The greater sum

Connected experiences and devices are finally starting to emerge. For me, it means that I’m starting to see a variety of great connected experiences using a variety of technologies, cloud services and providers. This has been Ray Ozzie’s vision for Software+Services.

“When you combine the ever-growing power of devices and the increasing ubiquity of the Web, you come up with a sum that is greater than its parts."

I’ve really be struggling to understand examples in the wild. The 2 best examples that represent for me connected experiences are:

  1. Exchange + Mobile + Desktop + Web: I don’t think I could live without Exchange. My email, my contacts, my calendar are integrated in a single online spot and it syncs will all of my devices. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close. I use my iPhone, I use my Windows Mobile phone, I use Outlook on 2 PCs, I use Entourage on my MacBook Pro, I use the web interface on my netbook. It doesn’t matter, I just connect to my exchange account using the device in my hands.
  2. iPod/iPhone + iTunes: This was a vertically integrated experience where Apple provided device, the rich client experience and a very limited web experience (it redirects you to iTunes to purchase Apps or media), which continues to shock and frustrate me. However, it does speak to the media management features of iTunes that we’re present long before the iTunes Store and the need for a rich application with hardware access.

The challenge for me is that both of these examples represent relatively vertically integrated solutions. That is, the ecosystem of devices, software and content is controlled by a few key players (Apple + record labels; and Microsoft and OEMs).

New examples continue to demonstrate solutions including:

  • Kindle: Kindle is a hardware + content distribution solution from Amazon. It provides the device and content.  (Too bad it’s not available in Canada!)
  • XBox + XBox Live + Netflix: Being able to stream TV and movie content to my XBox is fantastic. XBox Live allows me to purchase movies to rent. Netflix allows me to stream TV and available movies. (Too bad it’s not available in Canada! Yes I’m familiar with workarounds ;-)

I’ve been looking for other examples that show more diversity of the devices, the services, and the software experiences. And I’ve been looking for examples that move beyond media consumption. We’re all familiar with media portability, it is the history of 8-tracks, tapes, CDs, DVDs, BDs and moving between home stereo, portable music player, or car stereo system. While media examples like Boxee are important are great, i.e., more than 1 television per household is not uncommon, it was more important to find new examples to demonstrate the importance or power of both rich clients and web services. 

  • NewsGator + Google Reader: NewsGator had previously built NewsGator Online to allow customers to sync their feeds with NetNewsWire and FeedDemon rich clients. My biggest complaint with Google Reader (even with offline support from Gears) is that it never lived up to the rich desktop experience provided by NNW and FD. NewsGator apps now use Google Reader to sync to the cloud. It provides me great clients on each of my desktops, my mobile device and on the web.
  • Twitter + TweetDeck + Sync: There have been a large number of rich Twitter clients for most desktop and mobile platforms. TweetDeck has continued to round out both their rich clients (desktop in AiR; and iPhone) but has added a compelling feature for users to sync their groups and columns (think TweekDeck customizations) across device. This recognizes the importance that a rich client experience customized for the desktop or the iPhone mobile experience and the importance of enabling users to configure once and run anywhere.
  • Boxee + Online Video + Social Networking: Boxee is quickly becoming my software application of choice for watching television content. It aggregates online video services and social network for content filtering and recommendations. It hasn’t replaced my TiVO, but add XBox and XBox Live to this equation and it’s pretty close.

So who cares? There are a lot of applications that are just web based. But we’re starting to see devices as end points, i.e., the applications provide access to content and networks. Facebook is still Facebook, but when the experience is better on your mobile phone you use it more. The best option is to understand your users, to understand the context that they use their devices, and then try to build a friction free experience to get access to your application, content, etc. Users live in a world that is open and closed, connected and disconnected. It’s about access to markets, to content and building solutions that enable which is important. It really makes me need to spend more time reading and understanding the Business Model Innovation and business model template because they offer a great way to start to map the infrastructure, offer, customers and finances.

Improving the mobile browser

choiceandflexibility

The latest set of announcements at PDC have focused on improving the end user and developer user experiences. Windows 7 is a continued evolution of the desktop user experience. Internet Explorer 8 is a web standards compliant browser.

There is a gaping hole in the browser on Windows Mobile. 

skyfire-betaWhy does a browser on mobile matter? Look at the Rogers market share this past quarter as a result of the iPhone. Is it phone bling? Definitely. But it is also a device that has a desktop class web browser.

Skyfire announced their open beta today. It boasts an impressive set of features including:

  • New Super Bar that combines search and URL entry into one bar
  • Skyfire can now be set as the default browser
  • New search bar on the Homescreen
  • New start page redesign
  • Faster start-up and page loading times
  • Share a link via SMS
  • Invite friends to download Skyfire via SMS
  • Save an image
  • Download files

And the best part is that Skyfire also supports Flash video on Windows Mobile. The web is the primary distribution channel for content, wether your on a mobile phone, a custom application or dedicated device. The richness of the experience can be improved (see LukeW’s summary of Mix07 Beyond the Browser). And it’s great to see a desktop class browsing experience come to Windows Mobile.

Reach and Rich

Nikhil Kothari has a great post about Silverlight versus Ajax. It’s a view of the front-end technology stack, including Silverlight, WPF, Flash, Ajax, Gears and AIR. I guess the only thing it’s really missing is Mozilla’s XUL stack that’s been used to build Skype and Joost (and JavaFX and OpenLaszlo for RIAs). It’s a very honest look at the types of applications and the islands of functionality, aka the sweet spots, that are starting to develop.

AppContinuum

Interesting thinking about what are the sweet spots for the users of particular applications. Funny that, it comes back to understand people and their environment. There are tradeoffs and benefits to moving along the axis.

Applications have distinct scenarios and correspondingly gravitate toward a sweet spot. Some apps lie squarely on the left, with the need to first and foremost prioritize universal reach. At the same time, some apps have experience or functionality as the high order bit, where it is necessary to leverage a more capable platform, even if it means somewhat reduced reach. Still, the best apps will probably be those that leverage multiple front-end options to follow the user, with a common back-end (sort of a software and a service model). 

Building RESTful applications on the server can enable the creation of really powerful, customer-driven tools. Understanding the people using the tool and the context of how they are using it build better applications. Blogging provides a simple example, WordPress 2.5 has a fantastic Ajax admin UI, but requires that the user has a live network connection. This does not alway make sense, just imagine writing blog posts on an airplane without network connectivity. Tools like Windows LiveWriter or MarsEdit enable richer experiences and offline editing of blog posts (among other features like plugins for creating hCalendar microformat events).

The Web is rapidly transitioning from being the “second screen“, to being the primary screen as the number of hours and the consideration of the web as the primary source of information and news has steadily risen to eclipse television watching (IBM Institute for Business Value – The end of advertising as we know it [PDF – 303kb]. The Web is the hub. Ray Ozzie described the web as the “hub of our social experiences, our social mesh, the hub of our technology experiences, our device mesh”. Your devices, your data, your applications all need to be connected to the web. It means that great applications will be loosely coupled systems built on interoperability and open-standards.

Corporate Brand <> User Experience

Front-end development technologies are becoming increasingly important. Understanding what is possible, i.e., the sweet spot and the limitations, helps makes it easier to start building applications that match usage patterns and device capabilities. The user experience will continue to evolve to span of mesh of Web-connected devices increases. Tim O’Reilly introduced me to the concept of software above the level of a single device, where software becomes more valueable as manages and mediates access to local resources and the internet cloud.

It’s about looking for tools, design patterns and methods that allow you to create connected experiences. Building reach applications is the first step, but it’s the rich applications that are memorable and have the power to change the human condition.