Why Digital Downloads Suck

I’ve always had issues with DRM, as I like to own my content. 

Years ago, I went thru and converted a bunch of my old music collection (Casette Tapes and LPs) to MP3s so I could put them in my digital music library.  There were many albums that, over the years, I have replaced by buying the CDs, and those I ripped from CD to put in my digital library.  

Recently there are new albums coming out from artists I really like, and as such, I like to buy the LPs (I like the sound better, when I have time to sit down, and just listen to the LPs),… but I make sure that the ones I am buying include a digital download. I don’t mind paying extra (I also buy the triple formatted blueray’s for most of the movies I want in my collection).  

Here’s where the process breaks down…. Many of the LPs and the Blueray’s have a limited time that the downloads are available!  So if you buy an album that you didn’t catch in the store when it was first released, or you put Bluerays and DVDs on your wishlist for others to get things around birthdays and holidays, sometimes you end up paying for the extra-digital download and then finding out that they are no longer available.  

Big fail!  If you are going to offer digital downloads, you should make them available for as long as you (the distributor) are in business.   Otherwise, don’t complain when I use the analog hole, to rip an LP or a blueray to put it in my digital library.

Local startup scene

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Full disclosure, I grabbed this screenshot from a game I am playing lately – Hipster CEO. I don’t believe they are local, but the game has some great lessons to budding developers in the area.
First off, the game is hard. You start as a bootstrapped single person company. Like most developers I can relate to this. You have to balance your time between creating your company technically, market wise, and sales. This balance is hard, so you start hiring people. If your product launches well, you end up with lots of competitors. They will try and hire your people away. You can offer perks, and bonuses, but eventually you have to take on investors. They may be very “active” including hiring expensive people. Suddenly your site is hacked, you have to refocus, and you run out of cash. Game over!
The second part of the game that I like is that your experience carries over. So you will learn to be better at marketing, or sales, or design, etc. Each of these skills means you can hold off longer to establish your product, or find new niche markets, etc. You learn the lesson over time that you don’t expect to do one startup and knock it out of the park. You have to build up your skills over time. What a great lesson.
I’ve talked to many start ups over the years and am amazed by those who make it big. They are not just strong technically, or market smart…they are well rounded individuals or teams, who know how to grow their skills and their teams. They know what their weaknesses are and focus hard to improve in those areas. So while many people will tell you play to your strengths, I would add, know your weaknesses and focus on those too.

iBooks verses Kindle Books verses Paper Books

One of the things that I like to do is to read books on programming. I guess given my day job and other activities, I don’t get enough time in the day to write code as much as I’d like. (I can’t just jump in and out of code, like I can in a book.) I tend to have books in multiple formats, and wanted to spend a few minutes thinking thru the pros and cons of each format. (Note that when I say Kindle format, I really mean general ebook formats).

Kindle Format
This is my preferred format for reading technical books. The main reason is I can have access to the same book, across so many platforms that I always have the book with me. I can read it on my phone or tablet, I can read it on my Mac or Windows PC and I can read it on my Kindle. The graphics aren’t always the best, but the various readers all do a really good job of getting me to my highlights or my notes. Additionally, I get visibility of how others are highlighting the book.

iBook Format
While I really like the iBook format, it has great highlighting and notes capabilities, there are some books that really take advantage of embedded media to help explain concepts, the biggest complaint I have is that I can only really take advantage of technical books on my iPad. Yes, some of them can be read on the iPhone, but if they are using all the cool features of iBooks, then they only install on the iPad. A great example of this is the series by Kevin J McNeish. The author has done a great job of integrating content but I can only view it on the iPad.

Paper Format
Let’s face it, paper is by far the easiest to deal with. The problem is, you can’t always have all your books with you. You need to plan ahead and ensure that if you are traveling you have the right books with you for the projects you may be learning. Also, I eventually run out of shelf space in my office, and I hate throwing out old books. I still have books on HTML programming from 1996. The O’Reily team does deal with this nicely, in that they allow you free or cheap access to ebook formats for any book you buy.

Perhaps the publishers will all get together one day and allow for digital downloads of books you buy. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath, since easy ripping of CD’s and DVD’s helped drive the digital download of those media, and ripping a book to digital format is a bit harder. I have a decent sheet feeder on my scanner. I’ve tried scanning in some back issue magazines so I could read them on the plane when traveling. The amount of effort it took to do that encouraged me to just re-buy the issues electronically.

App development and promotion

One of the big things I keep trying to figure out is why so many of the popular apps tend to be developed on the west coast of the US. I don’t mean the Angry Birds of the world (which are built and grow so popular due to their first in class status), but I mean the popular utilities, camera apps, and other various social apps,

Years ago, when I was working on my MBA, a classmate of mine created a site called EZ2FindMe. It was a social network for business and college students to keep up with each other. It was built right before Facebook was being built at another college. Why didn’t it catch on?

I believe it has a lot to do with the network effect. And given that the West Coast is also the global media capital of the world – thank you Hollywood, the network economy is strong. This means that people are used to self promotion. That self promotion mind set is how you make it in Hollywood.

Those of us who are working on mobile apps need to realize that you can’t just right the best app. You have to work hard to code, but you have to work even harder to promote your app. For many this is not our natural tendency, we like the instant feedback if the compiler. The code we’ve
been working on has magically transformed into a tangible app and we can play with it. In promotion, we spend time tweeting, blogging, going to events, and talking about our app – or our vision if the app, and we have to wait for the network to take hold.

Yes it’s hard, but you have to do it. Go out there and talk to people about what you are doing. Show off your hard work. It can be fun…and the more people who see and get your app, the more opportunity you will have to get back to writing the code.

How Fresh is your Code?

I was driving back from the gym this morning, I like to swim on Sunday mornings – I find it very relaxing to do a hour long swim and reflect on what’s the past week has been like. As I left the parking lot, I saw a major grocery store chain’s truck with the phrase “We do Fresh – the Best”. The problem with the giant graphic on their truck was that it was a sub sandwich (or a hoagie if you prefer). It consisted of bread, tomato, pickle, lettuce, ham, olives, and cheese. While the bread, tomato and lettuce could be considered fresh, nothing else on the side of the truck was. Pickles were at one time a fresh cucumber. The olives had been cured. The cheese, was at one time fresh milk. And the ham was also cured. So I guess fresh is a bit of a misnomer.

You may ask why I am writing about this (and yes, I gave away the story in the blog post’s title)? In this age of app stores with hundreds of thousands of apps, getting your app to stand out is more than just having a good / great app. It’s about getting and keeping customers. Let’s face it, your idea may be good, but it’s not hard for people to create very similar apps. (Think about Temple Run and the many knock offs that have come out based on it).

You can choose to expand your app via in-app purchases, and that makes a lot of sense for Freemium apps or those apps which have a defined functional domain that can be enhanced with specific features. But what if you created a utility app? It does one thing, and it does it well. How do you keep people updating it, and new users downloading?

Apple and Android are both coming out with newer versions of their operating systems multiple times per year. Try refactoring your code so that it takes advantages of newer functions. I did this personally with Wasted Time, when I replaced the Twitter code with the native iOS twitter features. Yes, this may cost you some users that are on older devices (or require you to have more complex code), but given the cycle time of people replacing their devices every two years this shouldn’t be too big of a worry.

Also, try reworking your user interface. Are you taking advantage of newer screen resolutions? Are you correctly handling all device orientations? Are you bored with the cool widget you designed two years ago? Change them!

While the sandwich had a bunch of well cured products – olives, pickles, ham – it was the fresh bread and juicy tomatoes that really stood out in the picture on the side of the truck. And let’s face it, it got my attention…

BYOD impact on app development

I saw a study a few weeks back that stated 60% of independent app developers are enterprise developers in the day and app developers by night and weekend. While this sounds right from a pure numbers perspective, it got me thinking about how the BYOD (bring your own device) trend in the enterprise may be impacting the types of apps independent developers may be writing. (Stay with me on this one).

in my day job, as I mentioned before, I work for IBM and we have a very strong BYOD program, to the point that many develops are not only bringing in their own mobile devices, but their own laptops so they can be as productive as possible. Years ago it used to be that your best computer was at work, they could afford the expensive ones. At home you got a good enough computer. Now computers are much cheaper, and finance is always looking to extend the accounting life of corporate assets that it may be 4 or more years before you can upgrade your machine at work. So the best deal is buy your own, get what you need, and customize it so you are as comfortable and productive as possible. This same trend has happened with smart phones and will happen for tablets.

So if your development environment is becoming more and more personal, and since many of us write our first mobile app, as something useful we want that doesn’t exist, are we finding more and more mobile apps that bridge the personal and enterprise workspace? I suggest that this is exactly what is happening. And this is of some concern for corporate types, since as you start sharing apps between your day job and your personal life, you have the possibility of sharing data between them too. And with more and more features of mobile device and apps being enabled via shared cloud storage – this is where companies like IBM get concerned about data ending up on servers that can be seen by other companies.

So, the challenge is, how do you create apps in this environment that provide you and your users with as many useful features as possible, without getting banned from an enterprise environment? Do you create two versions of your app? One that uses cloud services, and the other that can use an on premise server for those enterprises willing to buy it? Or do you just shy away from apps that could have a valid enterprise use? Or do you offering some kind of in app encryption so that cloud based data can only be accessed by your app?

I believe this challenge is only going to get more difficult before it is resolved. What are your thoughts?

Windshield Time

Years ago I worked for an experienced data processing manager. The fact that the job was in data processing should indicate the I am now an experienced IT professional. My manager would come up with these complex development problems and never give me time to actually think about how to come up with solutions. After months of getting more of these problems and not having time to actually come up with creative solutions, I snapped. I approached my manager and said how do you think I can come up with the right solutions if you never give me time to think through the problems.

This is when he explained to me that I had plenty of time to work on these problems, my one way commute was over 45 minutes on a good day. I should use this “windshield time” to think thru the problems. I realized he was right and suddenly found I had almost 2 hours a day of just think time.

Now a days many of us work on our apps at home, nights and weekends, when is our windshield time?