iOS5+Twitter

A number of sources (e.g. Robert Scoble) seem to think that iOS5 is going to feature deep Twitter integration, and that this will be some kind of killer feature.

If there’s one thing about the iPhone I really despise it’s Apple’s failure to offer a unified messaging interface. It seems obvious to me, and anyone I rant to on the subject, that the important thing about messages is who they’re from and their content, not the way they were  sent.

Out of the box, an iPhone has the following messaging interfaces:

  • Phone App — recent calls
  • Phone App — voicemail (that’s right two different UIs just to see who has called you)
  • SMS App
  • Email App — until iOS, you didn’t even have a unified inbox
  • Contacts (not a messaging app per se, but integral to messaging)
  • Calendar (again, not a messaging app but…)

While the iPhone made everything before it seem like a sad joke, this is still a long way shy of ideal. I might add that Mac OS X offers:

  • Mail
  • iChat
  • Facetime
  • Address Book
  • iCal

You might argue that Apple is taking a UNIXy “do one thing well” approach to messaging apps, but then I’d have to hit you with a plank. The fact is that the “one thing” these apps are doing is machine-centric, not user-centric. If I’m anxious to hear from my wife, I don’t want to have to check four different apps. I’m doing one thing, but I need to parse it out into four things for my stupid machine.

What does all this have to do with Twitter?

Well, Apple tends to fix problems like this — where there are lots of ways to do similar or overlapping things — differently from, say, Google or Microsoft. Google or Microsoft would produce something like Outlook or GoogleTV with the ability to pull data off tons of different kinds of servers, and then integrate support for everything else they could think of into the same UI. And it would all kind of work. And Logitech would create a remote control for it.

Apple instead looks around for a new thing that could do everything, or almost everything, that people want, if they’d simply have the common sense to give up on all the other crap and start using this new, obviously better thing. “You don’t need ADB, serial ports, parallel ports, audio connections. You need USB.” Sometimes this works very well — e.g. USB. Sometimes it works really badly — imagine I were to list all of Apple’s bizarro video connectors over the years at this point. Thunderbolt is a very good example of Apple’s approach.

I didn’t think much of Twitter when it first came out. Or for a few years after. I got a Twitter account early and then it languished for years. Even now, I use it pretty passively. But eventually it became indispensable. The interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s:

  • Simple
  • Versatile
  • Easy to push data to
  • Easy to grab data from

If we go back to my list of the most important things about messages, you might remember that who the message was from was listed before the message content. All you generally need from a message is to know who sent it and perhaps the first line of text.

Contrast this with SMS, email, voicemail, calendaring, and what have you. Vonage and Google Voice currently offers email integration — miss a call and you’ll get a garbled transcript of a voicemail and a link to the voicemail itself. (With Vonage you get the audio file in your inbox … grrr.) This is better than nothing, but email clients are pretty heavy, and if I don’t want to use email as my central point of contact it’s hard to then do something useful with it.

So, it looks like Apple is attempting to fix the problem of too many messaging UIs by adding another one. In the short term, this makes things worse (just as there’s nothing to plug in to your Thunderbolt port right now) but it has the potential to make things a lot better.

We’ll see.

Order & Chaos

Order & Chaos (first gen iPad)
Order & Chaos (first gen iPad)

Rosanna and I have been playing Order & Chaos for about a couple of weeks now. I first found out about it thanks to Penny Arcade, showed the post to Rosanna and she simply bought the game on the spot. (The App Store reviews didn’t hurt.)

Is it a World of Warcraft clone? Sure, but then WoW was a Dark Age of Camelot clone, and DAoC was an EverQuest clone. The question is, is it a good WoW clone, or merely a cheap knockoff?

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (Macbook Pro 2010)
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (Macbook Pro 2010)

Rosanna and I both lost interest in WoW a little while after getting to 85. (Oh, and we didn’t have nearly enough spare time to deal with the “end-game”.) The latest expansion felt too much like the previous expansion with a new skin (complete with new time sinks copied from the old time sinks). Similarly, we lost interest in Pocket Legends shortly after quests were added to the game.

Here’s a quick list of things O&C does that WoW could learn from:

  • Warriors can solo and appear not to suck.
  • Tradeskills are driven by their own experience pools. Making something gives you points in the tradeskill which can be spent on new recipes.
  • Anyone can cook … I mean gather.
  • No arbitrary class/race restrictions. All races can be all classes.
  • There seems to be no race-determines-morality assumption. You can be a nice orc or an evil human.
  • More convoluted quests are implemented as series of simple quests, which also tends to provide more rewards for quests involving a lot of running around.
  • The world actually feels big. You can run around and not see a quest giver for several minutes. (It’s possible that the necessarily short clipping distance helps in this regard.) This is aided by the game having no concept of “binding” and the only “teleports” being the equivalent of WoW’s flight masters. Places can be far away and there are no real shortcuts. (Even the teleports will only follow one link and, relative to WoW, are quite costly.) In one instance I trudged an enormous distance with one of my toons to discover that an area I had hoped to find quests in was way too dangerous. In WoW I could have “stoned” back to an inn, but in O&C I had to trudge back again. This may all prove too “hard core” in the long term and get “care-beared” out of the game.
  • You can quit from any place and when you relaunch the game, it syncs to the server and voila, there you are again — same toon, same place, no log-in sequence.
  • Spawn rates appear to be dynamic. If an area is heavily camped the spawn rate increases, leading to pretty hectic play.
  • So far there are no instances and this doesn’t seem to be a problem. (Perhaps because of dynamic spawn rates, above.) I even heard a player accused of spawn camping in global chat. Instances have become such a cliche in MMOs that it’s probably worth mentioning that they are an elegant hack solution to a technical problem (overloading of servers) and not desirable in and of themselves. (Why should it be a Good Thing that I can walk into a building immediately behind you and end up in a different copy of the building?) It will be interesting to see if O&C persists in eschewing the “instancing everything” approach everyone else is taking.

I do have one big annoyance and a handful of minor annoyances. First the big one:

Micro Transactions. Aside from subscriptions you can buy runes or gold (both are $0.99 each or less in bulk). Runes let you buy advantages such as extra character slots or increased experience rewards. Gold is the in-game currency, so it just saves you time. Once you hit level 20 or so, gold comes fast enough that it’s hard to imagine many players spending much on gold. I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is just a placeholder for more interesting stuff (e.g. access to more content) later, but it’s painful that you can easily land in the store (which is slow to load) while navigating in-game menus. Ugly and stupid.

The big ugly blue arrow. Your minimap shows yellow arrows indicating quest rewards and blue arrows showing party members, but a giant, ugly cyan arrow floats in front of your character’s feet indicating the direction of your next quest objective (you pick which of up to twelve quests is your “current” quest). First, this arrow is freaking ugly. Second, it’s often impossible to see when you’re running on hills or swimming. I’d prefer another arrow on the minimap just for aesthetic reasons, but I also find having a big 3d arrow floating in the world to be irksome on a visceral level.

Text. In general, all the text in the game is too big and in poorly chosen fonts. Indeed, the UI seems to have been designed primarily for the iPhone and then adapted to the iPad by sticking it against a piece of wood and banging nails through it. Even so, on an iPhone the text is often a bit small to read easily, in large part because of the chosen typeface. Meanwhile the text is huge on the iPad and annoying to deal with — quest text is buried three layers deep in the UI and then usually has to be scrolled for several pages. Worst of all, the chat interface takes up a ridiculous amount of space and can only display about six lines.

Text Entry
The way text entry is "integrated" into the UI leaves much to be desired

Text Entry: Every place where you need to enter text (e.g. when sending in-game mail, or using the chat interface) is a horrible, horrible kludge. Perhaps the worst case is in-game mail where the the input manager changes the spelling of your intended recipient’s name with depressing regularity, and the text entry field is a horrible white rectangle (of the wrong size) overlaid on an otherwise-quite-attractive UI.

Chat interface
This is the expanded chat interface which manages to display a whole six lines of text.

Chat. Unsurprisingly, global chat is like an interactive version of YouTube comments, but while the game lets you mute channels (yay!) it forgets which channels you muted when you log off. Worse, whenever someone in the world says something in global the UI appears covering a goodly portion of the screen for a few seconds.

Content. The content isn’t bad, but it’s very generic (and very clearly “inspired” by WoW). As far as I can tell this is a game largely produced by Chinese artists and programmers with a small core of Europeans in design positions. The whole thing seems very “cranked out”. It’s solid enough (and probably has fewer typos in it than WoW did at launch) but it’s not terribly interesting or inspiring, and you won’t find little jokes and easter eggs tucked into every nook and cranny the way you do with WoW.

Bugs. Every escort quest seems to be flaky. It’s also not clear that the game realizes you’ve failed one and if so whether or how it can be re-attempted. (I’d be fine with escort quests being impossible to retry, but I’d like the game to actually cope with it properly.)

Probably the worst/scariest thing about O&C is it’s the first game I’ve ever played on my iPhone4 that made it run hot. And I’m not alone in this — I saw comments in global chat along the same lines. (And there’s no similar problem on our first generation iPads.)

Another big difference from WoW is in the level of spoon-feeding. In WoW you can basically go from start to finish by simply taking any quest you see offered and doing the quests you’ve been given. As of recent expansions there’s even in-game support for telling you where to go and what to do (if you target a mob, for example, you’ll be told if it’s something you need to kill or loot for one of the quests in your journal). O&C provides much less hand-holding, to the point where entire quest hubs need to be discovered by exploration with no real prompting. Players who like exploring maps will be rewarded.

tl;dr

The short version is that Order & Chaos looks good, plays well, the touch UI is generally well-done, there’s plenty of content, and the price is right ($6.99 for the game with a long trial subscription, then very cheap ($0.99 per month or less) for ongoing “premium” access.

O&C doesn’t break any new ground. At best, it’s an attractive and competent MMORPG that runs on very modest hardware. But did anyone expect risk-taking from Gameloft?

Overall, this is a very impressive achievement. Producing a competent WoW-clone is something many game studios have tried and failed to do, yet O&C was developed using a cadre of European and American content leads and a small army of Chinese artists and programmers. O&C would be a pretty impressive game running on a desktop or console, it’s simply breathtaking on an iPhone4 or iPad. Even where the game has necessarily been “cut down” to deal with the limitations of the platform, it has been done gracefully.

iOS Cameras Compared

iPad2, iPod Touch Gen 4, iPhone4 Cameras
iPad2, iPod Touch Gen 4, iPhone4 Cameras

Since iFixit just completed their teardown of the iPad 2, I thought I’d check the camera components. (The image above was constructed from images I got from iFixit’s website. Clearly the images are not to scale.) I’d already correctly concluded that the iPad2 had a different (better) camera than the iPod Touch Gen 4 based on Apple’s website. Apple’s iPad 2 web pages boast:

The advanced backside illumination sensor lets you capture great moments even in low light.

Apple made no such claims for the iPod Touch Gen 4. Anyway, the iPad 2’s camera is clearly nothing to write home about, but it’s a different mediocre camera from the iPod Touch’s.

Apple’s Controlled Experiment

Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store
Stuffit Expander (and some parasites) in the App Store

It occurs to me that Apple has created, perhaps by accident, something of a controlled experiment in terms of determining the pros and cons of different approaches to managing the user experience on a platform.

On the one side we have the Mac App Store, where users can choose to get their apps through Apple’s channel or any other way they please, and developers can choose to distribute their wares through the Mac App Store or any other way they please.

On the other side we have the iOS App Store, where users can (modulo “jail-breaking”) only get their apps through Apple’s channel, and developers can only distribute their wares through Apple’s channel.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect experiment — it’s the real world after all. iOS and Mac OS X are different platforms with different users, different use-cases, and very different use-histories. But I suspect it’s a good enough experiment that the outcomes are guaranteed to impact both platforms.

I think it’s safe to say that if the iOS ecosystem worked the way the Mac ecosystem did, then pretty much all the complaints about the App Store would disappear. (This doesn’t mean a whole bunch of new complaints wouldn’t appear, of course.) Right now, the Mac ecosystem seems like an ideal world. You can opt in to the “walled garden” or go hog wild with warez downloaded by bittorrent. As a parent, I’d love to have OS-level support for keeping your computers in the walled garden. And, as someone working in a library, I’d love public access computers to allow users to download and use their apps legally, and then remove them when the user logged out.

So, let’s suppose that the Mac App Store turns out to “vacuum up” more-or-less all of indy development community. If we see a huge proportion of developers voluntarily opting in to the App Store because the revenues are so much better there (which in turn would mean that users are flocking to it), Apple might be encouraged to either (a) make the walled garden mandatory on Mac OS X, or (b) relax the walled garden for iOS. Or some combination of the two — e.g. AppleCare might require you to stay inside the walled garden.

Apple doesn’t need to “vacuum up” the big guys because it’s fairly easy to deal with a few large vendors (e.g. create specific technical or legal exceptions for them). It’s the long tail of software developers that are difficult to deal with. Apple isn’t worried, for example, that Adobe might produce a version of Photoshop that is actually a trojan. (OK, maybe it’s a little worried.) But there’s no way to keep track of hundreds of thousands of tiny developers who might, at any time, either create a trojan or have a trojan made to look like one of their programs, e.g. a long, long time ago — when indy software was largely distributed on floppy disks by user groups — there was a trojan purporting to be Stuffit 2.0. The developer — a high school student at the time — hadn’t released an update for a long time because he was studying for exams, and ended up having to make announcements that there would never be a legitimate Stuffit 2.0.

So: watch this space. OS X and iOS are destined to merge or just look a lot more similar as time goes on. The question is whether (and in what respects) iOS becomes more like OS X and vice versa.

iOS Stuff

30% of everything is ours

As I started writing this, I was listening to John Siracusa talk about his article on Ars Technica a week or so back. In essence he compares Apple’s current situation to that of Microsoft in the 80s and 90s. In a nutshell, Apple now wants to be everywhere and is inflicting damage on actual and potential rivals because it has some kind of a real or imagined competing interest.

In Apple’s case, I believe its strategy to expand into new markets has upset this balance. Apple rents and sells movies and TV shows, so it’s in competition with Netflix. Apple is in the music business, so it competes with Rhapsody. Apple wanted to be in the ebook business, so now it competes with Amazon. Apple sells an email, file storage, data syncing, and web hosting subscription service, so it competes with Google, Dropbox, Tumblr, and dozens of others. All of these companies have iOS applications and contribute in some way to the success of Apple’s platform.

And:

This tension between being a platform owner and also trying to build new businesses on that very same platform is another thing that Apple shares with Microsoft. But Microsoft is also a perfect example of how this strategy can seemingly succeed (Windows won the war for the desktop and Microsoft’s applications came to dominate the Windows platform) while blinding a company to the long-term failure scenario (a lack of competition allowed Microsoft’s products to stagnate, and the next round of innovations happened someplace other than the Windows platform).

He argues there are two likely outcomes, and neither is good: if Apple isn’t careful, it will hurt its platform and lose big to Android. If Apple is careful, it will end up killing its competitors and become fat and happy like Microsoft.

A Simple, Smooth Business Model

The question is whether it’s anticompetitive and ultimately self-destructive for Apple to “tax” real or potential competitors to its various “side businesses” (iBooks, say), and whether Apple is mistakenly or even unconsciously protecting broken business models and ultimately damaging its own platform(s).

Apple is trying to build a simple business where it sells iOS devices at a profit and it sells stuff for iOS devices at a 30% margin. It wants buying stuff for iOS devices to be easy and safe. The rules are:

  • The stuff you want to buy is in one place.
  • Buying it is easy.
  • It won’t eat your face.
  • It’s not available for less elsewhere.

I think that’s pretty clear for both providers of stuff and consumers of stuff.

In the end, all of the complicated arguments come down to two questions:

  • Should Apple allow rivals to sell stuff on iOS?
  • Is collecting X% (e.g. 30%) on some stuff (e.g. Apps) anti-competitive in ways that collecting X% on other stuff (e.g. subscriptions) isn’t?

The answer to the first is clearly no, as this would be stupid. Let’s say Apple allows Amazon’s App to let users buy Amazon stuff for the Amazon App. All four rules are instantly violated. We need to comparison shop. Who knows if Amazon’s stuff will eat our faces? Etc. So, no that’s a dumb idea.

The answer to the second is also clearly no. Why should it be OK for apps to be charged at 30% and not books? In fact it’s pretty clear that, when dealing with digital goods and DRM, if you charge something for one you need to charge it for all, or next thing you know you’ll need to buy a specific music subscription for your word processor to work because there’s a margin loophole there.

In his podcast John Siracusa makes the argument that Apple has a huge conflict of interest in, for example, selling Netflix on the idea of shipping an iOS app because over in the next room someone else is trying to sell video content through iTunes. Thus the iTunes business is in conflict with the platform business. While this is true, I’d argue that conflicts are inevitable unless you build platforms as a public service, and that the same argument works — and works better — in reverse.

If Apple lets Netflix collect 100% of video rental revenue through one-click in-app purchasing, now every time someone gets Netflix on an iOS device it’s a net loss for Apple. (Would Netflix prefer to pay Apple 10% but know that Apple will always have a huge incentive to make Netflix look bad in comparison to iTunes?) But if Apple gets 30% either way then it’s a wash — let the market decide. It may be tough for Netflix that it has had to replicate a huge amount of infrastructure on the one hand and business relationships on the other hand to get 70% of a movie rental through Apple when Apple gets 30% as “tax”, but at least Apple doesn’t have a vested interest in killing Netflix in the long term.

(And it gets worse. Apple would also need to decide what kind of stuff is 30% stuff and what kind of stuff is 0% stuff, or whatever. The fewer decision points Apple inserts itself in the better for everyone. Do we really want developers whining in public about how Apple won’t allow their game content subscriptions to be sold as “movies” at a lower margin because it’s “mainly cut scenes” and not gameplay? Right now the App Store approval process is bad enough.)

Indeed, because Microsoft got no actual direct benefit from the success of third party software on its platforms, it consistently did much nastier things to competitors. But that’s another post.

Is 30% too high? That’s a question for the market to determine. But remember that Amazon built its eBook business collecting a bigger toll from publishers than 30%, and Music Publishers certainly didn’t pay artists 70% of anything ever. And it’s always easier to cut taxes.

Post Script: Horace Dediu (asymco.com) argues that the “strategy tax” is simply opportunity cost. You pick a strategy and pay the cost of picking that strategy versus any other strategy. He further argues that Microsoft’s strategy was “platform lock-in” and suggests that Apple’s might be “the product”.

I don’t think this view is incompatible with mine, which is more of a tactical discussion (given that Apple want’s the iOS product to be as good as possible, this implies the four rules I list).