All posts by alex

Buying Apps

Been mulling over this for a while, now. Before the Mac App Store was announced, I was thinking about “mobile apps” (mostly the iTunes/iOS App Store, but also Android Marketplace). Since the MAS announcement, though, I’ve been thinking about something which may be a broader shift. And because the MAS is opening tomorrow, now might be a good time to put some of these ideas out there.

The following blogpost, by Markus Nigrin, provides important insight from the perspective of some iOS developers.

Mac App Store – Sneak Peak

I tend to agree with the underlying idea: “traditional” Mac OS X developers run the risk of missing the boat, with the Mac App Store.

This point is made even more graphically by David Gewirtz on ZDNet.

While I do care about the fate of Mac developers, I’m really thinking about the users’ side of the equation. And I’m not really caught up in the Manichean “is it a good thing or a bad thing for us” kind of thinking.

Now, I do still think about the business side of things. Not that I have “a dog in this race,” but I do think about the business models, including app costs and “Free As In Beer”/No-Cost Software. Partly because, until recently, I rarely bought applications.

A few things changed, recently. One is that I’ve been able to allocate more money to my computing needs (partly because I do freelance work, much of it related to online stuff). Another is that I started paying more attention to software bundles like MacUpdate Promo and MacHeist. Yet another is that (very recently) I started buying games on Steam. And, finally, I’ve been getting a rather large number of iOS apps on the App Store, including some paid ones (despite my frustrating experience, initially).

One thing I notice is that there does seem to be a distinction between mobile-style “apps” and “traditional software packages.” While “app” is short for “application” and there may not be a very strong distinction between the type of software distributed through the Mac App Store and other applications, “apps” may be emerging as something of a new category. Partly in terms of business, partly in terms of development models, partly in terms of users’ expectations.

It may be a bit confusing, especially since Apple itself is selling pieces of software on both sides. For instance, they will distribute their iWork productivity suite (Keynote, Pages, and Numbers) through six (6) different ways.

  1. You can buy it as a productivity suite.
  2. You can get it through an education licensing program.
  3. You can get it as part of a box set (with Mac OS X and iLife).
  4. You can get it preinstalled on new hardware.
  5. You can buy iPad versions of individual apps (through the iOS App Store).
  6. And you’ll soon be able to buy Mac versions of the individual applications on the Mac App Store.

There are significant (and frustrating) differences between the Mac and iPad versions of these three programs. But Apple still markets the iPad apps as directly equivalent to the Mac applications. It might work as a marketing strategy, but it can be quite confusing. For instance, it can be difficult to find information about features which may or may not be present in the iPad version, such as the ability to change master slides (was looking for this just last night).

In mind, there might be a distinction between apps and applications in terms of user behaviour. When I get something from the (iOS) App Store, it’s usually a matter of curiosity. Sure, there are occasions where I look for and get a very specific app for a very specific need. But, most of the time, my behaviour is “impulsive.”

If it’s a free app, I don’t think twice about it, it’s almost on the order of a reflex. If the app is inexpensive (or if AppShopper warned me that it decreased in price quite significantly), chances are that I’ll buy it even if I’m just vaguely interested in it. If it’s more expensive, I may add it to my AppShopper wishlist, look for cheaper equivalents, or make a headnote to look later in that category.

In my mind, free and inexpensive apps need almost no justification. But, after a certain threshold (which may be as low as 5$ in certain categories), I need a rather strong incentive to invest in an app.

In many ways, the same is true with (non-mobile) applications. The threshold might be different, within the same category. But there’s a point at which I go from “sure, I’ll download this” to “do I really need it?” And cost isn’t the only factor. I won’t download a no-cost application if I get the impression that it’ll be difficult to use or take too much disk space.

Apparent simplicity is important, here. Even if an app merely looks simple, I might get it, just to explore and experiment. If, at first blush, an application looks unnecessarily complicated, chances are that I won’t g

Thinking about this, I’m predicting my own behaviour with the Mac App Store. I’ll probably start trying out all sorts of free and low-cost “apps” if they look like they can provide me with instant gratification. (Especially if I can use an external hard drive to store them.) And I’ll probably buy a few “apps” that I can justify, in terms of effort and cost. But I might give up quickly on these if my initial experience isn’t optimal (if the apps in question aren’t worth the cost or effort). And I’ll try different things associated with these apps I do enjoy.

Which, in a way, is my main thought: apps aren’t really like applications, in this case. They’re a “hook” for something else.

There are useful examples with Web applications and services. Especially things like Foursquare, Twitter, and ToodleDo. I wouldn’t spend fortunes on apps for use with these services. But I do spend a fair bit of time using these services. Mixed models like those for InstaPaper and TaskPaper are also important to keep in mind.

I actually have a lot more to say about all of this, but it’s probably better if I post it now. We’ll see how things go, tomorrow.

URL Shortening

In other news..

One thing which has been working quite well in my migration (and one of a large number of reasons behind said migration) is my own URL shortener. In this case, I’m pretty much a happy camper. 🙂

Heard about self-hosted URL shorteners on several occasions and remember hearing about YOURLS (the system I’m using) during Jérôme Paradis‘s presentation at WordCamp Montréal. (Interestingly, Jérôme’s latest post is about URL shortening.)

Not only do Jérôme and Kim do all sorts of cool stuff with YOURLS and other tools, but I’d been meaning to “go short.” At least to try it. Not just because “all the cool kids are doing it.” Because my participant-observation stuff implies that I should try stuff out. URL shortening wasn’t a huge priority, but it was on my list.

So, what’s URL shortening, you ask?

Well, it’s very simple. You take [insert Crisco joke here] and add URL..

Somewhat more seriously, and from my personal perspective..

Short URLs are services which convert URLs containing lots of characters into short versions, containing much fewer characters. Along with this conversion, URL shorteners also provide some services which go along with those URLs. Most notably “analytics” or statistics about clicks.

Here’s an example of a long URL:

http://collectingtokens.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/pa280823.jpg?w=480&h=640

Here’s a shortened version:

http://lar.me/2h

Another shortened version:

http://xkr.in/AcceptingThanks

They all point to the same thing, this image from a friend‘s blog:

Accepting Thanks

Ambiguity
Accepting Thanks Giving Orders Now

One item, many URLs. Not so unified, eh?

So, it is about adding an extra step in the transmission of URLs. Both ways. When you post a link, you convert to a short form. And when you click on a link, the same service expands from the short form to a long form, so you can get the actual destination of the URL.

Basically, encoding and decoding. In the Shannon/Weaver model of communication which is so prevalent in the “online worldview,” a very familiar process.

With some disadvantages and benefits.

The most obvious benefit is probably the number of character used to transmit the URL. Which might explain the popularity of such URL shortening services. While the basic idea was probably on people’s minds for a long time, it mostly took off with short-form communication (such as SMS/texting and chat) and especially with microblogging. In some ways, short URLs are associated in people’s minds with Twitter but they have other uses.

In all of these cases, the number of character is somewhat constrained. In chat, there may not be an actual limit, but people don’t want to type long URLs. In SMS and in most microblogging systems (which take their limits from SMS), there’s an official limit which, it turns out, is related to work by Friedhelm Hillebrand and (interestingly, given some comments about issues surrounding length) to telex.

The point being that these services have length limits from convention, rule, or habit. And short URLs help avoid these limits. Copying and pasting URLs is actually a very common thing to do, online.

So it makes sense to have services which help in the process. In fact, I’m still surprised that there aren’t more services around this. Such as a service which allows for quick pasting links from your personal database of links into any document on any machine.

And this is one of the somewhat unexpected benefits of URL shortening..

Sure, URLs are shorter. But you can also make them more memorable, (1) easier to type from memory. Actually, since URL shorteners work as “personal databases of links,” they can help in the (2) retrieval of some links, a bit in the way “social bookmarking” works. Using a “custom domain,” it is possible to customize these links, (3) making them more personal. They also serve as a (4) list of recent items, with some neat searching features.

Plus, you get those “analytics” I mentioned earlier. One obvious benefit of this is that you can (5) track a marketing campaign or (6) follow the spread of some “viral content.” Neat stuff which gets some people’s panties in a knot.

But, wait! There’s more!

Statistics on short URLs allow you to (7) assess trends in behaviour. Clicking is the simplest online behaviour and observing this behaviour is fascinating for anyone doing anything online, regardless of marketing and SEO and virality and clickthrough rates. Clicking is just an indicator of something but, in aggregate, it may help you understand what’s going on. The analogy I have in my mind is about whether or not students are engaging with readings. So I’m thinking here about course-specific Web analytics the way “clickers” are making some people all giddy.

Then, there’s a potential use for short URLs as a way to (8) way to fight linkrot. The way this works is that a personal shortlink database is modifiable. So you can actually change the long version of the link, if the “destination URL” has changed. Sure, it still requires some work, but there’s a benefit, here.

Once links are in your personal database, you can (9) build collections of links. Again, pretty much like a “social bookmarking service.” It’s not because it’s already done through other methods that it’s not fun.

A personal use that is related to other ones but I find fun is as (10) a reading list. Basically, as I accumulate links in my personal database, I’m building lists of things I want to keep, somehow. I could integrate it into something like InstaPaper, or Diigo, etc. to construct lists of things I want to read (or watch, listen to, play with..).

Something obvious from the start and still cool is that URL shorteners provide tools to (11) easily share individual links, often in the form of bookmarklets, tools, “click to copy” buttons, and Twitter/Facebook integration. Similarly, I can have RSS feeds of my shortened links, (12) easily sharing collections of items.

I mentioned bookmarklets but one (13) very neat method for getting links in your personal database in the first place is to add the URL shortening domain in the URL bar, followed by a slash. Sounds complicated but it’s very easy to use and about as convenient as you can get.

And a “totally not obvious, gosh this is so geeky” use that I personally like, I can have a special URL shortening service to (14) share things only with that special someone.

I could possibly go on and on, talking about obvious, extended, and potential benefits. But I don’t feel like it.

There are also disadvantages. While I’m acutely aware of them, I also don’t feel like spending too much time on them.

A large set of disadvantages have to do with the fact that shortlinks hide their “destination.” So, when you see a short URL, you can’t tell where it’s leading you. So, for one thing, you don’t know whether you’re being sent to a YouTube video, a PDF on a university server, an MP3 file from the same site, or an article in a major publication. All of this can be quite annoying and shortcircuits some link-following behaviour. Much worse is the fact that the destination can be a potentially very dangerous place. There are some rather nasty things which can be done to someone who merely follows a link.

But:

a) Following a link should already be about negotiated trust, and some harmless-looking links may also send you just about anywhere.

b) Maintaining short URLs puts power in the hands of the linker (the person creating the link), instead of the person in charge of the content which is linked. As mentioned in terms of linkrot, it means that the person who adds the link can change it if the destination has changed, including if there’s been an exploit of that landing page.

c) There are multiple services out there to “preview” short URLs, showing you where they lead. Some of them show you the long URL any time you mouse over a short URL. Others actually (such as the New Twitter and several Twitter apps) show you the results, visually. Yet others may warn you if a particular link seems to be inappropriate in some way.

d) Some “branded URL shorteners” actually tell you something about the destination. The main examples are TechCrunch and The New York Times. In both cases (at least, if I understand correctly), URLs beginning with the custom domain refer to pages on the actual domain. So, if you see a link starting with “nyti.ms,” you know it’s leading to NYT content and a link starting with “tcrn.ch” should be from a TechCrunch page.

I’m actually doing something similar to the last point in that, so far at least, all links on enk.im are to content on my own Enkerli.com domain.

As you might have noticed, if you’ve been mousing over my links, I’m using another domain, here: Lar.me. This is my main URL shortening domain, at this point. I was actually pretty glad to be able to get it as it’s relatively short (a high value for a domain used in URL shortening) and it actually spells out a word [Well, «larme» is French for “tear” or “teardrop.” Not the cheeriest word in the world but it still works: my shortlinks are like little tears.] And I’ve been going overboard with it.

As for the domain I use with my sweetheart, it’s a secret!

I still have some stuff to say about short URLs. Especially about what I like about YOURLS. But that will have to wait.

Lost Tags and Categories

Since I moved to this domain (from my main blog on WordPress.com, now redirecting here), one of the main issues on my mind has been the loss of my (oh so previous) categories and tags. Not to mention links. Nothing tragic about this but I made extensive use of classifiers, like tags and categories. Some might say I did too much of it, actually. But the issue probably wasn’t caused by the abundance of tags and categories since a test import of a single blog with very few categories and tags had exactly the same results.

I’ve been investigating the situation. Posted to the WordPress Multisite forum and then to the general WordPress troubleshooting forum. Though it doesn’t seem to be exclusively a multisite issue (I recreated the problem on a single site), the multisite forum is where I received feedback. The method proposed is involved enough that I’ll have to have several free hours to make sure I can implement it. Especially since I already spent several hours on this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love WordPress and the whole process can often be painfree. Besides, similar things can happen on any platform (though sometimes you may get more in “free support,” as long as you “sell eyeballs”). It’s just a bit sad that it didn’t work as planned.

Once that issue is solved, I’ll be adding some features to this blog and might start work on its design. I’m not really one for design, in general, but it’ll serve as a place for experimentation in a broader way than did my old WordPress.com blog.