“Web” Category

Apple’s Education Event

Apple announced three things today: textbooks for iPad, a new iTunes U app for teachers to manage classes and for taking them, and a free iBooks authoring application for the Mac.

I’m going to talk about the iTunes U app and textbooks, but I do want to say that this is incredibly exciting. Apple is trying to re-make education, and it’s very clear that this is something that means a lot to them. This isn’t just another business opportunity—it’s a chance to do something great and improve people’s lives. Apple is the only company with the platform, resources and passion to completely change how we learn in school, and they recognize it. What they announced today is the best example of why Apple is different than every other consumer electronics company. Their goal is not to make and sell devices. Their goal is to make the world better, and however cliché that sounds, that really is their goal.

iTunes U

Before, iTunes U was a section on the iTunes store with lectures from various schools and organizations across the world. Now, iTunes U is also an iOS application with direct access to those materials—and also a place for managing courses. Teachers can upload their class’s syllabus, books, handouts (documents, presentations, PDFs, web links), quizzes, assignments and media, and it’s all organized into a single place for students. Students can also take notes for each class within it, but the feature-set is so basic I don’t see this being very important.

But being able to manage classes within a single application is a big deal, both for K-12 and college students. When I was a kid, what I struggled with most was keeping track of all of the assignments and handouts from each class. Papers would get buried at the bottom of my backpack or I would lose them altogether. That’s not only bad for the student, but it’s also bad for the teacher, because they have to keep copies of every handout around for students who lose it and deal with students who aren’t prepared for class because they didn’t complete their assignment or didn’t bring it. If they’re using the iTunes U application, teachers and students won’t have to worry about it, because everything will always be on their iPad.

That’s less of an issue for college students, of course, but having each class’s presentations and materials with you at all times, able to look something up or study, is incredibly convenient.

The bigger picture for iTunes U is Apple’s created a very convincing way for people to take classes online. We can take classes online now, but it’s a terrible experience at many schools. Students still need to buy textbooks, and the class is managed through something like Blackboard or Moodle, which are rather bad. Because the experience is so bad, online classes tend to be something people suffer through for the credit, rather than something engaging that they learn from.

iTunes U could change that, because it’s actually nice to use. Everything is in one place and well-organized. It’s hard to overstate how important that is for a student: because everything is in one place and they know how to use it, there’s much less mental overhead for figuring out what they’re supposed to do. They just do it. That’s especially important when you’re taking a course online, because whether the student does their studying and assignments depends on their motivation to do so.


The new iBooks application includes digital textbooks, with books from McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. These aren’t static books, either—they’re what you’d get if you combined an Inkling textbook’s capabilities with Push Pop Press’s UI concepts. Textbooks can include video, Keynote presentations, 3D images, interactive images (for example, you can inspect different parts of a cell membrane) and chapter reviews.

Those interactive elements are important, because textbooks can more effectively convey certain types of information that’s difficult to do on a static page, but what’s most important is how good the reading experience is, and how easy it is to take notes. We’ve had digital textbooks for a while on the desktop, but they were never very good for those two reasons: they were difficult to read and take notes with. After using one of Apple’s new textbooks, though, they nailed it. Text is clear and, well, easy to read. Taking notes and highlighting text is easier in iBooks than it is in a real book; to highlight something, you just slide your finger from where you want the highlight to start to where you want it to end, and to making a note is just as easy.

iBooks also has a study cards feature, which takes the textbook’s glossary and highlighted items and turns them into flash cards, and it works really well. It’s a perfect example of what makes digital textbooks so convincing.

And textbooks are $14.99 each, or less. $14.99. Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. Less than a night at the movie theatre. I’ve paid $250 for a single textbook before. $14.99 is what’s known as a big deal.

This isn’t exciting because Apple’s the first company to create worthwhile digital textbooks. That honor goes to Inkling. It’s exciting because Apple’s the only company that is in a position to completely change how we learn, and iBooks certainly has the power to do so. For the first time ever, elementary and high school students will be able to replace twenty pounds of books with a one-and-a-half pound device. They won’t need to decide between bringing a textbook home for homework and a backpack that strains their back. They won’t have to worry about forgetting a book. It’ll all be in a paper-sized computer that they can carry with them everywhere they go.

January 19th, 2012

SOPA and PIPA Overview

Brad Plumer has a great overview of SOPA and PIPA and why they’re so dangerous. Here’s one reason:

The bills allow sites to be taken down without legal oversight. As Public Knowledge has pointed out, one little-noticed provision in both PIPA and SOPA would grant Internet service providers broad immunity if they voluntarily block perfectly innocent users or Web sites from the Internet. Copyright holders like the movie and record industries could draw up sweeping lists of sites they didn’t like (even sites that should be protected under fair use) and pressure Internet service providers to take action. As long as the providers could claim they were acting “in good faith,” those sites and users could be blocked without any oversight by the courts — all because Hollywood was feeling a bit vindictive.

January 18th, 2012

Aaron Mahnke Reviews Nest

Aaron Mahnke:

I stepped in from of the thermostat and waved my hand in front of it. Instantly it came to life, and presented me with a speech bubble that said, as best as I can remember, that “Away Mode has been activated. Press to continue.” I pressed the face of the thermostat and instantly the heat kicked on, bringing the room back to the desired temperature. Crisis averted.

Why was our thermostat set on “away mode”? Because every Sunday morning my family happens to be out of the house for a couple of hours. And our thermostat had learned that by watching us. See, we have a Nest thermostat.

How awesome is it that Nest is getting us excited about a thermostat?

January 12th, 2012

Instagram’s Plans for Advertising

Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom released a few details about their plan for how to do advertising:

“I think the advertising experience is going to be extremely engaging,” Systrom said. “It’s much harder with text,” but Instagram offers photos, and brand names such as Audi, Kate Spade, and Burberry have joined Instagram.

“They’re sharing pictures of products and the message of their brands. That shows we’re at the beginning of what will come with brands,” he said.

As Marco points out, this likely means they’ll insert photos from companies—advertisements—in our timelines. I’m not sure how they’ll do it otherwise.

This could be an interesting form of advertisement, if advertisers use it as such—rather than show straight print-like adverts, they could use it to tell stories about their products. Audi could use it to take well-done photos of their cars in use, ones that fit with Instagram’s purpose, to convey a more general feel of what Audi is to viewers, rather than simply try to convey specific information (e.g., “best-in-class safety!”). Of course, other forms of advertisements could be used in more interesting ways—print adverts in particular—but they tend not to be.

Advertisements could be done in an interesting and effective way, but not only is it likely advertisers won’t use it as such, but the entire concept walks a fine line. Delivering ads within someone’s timeline—a stream of photos from users the user decided to follow, and thus is inherently private—will likely end up feeling invasive. I wonder, too, if Instagram will target ads to users. What personal information do they have to target ads? And if they don’t, that makes the venture a lot less likely to be successful.

January 11th, 2012

Hip to Punk and Mozart

William Gibson:

The idea that all this stuff is potentially grist for your mill has been very liberating. This process of cultural mongrelization seems to be what postmodernism is all about. The result is a generation of people (some of whom are artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic- people who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who rent these terrible horror and SF videos from the 7-11 one night and then invite you to a mud wrestling match or a poetry reading the next. If you’re a writer, the trick is to keep your eyes and ears open well enough to let all this in but also, somehow, to recognize intuitively what you should let emerge in your work, how effective something might be in a specific context. I know I don’t have a sense of writing as being divided up into different compartments, and I don’t separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television, music, film- all provide material in the form of images and phrases and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and unconscious.

I’m not sure when this interview was conducted, but this couldn’t be more relevant today.

January 5th, 2012

I’m Teaching Them to Think

Idaho will require all high school students to take some online courses to graduate, and are giving each student and teacher a computer or tablet. Instead of lecturing, Idaho intends for teachers to increasingly provide guidance for students as they move through lessons on computers or tablets.

Unsurprisingly, many people are angry. One teacher doesn’t understand how this could possibly improve education:

Rather than relying on technology, she seeks to engage students with questions — the Socratic method — as she did recently as she was taking her sophomore English class through “The Book Thief,” a novel about a girl in a foster family in Germany during World War II.

Ms. Rosenbaum, tall with an easy smile but also a commanding presence, stood in the center of the room with rows of desks on each side, pacing, peppering the students with questions and using each answer to prompt the next. What is an example of foreshadowing in this chapter? Why did the character say that? How would you feel in that situation?

She said that while technology had a role to play, her method of teaching was timeless. “I’m teaching them to think deeply, to think. A computer can’t do that.”

She said she was mystified by the requirement that students take online courses. She is taking some classes online as she works toward her master’s degree, and said they left her uninspired and less informed than in-person classes. Ms. Rosenbaum said she could not fathom how students would have the discipline to sit in front of their computers and follow along when she had to work each minute to keep them engaged in person.

Nothing wrong with the Socratic method—my favorite high school teacher used it extensively, and I learned more in that class than I did in many of my college courses—but perhaps Ms. Rosenbaum should re-consider her strategies if she has to “work each minute” to keep them engaged. There’s no way the Socratic method is effective for her if her students are so chronically disengaged.

In-person classes still require a lot of self-directed effort from students, like actually reading the material, and there’s nothing she can do if they aren’t doing it. The problem she’s facing has nothing to do with technology. Her problem is the same one all teachers face and that they will face regardless of whether there is technology involved or not: motivating her students.

Her job is not just to get her students through the material. Her job is to get through to them. Her job is to make them see why the piece of literature they are reading is relevant and meaningful and insightful. Without doing that, whatever teaching method she employs will be completely ineffective.

Which is why her criticism is completely beside the point: whether she has to adopt the state’s new method of teaching, or sticks with her traditional method, her primary purpose remains the same.

(Via Fraser Speirs.)

January 5th, 2012

Google’s Not-So-Profitable Android Venture

Google said that they are generating $2.5 billion of revenue from mobile devices, and some mistook that to mean Android is responsible for $2.5 billion of revenue. It isn’t—that includes search ad revenue, AdSense and AdMob, all of which also generate revenue from iOS devices, and purchases from Android’s app market revenue.

The Macalope points out just how small that means revenue generated from Android is:

“Mobile” does not equal “Android.” Some Android fan sites also got this wrong, but “mobile” means ad revenue from all mobile operating systems. Further, because we know that about two thirds of Google’s mobile ad revenue comes from the iPhone we can figure that Android is generating at most $833 million in ad revenue a year for Mountain View. That is, of course, chump change compared to what Apple makes on the iPhone. Still, Android’s winning. Somehow.

“…two-thirds of Google’s mobile ad revenue comes from the iPhone” is somewhat misleading, because Google actually said that two-thirds of mobile searches comes from iOS, but it should be accurate enough. As the Macalope points out, this means of Google’s $2.5 billion of mobile revenue, only $833 million of it derives from Android devices.

That’s just three percent of Google’s $29.3 billion of revenue in 2010, and the 2011 figure will be much higher—so the actual percentage of total revenue will be closer to two percent.

Without data on how much Google spends on developing Android, there’s no way to judge how profitable it is for Google, but however much it is, it contributes almost nothing to their profitability as a whole.

The typical argument made for why Google develops Android is it expands the mobile market, so there are many more people using Google search and other services from their devices, and thus generating ad revenue for Google—which is their entire business. Yet the above shows that even with 190 million Android device activations, Google is hardly benefiting from Android.

iOS has completely overwhelmed Apple’s prior businesses, while Android contributes next to nothing to Google’s revenue.

You decide who’s winning.

December 12th, 2011

HP to Open Source webOS

Today, HP announced they are releasing webOS as open source. Meg Whitman’s memo to employees suggests HP will continue to openly develop it, too:

Since we announced the discontinuation of our webOS devices last August, the executive team has been working to determine the best path forward for this highly respected software. We looked at all the options in the market today and we see a clear need for a platform that is both open and has a single integrated stack.

I suppose it’s better than killing it outright, but there’s no chance of competing with Android by releasing it for anyone to use at this point. That ship has sailed.

December 9th, 2011

John Gruber On the New Twitter App for iPhone

John Gruber:

What also worries me is that these changes suggest not only a difference in opinion regarding how a Twitter client should work, but also regarding just what the point is of Twitter as a service. The Twitter service I signed up for is one where people tweet 140-character posts, you follow those people whose tweets you tend to enjoy, and that’s it. The Twitter service this new UI presents is about a whole lot more — mass-market spoonfed “trending topics” and sponsored content. It’s trying to make Twitter work for people who don’t see the appeal of what Twitter was supposed to be. It all makes sense if you think of the label under the “#” tab as reading “Dickbar” instead of “Discover”.

In addition, the value I saw in Twitter was as more of a utility—something other people built on top of in unique ways, one of which happened to be really good native clients, like Tweetie. Clearly, Twitter doesn’t view themselves that way, and that’s okay. I only hope that the Twitter I started using in 2008, which introduced me to a bunch of absolutely wonderful people through a brilliantly simple idea and interface, will still exist in the next few years.

December 9th, 2011

Color’s Big New Idea

Color released their new app, after their failed launch earlier this year. Their new idea is this: you can “broadcast” what you’re doing with live video on Facebook.

It’s a fine idea, but this isn’t something that stands as its own product. It’s a Facebook feature, at best.

Which is, I think, exactly the point. Color’s strategy is to get acquired. Their goal is the pay-off. And that is the reason I will never support anything they do.

We don’t need more companies whose entire reason for existing is a quick pay-off. We have enough of those.

December 5th, 2011


Path re-imagined their network and app, and it’s incredibly nice.

They just released the new version, and it’s very well done. I hope more people start using it, because I’d much rather use this than Facebook.

November 30th, 2011

Why a Facebook Smartphone?

Jean-Louis Gassée wonders if there’s a bigger reason for a Facebook phone than defending against Google:

I can’t help but think that there’s more to this hypothetical Facebook phone than a play against today’s Google+ in defense of today’s Facebook money pump. There must be something else in Facebook’s future, a new revenue stream that it will eventually need to promote/protect. But what?

The obvious reason is to make Facebook independent of Apple or Google; currently, Facebook relies on iOS and Android devices for people to use their platform, and Apple and Google could theoretically block them in the future or make moves which inhibit their business.

That’s defensive. A bigger reason is that currently, Facebook is largely an app on these devices, and not a platform in and of itself. iOS and Android are the platforms, and Facebook stands on them. But Facebook doesn’t want to be an app—they want to be the platform for people to use and other applications and businesses build on top of.

Last year, I wrote about Facebook’s strategy and what it means for society. I wrote:

That is a lot of information. As Facebook integrates with more devices and applications, and as we begin sharing more information, they are building a map of society. They are building a map of how people live, what they do, what they like, who they interact with and how, and how society is evolving. Our information is their business, not just our attention.

What better way to get more people using their platform and using it even more than they do now than by (1) making the other platforms—iOS and Android—commodities, and (2) making a device that makes Facebook the operating system?

They’re trying to do the first object by making Facebook applications that are HTML5-based and thus that can be run on any OS with modern web standards support. This would, if successful, make Facebook where people go to get some of their applications, and thus would make the underlying operating system much less relevant. If all of your applications are web-based and come from Facebook, what device you use doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does now.

But a Facebook phone could be even more convincing. Imagine a device where everything is pulled from Facebook. Your contacts come from your friends’ profiles. Your photos are stored on Facebook’s servers. All messages are sent through Facebook, so you don’t need to worry about text messages. Your calendar is hooked up to Facebook and can see what events your friends are attending.

For people that like Facebook, that’d be pretty great, and they would certainly use Facebook a lot more. If Facebook releases a phone, that’s what it’s about: making Facebook into a platform on the same level as iOS and Android, and one that can grow into the platform for everything on the web.

November 28th, 2011

Shawn’s Stamped Review

Shawn Blanc:

I believe it is their simplicity that makes social networks like Twitter and Instagram sticky. If a service is easy to use, people are more likely to use it. The more complex it is, the less likely people are to use it.

Absolutely—but there’s something else that’s usually required, too, and that’s an immediate benefit. Instagram is fun to take photos with, and so it’s fun to use even before you connect to other people using it and get hooked. Because it’s immediately useful, it keeps people around long enough to get hooked by following and interacting with their friends.

Twitter, interestingly, is deficient in this regard. Twitter is difficult to grok for new users, and there’s no real initial benefit in sending 140 character messages to the ether. Twitter depends on having people that are interesting and relevant to follow to be useful, and so in many cases it never sticks with new users, because they can’t understand what’s convincing about Twitter if they don’t know anyone who’s worth following.

Yet Twitter still succeeded. I think Twitter overcame this because it had a core base of initial geeky users who really enjoyed using it and understood its value immediately. That base, who didn’t suffer the same problem as regular users, drove it while new users took a while to finally get it and build up their users.

What this suggests is that you can overcome limitations by being immediately useful or by building a strong core of loyal users that can get your network over the regular user hump.

November 28th, 2011


Stamped is a new network of sorts for iOS, and the idea is that you “stamp” things you really love and highly recommend to your friends. You can stamp pretty much everything—restaurants, books, music, movies, et cetera. You can see what your friends have stamped and stamp it yourself, or add it to a to-do list of things you need to try.

What Stamped gets really right is that it’s fun to use, because it’s so simple and such a beautiful app. It’s fun to go through and make a list of sorts of your favorite things in the world, and to see what everyone else likes, too.

With enough people using it, this could be very, very useful; imagine you’re traveling and using Stamped to see what restaurants around you are most liked, or have been stamped by your friends—that’d be a great way to find somewhere to eat without sorting through reviews on Yelp. It could work as a sort of travel guide.

November 22nd, 2011

Brett Terpstra Loves His Nest Thermostat

Brett Terpstra:

I’ve only been using the device for a day. I already have strong feelings for this piece of electronics, probably only matched by the love I have for my Macbook Air right now.

How great is it that there’s a company building thermostats as exciting as Apple’s products?

November 21st, 2011