customers to 37signals, but how many of these would have been good fit with the rest of the services offered there? At 10$, you’re attracting professionals, users who need Basecamp as a tool to do their work.

The other point to consider is product valuation. A great local software developer here in Montreal is Druide Informatique. They create the best french-language dictionary and corrector for the Mac & PC. When they launched their app for iPhone a year ago, they decided to price it at 20$. The reason? The “real” (desktop) version is priced at 129$. It’s a very good product and it’s well worth its price tag so for the iPhone version, they didn’t want to devalue the desktop product and price it at 0.99$. The result? The president of the company told me several months ago they were very satisfied with sales.

So the strategy is maybe not for everyone, but it can certainly work. Are you better off with a few sales at an higher price or many sales at a lower price? Let’s wish the 37signals team the best of luck. These guys are talented and deserve the success they’ve been having.

Is Objective-C Really a Bad Thing For Apple?

Whenever flash on iPhone is debated, one of the thing that’s mentioned is that Objective-C is really terrible and Flash (or Action Script) is a much easier language to learn and to use. Of course, Action Script is loosely based on Javascript, a scripting language and Objective-C is a layer on top of C, so that does confer Action Script an advantage when it comes to ease of use.

What people seem to be forgetting however is that there’s more to life than ease of use. By using Objective-C and the Cocoa Touch APIs, Apple has a set of technology that’s not that hard to use (really, try to learn it, you’ll see) but also, a set of technology that while open, is also pretty much only used by them. I’ve said this before in my last post, but forcing people to learn Apple technologies is not a bad thing. It’s certainly a bad thing for flash developers looking to make quick bucks by quickly porting existing code, but for the rest of us, it means the developer has to spend some time on the Mac, learning how it works, what the UI paradigms are and why things work the way things work. Ultimately, this leads to a developer that might spend more time thinking about the UI issues and how to really optimize the interface for an iOS device.

Objective-C has been pretty successful for Apple on the desktop for years. When Apple “forced” developers to ditch Carbon APIs (C APIs) for Cocoa APIs a few years ago to benefit from the latest advances in the OS, many balked and predictions of doom were also thrown by many. As far as I can tell, my Mac seems to have survived and so did all of the apps I’ve used. Certainly it means that companies like Adobe and Microsoft had and have a lot more work ahead of them rewriting large portions of legacy code. You know what though? At the end of the day, we get stuff like Outlook for Mac, a newly written app that takes full advantage of Mac OS X instead of Entourage.

During WWDC, Apple announced that Farmville was coming to iOS. It’ll be interesting to see if that version will take advantage of iOS 4’s Game Center feature when it launches. By being a native app, it certainly has the potential.

Meanwhile, iOS 4 is coming out today for all users. Grab it, it’s a great update.

Keep it Pure (I’m Going To Sound Selfish Here)

Today, Apple announced a new version of the iPhone OS, the software that powers their mobile platforms like the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the newly released iPad (I’ll have my review soon). As part of that announcement, they have released a beta version of the SDK for us developers to play with but so far, the biggest news to come out of this is a little something they added to the license agreement.

John Gruber on Daring Fireball has a couple of post on this. To sum it up, Apple seems to have banned the use of Adobe’s Flash CS5 to iPhone technology or anything similar to that. What Apple has done basically, is force everyone to use their standards and their tools to code on their platform. Anything else is forbidden. That also impacts other tools like the Mono to iPhone stuff that’s also available.

John makes the point that it’s in Apple’s best interest and his arguments are good. I highly recommend you read the article in question but I’m going to go one step further here : I’m actually glad they did it and I think it’s a great thing for everyone involved except of course for Adobe and Flash-only developers. Here’s why.

If the Mac is known for anything, it’s for being a platform where attention to details is important. On OS X, we’ve seen a lot of application succeed because of the look and usability alone. The name “Delicious generation” was used to describe apps like these. Mac users expect apps to not only function well, but to look good, to act like a native app and to work like a native app. As such, the vast majority of apps available on OS X today are apps coded using Apple’s standards.

So what about the iPhone OS then? Well, by forcing people to use Apple’s tools, it forces people to be Mac users to develop for the iPhone platform. By doing so, it at least forces people to have a minimal knowledge of what it’s like to be on that platform. With any luck, that’ll end up improving the quality of apps on available on the App Store. Most people switching to Macs in my experience tend to become addicted to nice Apps anyway even if that was never really a concern before. It’s just part of the Mac mentality I guess.

I can understand why Flash developers are not happy and I can certainly sympathize with them, but I’m glad Apple did this. Let’s face it, Flash apps and Flash sites are not known for their great usability. They are known for flashy animations, terrible performance and for being generally harder to use.

From the start, the iPhone platform has never been an “open platform”. There are other platforms out there that are more open and equally great like Android. This is a closed garden. That comes with big advantages, but it also means you need to conform to the rules if you want to play in it.

The Fight for Your Digital Identity

If you’ve been creating sites for a while, you know that domain names started become difficult to find years and years ago. I remember brainstorming with a full team of 8 for hours before finally finding a domain name (barely) suitable for our business 10 years ago. Of course, new TLDs have since helped with this a bit, but it’s still an issue since everyone wants a .com. Of course, now you want not only the domain to be available, but also the Twitter and Facebook name and let’s face it, it would be best for the name to fit on an iPhone/Android home screen.

But that’s just the beginning.

With everyone and their mother now online, a new fight has begun : the fight for your digital identity. Businesses are now fighting to be the one representing you online. A year ago, when Facebook opened up custom URLs for profiles, their goal was obvious. What they wanted, and what every businesses like Facebook wants is to be your identity. If you have www.facebook.com/yourname, it might just that this is the URL you’ll give to people instead of your own domain name (if you even own one). This is huge for these sites.

Twitter has done the same since the beginning and there too registering your name is important. Google is now trying to do the same with Google Profile. Once you have such an identity, you can then increasingly use them to login on other sites with things like Twitter’s @anywhere, Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect. In a way, these services are achieving what OpenID was supposed to do years ago. OpenID’s problem though, was that the name isn’t known at all. What’s an OpenID? Sure you can use your Gmail account as an OpenID, but who knows this? Because of this, it never caught on.

New social networking services come and go, but if you’re not registering your name on each of them, you’re potentially making a mistake. We live in a world where your online identity is vital. Who wants to be John4576? Register on each of them as early as possible. Some will die quickly, some will never become important, but when one of them becomes the next Twitter or the next Facebook, you’ll be good to go.

Oh, and if you’re having kids, I’m honestly sorry for you. If your parents thought finding a name was difficult before, you have quite the task ahead of you. If you name your son John Smith, wish him luck in the future. He’s going to need it. Googling that name won’t be easy.

How To : Adding SVN Info To Your Prompt

Ever since I switched to Linux years and years ago (and since then, to OS X), I’ve been carrying around a .profile script to configure my shell environment. The other day, I was browsing Ars Technica when I found a poster who had a very nice script in his prompt to add GIT info to his PS1 variable. Since I mostly use Subversion, I knew I had to adapt it but someone already did all the work! Let’s recap. My prompt usually looks like this:

user@computer ~/Documents/LCMM/Site/lcmm/trunk

That’s pretty good, but what if you could have SVN info when in a local repository. Here’s what I’ve got now:

user@computer ~/Documents/LCMM/Site/lcmm/trunk
SVN => [trunk:92]$

This gives me not only the local path, but also the current SVN path and the revision of the current directory. Of course, once you’re got that you can imagine other improvements that could be done here. To do that, here’s what I did. First, I downloaded this script on GitHub and placed it in /usr/local/bin (put it anywhere you want, it doesn’t matter).

Next, edit your bash init script (.profile for example) and add:

source /usr/local/bin/__svn_ps1.sh
export PS1="\u@\h \w \`__svn_ps1\`\$ "

That’s it. Pretty neat trick that could be adapted to anything else really. It works because the function returns either SVN info or nothing at all if this is not a local SVN repository.

Why We Need To Kill Flash

Anytime there’s a discussion these days about the iPhone and its competitors, Flash is usually mentioned early on in the discussion along with Multitasking. Today I want to address Flash because it’s something I strongly believe we need to kill. The topic came to me last week when the news came out that Adobe was blocking the adoption of HTML5. We still don’t have all the details there, but it did remind me of my hatred for Flash in general.

Flash is a weird product. On the one hand, it did things very well. When Macromedia (now Adobe) introduced it in 1996, they managed to make it so ubiquitous that it now has 98%+ install base. That’s quite the achievement.

On the other hand, Flash is terrible and that’s something most people agree with except perhaps for Flash designers. It’s being used today mainly for 3 things : video streaming/playback, entire or parts of web sites and banner ads.

It’s too bad Web standards are so slow to be adopted because for video streaming, there’s already a much better solution than Flash. Youtube, UStream and many others are (slowly) moving to it as more and more browsers are supporting it. Of course, as always, Internet Explorer will be the one slowing us down for this. For Web sites, the “new” technologies like the latest revisions of Javascript and DOM scripting can absolutely compete with Flash.

There are 3 major problems with Flash. Let’s review:

First, the flash player is very poorly implemented on OS X and Linux. Performance is terrible and it sucks battery life out of your laptop in record time since it pegs the CPU to 100% in seconds. That makes it inappropriate for things like cellphones in my opinion. If you visit a site with banner ads and a few flash movies, does this means you will lose 20-30% of your battery life in minutes?

As a second issue, I would point out that the flash authoring app is way too pricy. In a world where everything gets pirated, it may not seem like a big deal, but Flash, unlike Visual Studio from Microsoft and XCode from Apple has no free versions for people at home to play with. Coupled with Adobe’s usual upgrade routine every 18 months, it make Flash to be extremely expensive.

The third problem is that Flash is controlled by one company. That company decides if the Mac OS X version will be performing well. That company alone decides when a new version is released.

Add to these 3 problems the fact that many Flash websites are terribly designed and would be hard to see on a smaller screen and that these sites are usually badly (if at all) indexed in search engines and you start to understand why Apple is refusing to include it on the iPhone.

Because of all this, I’m actually happy Apple is doing this. It has forced some sites to reconsider the use of Flash and I hope it’s a trend that will continue.

Hopefully more companies will be bullish like Apple and take a stand.