Meet The Hacketts

This weekend, Stephen Hackett and his beautiful family have been mine and Sami Furse’s hosts as we decended upon the great city of Memphis, Tennessee.

I first became aware of Stephen a few years ago when he was still writing for Macgasm. We had arranged for him to join us on an episode of The Bro Show. I had remembered really enjoying his writing there and at his personal blog—which was called Forkbombr at the time.

He was a great guest on that episode of The Bro Show with us and we started to become friendly as we were becoming more and more familiar with each others work. Shortly after this Stephen gave me the great honour of becoming an entry on his ‘Writers I Read’ interview series for his site. This was a process of interview conducted over a collection of emails, I really enjoy being interviewed and at this time it was quite new to me—so very exciting.

As time went on Stephen and I became friends and shared many ‘That’s What She Said’ jokes together. For a little while Stephen was my editor at Magcasm as I started to write some app reviews for them. This was a real interesting and exciting experience as I have always enjoyed writing articles like this. Stephen left Macgasm after a while to concentrate more on his own site and to ensure he was spending more time with his family. I followed shortly after as 70Decibels was starting to take shape; so demanded more of my time.

Not too long after this me and Hackett started to discuss working together on a podcast of our own – he had guested on a few shows by this point – and he came to me with the idea of ‘Ungeniused’. I loved the idea of a show that would discuss random articles on Wikipedia as I’ve always enjoyed learning useless information. We launched this show, after a few months work, on the same day as we unveiled the 70Decibels network.

Since we started this show, Stephen has become more and more involved in the network. He is a constant sounding-board for my – usually – ridiculous ideas and has given me great support and assistance in advancing the network, as well as tightening things up. We have also started recording the 512 Podcast, a show that allows us to have our often conversation on technology in a public arena.

Throughout this time Stephen has become an important person, friend and mentor in my life. I was delighted when we (Sami and I) were able to arrange a visit to him and his family in Memphis—which is a trip I am currently returning from as I write.

I have been blown away with the kindness and friendliness that Stephen and Merri – his amazing wife – have shown to us. They have been our tour guides for the week and have been excellent in showing us the city and taking care of us.

I have been blown away by his children – Allison and Josiah – who are some of the most perfect children I have encountered. They instantly warmed to Sami and I – making us feel like important people in their lives – I have learned a lot about strength and happiness from them.

We have seen a lot of the city, which is a gorgeous place. Memphis has a character that I have never seen before. I have constantly been in awe at the beauty of it and would honestly move there tomorrow if I had the chance.

Today we went to see St. Jude hospital which was totally overwhelming. This is where Josiah has received his treatment since he was a baby and I have never come across a place so inspiring. The treatment and care they offer for their patients and the families is incredible. I urge you to visit and take the tour if you can or at least try to learn a little about the place. Be warned though; you will want to give them all your money.

My mind is blown that I met Stephen online and developed a friendship which made our time together feel totally normal. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, I felt like I was with an old friend. It has shown me that it doesn’t matter how you meet, you can be as close to someone as your character will allow.

I will be visiting Memphis again – as soon as I can – to spend more time with the Hackett’s. They are a fantastic and strong family—unlike any I have met before. They showed us great hospitality, introduced us to many awesome people and left me feeling like my world just got a little larger.

Paying The Price On Android

Whilst watching a recent episode of All About Android on the TWiT Podcast network, I noticed that as one of the hosts was demoing Plume – a twitter client for his Android tablet – he said that he was using the free version of the app, even though it had ads and that he might upgrade to the paid version as he uses the app a lot.

This remark struck a chord with me. A Twitter client is a pretty important application for most users on their mobile devices, especially for someone who is connected with thousands of people. It becomes a communication and research tool. My Twitter app is very important and considering how much I am going to be using it, I would not hesitate in paying for it—especially if I was happy with the app after using a ‘lite’ version.

So I took to Twitter to try to understand if I was alone in this and to see what other people’s opinions were in regards to Android users as a whole and their likelihood to pay for apps.

One of the first questions I was pondering over was, ‘Why do paid apps perform so poorly on Android compared to iOS?’ and one of my followers @MaximHarper pointed my in the direction of the blog post written by the developer of Papermill, an Instapaper client for Android.

In this post the developer chronicles that even after recieveing a very welcome response from big publications – like The Verge and Lifehacker – after 3 weeks the developer has only sold 411 copies of his app. The developer – Ryan – has priced Papermill at $4 (Instapaper for iOS is $4.99 and is Universal) but the app also requires an Instapaper subscription—this is something Marco requires a user to pay for to access third-party API features.

Ryan says in his post;
‘While people liked the user-experience and design, they felt $4 was too much for an Android app, especially when added to the Instapaper subscription account it would require as a third-party app.’

I think this is a telltale sign of an inherent issue with the Android platform. Marco has made and is continuing to make a living from Instapaper, whilst the developer of an App that offers access to this service — on a platform with a larger install base —can only make $1140 after three weeks. It would seem from this case that Android users do not care for the usefulness of the app or how greatly desgined it is (which is certainly the case with Papermill), if it’s not free – or dirt cheap – then they’re not insterested. But of course, this is only one case.

When Rovio launched Angry Birds on to Android, Peter Vesterbacka – their CEO – was quoted as saying;
‘Free is the way to go with Android. Nobody has been successful selling content on Android. We will offer a way to remove the ads by paying for the app, but we don’t expect that to be a huge revenue stream.’

Rovio launched Angry Birds as a free game on Android, whilst it was 99c on iOS and was a huge success. For Rovio, Android is of course a huge platform and a massive potential stream of revenue and new customers, so they felt it would be better to offer a free version in this market and hope to either make money from ads or from in-app purchases. They were under the impression that they wouldn’t make the same amount of money using their existing business model. So here’s a case of a developer porting a hugely successful iOS app to Android, under the impression that money couldn’t be made with their existing business model.

One of the responses I recieved via Twitter from Michael Norton focused my thinking on the following; since ‘Google Play has a more variable app quality level, paying for apps is necessarily more choosy’. This got me thinking around the idea of the quality of apps in the Google Play Store (Android Marketplace). If apps are generally crappy looking or functioning, should users be more accustomed to paying little to nothing? Basically, if the apps are not very appealing then why part with cash?

In my time spent with Android, I have typically been underwhelmed by the quality of the app ecosystem. On the whole, design is poor – especially when compared to iOS – and performance can be inconsistent, so should we expect to pay for apps that do not live up to expectations? And if this is the culture that has become inherent would users ever expect to pay for apps? Are users becoming used to a potentially sub-par user experience, so do not see a monetary value in it?

Another Tweet recieved, this time from Maxim Harper’ brought the idea of existing iTunes accounts to my attention, as a possibility for allowing Apple to be able to charge more successfully. Because of the iTunes Music Store, many of us already held iTunes accounts with credit cards on file. This way, it meant the barrier to entry was low and Apple were able to entice us in to the App Store by making purchases a simple thing to complete. Google – it would appear – is now trying to get people to sign up for Google Checkout as early as possible, potentially as a play to get themselves in to a situation where that have the iTunes advantage.

Many people mentioned that the amount of Android users that are just being ‘sold’ the devices by the mobile networks, could be skewing the numbers and perception of price. Android is pushed by many carriers as they make larger profits from the handsets and service plans, so the store representatives are encouraged to push these phones to people who are replacing ‘dumbphones’ for their first smartphones. Becasue of this, many of these users will unlikely be using their Android phones in the way the tech-literate do and would therefore not be browsing the Google Play Store for new applications, let alone paying for any. I see this as a possibile explanation for the fact that some users may not be paying high prices, but I dont think this answers the problem as a whole. It just seems that these users would rarely visit the store if at all – they are not a buying market – so this doesn’t explain the proliferation of ‘free’ seen on Android.

I think a popular argument made to me – is that the Android platform doesn’t have any ‘killer apps’ that would make you want to switch to the platform and pay reasonable prices for the apps. For me, Tweetbot and Reeder – on iOS – would be those apps. I have yet to find any apps on any device that work as well as these two do. Some people argue that because apps of this perceived quality do not exist on Android, it makes it an even harder sell to many geeks. However, I think that these apps sell to a specific type of geek and not all geeks. For example, an app like Tasker on Android would be a massive selling point for the type of geek that likes total control and customisation over their handset—the features that this app promotes are pretty awe-inspiring and is something you cannot do on Apple devices

So I think to argue that it’s a case of ‘killer apps’ that makes a user want to pay, is not entirely accurate as one man’s ‘killer app’ is another man’s UI nightmare.

What is becoming clear to me is that as time goes on, more applications are becoming cross-platform and are being ported from iOS to Android—with Path and Instagram being prime examples. These are apps that are inherently iOS designed and have later been ported to the Android platform with varying success. But what is also evident is that in some cases, the existing business models are not moving over with them and developers are having to adapt the way they function, to fit a platform that does not seem to be a big money maker. I have no real answer to why – on the face of it – a large portion of Android users seem to be less happy to part with cash, but this was a conversation that I found interesting enough that I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

UPDATE: Jason Howell, the TWiT host whom I mentioned earlier, took the time to write a thoughtful and interesting reply on his Google Plus profile to this article, this has stemmed an interesting dialog between us. I urge you to check it out

Bartending, by Stephen Hackett

Today, my good friend, Mr Stephen Hackett releases his first book. It’s called ‘Bartending: Memoirs of an Apple Genius’ and it’s fantastic.

You may know that I don’t read very often and this is usually as I have trouble settling down to read for lengthy periods but Bartending perfectly fits my habits. Stephen has broken down the book in to a collection of short stories of his time spent behind the Genius Bar. These bitesize tales are quick and easy to breeze through when I have a few moments and this is perfect for me.

Hackett has done an excellent job giving an insight in to the life of working in Apple retail. On the whole this book is absolutely hilarious. I probably looked like an oddball laughing to myself whilst reading this book on the train over the weekend. Here are a couple of my favourite lines from the book:

"Now that might have been true, if by ‘carpet’ he meant to say ‘concrete’ or ‘tile’ or ‘land-mine’"

"I felt like I was unwittingly starring in ‘The Telltale iPhone’"

I’m pretty sure that the story ‘The iPhone that wouldn’t die’ (of which the quote above is featured) is my favourite in the book. I was laughing my ass off reading that one.

In this book Hackett demonstrates his excellent story-telling ability. He paints the picture of his experiences perfectly and effortlessly. I really had a good understanding and vision for what was happening in each tale. It really is a great read.

You’ll be doing a great service to yourself by buying this book. It really is thoroughly entertaining and I highly recommend it.

Why are you still here? You should be reading by now..

Two Years

Today, April 7th, is the second birthday of The Bro Show and therefore my entry in to the Podcasting world.

On April 7th 2010 myself and Mr Terry Lucy recorded Episode 1 of The Bro Show, entitled 'iPad Blah, Blah' (do you get the Queen reference?). I strongly suggest you do not listen to this episode as it was an atrocity, but I wanted to link to it for prosperity.

When we started we were unconfident behind the microphone, using crappy headsets and for some reason recording in stereo with each of us taking one of the channels (I think I was left and Terrence, right) which was a also bad idea.

But we learned a lot and fast. Now we have an active network of 11 shows, under the name of 70Decibels and it all came from this one little episode.

I want to thank Terrence for being there every week to record alongside me. We're quite the duo, him and I and we have some super-exciting projects coming down the pipe that's going to see our empire growing in to new and interesting areas.

I also want to thank each and every single person that listens to our humble, little Tech broadcast every week. You are why we keep doing it and we love each and every one of you!

The Lumia

Joshua Topolsky on the Lumia 900, via John Gruber
Let me just put this bluntly: I think it’s time to stop giving Windows Phone a pass. I think it’s time to stop talking about how beautifully designed it is, and what a departure it’s been for Microsoft, and how hard the company is working to add features

I think this is a really great take from Topolsky. I think that Nokia is doing some great stuff with the hardware in the Lumia series, but Windows Phone does not yet meet the grade.

A short time ago I had a Lumia 800 given to me by Nokia for a review that I never published. The 800 and 900 are pretty much the same device with the main differences being that the 900 has a larger screen and LTE. Aside from that they are effectively the same phone. Gruber even pontificates that the 800 may be a superior experience

I found the design of the hardware to be pleasant overall. It looks and feels really good in the hand and is striking compared to its competitors. Additionally it felt snappy and the processor seems more than capable of handling the general functions of the phone, at an OS level.

However there are so many inconsistencies with Windows Phone 7. For example, scrolling is a nightmare. If you are scrolling through a long list – like contacts – you reach about half-way and want to go back to the top, then you have to start scrolling again; there is no jump-to-the-top process (like in iOS). As well as this there is no scroll selector; you can’t grab a tab on the side and scroll faster (like in Android), you have to flick all the way up to the top.

Another interesting issue in regards to scrolling is how you stop lists whizzing by. In iOS if I’m flicking through a list a tap to the screen will stop the motion, in Windows Phone 7 this would frequently recognise this as a deliberate tap and select whatever contact or item I had therefore selected. This was never my intention when stopping the scrolling action as was always infuriating as I would then need to back out of this selection.

The app ecosystem is poor. For example trying to find a good Twitter app was basically impossible. Every app that I tried seemed to be lacking a feature or two that I needed. A glaring example of this was the official Twitter app, that didn’t hold its place in the timeline when re-launching from last time. This is such an important feature (that may well have been updated now) and was a total deal-breaker. Overall scrolling performance and responsiveness was poor, third-party apps did not perform well with scrolling and it frequently became stuttery when scrolling through long lists.

On the whole I enjoyed the ‘tiles’ on the homescreen. It’s a fresh take to an OS that I thought could continue to be implemented well. Especially, the contacts tile added some personality to the phone. I would constantly see my friends faces scrolling by and flipping over, this is a nice touch.

These are just some of the observations I made whilst using the Lumia 800, but my main take-away was that Microsoft had done some good work on Windows phone 7 and had created something different to the competition, but not without flaws. The main issue I see is that third-party support is still not good enough. It was hard for me to find an app that did what I needed to do, in a way that I felt was even barely comparable to the experience I get from iOS. And this is their main failing, for as long as it’s difficult for me to find that apps I rely on, I have no incentive to switch.