It’s About Time, Augmented Reality

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The term ‘augmented reality’ has been around for at least 2 decades, and the promise of a more virtual, interactive world is becoming more and more realistic.  Just this week alone I found two new articles about adding graphical layovers to our normal view of the world.  The first is an interactive app using iPads that allows users to place virtual objects in the real world and view them via the iPad’s camera (video here).  The other is a video that was just released from Microsoft looking at the possibility of complete virtual overlays on things from street curbs to refrigerators (overkill, but interesting to look at the possibilities).

I think part of the excitement about augmented reality is the imagining of what could be, such as the representation of 2010 back in the 1970s.  There are many different apps out there already (Layar for Android is a do-all browser, while the iPhone apps can be found here) that have these abilities.  I think mobile devices are the perfect way to introduce this technology, with as many people carrying smart phones as there are (especially with the iPhone 4S release).  The truly exciting days to wait for are when normal eye glasses are able to represent this kind of information.  Now we just need to hope that augmented reality data becomes more useful to our lives than extravagant or just plain annoying.

RIM’s Last Gasp

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RIM, still trying to prove that they are relevant instead of just sliding into what seems like an inevitable bankruptcy, purchased a new mobile OS platform, QNX, and has apparently tried to jam BBOS6 and QNX into a new product, which they’ve dubbed BBX. Historically, along with being less powerful than their iOS and Android counterparts, RIM devices have been an absolute pain to develop for, and as a result they have a very thin developer community. Despite this, CEO Mike Lazaridis spoke to developers and said:

I can’t say how important you are to us, it’s a really exciting time for BlackBerry developers.

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I’m not optimistic. A new, cobbled together OS is not going to help hopelessly out of date hardware, and seems reminiscent of Palm launching WebOS before falling to an acquisition by HP. Business Week notes:

RIM’s U.S. smartphone market share fell to 20 percent in the quarter through August from 25 percent three months earlier, according to ComScore Inc. Apple rose 0.7 percentage points to 27.3 percent while Google’s Android platform climbed to 44 percent from 38 percent.

While I have been an avid Blackberry user for years, it seems that RIM may indeed be on their last gasp.

BMW and Android

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BMW Remote AppVarious automakers, led by Mercedes-Benz with their mbrace technology, have been entering the mobile application market for a long time now. At Hardin DD we’ve been fortunate enough to do app development for Mercedes, Toyota, and Saleen, among others. As both an application developer and a massive car nut, I’ve followed the evolution of these automotive apps with great interest, and it’s been somewhat weird to see how slow the automakers have been to release Android apps, given how rapidly they jumped into the iPhone (and even Blackberry, in Mercedes’ case) market. BMW recently explained why they’ve taken until now to release Android software, quoted in an Autoblog article as:

So what took BMW so long to adopt Android, the world’s fastest growing mobile OS? In the release after the jump, BMW – like nearly every app developer on the planet – blames the massive amount of fragmentation of both screen sizes and Android versions out in the world, meaning testing and development took much longer than for the iPhone version.

Automakers typically follow extremely rigorous quality control standards, and while companies in other industries are often content to release Android apps with some testing and the hope that they will work on all hardware, BMW was forced to test their app on literally every available piece of Android hardware available in the North American market. It will be interesting to see in the future, as more and more Android variants (such as Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Honeycomb, among others) along with an every increasing deluge of hardware options become available, if major corporations’ Android development efforts start to lag behind their iOS developments as they have in the case of BMW.

Facebook’s New Open Graph and Timeline

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Two new huge changes are coming to Facebook soon: Open Graph and the Timeline. These changes are being rolled out while Facebook is making headlines about their latest changes to the News Feed and Ticker.

Open Graph:

Facebook can been viewed as a large graph with connections between content-types that, until now, only Facebook defined. These content-types include users, pages, links, videos, etc. In the current Facebook API, we can only create new instances of these pre-defined content-types (Facebook calls these objects) and connections between these instances (Facebook calls these actions). What the new Open Graph API lets us do is define custom objects and actions within our Facebook applications.

Many mobile apps we develop at Hardin integrate with Facebook. This integration is usually very shallow. We either scrape user profile information or try to connect users within the app to their Facebook friends. With the new Open Graph, we can now parallel the actions users take in mobile apps on Facebook.

For example, let’s say I was creating a mobile app that allowed users to check into dog parks. I could create a dog park object in my Facebook app and my mobile app. I could then define a check-in action on dog parks within Facebook. When a user checks in, I would create the relationship using the Open Graph API. The action and the object would then show up in that user’s Timeline and in their friends’ News Feeds and Tickers.

The Open Graph also lets you define web content in web apps as objects using special HTML meta tags.

I think these new technologies are exciting and will allow us as developers to more deeply integrate the products we make into Facebook. This is something we are often requested to do for clients and these new APIs seem to be tailor made for that purpose.


Timeline is Facebook’s replacement for user profiles. Recently the headlines have been dominated by the negative reaction users have had to the new News Feed and Ticker. Personally, I think most of these reports are being exaggerated by the media to attract more page views. So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when Timeline is rolled out, because it makes the recent Ticker and News Feeds changes look like the minor UI tweaks they really are.

Timeline is a complete redesign of walls, user info, and basically any information you can currently view on a user’s profile (check out the link above to see the changes). The name highlights the biggest feature of this new profile: a timeline. You can now navigate through a user’s past and see all the content they have ever posted since the creation of their account. This is probably going to cause another privacy backlash from Facebook users, but the rest of the features that Timeline brings are actually pretty great.

Timeline will also be the vehicle that displays new Open Graph objects and actions, so like the new changes or not, you won’t be seeing any Open Graph goodness until Timeline rolls out in full force.

Amazon Silk and Net Neutrality

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Kindle FireA few days ago I wrote about Amazon’s Android tablet, which has now been formally announced as the Kindle Fire. In reality, the Fire is just a low-rent Android tablet with a small screen and a re-skinned UI combined with a stand-alone app store. This is all fine and actually pretty cool, because it might be a decent tablet that is available for only $200. I was talking with my wife, an avid Kindle user, the other night, and she was very enamored with the concept, largely because of how much she likes the original Kindle. Because of that and the price point, I imagine Amazon is going to sell A LOT of these, I doubt it will be a flop in the same way that HP’s WebOS tablet was.

The interesting part, however, is Silk. Silk is Amazon’s new browser technology, which uses cloud-based rendering to speed up pages by caching content and preventing the tablet from having to generate dozens of HTTP requests per page, instead only having to generate one to Amazon AWS servers. Gizmodo does a good job of explaining this:

Amazon Silk is a web browser optimized for the Amazon Kindle Fire hardware, which runs Android Gingerbread. The main focus of Silk is to take the processing load off of the Kindle Fire CPU/GPU. Silk is referred to as a Split browser. It knows what web processing tasks the tablet can handle well, and which ones it cant. The lighter processing will be handled by the tablet hardware, while the heavier code crunching (HTML, CSS, Javascript, etc.) will be sent to Amazon’s cloud servers which have more muscle in the areas of RAM and CPU power. Loading a single website requires initiating multiple connections to multiple servers. For less powerful devices, this process takes more time than it would for a more powerful machine. Better equipped to handle this process with its powerful optical network, the EC2 backend will take websites and optimize them for the Kindle Fire’s screensize/resolution so that the device has an easier time digesting those pages. Optimized pages means smaller file sizes. But Silk will also cache sites you’ve visted on the EC2 servers, thus keeping more of your storage free for cooler shit.

If you read between the lines, however, there is something crazy going on here: For “Silk accelerated” pages, all traffic is going through Amazon. That means they have access to everything that users view, they could theoretically throttle traffic from websites like, let’s say, Barnes and Noble, and they can do even sneakier things like stripping certain URL’s to prevent Google from being able to mine usage data like they do with other Android devices. This is a pretty profound step in the information war for Amazon, currently being waged by Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others. The amount of information that is able to be mined and sold from having a product that you control in the hands of massive numbers of consumers is staggering, and is a large source of revenue for these companies. As mobile devices begin to rely on the cloud more and more, Amazon will likely not be the only company to try something like this. Rob Malda, or CmdrTaco from Slashdot, shares my concern:

But if the Fire becomes widely adopted, web masters will start seeing large blocks of anonymous traffic arriving from this mysterious network of amazon IPs.  Being unable to distinguish one anonymous user from another, you’ll have to be very careful of large scale anonymous attacks that could be launched via the network. I ask the more serious question: do you really want all your packets flowing through amazon?  Do you think they would slow down the packets to barnes & noble?  Do you want to be reliant on their systems to be stable and fast so that you can use your device?  Is that worth saving a couple hundred bucks?

I think the question a lot of people are asking is: how long before Apple comes out with iCloudQuartz, or if they’re really lazy, iSilk? As a developer, I’m certainly very interested to see where all of this cloud-rendering technology goes.

HTML 5 as a Silver Bullet


Since I’m in the business of trashing up and coming technologies (see my previous post) and may ultimately end up with my foot in my mouth, I figured I might was well share some thoughts on HTML 5. First, HTML is awesome. I am in no-way disputing the concept that running rich media content in a web browser without the need for a plugin or virtual machine is the way of the future. However, I too often these days talk to people in the tech sector who see HTML as a silver bullet that will magically solve all of the problems encountered by Flash, embedded apps, and Java, among others, without introducing any problems of its own. At least right now, this is a very dangerous view to hold, since plowing down an HTML 5 path without considering its current limitations can end in disaster. The concept behind HTML 5 is simple: use JavaScript for all of your client-side code, with AJAX requests to talk to the server, a canvas control to handle bitmap rendering, and a browser-based video control to handle video playing without the need for a SWF. In many cases this is great and all you need, but you need to remember that HTML 5 is still a very young platform. There are many fewer libraries, so things such as charting, 3D, graphics processing, handling live video and other hardware such as webcams, and many other common tasks are either not doable or very difficult. HTML 5 is also not entirely supported by many modern browsers. For example, Apple (the creator of the HTML 5 canvas control) doesn’t provide hardware acceleration for the canvas control in iOS Safari, so good luck running smooth game animations on the iPad. Currently, the performance and development time of HTML 5 for many RIA’s or mobile apps will be vastly worse than solutions developed in “old guard” technologies such as Flex, Silverlight, or native languages like Objective-C and Java on their respective mobile platforms. I’m waiting for the day when HTML 5 can ascend to the throne, but I don’t believe it’s entirely there yet. The question is, when will it be?

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