Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mobile Computing and Me

Everyone is excited about mobile computing. So-called smartphones are less important for the ability to make phone calls than they are for the ability to send e-mail and connect to the web. HP scooped up Palm in the hopes of using that platform to launch themselves into the smartphone market where competition is already pretty fierce as Apple, Microsoft, Google and others vie to create the hardware and software that will propel their products and their profits into the outer stratosphere.

Then there’s me. I sit here wondering at it all, screaming just like the humbug Wizard of Oz as the smartphone balloon takes off with me in it: “I can’t come back! I don’t know how it works!”

First of all, I don’t need the phone component. I’m also content to use my iPod Touch where I can get a free wi-fi signal, or on my home network. I just don’t see that I need to spend gobs of money for a constantly connected mobile device. I do use my iPod Touch when I’m not connected, however – mostly for music and movies, but sometimes for apps, as I’m on the bus for the 1 ½-hour commute home every day.

There’s a lot of chatter out there about open platform (everyone else) and closed platform (Apple). There’s a lot of chatter out there about how advertising will work on smartphones and other mobile devices. Always the revenue stream – which I realize is important, as at Uncharted we’re considering a mobile app to help spread our gospel and maybe get a little revenue ourselves. But I have to ask myself: how much of this is real money, Amigo money, and how much of it is just connected to the empty Internet words that make venture capitalists swoon?

For the kind of service we offer, free is the way to go, or, at maximum, maybe the 99-cent app route. The cost to develop the app – even if we do it in-house – isn’t likely to be recouped quickly by that amount. And why would anyone buy the app, when with web browsers, they can see and use our original website for free? Yes, custom apps make web sites easier to use, but I still think we’ve got some limitations that are pretty significant:

Flash vs. HTML5. Uncharted uses Flash. On my iPod Touch, I get the Blue Lego of Jobs every time I visit the site. To get around that on the iPhone platform, we have to go the HTML5 route. According to Brandt Dainow at iMedia Connection, HTML5 while fancy and rad and cool, is hardly settled. (Yes, he has his detractors, notably those who criticize him for not realizing the revolutionary potential of HTML5. I’m all for revolutionary. We went revolutionary with Ruby on Rails for Uncharted. Now we’re thinking about switching to PHP because it’s cheaper to develop. Revolutionary is fine, but revolutions are costly.) Develop an HTM5 app or website now, you redevelop it when the protocols for HTML5 change. That’s money we just don’t have.

Audience. We’ve got a pretty sophisticated web site that is not being utilized by the number of people we’ve hoped and dreamed for – and we still lack the ability to have consistently working hyperlinks and video embedding. I don’t care that we don’t host videos; I think we can use YouTube for hosting. We just need the ability to embed that HTML code from YouTube in our stories. That’ll make the video situation a lot better. I think our money and time would be better invested in making our site better, rather than making a mobile app – two apps, one for Apple, another for the rest.

Revenue. Our site is not making money. It’s costing money. Unless someone can show me how a mobile app or two will reverse that situation, slow, it, or whatever, I’m not convinced revenue will increase if we have mobile apps.

What do our users want? We don’t really know. We think we know that our users are using smartphones and Facebook and such, but we don’t really know. I guess I need to give in with my threat to do a little audience research, using the tools we have and a few I can probably think up, to see who our users are, what technology they’re using, and what they’d like the site to be like. Directly asking them won’t work – we might get one response from every ten people we ask. And we don’t have many people to ask.

Hardware limitations. I do not have a camera on my iPod Touch. I know many smartphones do have cameras. What will we have to do to our mobile app to make uploading photos to the site easy and worthwhile? Facebook seems to have a handle on it, so I know it’s doable. But will our users use an app for uploading photos? Probably. For photo captions? Out of necessity. For stories? Hardly. All that typing on a little screen? No. Short stories will get even shorter, or be lost completely as people opt for the photosets only. Mobile apps seem best for managing small amounts of text – I know, I’ve entered text with my iPod Touch and it’s always short bursts – and for viewing. Maybe that’s what our audience wants out of an Uncharted app. But it’s just, well, uncharted territory.

Yes, I know we’re offering a service – that’s what we have to emphasize with an app, one people pay for or not. So I study how I use the apps I’ve got:

Games. Mostly what I have are throwaways. They’re all free. I play some of them consistently, most of them occasionally. A few I’ve deleted simply because the GUI between me and the game is terrible. Namco’s Galaga – a game I loved at the arcade – is too hard to play, with the little direction buttons and the fire buttons. I need three fingers to do this, rather than two hands. Two hands was easier.

Social networking. Twitter I do almost exclusively on the iPod Touch, because the entire platform is geared towards the short and peppy. I can zing through two hundred new tweets in less than a minute. Facebook, now that’s a little bit different, because the content is different. Mostly on Twitter it’s, well, twits. On Facebook, it’s people I know and may want to be in contact with more often. So I use it on my desktop and on the iPod Touch, but mostly on the desktop because I can multitask there a lot better, and I still haven’t perfected the new cut-and-paste options on the Touch.

Email. Well, that’s easy enough on either platform. But it depends on what I want the email for. If it’s just to read or send, the Touch works just as well as the desktop. But for other uses – transferring photos and large blocks of text to the blogs I run – the desktop wins.

Web browsing. I do a lot more of it on the desktop, just because of screen size.

I’m not a representative sample, however. But examining how I use these devices will help me frame questions as I ask Uncharted users how they use their devices.

No comments: