Ricoh blog: What you need to know about creating your own apps

With more than a million different apps in both Google Play and Apple’s iTunes Stores, maybe it is time for you to create your own app to brand your business. It is amazing to realize that Apple opened up iTunes to support apps less than six years ago, and Google wasn’t far behind for its own Android ecosystem. Now there are billions of downloaded apps and while the most popular are games and less serious ones, there is always room for a few new business-oriented ideas.

Assuming you have compelling reasons for your own business-related app, such as doing something that is unique and not just producing eye candy or trying to make money fast, here is a brief primer on how to get started in the app world.

First, think about what your potential app is going to do. Look at your competitors and download and try out their apps too: it is easy to do the research and find all apps with specific brand names or keywords in both the Google and Apple app stores. Given the number of existing apps, it is getting harder to find an unmet or unfilled niche! And while there are other app stores and mobile phone platforms out there, you really want to stick with the top two contenders. You’ll have plenty of work to do anyway.

Second, you should take a look at these great suggestions on some basic decisions to make early on, along with some tips on general design principles, and other general guidelines for beginners. 

Next, decide on how you are going to build your app, either by choosing an appropriate programming language (with these suggestions from PC World) or by picking one of the more than a dozen different tools that can create apps from scratch that anyone can use, such as YappBuildAnAppAppMachine or Conduit.

If you go the programming route, you’ll need to register as a developer and download the software development kits from Google and Apple and become familiar with their tools. And before you write any code, take a look at third-party app platform construction tools such as Mendix, OutSystems and Podio (there is a great comparison matrix here). Any of these can save you a lot of time and effort in building and deploying your app.

Finally, you need to get the word out on your app: post links on your blog, solicit written reviews from your customers to be posted on both Google and Apple’s app stores, and use social media to promote its wonderful ways and advantages. Good luck with your app!

Network World: Mobile Device Manager Review

airwatch 2Mobile Device Managers (MDMs) make a lot of sense when you are trying to control whom can access your enterprise network and applications from particular phones and tablets. But to effectively evaluate these products, you should first consider what exactly are you trying to control: the apps on particular devices, the pairing of a user with his or her device, the device itself, or the collection of files on each device. Each MDM has a somewhat different perspective, and has strengths and weaknesses in terms of what it can control best.

In my review today for Network World, I looked at six different products: AirWatch (pictured above), Apperian’s EASE, BlackBerry’s Enterprise Server 10 (BES10), Divide, Fixmo, and Good Technology’s Good for Enterprise. No single MDM product won this review; all had serious flaws that would prevent them from being successfully deployed, depending on your circumstances.

The need for better mobile security is obvious: witness this story from last year about a hospital volunteer taking pictures of patient records with his phone and them selling them. Sadly, most current MDMs still wouldn’t be able to prevent something this overt.

The MDM arena is still pretty immature, akin to where the anti-virus world was decades ago. Security profiles are somewhat clunky to install and administer and some vendors don’t support vintage versions of iOS or Android. Topping this off: once you find phones that have been compromised, there is no easy way to return them back to a pristine condition, largely through the fault of the mobile OS vendors.

Expect to pay between $20 to $75 per user or per device per year, which can add up if you have a lot of phones to protect. Few vendors are transparent about their pricing (Airwatch and Blackberry are notable exceptions).

Good and BlackBerry do the best jobs of protecting your messaging infrastructure, so if that is the primary reason for picking an MDM product you should start with these two. Divide had the most appealing management console and overall simplest setup routines, and also supports licensing unlimited devices per user. And Apperian is great for corporations that have developed a large collection of their own apps and want a consistent set of security policies when deploying them.

You can see the full range of screenshots for my review in this deck.

ITworld: Controlling BYOD Chaos

One key to a successful BYOD program is mobile device management (MDM), where carefully chosen tools and policies let companies maintain control. IDC predicts that MDM will be a billion-dollar business by 2015, and the larger the company, the more likely an MDM tool is being used (at least right now). However, there’s a lot of movement in the market and a number of MDM approaches to consider which makes your job more challenging. To get you started, I interviewed several IT leaders who have successfully deployed an MDM solution.

You can read the entire report that I wrote for ITworld here.

Light my bonfire

It is almost a cliche: put a bunch of 20-somethings together and the first business they want to start is building their own iPhone app. The second kind of business is something involving social media. And the third is something with sharing photos.

Yet if you look beyond these broad strokes there is something to be said with what a group of young entrepreneurs are doing in St. Louis with an app called BonfyreApp.com. It could be something that will change that social/mobile/photo space in spite of being part of that triple trendy collection of categories.

I have to say I was very unimpressed when I first heard about it, and was shown the app by one of its founders. Ho hum. Yet Another Social Mobile App. I showed it to my 20-something daughter, who also pointedly yawned. “Dad, I already spend enough time on Facebook and don’t need another network,” she told me.

But the audience for Bonfyre isn’t necessarily another medium for posting pix of people holding red cups filled with intoxicants. It is designed for brand owners to build engaging meetings and to tell their stories. When you pitch their idea that way, it begins to make sense.

When you go to a conference,assuming the conference is any good, you want to bottle some of that good feeling you get from the time spent and preserve those memories. Yeah, and you get the tote bag or backpack too. Maybe you want to capture a few scenes from the speaker’s presentations, or remember some of the folks that you met. Or whatever. So how do you do it now? Rather crudely, with a combination of Facebook photos, LinkedIn groups, email and texts. Links to Instagram or Pinterest photo collections. And a batch of business cards that if you were lucky you either scanned or annotated so you remember who that person was that you met.

The problem is that your stored common memory of the event is all over the place. None of the above mechanisms really work well. Facebook is too public, and navigating its sharing and privacy controls are like trying to set up the next NASA launch (or whomever is launching rockets these days). Texting is great if you want to share one or two photos with one or two people, but breaks down in the many-to-many context rather quickly. The LinkedIn group with its triple opt-in takes months to actually create and get going, by which time the group has moved on to other matters (and doesn’t really work anyway for sharing photos). And the stack of business cards gathers dust quickly as the memory of each individual fades.

That is the space where Bonfyre is trying to enter. The idea is that anyone can download the app to their phone and create these quick discussion groups and invite anyone else to them. There is a Web app for monitoring your discussions. You can be up and sharing content with specific people within minutes. No one else can view the content, unless they are invited in. Once the discussion is created, everyone in the group sees everything. It is mainly for sharing and commenting on photos, but you can also share messages too.Think of it as the virtual tote bag that can preserve your memories of the event.

I began to see the light when I was going to a party a few months ago, a party put on by the Bonfyre PR firm. That day I happened to be having lunch with one of Bonfyre’s founders. He showed me the discussion that was started by the PR firm’s owner, who was trying to figure out what shoes she should wear that night and had photographed several choices. Suddenly we were photographing our own sneakers and putting them online. Soon other attendee’s shoe pictures followed.

Now, granted this was our interpretation of the infamous red cup pix of so many 20-somethings’ nights out, but that is partly my point: no one else was going to see these pictures, unless you were going to the party. And we all had a good laugh when we finally got to the party and looked at each other’s feet.

But now let’s take this silly moment and move into what is actually happening with the Bonfyre app by meeting and event planners. At one conference of 500 people, 60% of the attendees were running the app, and 60% of them were sharing content with each other. At a Rams football game, they had 2000 people at the stadium using the app, and these people uploaded almost as many photos as the entire half million Facebook fans of the Rams. Think about that for a moment: you have all these folks in the stadium sharing their memories of the game with each other, interacting with each other and with folks watching the game around the world. If you were the marketing director of the Rams, wouldn’t you want to reach those folks and leverage this interest? If you were a Rams advertiser, wouldn’t you want to connect with these people, perhaps offer them something? Now you begin to see the power of what Bonfyre can do.

They haven’t gotten everything worked out yet: how they charge businesses, getting their analytics act together, and hiring a real sales team to promote their own brand still remain on the to do list. But this is one mobile, social, photo sharing app that you should take a closer look at. No matter how old you are. Try it at your next meeting or corporate event, and see if you can light your own bonfire.

What Apple can learn from the RIM Playbook

So maybe the iPad is the must-have cool portable device at the moment. But Apple still has a few things to learn about building the best tablet. And since trying out the Blackberry Playbook over the weekend, I have a few suggestions (not that Apple is going to listen to me):

First there is multitasking. The playbook can handle running –and more importantly, switching among apps — better, although still not as your easy as a desktop. There is an odd combination of finger swipes to switch apps, but it a lot easier than the cut-and-paste dance that the iPad has. Something as simple as browsing the Internet and copying the URL into a document is downright painful on the iPad. On the Playbook, it is just slightly annoying.

Second is a built in Samba file server, so that once you connect the Playbook to your Wifi network, you have an IP address on your network just like any other device. With Samba, you can share files and also copy them between the Playbook and your desktop with ease. The documentation could be better, though.

Speaking of copying files. Playbook suppots either Windows Media Player v.11 or iTunes to move music and videos back and forth. And you have access to your file system from the device so you can download files to the Playbook and access them from other applications. What a concept: something that we had since DOS. On the iPad, it is pretty much a closed system: you can’t browse around like you can in Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder.

The Playbook has better sound. Ironic, isn’t it? The Blackberry just sounds better with its built in speakers than the iPad in my unofficial tests.

The Playbook comes with built-in Office apps. I am typing this now on the built in word processor. I am not sure that I would want to compose a magnum opus on it, and using a Bluetooth keyboard makes the whole process much improved. Both Apple and RIM devices have a similar annoyance when you pair them to Bluetooth keyboards: you can’t bring up the on screen ones unless you specifically turn off the Bluetooth connectivity of the unit itself.

With the iPad, you have to pay extra and use either Apple’s own apps or Quickoffice. Quickoffice Presenter is not for me, I miss the speaker notes and slide ahead preview functionality that I have come to like with Powerpoint when I give one of my speeches. Still, I have used the iPad to drive a projector and for short presentations where I don’t need access to my notes it has a certain cachet.

But the Playbook isn’t perfect. Its power button is way too small and you have to hit it a few times to bring up the unit. Browsing the Web is still pretty much hit or miss: yes, you do have Flash support unlike the iPad, but some sites (such as Hulu) don’t work at all. There isn’t a Netflix client, which is a shame because its screen is gorgeous. Another frustration is the navigation buttons on its Web browser sometimes work and sometimes don’t. I ended up having to close and restart the browser to move back a page, for example. Some sites recognize the special Playbook browser and present their mobile-friendly pages (such as Google), and some don’t.

Both units require special video dongles to connect them to external monitors, and the Playbook requires special USB and power ones too. That is just downright stupid.

RIM has taken the tactic to use the Playbook as a bigger screen for its traditional Blackberry smartphone line, which is both interesting and frustrating. You download the Blackberry Bridge app to your phone and link them together via Bluetooth. Once that is done, you have access to all of your phone’s content, including BBM, contacts, emails, and your calendar. And if you pair a Bluetooth keyboard to the Playbook, provided you have enough lap space to juggle everything, you can compose a document on your Playbook’s word processor and save it to your phone and send it out over the phone’s broadband Internet connection. Or conversely, you can bring up your stored documents from the phone on the Playbook’s larger screen and make edits. This pairing to a Blackberry phone is the only way you can use a native email client on the Playbook: otherwise, you have to bring up a Webmail client.

All in all, Playbook is an interesting device. Yes, Apple could learn from RIM, but I get the feeling that we are back in time to 1988, when IBM and Microsoft were working on OS/2 and graphical operating systems were first coming of age. Why we have devices like the iPad that we can’t browse their file systems or bring up as full network clients is frustrating. Blackberry phone users should consider the Playbook if they want to leave their laptops at home and can put up with the spotty Web site support when on the road. And RIM needs to energize developers and make it easier to create apps for the Playbook: right now the choices are abysmal.

Aluratek Bump: small speaker packs a punch

I have been using the same $10 speakers on my current computer that I purchased with a PC about a million users ago, so imagine my surprise when I tried out the Aluratek Bump. It is a small speaker about the size of half of a soda can, and the sound quality is fantastic. Paired with a subwoofer, you have really tremendous sound coming out of your computer. There are two ways to connect it: First, using the standard mini audio jack. This is fine for most of us.

But if you want some flexibility where you are going to place the speaker in your home or office, the second method is more appealing. You connect a USB dongle to your PC and you can play music wirelessly to the Bump. It worked fine on my Windows PC, but I had trouble with the wireless connection on my Mac. I could move the speaker about 30 feet away from the computer without any loss of sonic quality.

The speaker has a rechargeable battery that will last several hours, the charging cable is a standard mini-USB. And for $80, it is reasonably priced.

You can purchase the speaker here.

Things that weren’t sold this past holiday season

The announcement of a long-expected Verizon iPhone has highlighted my own frustration with handheld gadgets. And while it is too late (or way too early) to compile a holiday shopping list, it does seem as if the tech industry is MIA this past holiday season. To wit:

— I want a smartphone that I can use as a Wifi hot spot to easily tether (as the term is called) at least a couple of computers to use its broadband Internet connection. The word “easily” is the challenge. Yes, there are Android phones that can do this, but the process is fraught with bad software. Yes, there is the Sprint MyFi that is yet another separate device and data plan. And I don’t want to hire a lawyer and an accountant to figure out what the charges and which data plan I will need to do this, either.

— I want an eReader from someone other than Amazon that allows me to effortlessly add and share my eBooks with others. The Barnes and Noble Nook comes closest, but its sharing features also require the lawyer to read all the fine print, exceptions and limitations. Why not just buy the Kindle and wait until Amazon gets its sharing act together? I want to give someone else a chance and support my local bookstores at the same time. The Google eBooks uses Adobe rights management, which is also bad software. For some eBook downloads, I need three separate accounts to start reading my selection. This is a mess. None of these devices will keep Borders afloat.

— I want a 7-inch tablet from someone other than Apple (yes, I know the iPad has a bigger screen but it is only a matter of time before they have something smaller) that doesn’t require a data plan or a two-year subscription to reduce its $600 price tag. It defies all things reasonable that I can I buy two netbook computers with bigger screens for the same money, just because they are running the non-touch versions of XP or even Windows 7.

— I want Google to figure out which browser-based OS is going to win: Android or Chrome. They need to put all their might behind one of them if they are going to get anywhere with Microsoft. This perplexes me and I wonder why no one else has raised this issue.

Yes, I know I am being ornery and difficult. But it does seem that the tech industry really continues to miss the mark. I shouldn’t complain, because these misses just mean more work for me to explain why all this other stuff doesn’t work as intended.

The MoShow, a new TV program for smartphone apps users

I have been following the (somewhat checkered) career of Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff for several years, and have had the pleasure of working with him on a panel too. He is a very funny and talented guy, doing podcasts, writing books, and now has his own syndicated TV program called The MoShow. The first couple of episodes are available for downloading at the link before it starts airing on stations around the country (and will also be available later this month on DirecTV channel 354.)

I like the mix of fun and frolic with the facts: Mark and his co-host review different smartphone apps and actually try them out for you to see which is more appealing, there are celebrities (at least in my nerds-eye view of the world) who talk about their favorite apps, interviews with the inventors of key apps showing you how they work, and some very funny segments too. Yes, there are dozens of places where you can go get app reviews, but none that allow you to be entertained at the same time. This may be the most enjoyable tech TV show so far created, for a wide audience to find the inner geek in all of us. I wish him well and many episodes.

How to build the best app store

We all know the story of Apple’s App Store: a gazillion downloads, more money than anyone has ever collected, and hundreds of apps from the mundane to the essential. But what makes for a great app store experience, and can anyone else come close?

Remember the dawn of the PC era, when all apps came in a slipcase and on five-inch diskettes? When you needed to get corporate approval to buy them and an IT guy to install them? How far we have gone, when a federal government employee for example can go to Apps.gov and with a few mouse clicks have their app of choice on their desktop.

There are lots of app stores and they seem to be cropping up everywhere. There is oneforty.com that keeps track of Twitter apps (what a great domain name). Sendmail’s Sentrion email server has its own place for you to download extensions, Intel has its appup.com where you can download apps for its Atom-based Netbooks, and each major mobile phone platform has its own app store:

  • http://www.android.com/market
  • http://marketplace.windowsphone.com
  • http://www.palm.com/us/products/software/mobile-applications.html
  • http://appworld.blackberry.com

I started thinking about this topic with this post from Dion Almaer, who now works at Palm running their developer relations.

Plug-in apps got their start in the browser world, which seems appropriate since the app stores all assume you start out with a browser or phone-based equivalent of some sort. But let’s look at the various components, and see what Apple does and doesn’t do well.

  • Packaging. It isn’t just enough to create the app, you have to put together the right packaging, Web collateral, instructions (if they are needed) and screenshots to give potential customers a taste of what it does. Apple has to “approve” the app before it is listed in their store, and while the other stores don’t seem to be as heavy-handed, there is still a process to go through.

Android apps are very finicky. The same OS version on different phones will perform differently, a nightmare for developers. And iPhone and iPad apps are also different beasts and will take some coding to make sure the app works best on both platforms.

  • Discovery. How do you find the particular app that you are interested in? Is it through a social network recommendation, organic search in Google, or using the store’s own search function? Several of the stores, such as the Android Marketplace, make for miserable searches, either classifying their apps into such broad categories that you spend too much time scrolling down the results. Or else they force you to use the in-phone versions to do the searching. Apple forces you to use iTunes, but at least you can look for your apps on your desktop and not suffer the tiny phone screen.

I did a quick search on all five mobile phone app stores for that four-letter word that describes one of those rude bodily noises. (I hesitate to include it in this essay for fear that I will run afoul of email content scanning services, not out of any prudishness.) On Apple’s store, there were more than 600 apps that matched – I stopped counting but clearly it could number in the thousands. Android’s Marketplace doesn’t let you search from the Web, when you go to an actual Android phone I got 111 matches. I got less than 15 matches for Windows, Palm’s and Blackberry’s stores each. Now, granted this is a less than representative sampling, but it just shows you at least how hard it is to find a particular app. And the more apps that are created for the store, the harder it is to find them, particularly if you are trying to use your phone to track them down.

Part of the problem with Apple’s AppStore is that you can only search the app title, with limited visibility in the remainder of the description of the app. That can pose problems for developers in how they name their apps.

  • Payment. This is the hard part. Amazon long ago figured out how to do one-click payments and Apple makes it relatively easy, since everything happens within iTunes and your iTunes account. Some of the phone providers charge your apps to your phone bill, others to your credit card. Android’s marketplace uses Google checkout, Blackberry uses Paypal. With Windows Mobile, you can only buy apps from your phone. There are a lot of free apps too, and some developers make a limited free version, hoping you’ll upgrade to the paid version. According to one developer I spoke to, Android users seem more price-sensitive than others and aren’t as willing to pay, even a small amount, for their apps.
  • Fulfillment and installation. Once you find and pay for your app, how do you get it to your desktop or phone? Just clicking on it doesn’t always do the trick. With Blackberry’s and Palm’s App stores, you send a link to your phone if you are browsing from your desktop. Another issue is how does the store deal with charge backs if you change your mind?
  • Merchandizing. How do you promote your app, offer specials (such as free downloads under certain conditions, two-for-one coupons and the like) and include direct URL links to them?  Android and Windows Mobile both have direct URLs, although they can get long. Apple doesn’t make this easy, since they want you to use iTunes for everything.
  • International users and other storefronts. In addition to the “official” ones for each phone platform there are dozens of other app stores for selling mobile applications, some specific to particular countries or carriers. Some are better than the vendor’s own, for example, the Palm-based PreCentral.net and androidzoom.com do a better job than the “official” Palm and Android ones shown above. These third-party stores have varying usability experience, and some even sell stolen goods, so there is that whole aspect too.
  • Updates. Once you have your app listed, there is the process of doing regular updates and making sure these are posted across each storefront. This could be a nightmare if you are supporting multiple phone versions and have dozens of storefronts where your app is available.