Aside

WhatsApp & The Developing World

The best thing to come out of Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp will be an increased interest and incentive to develop applications that cater to the billion plus people who still use dumbphones.

Many writers have popped out theories in the past week about why Facebook paid so much for WhatsApp. One popular theory is that Facebook wanted to tap into WhatsApp’s massive international user base, which would help Facebook dominate the messaging space abroad. Facebook has plenty of international users, but not for the relatively new Facebook Messenger product that launched after FB acquired group chat app Beluga in 2011.

A more compelling theory, detailed in Quartz is that Facebook was aiming for a different, but overlapping demographic: dumbphone users, specifically users of feature phones running Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME).

A post on the Text It blog expounds more on what Facebook’s purchase means for developers of J2ME apps and services that cater to feature phone users. The basic idea is that the market of smartphone users in the developed world is fairly small compared to the billions of feature-phone users in the developing world. If you want to build an app that gets half a billion users, you can’t only build for smartphones.

WhatsApp sits at the intersection of two spaces that Facebook really wants to grow in: international markets, and messaging. The acquisition made sense, and the $19b valuation is high, but not that surprising. It also brings Mark Zuckerberg closer to another goal he has been vocal about recently: providing better internet access in the developing world.

Whether Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition was purely a grab for users and data, or whether it plays into a more altruistic long term plan to “connect the world,” it seems likely to have the exciting side effect of encouraging more development and innovation catering to the billion-plus residents of developing countries who still use feature phones.

Freemium Careers – A Lesson from “OUYA Bob”

OUYA CEO Julie Uhrman is a good speaker, and did a stellar job promoting the principles and ambitions of her nascent, Android-based game console at a Q & A in Chicago last night…

OUYA
 

But I’d rather write about her cohort, Bob, who got called to the stage halfway through the event to answer questions about the console’s hardware, specifically the gamepad.

Bob, whose last name I didn’t get (I instantly started thinking of him as OUYA Bob), answered questions about the differences between the developer model of the gamepad versus the consumer model. He revealed that he’d be flying to Taiwan the next day to hash out the final design/materials/details of the consumer model gamepad. He came off as super smart, with a slight awkwardness that might have come from his being wayyy more knowledgeable about the OUYA than anyone else in the room (or world!).

OUYA gamepad

Talking to Bob after the lecture, I learned that the way he got connected with OUYA was by volunteering on their KickStarter campaign (which raised over $8 million after setting a goal of $950 thousand.) His volunteer position eventually led to him being hired.

Before signing on with OUYA he was a reporter for a local paper writing about what farmers should feed their cows.

“I was, like, writing about how to get good marbling in your beef,” he told me.

I must have been putting out the signals that I was desperate to get involved, because he then volunteered some of the best advice I’ve heard.

“Do anything you can for free.”

A volunteer position that he took on in his spare time turned into a dream job working on a new video game console that allows him to fly to Taiwan to tell manufacturers how to make rubberized joysticks that feel good.

What he was telling me is that the freemium model so popular in software, and especially games, works for people too. Offer your services for free, get them hooked, and then sell them the really good stuff. Bob worked on a killer Kickstarter campaign that earned 10x its goal. How could you not hire him?

That’s not news. Volunteering is a proven method of getting your foot in the door in many industries, but Bob went from agricultural reporting to game console development! That’s a quantum leap between universes, and that’s what is so exciting about it.

The greatest thing about OUYA Bob’s story is that he embodies the OUYA ethos perfectly. One requirement of OUYA games is that they have some kind of “free-to-play” component. Whether that means offering the game for free and subsidizing it with in-game purchases, or giving away the demo and selling the full game, is up to the developers.

Bob put himself on the freemium model, and it seems to have worked out. Who else can this work for? You?


Confession: I convinced a good friend not to support the OUYA Kickstarter (Sorry, Bob!). The notorious issues that plague crowdfunded hardware made me wary, and I didn’t want my pal to drop a Benjamin on a lemon. It made sense then, but I’d wholeheartedly encourage him to preorder one now.

How Fast Can You Communicate in “Tap Code?”

Keeping your brain occupied while trapped alone in a tiny, sunless cell for six-and-a-half years is a monumental challenge. If your brain had very little sensory input to entertain itself with, and was forced to generate its own stimulating activities all the time, what miracles could you accomplish?

TapsontheWalls

NPR recently ran an engaging interview with John Borling, a Vietnam veteran who has now published a book called Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton. In the interview, Borling describes communicating with other imprisoned soldiers by tapping on the walls of his cell, using a code called the Tap Code.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Split the letters of the alphabet into a 5×5 grid (the letters C and K are interchangeable in tap code to make this 5×5 “polybius square” possible).
  2. Polybius Square

  3. Tap a number between 1-5 to indicate which row your desired letter is in, then leave a slight silence and tap another number between 1-5 to indicate which column the letter is in.
  4. Cool! Now as long as you and the recipient of your message know the tap code, you can communicate, albeit a little more arduously than if you were speaking face to face.

This is where the most surprising part of the interview happened. At around the 5:45 mark, the interviewer asks Borling what it is like to use the tap code for actual communication, and he claims that he and his prisonmates were able to communicate 35-40 words per minute using this code.

35-40 WORDS PER MINUTE!

The interviewer was aghast, as was I, but it wasn’t until I talked to one of my coworkers about this amazing story, and he did a little mathematical investigating into the claim, that I got really skeptical.

The upshot is that if you make some basic assumptions about average word length and the number of taps taken by each letter, you’d have to be able to tap about 1,050 times per minute, or 14.6 times per second, to communicate that fast.

The (slightly more) detailed analysis:

Assume an average word length of 5 letters.

Each letter takes between 2 and 10 taps to “say” in tap code. Let’s just take the average of those for now and say that each letter takes about 6 taps.

6 taps per letter x 5 letters per word = 30 taps per word.

Multiply that by 35 words, and you’re looking at 1,050 taps per minute, or about 17.5 taps per second. Not counting the pauses you need to leave between taps when you’re switching between row and column indicators.

17.5 taps per second.

Go ahead and try that out. Here’s a timer you can use to time yourself.

During the interview, Borling explains that he would tap “GBU,” as an abbreviation for God Bless You, and that other abbreviations were common in tapped communications at the “Hanoi Hilton.” This could reduce the number of taps per word to make his estimate more realistic, but even if you reduce your average word length to 2 letters, you’d still need to tap 7 taps per second (and spaces), to hit 35 WPM. Still feels fast, if you try it out.

There’s plenty of deeper analysis that could go into this involving the frequency of letters and the use of tons of abbreviations, but I’ll leave that to the professionals.

I haven’t read “Taps on the Walls,” but I’d warrant it is an intimate and beautiful look at what goes on in the human mind when the body is subject to extreme horrors and deprivation. I think Borling’s estimate of how fast he can talk in taps is a little high, but I wasn’t there.

And if he can go that fast I would really love to hear a recording, and I would genuinely be a happier person knowing that someone in the world has that insane level of ability.

Twitter’s 5-Cent Coke Problem

Planet Money did a great story this week on the odd circumstances that caused Coca Cola to be sold for a nickel per glass for 70 years, across three wars and The Great Depression.

It began when an executive at Coca Cola signed a contract saying that the soda company would sell independent bottlers Coca Cola syrup at a fixed price forever. He signed the paper because he thought bottling Coke was a ridiculous plan that would never make any money or amount to anything. We know how that turned out.

Basically, the Coke executive assumed that the Soda Fountain format was the best one for Coke, and the only one that would make money.

When I heard the Planet Money story, something about it felt weirdly familiar. It sounded like something that is going on with Twitter right now.

A few months ago, Twitter changed their API to discourage or disable third party clients that too closely replicated the site’s core services. That means that anybody who makes a desktop or mobile client that makes Twitter easier to use or just better looking is out of luck, along with everyone who likes to use the clients.

Twitter didn’t quite make the same mistake as Coca Cola back in the day. Nobody at Twitter signed a contract saying that third party developers could piggyback on Twitter’s system forever for any reason. Arguably, Twitter didn’t make a “mistake” at all, they’re just evolving.

But they were letting people access their principal product freely and easily, and those people were packaging it differently to tap into markets that Twitter itself wasn’t satisfying. These “bottlers” found a way to make money off of Twitter by offering desirable interface elements and more customizability within paid apps.

Since Twitter never signed a contract saying they’d provide a super open API forever, they’ve been able to legally roll back the access that made this possible,and developers are pissed about it. It probably would have been easier, from a PR standpoint, for Twitter to never grant this access at all, rather than having to take it back bit by bit. But would Twitter be as popular if there weren’t so many great apps built on it?

It’s nigh impossible for a web startup to know what their most valuable product or service will be at first, and allowing developer access to all the data is a good way to do market research, but how do you take it away once you know what you want about the market?

Coca Cola kept the price of a glass at 5 cents for 7 decades by flooding the market with advertising for 5-cent Coke, making it difficult for independent bottlers to raise the price without seeming like gougers.

Twitter didn’t have an analogous option. What should they have done in the first place, and what should they do now?

Check out the Planet Money story about 5-cent Coke here.

If you liked this, follow me on Twitter.

How Gina Trapani Works: Then and Now


I have never met Gina Trapani, but I’m a big fan of her work, and I still love the blog she founded, Lifehacker, even though she’s long since moved on from it.

Reading through the backlog of “How I Work” posts on Lifehacker today, I saw that Gina had been the subject of that column twice; once in 2006, when she was still writing and editing for the blog, and once in August of 2012, by which time she had created several other successful tech businesses which she continues to develop. The differences and similarities between her working style back then versus now were fun for me to learn about as someone who has followed her work at a distance for years.

Her answers to similar questions in 2006 versus 2012 highlight, almost comically, the huge development of personal-use technology and gadgetry over the past six years.

Some choice quotes:

2006:

I stay away from digital PDAs and gadgets like the Treo, Palm or Blackberry, because mobile toys distract me and keep me out of the moment when I’m out and about. Who wants to be hunched over a PDA typing when you’re out to dinner or watching the sunset? Not me. (Though I have been known to do that with my cameraphone, and I’m trying to stop!)

2012:

Current mobile devices: Galaxy Nexus and iPhone 4S. I carry two fancy phones so I can dogfood my app on both platforms.

2006:

What PDA/personal organizer/system do you use to keep organized?

I work from home, so my needs aren’t very complicated, and neither is my system. My partner’s and my appointments and events go on the magnetic whiteboard calendar on the fridge. I’ve always got a short stack of index cards in my back pocket and a pen to capture ideas on the go. Sometimes I carry a thin spiral notebook to draft articles, doodle and make lists. I keep a plain text file of my to do list on my server, and my Yahoo calendar (ed. !!!) emails me on certain days of the month to remind me of recurring tasks. (I’m considering moving that over to the new Google Calendar.)

2012:

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

On my phones and tablet, I spend most of my time in Gmail, Twitter, and Foursquare. I love Instapaper for reading, Evernote for recipes, and because I’m directionally challenged, I couldn’t live without Google Maps, especially with navigation on Android.

I wish I had a more comprehensive record of the technologies I was using daily 6 years ago so I could compare them to what I use today. I’m excited to think about what kind of technology I’ll be using in six years that will make the iPhone 5 look as antique as that old Nokia at the top of the post.

Check out both of Gina Trapani’s original “How I Work” posts at Lifehacker: 2006 & 2012

Like this blog post? Follow me on Twitter and check out the things I make on scroll kit, including an easier to digest version of this blog post.

Fix and Upgrade Your Own Macbook Pro. It’s Easy!

Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter wrote an article criticizing Apple for blowing off the EPEAT standards in favor of difficult-to-recycle Macbook designs, a move they’ve reconsidered after widespread public outcry. It was a great article on why design for disassembly is good, but at the end, he included this little disclaimer:

For the record, I don’t fix or upgrade my own Macbook; there are people who do that for a living, have all the right tools and know what they are doing.

Why the heck not?!

Even just seeing what the inside of my computer looked like gave me a sense of ownership and power over it. This thing is practically grafted onto my brain a lot of the time, I like to be able to fix it and upgrade it myself.

There are certain parts of a Macbook Pro that just aren’t easy to repair or replace. If your LCD unit fails, someone else probably has to fix it. But there are a couple of common repairs or upgrades that are simple to do yourself with easily acquired tools, and they don’t even void the Apple warranty.

I understand. Not everyone has the time, or is even interested in opening up their computer and fiddling with the guts. It’s OK to send a computer out for repairs, but if you’re interested in design for disassembly and have been paying attention to Apple’s drift away from these principles (first with the Macbook Air, and now the Retina Macbook Pro), it is truly worthwhile to open up a computer yourself and get at the literal nuts and bolts of the issue.

Two super easy ways to upgrade a Macbook and potentially add years to its life are a hard drive replacement and a RAM upgrade.

If you’ve had your Macbook for awhile and are noticing a little lag, try upgrading to a Solid State Drive (SSD). They’re cheaper than ever, and much more resistant to losing data if you drop your laptop or your battery fails. Even for someone with very little tech-savvy, taking out an old hard drive and installing a new one isn’t hard, and there are extremely detailed tutorials available to help you through.

A RAM upgrade is another way to boost your Macbook’s speed, and it is even simpler than the hard drive replacement.

If you’re looking for a new laptop but don’t want to drop $2,200 on the new, hard-to-fix Retina Macbook Pro, check out the Apple Refurbished store and grab a much less expensive, but still impeccable, Macbook, and just upgrade it right away.

Here’s what I got:

Refurbished 13 inch Macbook Pro Core 2 Duo i5
Other World Computing Mercury SSD, 120 GB, 6G (installed it myself)
OWC Enclosure (to turn the stock hard drive that came with my Macbook into USB 2.0 external storage)

Appreciating sustainable design principles is one thing, but if you take your computer apart yourself and install new innards, you’ll feel a stronger sense of ownership of the device, and less anxiety about what will happen if something goes wrong with it.

3 Info Visualization Tools I Found Recently

There is a whole amazing world of info-visualization tools available online, and I feel like I have barely touched the possibilities opened up by them.

I am a reader. The words wall of text don’t sound oppressive to me, they sound inviting and cozy and like what Michael Pollan might call a “cushion between me and the unwritten world, maybe even a crutch.”

I like things that can be described poetically, in metaphor and purple prose. To me, a good info-visualization tool is something that can take very literal information, say a chunk of statistics, and apply a visual metaphor to it, making it more easy to pull apart and digest with the same mental tools I use to understand flowery sentences.

I’m pretty sure everyone finds it easier to digest a visualized chunk of data than a raw wall of numbers. Processes with consistent but complicated steps can be diagrammed. Anything that is difficult to describe in the linear format of a sentence can be made easier through illustrations. Here is a list of cool tools I found recently that can make the process of visualizing complex info easier for anyone:

1. Diagram.ly: This is a super easy drag ‘n drop interface for making diagrams. Could be useful for visualizing workflows. It only works in certain browsers though. If nothing shows up, try switching browsers.

2. Visual.ly: This is a combination visualization tool and social marketplace where you can check out infographics that other people are making, make your own, and submit what you’ve made to the scrutiny of your peers.

3. Daytum: For people who like to obsessively keep track of the minutia of their lives (no judgment, I do it too), this web and mobile app will make your data pretty. I actually learned about this one awhile ago, and still haven’t used it for some reason. I think it just seems too easy. I’ve been looking around for other ways to visualize my own quotidian details, but some people just want an easier way, and this is it.

Isn’t it great how everything on the internet is constantly getting easier for people without a whole lot of technical prowess?

That’s an exaggeration. Often I think the proliferation of tools available online to “increase my productivity” is really making it worse. I sign up for 3-5 new web services, email newsletters, RSS feeds, or podcasts every day, and I’m already well beyond the point of being able to consume all of that which I’ve asked to receive. That is part of why info visualization excites me. The possibility of making information simultaneously denser and easier to digest, so that more can fit across my limited mental bandwidth, gives me shivers. Good shivers.

You too?

Not signed up for enough info online yet? Follow me on Twitter: @chasews

How Will Popchips Measure the ROI of Giving My Office Free Snacks?

A weird thing happened at the office today.

My coworker tweeted “@popchipsChicago wish I could provide my office with a free supply of chips…by far the best chips out right now.”

@popchipsChicago tweeted back “Snack miracles do happen.”

They swapped a few more tweets and DMs and a couple of hours later a girl showed up with about 20 bags of Popchips.

OK, so that was great, and is also obviously a ploy to get us to talk about how great Popchips are, which is clearly working, because look at me writing this whole blog post worth of free advertising for them. But how are they going to measure the return on their investment?

I’m guessing this isn’t the first time they’ve given away a bunch of chips to someone who said something nice about them on Twitter. The girl who delivered our chips probably had a slew of other people to bring chips this afternoon. That means they’re paying for gas, they’re giving away a product for free that they normally sell, et cetera. It is an investment. It seems like a great way to generate word of mouth advertising, but how do they know how much it is worth to them?

Also, have they been doing this since before the whole Ashton-Kutcher-doing-a-racist-impression-of-an-Indian-person debacle?
Or did they just start?

Inquiring minds want to know…

Calendar App as Super Simple Data Visualizer: Tracking My Coffee Consumption

A few months ago I found out about Nick Felton and his annual reports, and it made me pretty excited about data visualization.

I took screen captures of the calendar on my iPod and merged them in an image editor. I can stick together as many weeks as I want for a nice long, linear visualization of my coffee habit over time.

Felton meticulously tracks various aspects of his personal life, including where he is, who he’s with, what he consumes and when…et cetera, and then designs various beautiful graphs and other 2D visualizations of the data, which he prints and sells in limited runs. He has basically found a way to take the information that a compulsive Facebooker would share, and beautify and present it in such a way that people will pay $100 or more for about a year’s worth of it.

For perspective, Facebook itself makes about 4.84 per user each year.

Of course Facebook hired Nick Felton.

Paying $100 for the “Feltron Annual Report” makes total sense to me. It is a beautiful, well produced object. It is inspiring that Felton could take the mundane details of his own daily life and make me care about them, and about him, by designing it properly. After repeatedly looking through all of the Feltron Annual Reports, I found myself wishing I had a similarly packaged summary of the minutia of my own life. Felton himself designed a tool, Daytum, with his buddy Ryan Case, to let other people track and visualize the details of their lives, but I went a different route.

I decided to start small, just tracking my coffee consumption.

On Felton’s site, he describes the process of gathering his own data. He tracks anything he can automatically, using the GPS and accelerometer in his iPhone and various internet services, but he also manually enters a lot of events into iCal and “pours” the data into spreadsheets later for analysis.

So I bought the feature-richest calendar app I could find at a reasonable price, which turned out to be WeekCal, and started making an entry every time I had a cup of coffee. With the customized colors and icons the app lets me assign to each event, I’ve found that I don’t even need to move the data off of my iPod to get a fun and informative visualization of my habits over time.

I was intimidated at first by the complexity and detail of Felton’s visualizations, but I’ve found that I don’t have to reach for that high of a bar when visualizing my own life, and I can still get a lot of benefit from it. Data visualization is not only the domain of people with advanced math and programming skills. All I had to do was find a tool and start using it.

I hope to move into some more advanced data visualization techniques with time, possibly even using “Processing,” the language Felton uses. I’ve started tracking a lot more than just my coffee consumption now, but I still don’t feel like I’ve tapped all the potential of a simple calendar app as a visualizer for the mundane occurrences that make up my life.

I’ve dramatically decreased my coffee-drinking since May started. Funny how tracking your habits tends to help you change them.

How to Photograph Chia Seeds with an iPod

You guys! I cannot get enough of this macro-photography with a water-droplet lens thing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read my “how to use a water droplet as a macro lens” Scroll about it!

Anyway, I have been getting pretty excited about chia seeds lately, especially when they are suspended in Kombucha. Here are some pictures of chia seeds that I took with my iPod. Chia seeds are a mega-nutritious thing to eat, but are also fun because they absorb 9 times their weight in water, so if you soak them, they become a delightful gooey gel that you can put in a drink or mix with yogurt or whatever to give it an extra kick of fiber and Omega-3 oil that is great for your brain and body.

For perspective, each of these is about the size of a 12pt Times New Roman period.

This is a chia seed that has absorbed as much water as it can. All the soluble fiber in the seed forms a gooball (technical term) with the seed as its nucleus. So cool!

Thanks for reading/viewing. Try out the water droplet thing yourself, if you have an iPod, iPhone or other device with a tiny, water droplet-compatible lens. Also try some Chia seeds. So good!