Tag Archive for apps

A Farewell to ‘App Developers’

I have had the great privilege of really coming to age at just the right time to be able to get into the ground floor of the mobile app development wave starting in 2008. In fact, to my knowledge, I opened one of the first three purely mobile app development firms in my home state of NJ.  While there were certainly ups and downs, I had a blast. Now it’s 2017 and frankly the party has been over for some time; in fact, I’d argue that for many in my position the end of 2014 and a good portion of 2015 served as a well deserved hang over. Before I get into what I really mean here, it’s important that you understand what things were like from 2008 to roughly 2013. Simply put, the market wanted “app developers” and there just weren’t that many, so an outsourcing / contracting boom began — entrepreneurs and enterprises both were handing out five and six figure checks to dumb kids like me with little to no vetting purely out of the ever present fear of missing out. It was an amazing time. Then the inevitable hangover hit. It happened differently for both groups but it happened and at the end of the day a lot of good small app development shops paid the ultimate price.

Every story needs a good fool and most of the app entrepreneurs (“apprenuers if you’re a hipster from Australia) fit the bill perfectly. Like the little girl who’s enchanted with the tale of the frog prince, they went out an got-a-kissin, cracking open their kids’ college funds or their 401Ks to be the next Uber or whatever the hot app of the week was at the time. Basically, they bought the Disney-like fairy tale sold to them by films like the Social Network. Unfortunately, like most fairy tales that Disney spins into feature films, the true source material ends in tears. Their assets drained, the vast majority of these would be Zucks left the app world with red eyes and broken hearts.

The enterprise space is a little more complicated but shares the fundamental error of understanding that the entrepreneurial one does – that mobile apps are one time capital expenditures rather than ongoing commitments. A lot of enterprises made exactly the same mistakes that entrepreneurs did, but their superior capital and (in many cases) diffusion of blame among managerial groups allowed them to simply swallow the pain and move on. Still, most IT managers now consider apps to be like any other piece of software they buy and not just some quick one off that they’ll let the local shop “take a shot at”. Sadly, this shift has greatly disadvantaged small vendors, as IT managers increasingly look to their traditional long-term software vendors for app development services as simple add-ons to their existing contracts. It’s easy to take a Darwinian perspective here but the truth is a little more dirty than simple survival of the fittest in terms of big vendors and small vendors. Large vendors made it a habit (and still do) of externalizing their app development services to smaller more focused shops. I can tell you that this was fine for a time, but then something changed.

The large vendors realized that it was cheaper to just internalize or in some cases contract out to individual 1099s for their app development services and simply cut the little guys out. We’re in 2012 here now and I surmise that beginning of the app market cooling and an increased pool of young app developers out their had a hand in this. Some went as far as using legally restrictive language in their contracts with the smaller firms to prevent them from using the subcontracted work they had done in their own sales efforts. Imagine being one of these small shops for a moment. You wake up one day and in your email is a termination from one of your biggest “partners”, then the same thing the following week, then again the next week. In a month, you’re waking up to having nothing in your portfolio and payroll outstripping revenue on a monthly basis. What do you do? Do you take the risk and breach your contract, risking a C&D or possibly a full scale lawsuit, do you try to dance around it by mentioning the projects verbally but keeping them out of writing? What happens if you finally have a sale about to close but the prospect wants you to “prove it”? Your former client who overnight became the Empire to your rag tag Rebellion sure as shit isn’t going to give you a reference and might even poach the deal if you try to use them. Welcome to 2015.

I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending but in reality it doesn’t. Many shops closed their doors in 2015 or were forced to restructure in some significant way. Put simply a lot of good people lost their jobs, a lot of would be entrepreneurs felt cheated, and the owners / shareholders of the large IT firms made just a little more money. Even among the survivors “app development” as it was in 2008-2012 is over and they are struggling trying to become small enterprise IT vendors but growth is nothing like it was during the nascent period of app development. Let’s all remember those halcyon days as we look at our CRMs and wonder what the Hell happened.

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Apps, Bots & Cloud Oh My!

Apps are the newest thing! Apps are dead, long live the cloud! The cloud is old hat, it’s all about bots and machine learning now! If you follow the tech press like I do, you might be led to think that we have come through some sort of supersonic period of technological creative destruction. It’s certainly true that we’ve seen a good deal of innovation, since the release of the iOS App Store in 2008, but it isn’t entirely accurate to draw a linear progression from apps all the way to bots in terms of direct technological replacement. Apps, Bots, and the Cloud each bring something to the modern way we approach software presently.

Apps: It’s hard to overstate how much Apple releasing the App Store changed standards in the wider software development industry in terms of user experience and visual design. Simply put, the popularity of iOS devices and apps raised the minimum bar for what is acceptable UI for even line of business applications and elevated the role of designers from Photoshop jockeys to having a head seat at the table on most development projects. Of course, with the good also comes bad – I’ve sat in more than one meeting at large enterprises where two designers derailed a meeting by having passionate but ultimately futile debates over Helvetica / Helvetica Neue and different shades of blue.

Bots: We are way too early in the technical life-cycle for bots to make any sweeping statements about their influence on software development as a whole, but if taken through the lens of apps, they can be seen as almost a reaction to the design-heavy / design-first focus that apps have taken. This can of course be seen in their minimal UI but also in the purity of their focus on functionality above all else. Ultimately, the promise of bots is to remove that one to one relationship between user actions and software actions that apps focus on; ideally, the bots of the future will predict what you want to suggest it to you / do it for you unlike apps where you have to initialize all actions. Unfortunately, bots are little more than glorified text interfaces running some clever scripting on the cloud. We’ll need to see some pretty significant advancement in bot functionality before they are really useful and so far the top tech vendors are taking radically different approaches:

  • Microsoft: Microsoft wants you to build bots on their Bot Framework and hopes that you’ll tightly integrate with Azure or at least Skype. While there are definitely problems with their approach (for instance splitting the community by having both a C# and JavaScript SDK) it is likely the most interesting for third party developers that want to develop on one of the big vendors’ tooling. Still, I’ve been burned by betting on new Mircosoft platforms before (I was one of the fools who made an investment in Windows 8 / RT) and I’ll need to see some re-assuring signs that Microsoft is going to continue active development and support on this before I jump in with both feet.
  • Facebook: Zuck and Co have one question for you – ‘what is it going to take get Facebook Messenger to be your default messaging platform?’ Facebook’s bot implementation is the most disappointing, since it’s one of the more interesting technically (their implementation of Wit.AI shows a lot of natural language processing potential) but is ultimately rendered useless (and frankly silly) by the huge strategy tax of being tightly coupled to Facebook.
  • Apple: What hasn’t been said about Siri that hasn’t been said about a 1992 Honda Civic? It’s relatively reliable if you know what it’s good for but lacks much of what would be desired at this point. WWDC is in couple of weeks and if Apple doesn’t deliver, then they’re likely to be an also ran in the bot space. My money is on some improvements to Siri, but Apple is likely to philosophically opposed to data mining and opening this sort of data to third party developers to make any bot framework they may provide anything more than a minor curiosity for the most hardcore of Apple loyalists. Apple will likely be left with little choice but to use it’s control of the iOS platform to either not allow competing bots on their platform or (far more likely) allow them but now allow them to integrate on a system level greatly degrading their usefulness to iOS users.
  • ‘Google:’ In place of a queen you will have a colorful gender-neutral ‘G’, not dark but productive and intuitive as the dawn All shall love Google and despair! Apologies to Tolkien but Google’s shown what is easily the most impressive bot to date and it’s name is simply Google. While it’s heartening to see such impressive predictive reasoning on a bot, it’s also a little scary in terms of the privacy implications and what it means for the greater bot ecosystem. Simply put, Google is in the best position to make the best bot of anyone in the industry and probably of anyone in the world in terms of targeting the mass-market consumer user-base. Ironically, Google’s aptitude in bots and related technologies will likely stifle innovation, since Google will be able to do a better job for cheaper (since they won’t charge at all) which will likely push many smaller potential competitors out of the market. At IO, they did say there’d be some sort of developer access, but right now they’re just making the best bot themselves and that’s a little disheartening as a small software vendor.

In part, it’s hard to see what bots really mean for the industry since there are different approaches being taken for them; for instance, they will likely be far more useful for Android users than for iOS users initially. Still, the common thread here is using personal and cohort data to predict what actions you might want to take via a simple voice or text interface.

The Cloud: Bots may be getting all the tech press but they’d be nowhere without the cloud. Or would they? What is the cloud anyway? Well, do you remember Thomas Watson of IBM fame who said: “I think there is a world market for only five computers.” On the face of it that’s laughable wrong but in more practical terms of what computers used to be defined as, he’s basically right. Instead of computers we call them “clouds” (think Azure, AWS, etc) and we are basically renting usage from them which will sound awfully familiar to anyone who has ever rented time on an mainframe in the 80s. Don’t get me wrong I am well documented as being bullish on cloud technologies (i.e. Docker) but to be honest the most interesting and impact-full innovation of the cloud for most people’s day to day use is the pricing model. That’s right. The main reason the cloud has had such a positive impact on the software development industry and the greater world as a whole is that it’s cheap. Cheap computing power allows even small companies (like mine) to invest and try new product ideas out with very little financial investment in infrastructure.

So we’ve taken a look at apps, bots, and the cloud but what is the point in all of this? Well, all of these things go together. You see bots aren’t replacing apps or the cloud. There is no linear progression. Bots and whatever come after them are and will likely continue to be built on the cloud and possibly viewed via or at least supplemented by traditional mobile apps. In fact, my bet is that for a few years the key to successful software products will be to blend all of these technologies together in natural ways.

Questions? Comments? Uncontrollable rage? Reach out to be on Twitter.

Linux Adventure Pt 2: Ubuntu Apps

UbuntuMy Linux adventure continues on my modest Dell workstation. I’m pleased to say that so far things are going very well and Ubuntu continues to bring new life to my otherwise underpowered workstation. After getting over a few hurdles, what’s really impressive about my experience working on Ubuntu daily is how uneventful it is. Still, there’s always some room for improvement and the most glaring pain point is the lack of decent apps available for the operating system. Ubuntu just doesn’t have a good app ecosystem compared to MacOS and the Software Center is little more than an embarrassment.

Developer Interest: The simple and most basic cause of this is that there just aren’t many apps available, since developers don’t see Ubuntu as a platform worth developing for. Unfortunately, that’s probably true to a point. A simple Google search for developers considering moving their app project over from MacOS or Windows to Ubuntu, doesn’t yielding very heartening results. There also is something of (what I believe to be a misconception) among some developers where they believe that Ubuntu users are unlikely to purchase software.

App Distribution: Canonical, the developer of Ubuntu, released the Software Center several years ago with the hopes that it would become the equivalent of the App Store on MacOS. Unfortunately, the Software Center was poorly implemented and little to no effort was made to draw developers to the platform. Failing the Software Center, developers are left to their own devices for delivering their apps and there’s little standardization on Ubuntu or Linux as a whole for that matter when it comes to the easy distribution and installation of GUI apps.

The advantage of Ubuntu and Linux operating systems in general is that there are steps that the community can take to resolve issues on the platform. For instance, the community could develop an open-source alternative to the Software Center and encourage its adoption. Of course, Canonical could accelerate the process by throwing their development and financial weight behind such an effort and making a clearer statement about where the platform is headed.

Let me know what you think? Do you see Ubuntu as a viable development platform? Reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter.

 

UPDATE: I have been made aware that the Software Center launched before the Mac App Store. I appreciate the correction. This only makes Canonical’s failure deeper, since they’ve had more time to work this out. Maybe the GNOME store will be better but I don’t think being first is in any way valuable in terms of being a developer and considering developing commercial software on the platform.  

Xamarin + Microsoft

MicrosoftXamarin2

Today it was announced that Microsoft is acquiring Xamarin. I’m well on the record as having some mixed feelings about the Xamarin platform. Details are still pretty few and far between about the structure of the deal (other than the obvious fact that it’s a straight acquisition) or what Microsoft intends to do with the platform once they have control of it. Hopefully, Microsoft can leverage its resources to resolve improve Xamarin’s core weaknesses: pricing and Xamarin Forms.

Far be it for me who has railed that we don’t charge enough for software in general to criticize a company’s pricing structure but Xamarin’s pricing really leaves a bit to be desired. My issue is not with the dollar price per se but with the fact that you can’t code in Visual Studio, a far superior experience to Xamarin Studio, with the Indie license and that fact that LINQ to SQL is only available at the Business tier. It would be much more appropriate for the tiers to be separated only by support and SLA’s rather than actual functionality provided in the tooling.

Xamarin Forms, though it has gotten better since I last looked at it, needs some attention. The truth is that most internal development projects don’t have a focus on the platform specific user experience and managers would love to deploy a write once run everywhere solution.

It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft takes Xamarin and supports its developers and if you’re interested in getting a mobile development project done, please fill out the form on this page.

Going Mobile: Overcast

icon_340This is the second entry into Going Mobile, my series of reviews on mobile software. Frequent readers of this blog will notice that this series used to only focus on productivity software but is now expanding to the wider app ecosystem. I’m still taking a special focus on apps that actually allow you to “get things done” or provide a certain level of productive value.

This week I’m really excited to be taking a quick look at a brand new app by the nerd-famous Marco ArmentOvercast. Overcast is basically a high-end iOS only podcast client. As a podcaster myself, please check out Coder Radio if you are into development, I get really excited when a top-tier developer like Arment puts something out in the space.

The Good: Overcast is fast. I mean lightening fast. I’ve been using it since day one and have yet to find any noticeable lag or stuttering with any of the animations in the app. To be fair, some of this is due to the app’s arguably spartan design; in fact, other than the app’s logo, it uses all standard iOS controls, something that works surprisingly well and is refreshing when compared to some of the overly “designed” apps we’ve seen over the past few years.

Though I am not a huge fan of playing podcasts at higher than 1X speed, it’s good that Overcast offers the ability to finely control how fast you are playing back the audio. Like all of the app’s features, this is elegantly tucked away and is in now way intrusive.

The Bad: Overcast is free to download and use to a point and Arment has been pretty generous in what features he allows you to access before paying the $4.99 upgrade price; in fact, you can use some of the premium features for free with limits without paying – it is a little shocking that Apple allowed this, given their relatively hard position on trials of any kind. However, Arment’s generosity doesn’t make up for the fact that “smart speed”, the apps signature feature, is just not very impressive and I’ve found to not work pretty very well for the majority of podcasts in my somewhat extensive library.

The Ugly: It is a little disheartening that someone like Arment who has a following and could release even the simplest of apps and still get some immediate and great press felt that even he had to go with a freemium model to make a decent profit on the app. Arment’s done freemium in the “cleanest” way I’ve seen so yet but it still feels a bit unfortunate that it had to be done.

Conclusion: If you subscribe to more than three podcasts and use an iPhone, then you should give Overcast a shot.

Going Mobile: Byword

This is the first entry into Going Mobile my series of reviews on mobile productivity software – I am defining productivity software as any software I use to get work done. For this first entry we have Byword for iPad, a great markdown editor for iPad (and actually iPhone too). It’s fitting that the first pick be a markdown editor, since the majority of this website has been written in markdown for some time; in fact, this post post has been drafted in the app on my iPad Mini.

Byword doesn’t strain itself to be the best looking iOS app on the market; in fact, it focuses more on function than form, however, it is still a pretty good looking app and leans very heavily toward the iOS 7 design paradigm.

What puts Byword ahead of the pack of mobile markdown editors is its integrated posting to Word Press and a number of other blogging platforms. This might seems like an unnecessary convenience but the fact is that effective blogging from a mobile device requires that the process be as frictionless as possible. A close second for my favorite feature in the app, is dark mode. Given iOS 7’s relative hostility toward nighttime use around a sleeping partner or spouse, it is refreshing to see third party developers taking the time to add dark modes and other quality of life features.

The app costs $4.99 currently and to unlock some of the advanced publishing capabilities, you have to purchase a $4.99 “premium” in app purchase. This is my only issue with the app – the app feels pretty incomplete without the in app purchase. That’s not to suggest that the app isn’t well worth it’s true cost of $10, but rather that this pricing scheme feels a little deceptive and in my mind brings down the (for lack of a better term) “class” of what is otherwise a very high-end experience. I’d gladly pay $10 for the app outright but understand that I’m in a fast shrinking minority; the reality is that thine pricing scheme probably was decided upon due to the unfortunate economics of the app economy.

If you’re in the market for a mobile markdown editor and are an iOS user, then I strongly recommend that you check Byword out. If you have any comments or app suggestions, please share them with me on Twitter.