Doing the Right Thing

CSS3MachineHero

Last week I came across a review of CSS3Machine, an iPad app to create CSS3 styles and animations.

Naturally, I was eager to get any help on the CSS front and got onto the AppStore. When I tried to visit the app page, I got the familiar message that app was only available in the US Store. iTunes shifted to the US store and then threw an error saying app was not available. Thinking it must be an error due to a wrong link, I visited the website and tried again. Same result.

Determined not to be thwarted, I used the contact form and wrote asking why the app was not available. And I got a response from Daniel Eckhart, who I guess is prime mover for CSS3Machine.

It’s not just India.

I’ve made the decision to temporarily pull CSS3Machine all app stores. The recent changes to CSS3 “best practices” as well as changes to iOS and Webkit have conspired to put CSS3Machine behind the times, and I felt it was no longer a product I could stand behind.

I hope get it updated soon.

The product was pulled because, apart from technical reasons, the developer felt he could no longer stand behind it. This is a fine example of an ethical action, not a blind adherence to a random moral code, but the result of carefully considered possibilities and laced with ideas of pride in ones work, ownership and the ability to take a commercially bitter decision because it is the “right thing to do”.

Contrast this with the JP Morgan trader who blew two billion dollars trading in credit default swaps. Incidentally he was nicknamed “Voldemort” which I found charmingly apt in a curious way.

I have nothing against the trader. Doing the right thing is difficult. Greed and crude ambition clouds judgement. Weakness of character makes people take shortcuts. But in all that littleness around, there is Daniel Eckhart, developer of a tiny product who foregoes revenue because its the right thing to do. My faith in humanity grew a little more. I urge you to check CSS3Machine and buy it when its updated and re-released. And of course, in all small and big things we do it would help to “do the right thing”.

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If This Then That

If this then that

Between Flipboard and Zite on the iPad my primary means of consuming news and social media is a settled thing. But the workflow to act upon an information item is not consistent. A new startup IFTTT, aka ‘if this then that‘, takes an excellent crack at the problem.

To add more context, on Flipboard my way of marking an item for acting upon it later differs. I ‘favorite‘ tweets, ‘star‘ RSS entries from Google Reader and ‘like‘ Facebook entries. On Zite, for items I wish to act upon, I end up ‘bookmarking‘ them on delicious. Ideally I would have all favorite tweets, star RSS entries end up at delicious.

Think of IFTTT as a way to act on content from any of your social media streams, based on specific conditions being true within the content. Simple example is to bookmark a tweet in delicious if I favorite it in Twitter. IFTTT does this automatically now.

To be clear Yahoo Pipes does do this and more but the user interface is suited for those with programming experience or at least the ability to understand and build flow-charts. IFTTT excels because of its UX simplicity. The means for setting up a task are like reading a simple sentence and filling in the blanks. GUI has given way to a simple textual interface. Beautiful is an understatement!

Head over to IFTTT and have a play. They are in beta though. I have 5 invites to give away, drop me a mail(check my ‘About’ page) and I can send you one. And my first recipe to save favorite tweets to delicious is here.

(Thanks to Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket for pointing out!)

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Idea – Flipboard for Financial Research

FlipboardForiPad

Flipboard is a personalized, social magazine for online content. Currently an iPad app, it has completely revolutionized media consumption for me.

Media consumption workflow

Almost 90% of my online time is spent on iPad/Fliboard at home. My twitter, facebook and rss feeds all are rendered in beautiful magazine layout. Add the ability to share the content again via Twitter or store for later via Instapaper and I have the right workflow for media discovery and consumption on the iPad.

Rich media aggregators like Flipboard on the iPad are the harbingers of how online media should be presented and consumed.

Online News and Financial Research

This has been interesting to me since my day job is running a product business that helps research analysts produce financial research. There are many similarities between online news and social media feeds and financial research. There should be no reason why the same experience available for news via iPad should not be possible for financial research.

Antiquated Tools

Of course reality is a little more complicated than that. Financial services firms are typically behind on the technology adoption curve. Research is produced using antiquated tools, stored in proprietary file formats and distributed in PDF.

What about RIXML?

RIXML, an XML standard, has been around as a structured way to publish and distribute research and the data elements surrounding it. But its adoption has been hampered due to complexity of specification, clunky authoring tools or reluctant businesses who don’t see sufficient ROI via this approach.

Whilst I have my own views on the utility of RIXML, I firmly believe a structured form of data exchange will benefit all parties concerned. Some of these capabilities, or consequences of using a structured data format in popular tools for research authoring from my firm and others.

Sellability

But it is always a tough sell when talking about the benefits of serialization formats, metadata in general and adhering to a standard taxonomy and making the output available in a standardized format.

With Flipboard it becomes easier to sell the benefits of publishing content in standardized formats. Because without RSS feeds and standard ways of marking up and publishing content Flipboard-like experiences would be an impossibility.

Last thoughts

Of course I do get that financial research is mixture of structured and unstructured data and there are a ton of cool things that can be done here to make the job of communicating and consuming insights a vastly superior experience to what it is now.

Drop a note/comment if you are interested to hear more or wish to discuss.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System

Meet the fusion of data visualization, interactive exploration and touch based interfaces.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

Hope you are as excited as I am. This is not just a pretty visualization but can be a sign of how touch-based app interfaces can enable interaction with various end-points of a system.

In this case it is seed states that initiate the system, coefficients that determine strength of each rule and how each rule interacts with the rest of the system.

But it can be so much more. Anything that can be represented as a model can have an interface like this to allow dynamic exploration. Imagine a model that represents the financial health of a country or a company, perhaps in real-time. Tweak various parameters and it reflects on the bottom-line, immediately.

What do you think?

Found via Asymco

A Parent’s Guide to Apple’s iPad

Parents Guide-Home

There are a ton of Apple iPad guides and tutorials over the web. But very little info to guide parents of children under 5.  If you are a parent, or about to be one, read this post.

A shiny toy/device like the iPad invariably draws children to it and there is little you could do to stop them from messing about with it. A bawling child is a argument you can’t win. And almost every time the iPad can act as a high-tech pacifier to get your child to do anything(stop bawling, eat their food, divert attention from other gadgets and give you some breathing time!).

Steps to defend your iPad

Familiarize yourself with the Settings –> General section. Almost all the stuff you have to do resides here.

Parents Guide-Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man the Gates with Passcode

Parents Guide-Passcode Lock

 

This is your first line of defense.

Go to Home –> Settings –> General

Choose Passcode Lock and turn setting to on. You will be asked to select a four digit number. This will be your primary lock down step.

Note the Erase Data setting. After 10 unsuccessful logon tries the system would wipe out your data. Be careful with this. I have chosen to keep it on.

Restricting Apps

Next step is to enable various restrictions on what can be done on your device.

Parents Guide-Restrictions

Right below Passcode Lock, you will find Restrictions entry. Switch this on and you will the screen shown here.

Again, to get here follow Settings –> General –> Restrictions.

Below entries should ideally be turned “OFF”

i) Installing Apps ii) Deleting Apps iii) Accounts iv) Location v) In-App Purchases vi) Multiplayer Games vii) Adding Friends viii)Safari ix)YouTube and x) iTunes

Of course doing this restricts capabilities of the device and makes it a little dumb but the whole point is to prevent kids from doing things you don’t want them to do. You can selectively enable these options when you want to.

Restricting Content

If restricting all online media consumption options seems tyrannical then you can notch down things a little.

Allowed Apps

Parents Guide-Allowed Apps

Choose the country you are in to get ratings relevant to your region. So this is Settings –> General –> Restrictions –> Ratings For.

All apps on the Apple platform are rated just like media.

This is a truly a smart way to think about Apps on a device like the iPad. Curation of apps by Apple ensures there is consistency in the ratings.

Select Allow Apps Rated. Choose the ratings relevant for your child’s age group.

 

Allowed Music & Podcasts

Parents Guide-Allowed Music Podcast

 

Select Allow Music & Podcasts Rated.

Turn this Explicit setting to “OFF”. You certainly don’t want kids watching dodgy stuff. Of course you can turn it back on when you are using the device.

 

 

 

Allowed Movies

Parents Guide-Allowed Movies

 

 

Choose the option Allow Movies Rated. Select the rating options relevant again.

 

 

 

 

Allowed TV Shows

Parents Guide-Allowed TVShows

Select the Allow TV Shows Rated option.

Select the options most relevant for your child.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Lockdown

After all this, you might get a little complacent and think you are safe. But kids have a way of getting their fingers into screens you never thought existed. This skill will put them and you in trouble especially when connected to the Internet. So my step is to shutdown ability to get online.

Parents Guide-WiFi Access

 

Go to Settings –> WiFi.

Switch the WiFi setting to “OFF”.

This would stop your iPad from getting online. This is most useful and can be used as a master switch, without fiddling with allowed ratings for various types of content and apps.

 

 

 

Important Note : On iTunes, ensure you don’t save your password. Require to provide this password every time. That way when your kid somehow gets to iTunes on the iPad or tries to buy something the password request dialog box will act as another line of defense. Remember, your credit card details are on iTunes and a simple click can wipe some serious money from your account.

Some Parting Words

It is a delight to watch your child pick up the UI idioms without blinking, as if it were all obvious. And therein lies the magic of what Apple has managed to deliver. For all the Android and other tablet fans out there, I really would like to see a first generation device that can be used by a child.

All said, if you are a new owner of an iPad, hearty congratulations. As an individual and as a parent it has exceeded my expectations in the first few days and am sure it will do the same for you. And do not take your child’s time with the device lightly, always ensure you have some adult supervising its use. Have fun.

NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Rocks!

In short, the NY Times web app on Google WebStore is all kinds of awesome. For the slightly detailed version of why I think so you will need to read further.

Why is NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Special?

The NY Times app has to be viewed in the specific context it lives in. The factors as I see it are

i) News business model is disrupted, to put it mildly. Follow NeimanLab or Clay Shirky to understand how the internet has changed the rules for news firms.

ii) Adoption of Smart Devices like Apple’s iPad, iPhone and various tablet devices have added to the challenges of news firms. Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this new distribution channel and how these technology advancements can be used to present this content.

iii) The need to differentiate with quality of news and how its presented. Quality is firmly under the scope of editor-journalist world view and the market’s demand for it. And presentation is a function of technology and the narrative devices the editor-journalist wishes to use.

iv) Ability of large organizations, not just within the news industry, to see the writing on the wall and proactively take measures to address them. Not the half-hearted lame moves that pleases the proletariat and does little to materially improve their situation or at least help understand the ground reality better.

I have to acknowledge that there are lots more organizations that are at the edge of how content can be packaged and delivered. I would quote Flipboard as an example, my earlier post on them is here. Flipboard innovates in presenting content that arrive as links via Twitter and Facebook streams in a magazine format on the iPad.

Web News UX Evolved

Now let us go through some screenshots with a brief description of each.

The home page is a really standard view, nothing special here. But neat typography, a clean layout and not complicated. On the right hand side is a tabular menu that lists the various sections. Clicking each section provides a fluid page transition behavior.

A little subtlety around the scroll behavior. Its like having the newspaper on a 2 dimensional plane. Vertical scrolls are between sections and horizontal within sections. Try using the scroll arrows in the app and you will experience this.

Clicking ‘Customize’ option brings up the customization interface, almost like a designer mode. You will see that the tabular menu has changed now to show a list of options. The next screenshot has a better view of the options here.

Each option is a theme, again nothing special. But the point is this, for a large traditional news firm to get it to this extent is nothing short of amazing. This is standard HTML content, rendered in different layouts, or should I say mashed up differently, based on the theme chosen. The default theme applied is titled ‘Serendipity’ and its visible in the first 2 screenshots you see above.

The ‘Doric’ theme is a columnar layout, presumably a reference to Doric columns of Ancient Greek Architecture. In my book even a passing reference to Greece gets the inner nerd all jelly-like.

The ‘Flow’ layout is quite interesting. Its like a Web 2.0 style word-cloud but with titles and a brief description all laid out end to end in a sequence. Ideal to quickly scan titles, without the distraction of pictures.

Or if you really prefer the staid but efficient line based interface, much like RSS readers, then you would like the ‘Lines’ theme.

Other themes are Gallery(for of course a gallery of images contained within each article), Stack(a stack of articles one over the other..), Slideshow etc. There is another theme called Priority but I could not quite figure how the priority was being decided, especially whether it is curated by a human or an algorithm.

NY Times Could Do More

I see the theme infrastructure ripe for extension. I can think of a few options:

i) Better Filters: Category based filters and popularity(most emailed, commented etc.) is already available. But let us say we could filter this by region, and tie it to my social graph. Then I get a Flipboard-like experience of NY Times news.

ii) Sharing: Right now it is possible to share articles to Twitter, Facebook etc. But within this interface I would love to be able to see how popular an article is. FriendFeed and Feedly already do this by indicating popularity against each article.

iii) Consumption-based Customization: Right now categories are defined upfront and I get to apply themes within them. In addition I would like to see news customized for me based on my past consumption patterns and working out with which news topic I have engaged the post. Bubble up these suggestions automatically under the Serendipity theme. Until I ask why a particular option has been suggested don’t offer the information to me. Pandora’s web interface does this rather well, by giving details on why a particular song has been suggested.

There is lots more I wish to guess about here, especially about i) the workflow that might surround the publishing system here ii) how the iPad form-factor has clearly influenced the design thinking here iii) how a HTML UX is comparable to what a native smart device can provide etc. But will stop here for now.

What do you think, am I justified in my excitement? Or are these fan-boy symptoms?

For iPad, To Go Native or With Web Standards? See Flipboard

Flipboard is a hot new startup that offers a social magazine on the iPad. Basically it takes your Twitter, Facebook feeds, scrapes out the links in them, does some more smart crawling and provides a magazine like experience. Everything from choosing pictures to display from the links, the dimensions, layout etc. is dealt with dynamically.

Today they announced a feature called Flipboard Pages, which I came across via ReadWriteWeb. The feature itself is said to be a framework that..

..automatically converts traditional Web content into an iPad-friendly format, featuring full-screen, paginated, magazine-like pages.

It seems content publishers have to publish information in a certain way to make the magazine like reading experience possible, instead of a staid old web-page.

Now to the key point that caught my eye

All publishers worked with Flipboard to create their own HTML5-based framework, so they each have their own look and feel.

Wow. I am excited by a few things here.

  • Ability of HTML 5.0 to act as an informal contract between content publishers and aggregators
  • The rise of aggregators that can morph a bunch of links fished out of content streams and construct a magazine like experience. On the fly. Dynamically. Personalized for every user.
  • Publishers produce content in one format HTML 5.0, which by default would be handled by most modern browser. And there is the differentiated experience via special apps.
  • All of them driven by web standards and not a proprietary technology in sight!

On a plain HTML 5.0 page it would not be possible to do all that can be done within iOS, at least in my understanding. But this news reduces the need to go native iOS for one more class of apps.

Publishers, aggregators and consumers win with this approach. For those who still on the Flash, Silverlight bandwagon for dynamic rich experiences its time to rethink your approaches.