U.S.News & World Report Needs To Bet On The Web

Disclaimer: I worked as a developer at U.S.News & World Report from 2006 – 2009.

News broke late on Friday that U.S.News & World Report was ending the monthly print version of it’s magazine. The focus going forward will be “a predominantly digital publishing model” according to editor Brian Kelly. The leaked  e-mail mentioned shifting their focus to emerging platforms, specifically tablet computers.

“…these latest moves will accelerate our ability to grow our online businesses and position ourselves to take advantage of the emerging platforms for distributing information such as the iPad and Android tablets.”

I’m generally a fan of this position but I really hope USNews executes their strategy the right way. When it comes to mobile platforms, their are two options: web apps and native apps. When most people think of apps on phones and tablets they are thinking about native apps. Apple’s App Store and the Android Marketplace distribute and sell native apps; apps which need to be built specifically for each platform and need to be downloaded and installed. Web apps, on the other hand, are open to anything running a web browser.

Mobile web apps are what USNews should be focused on. Chances are they don’t have anyone in-house with knowledge of building native apps, so that task would have to be outsourced at an additional cost. Meanwhile the stable of talented in-house web developers could start work on building a platform-independent experience as soon as possible. In the meantime they should read this online book, Building iPhone Apps with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: Making App Store Apps Without Objective-C or Cocoa.

But development talent aside, building on top of the open web is flexible. Updates can be pushed out nearly instantly without the need to go through a gatekeeper or approval process. As new platforms emerge, you’re brand is covered so long as it can connect to the web. Much of the functionality of native apps can be accomplished in non-desktop browsers like those found on phones and tablets. See check.in, iphone.netvibes.com, and even Apple’s own webapps catalog for examples of apps built on the web. For content publishers, native apps present far more problems than they appear to solve.

But what about money? Perhaps the biggest allure of native apps is the fact that they are attached to marketplaces where everyone browsing has a credit card attached to their account and purchases can happen with a single click. But do you get direct contact with your customers? Apps that want to span many platforms need their own payment process that they can be in control of. That way regardless of how or what platform your audience uses to accesses your content, they will get a consistent experience. And if you want to charge a recurring subscription for premium access your only option is to run your own payment platform. USNews already has this up and running with their Best Colleges and Digital Weekly products so why not extend that?

And judging from the past releases of magazine brands on the iPad, the industry is getting it wrong. They can’t just shove their traditional print product onto a touchscreen device with a few gestural interactions and call it a day. Jeffery Zeldman sums it up best in his post iPad as the new Flash

“Everything we’ve learned in the past decade about preferring open standards to proprietary platforms and user-focused interfaces to masturbatory ones is forgotten as designers and publishers once again scramble to create novelty interfaces no one but them cares about.”

So usnews.com is at a pivotal point where the company can focus on building a proprietary native app or an open web app. Today, it just seems so obvious to me to go the web app route. Native apps may seem like the answer today in the short term, but in the long term, their fragmentation overhead will hold them back for publishers while the open web will reign supreme.

I hope U.S.News & World Report doesn’t fuck this up.

City Caller ID Android App Is No More

One of my favorite Android apps, City Caller ID, is no more today. The simple app displayed the city and state of the incoming phone number when you receive a call. Apparently the technology for displaying this information is patented by Cequint who has sued the developer of the free app. At first the developer was asking for help with donations and legal advice, but as of Saturday night, he has given up.

I can’t believe something like this can even be patented! From a programming perspective, it’s a fairly simple app. All of the area code data can be found on a site like http://www.bennetyee.org/ucsd-pages/area.html. When you get a call on your phone, a program can pull the first 3 digits and do a simple lookup for what state the phone number is issued in. It looks like no one will have the chance to download the app now, but I wonder what will happen to those lucky few like me who have already downloaded it?

I don’t think this will be the last Android city/state app for incoming calls as a Cequint employee introduced himself on an Android forum. Something must be up.

The Google Phone Cometh, A Timeline Of Events

The blogosphere exploded with rampant speculation about the latest Android phone to poke its robot head out.  Here is the sequence of events that led up to what we know now.

The first mention of a Google phone came from The Street.com on October 20th.  Michael Arrington from Techcrunch heard similar rumors and really got the speculation started with their post The Google Phone Is Very Real. And It’s Coming Soon on November 17th. A leaked HTC phone roadmap gave us the specs for the Bravo on December 6th, which has also gone by another codename Passion.  The specs listed sound very impressive squashing any complaints of slow and pokey Android phones that have been released to date:

  • Snapdragon QSD 8250 1GHz CPU
  • HD 720p Video capture
  • 3.7″ WVGA AMOLED screen
  • 256 MB RAM or 512MB RAM
  • 16GB MicroSD card in-box
  • 1400mAh battery

Things were fairly quite over the next few weeks until all hell broke loose when several Googlers got their own employee version of the Google phone and tweets started flying out about the sleek device. @lhawthorn had the first say. It was being described as “A sexy beast. Like an iPhone on beautifying steroids” (@GreatWhiteSnark). All of the commotion and rumor-mongering caused Mario Queiroz, Google’s Vice President of Product Management, to put up a post on the official Google Mobile blog about how Google likes to “dogfood” its products for quick feedback.

A popular term on the interwebs is picture or it didn’t happen and Cory O’Brien holds the honor of posting the first picture of the device in the wild.  The previous tweets about how good-looking and sleek the device looked were confirmed.

First shot of the Google Nexus One phone

John Gruber from Daring Fireball revealed the name of the phone as the Nexus One by looking through logs of web browser user agent strings. Thanks to the name, it wasn’t long before Engadget dug up photos taken with the phone which were found on Google’s own photo sharing site Picasa. This proved a max resolution from the camera phone of 2592×1944 which comes from a 5 megapixel sensor.

Google Nexus One next to a Apple MacBook Pro

I noticed google.com/nexusone went to a different 404 error page compared to something like google.com/notnexusone. The Wall Street Journal published an article stating Google planned to sell its own phone direct to consumers early next year, as well as confirming the name Nexus One.

People weren’t sure which carrier this dream device would land on and initial rumors suggested it was to work unlocked on all 4 major U.S. carriers (quite a hefty feat). Hope for this slowly faded to just the two GSM carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. The AT&T compatibility was from an anecdote by Jason Howell about how he saw a Google employee playing with it using an AT&T sim card.  Other leaked photos were showing a T-Mobile logo in the upper right. Peter Kafka heard from his sources that Google approached all 4 carriers about the phone but only T-Mobile agreed to help sell the phone.

Google does not intend to sell its new “Nexus One” phone the typical way, sources familiar with the company’s plans say. Instead, it envisions a scenario where customers who buy the handset on a separate Web site are provided with a list of carriers from which they can make a selection menu-style.

By the end of the weekend, Joshua Topolsky of Engadget tried to make sense of it all with a summary post titled The Google Phone: what we know… and what we don’t. He pointed out that there was no hard evidence that this phone was even for sale and postulated it was most likely the 3rd developer phone used for testing Android apps. That would be a major bummer.

Google Nexus One gets an Android facelift

Come Monday morning Engadget confirmed the device is compatible with T-Mobiles radio frequencies thanks to an FCC filing which also mentions the Nexus One name. A nice surprise is revealed that it supports UMTS/HSUPA meaning it is capable of taking advantage of T-Mobile’s faster 3.5G data service. (7.2Mbps down/ 2Mbps up). No mention of AT&T frequencies.

Reuters hinted at a January 5th launch date which coincides with the biggest consumer electronics show on the planet taking place that same leak. Mashable thinks this is going to be a huge CES announcement.

Boy Genius Report got two more shots of the phone in the wild. The first shows off the gorgeous (though still rumored not confirmed) 3.7″ AMOLED screen, while the second shows off the slender Nexus One next to chunky-monkey T-Mobile G1. It is interesting how the trackball sticks out kind of like the nipple on the Apple Mighty Mouse.

Google Nexus One Phone Screen

Google Nexus One compared with a T-Mobile G1

Finally, the Nexus One boot animation made its way to YouTube for all the phone nerds to drool over as they wait for more information to pour in.

So that pretty much sums up how we got to this point. I’m anxious to see what else is revealed as we inch closer to a launch date.

Which Android Phone Is For Me?

Android has been really gaining steam these past couple of months. Yesterday, Techcrunch posted a thorough list of Android phones covering everything current through the rumored ones.  It’s great to see everything laid out in one place which highlights one of the platforms strengths: diversity. Some are big, some are small, some have keyboards, some are all screen. The downside is finding the right phone which encompasses everything I want.

Android Comparison Chart

Nearly a year ago I said all I wanted was “a Dash form factor running the Android OS with 3G support.” A lot has changed since then, including my expectations of phones. It is clear the Dash form factor won’t be coming with Android anytime soon. Rectangular screens are the norm which is better for web browsing and typing messages. Every Android phone being released from now on has 3G support since smartphones are built with higher-margin data plans in mind. Carriers like that. So it should be no problem finding an Android phone for me, right?

Wrong. The only Android phones available as of this writing are the G1 and the myTouch3G, both of which are on T-mobile. They both have been labeled as “slow” and somewhat clunky. I played with the myTouch3G for a bit and realized the screen is too small for a phone with no keyboard. The upcoming Motorola Cliq looks like it could be the phone for me. Reviewers deem the keyboard quite good, solid build quality, and great social networking integration. The biggest problem I see? It uses the same Qualcomm 528MHz ARM11 processor the other two Android phones use. Engadget has an excellent overview of mobile processors powering all these Android devices which sheds some light as to why this processor is less than ideal.

Comparison of ARM chips

If I get the Cliq, I’ll be locked into a 2 year contract based on current plans offered by T-mobile (this could change soon thanks to Project Dark.) Between now and then I expect to see a heck of a lot more powerful phones come to market and I would have to pay a lot more to get out of my contract in order to upgrade. As phones get more powerful, widgets will start to become more demanding as they take advantage of this power. I just don’t think now is the time to commit to a phone being pushed out with past-prime tech that barely runs now. Perhaps I’m just being a bit too critical.

But alas the Verizon Droid is being touted as the first real iPhone competition from the Android camp. It uses a newer processor design, comes with a huge display, includes a physical keyboard, and it will be the first phone to come out with Android 2.0 and all the new features that come with it. This phone should be available to the public in November. The downside to this is Verizon plans are expensive, especially their data plans.

So in the end, I’ll continue to sit out of the Android game and squeeze more life out of my T-Mobile Dash running on the ancient Windows Mobile 5. As soon as I’m about to make a decision rumors swirl that something better is just around the corner. Sure it will always be like that, but Android is still in it’s infancy and competition is starting to heat up.  One of these days, some company will find the right combination.

HTC Hero With Sense UI Takes On Apple’s iPhone

Big news in the cell phone world this week. On Monday T-Mobile announced the MyTouch 3G as the follow-up to the G1. This morning HTC, maker of the MyTouch 3G as well as a slew of other phones, announced a new device called the Hero. While the two devices both run Android and sport nearly the exact same specs (MyTouch 3g specs, HTC Hero specs), the Hero gets a sparkling new interface which will make even Apple die-hards drool:

The MyTouch 3G will go on sale in the US in August while the superior Hero device will only be available in Europe and Asia by the end of the summer. There are rumors that the Sense UI will be available for the MyTouch 3G, but that could be a long time. While this could be my next phone I might just wait to see how some of the rumored Android phones pan out like the Samsung Bigfoot, Motorola Morrison, and the Samsung i7500. At least there are finally phones to choose from now.

Two Unreleased Gadgets That Caught My Eye

Zune HD

Yup, I’m a Zune fan. Gizmodo has a video of the buttery-smooth animation used in the Zune HD interface.

I’m sold after it comes out this fall.

HTC Magic

The successor to the T-Mobile G1 has been unveiled by Google who gave out 4,000 of them to the attendees of the I/O Conference. After further prodding it is revealed that the phone uses a T-Mobile SIM card which pretty much seals the deal that it will land with the magenta carrier.

HTC Magic G2

Initial reviews indicate the battery life is acceptable, lasting at least through the work day with 3G on. This covers two of my three requirements for a new phone.

No word on when this phone will officially launch.

T-Mobile Dash + Android + 3G = Dream Phone

Pictures of a refreshed T-Mobile Dash made the rounds on the Internet today. The new look features a royal blue for the number keys instead of silver like the current model. The bezel is also black compared to a reflective metal-look. The refresh looks slick and according to reports features a tougher screen. Unfortunately that is where the updates end as the internals are exactly the same. T-Mobile stores are going to start selling it when they run out of the current Dash model which I’ve had for the past two years!

T-Mobile Dash 2 featuring black trim

T-Mobile Dash 2 featuring black trim

The original T-Mobile Dash with a metal bezel.

The original T-Mobile Dash with a metal bezel.

Come on T-Mobile! All I want is a Dash form factor running the Android OS with 3G support. Is that too much to ask for? According to tmonews.com’s upcoming phone chart, there is nothing in the pipeline. I guess it is too much to ask for.