Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Flashlight by Rik" : the (totally) free iOS light app

Almost 3 years ago, I set about to fix a problem plaguing the iOS App Store: it was impossible to find an extremely simple flashlight utility that was free and free of ads.

So I built one, squeezed it through the app store approval (before there were so many that new ones were banned) and blogged about it and it ultimately passed a million downloads, with the users extremely satisfied:
Flashlight by Rik

Over the years I've kept on improving it to support all the latest devices, coding standards and operating system features. For example, it is one of the few flashlights that allows you to fully control the strobe pattern: it doesn't have to be synchronous, you can let the light flash for .1 second every second, for a neat eye-catching strobe effect. And of course it fully supports iOS 6's control of the light intensity.

But all through those years, I've constantly striven to make this basic utility as small and fast as possible. And even today, with support for 4 languages (English, French, German, Russian) and the iPhone 5 screen, the download is a mere 80kB. And the launch speed is pretty much unbeatable. It ranges from below 1 second if the app is starting for the first time, to near instantaneous if it still resides in memory and is swapped to the front.
I wish I could do even better, but I still have to fit in all those icons and other files. And since I will never compromise on the speed and simplicity, fancy graphics will never be seen in this app. After all, don't you want a light that starts as soon as you tap on it?

Whatever the hundred other flashlight apps want you to believe, none of them is any brighter or faster than Flashlight by Rik. I invite you to try them all, and if you find any that is faster I will do my utmost to release a new version that matches its speed. (Incidentally, assuming you set the brightness to 100%, all the flashlights are the same brightness. Don't bother testing that part!)

In closing, I will indeed never charge for Flashlight by Rik. Nor will I ever put ads on it. The iPhone should have shipped with a flashlight app. I aim to fix this recurring problem.

Thank you again to my million (and more) users.
Rik.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The "paradox" of simplification: since the dawn of Man!

So @bwertz posted on the Version One Ventures that one should s.i.m.p.l.i.f.y.
I couldn't agree more, after all one of my email signatures is a quote from Alan Perlis about it. What does bother me a little (hence this post) is the quote that accompanies his post:

“A modern paradox is that it’s simpler to create complex interfaces because it’s so complex to simplify them.” (Pär Almqvist)

That's just bullshit, in the sense that there's absolutely nothing modern about the difficulty of simplifying. Yes it's hard. And yes it's what one needs to aim for. And it's much, much, much harder than its opposite.

The core of the issue is this: it's much easier to add than to remove.
When adding, you don't care about what was, you just look ahead and think that you're doing good by creating. That's very good, in general. Where it starts becoming really bad is when you add so much that the whole system collapses from its inwards gravitational pull. In other words, it calcifies because there's so much going on that one either doesn't understand how it works or is afraid of doing anything to upset it.

This applies to everything, including interfaces: when you don't know how the users are interacting with your site, you are fearful of change. So you spend resources tracking them. Then you get too much data. Then you have to sift through that data to truly understand what matters. Finally you can take action. And that's assuming your site hasn't grown so big with so much spaghetti code that you need to refactor (i.e. simplify -- that word again -- the code) before doing anything.

For entrepreneurs, my advice would be: don't let anything grow too big that it becomes a huge undertaking to bring it down to a manageable size. Decouple as much as you can. Define clearly the communication protocols between those small pieces. That's what matters in the end: how your people communicate within the organization, how your users communicate with you (web clicks, apps, etc...), how your system modules communicate with each others.

In one word: APIs

What was Alan Perlis' quote that I alluded to at the top of the post? Glad you asked:

"Fools ignore complexity; pragmatists suffer it; experts avoid it; geniuses remove it." - Alan Perlis

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

On Facebook vs. Twitter publisher value

Well it's been a year since my last post. Time flies, etc... etc...
Speaking of Facebook, I just saw on Twitter a link to Publishers Cool on Facebook. The crux of it, as has been going around the blogosphere for a while, is that less than 20% of people who "like" a brand on Facebook actually get to see that brand's posts on their wall.

And that's a pretty bad value proposition for all those brands investing in eyeball acquisition. Especially since email newsletters and Twitter posts to followers are supposedly free of that ridiculous filter. And I say supposedly because one shouldn't expect that a push service is going to be always viewed. For emails there's actually a very good chance (which is why I think email addresses are the holy grail of marketing), but if your Twitter follower follows 10,000 people I suspect that your tweet will drown in that person's firehose.

There is a fundamental difference here though: the Twitter rules are clear, and they're the same for everyone who doesn't pay for sponsored tweets (for now): 100% of what you tweet ends up in a follower's stream. Whether or not the user sees it is up to her and chance, but at least it's not up to some arcane closed Facebook algorithm.

And that's what it's all about. Publishers and brands want to know the rules. Nobody antes up before knowing the rules of the table.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Facebook IPO

Facebook: Short term hype play, long term mistake

I've been asked what I think of the upcoming Facebook IPO. Here are my thoughts, with the usual caveats that I am not responsible for any decision you take, I am not a qualified adviser or anything of the sort, etc...



With that out of the way, let's get to the core of the matter.


Positives:
+ Huge user base (850MM)
+ Powerful ecosystem and developer environment
+ High switching costs

Negatives:
- Mature concept
- Huge user base (how much more can you grow it?)
- Growing early adopter fatigue
- High valuation
- Small floatation
- Expected exodus after lock-in period

From a purely financial perspective, the problem is that FB has a high valuation (up to $100B), a huge user base (850MM people) and a small floatation that artificially creates scarcity. FB can't go any lower than $75B valuation, but at the same time it's very tough justifying it due to very low revenues ($3.7B) and even lower profits. While Google did go public at 100x profits, its valuation was much lower and allowed for 7x growth. In this case, a potential investor only needs to look at the upside. How much can he expect? If he buys at $100B valuation, more than 4x upside is wishful thinking. I'd assume about 2x upside within a couple of years at best, at a $200B valuation (similar to Google currently, after 6 years of floatation).
So an investor would look at a highly volatile and risky investment for a 2x upside at best, knowing that the user base won't grow that much more. The other reasons to grow FB's valuation are:
1- increased monetization of users through additional products and services
2- better profit margins
3- speculative bubble

I contend that FB's current massive reliance on advertising is a dead end. Advertising on FB goes completely against FB's value to users (better communication, reduced friendship friction) while for example advertising is perfectly aligned with Google's value to users (finding relevant information). So comparing FB to Google in valuation based on the advertising model is totally flawed and Facebook is hugely overvalued. All advertisers today on FB want to believe that things will get better and that they'll find a way to monetize those FB "likes" but that's just wishful thinking. Conversion rates are abysmal and they will stay that way.
So the only way to really increase monetization is through new products such as in-app purchasing (IAP). It is clear that this is what FB is betting on, but that hasn't been validated yet as a good long term revenue line. Most of the current profits here stem from Zynga (and others) that sell games, and we all know how quickly fatigue settles in. FB has maybe 3 years to find better use of IAP than FB games before that too fizzles.

As for better margins, I think that when FB gets better margins this will be a red flag: it'll mean that people are using less of FB's services, necessitating less computing power per user. True, computers always get cheaper and faster, but FB constantly has to innovate to keep the users excited, thus negating that advantage.

in my opinion the real fundamental achilles heel of Facebook today is the perfect storm of early adopter exit (like myself), regular user fatigue looking for the next fun thing to try, and emergence of highly targeted small social networks with high added value competing for user time.

To sum up, investing in the short term in Facebook is akin to playing the lottery, hoping that most people expect to win and drive up the valuation. But in the long term investing in Facebook is a very bland proposition that in the absolute best of cases will yield a 100% ROI given non-negative market conditions.

Personally I'm going to pass. At $30B I would have considered it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

OS X 10.7 Lion and User Conditioning

Over on his blogFaruk Ateş discusses user conditioning from the perspectives of Apple and Google. I encourage you to read his column as it has some very keen insights, but I feel the need to comment on his statement about the direction of scrolling content being muscle memory since time immemorial (i.e. the 80's):
People are used to their scrolling behaviors; after all, they’ve used them in one and only one way since the 80’s—or whenever they started using computers. It’s understandable that this complete reversal of (mental and physical) muscle memory doesn’t appeal to everyone. 
I don't particularly agree with that powerful statement, for a couple of reasons. First, to talk about switching scrolling behaviors, one needs to look at when scrolling became touch-based rather than click-on-scroll-arrow-based. The idea of using the trackpad to scroll I think originated in the PC laptops where the right side (and bottom for horizontal scrollbars) of the trackpad was used as a scroll area. And that was certainly not done in the 80s.
There's also the mouse wheel scrolling, but I contend that a wheel is a physical impersonation of a scrollbar, so I'd be surprised if Apple expected mouse wheels to behave in an inverted fashion.
Anyway, my point here is that Apple didn't necessarily make such a massive change: it only fixed a mistake it introduced when it allowed for two-finger scrolling on the whole trackpad: Apple thought it was emulating the scroll bar movement, when in fact it should have realized that it was emulating the hand moving the content around.


I have for a long while been of the opinion that Apple is systematically fixing its interface behavior to move towards a unified model of virtual touch where anything physical will be made obsolete in favor of touch screens. Over a year ago, I was hoping to see soonish a MacBookPro with dual screens and running iOS.
Lion is slowly but surely moving towards this unified model where touching the virtual content is the cornerstone of the UI. Apple made a direction mistake a few years ago when it introduced "two finger scrolling". Had it known it was making "two finger virtual touch" at the time, I am certain it would have gotten the direction right. That's the extent of Apple's change.


The real user conditioning change is from using physical intermediaries to act on pixels vs. using your hands. And in 5 years' time, no adolescent will ever understand why we were sliding our fingers down to go down.