Why tablets will be the device of choice.

I’ve got too many devices in my life.  There’s always an update to load, or a virus to purge, a backup to do, or some data to synchronize. Another device on top of the smartphones and laptops I have would almost certainly  take away any remaining productivity I can offer up. So up until recently, I’ve sat quietly while others gushed over their shiny new tablet do-dads.

I look at devices this way;

  • smartphones are great because they are always on, connected, and within reach. But they will always have too small a screen and/or keyboard to be “the one device”.
  • laptops are too big and take to long to start up. I want a device that is always on and connected. I hate waiting for a laptop to come out of sleep mode. I’m not picking on Mac or Windows machines in particular. I have both types and they both waste way too much of my time.
  • a tablet would make a great reading and playing device, but taking a phone call on the road or typing a proposal on a touch screen…no thanks! Most importantly I really don’t want to buy a second wireless data plan on top of my smartphone plan. They are really expensive here in Canada.

So I admit I’m a little slow sometimes, but it occurred to me recently (in the usual hyper oxygenated cycling state) that a tablet with blue tooth headset could deliver a reasonable phone experience and with a blue tooth keyboard a good portable computer.

I may be stating the obvious, but I think tablet computers will be the device of choice in the next 18-36 months if it can be “the one” device. I concede this is not a bold statement given all the hoopla about the iPads and PlayBooks, and Google do-dads.

So the question is when will we be down to just one device? I’m likely not representative of the general market but here are the things that need to happen for this to be the case for me:

  • Solid state storage needs to be dense enough to replace a hard drive at a reasonable price. (250GB for <$100 in volume sounds right to me)
  • It would help if I already had a blue tooth head set for my phone. I’d like to get one of these anyway.
  • I need my main laptop to die and force me to make the decision of whether to buy yet another laptop (this would be the 13th in my career….such an unlucky number!) or a tablet of some sort.
  • Tablet screen size has too be “just right”. Too big, and it will be too big to carry around without a special bag. Too small and it will be more like a smartphone. I don’t know how to quantify “just right” but presumably countless industrial designers are attempting to crack this problem for the general market.

Ok there I’ve said it, I’d love to have a tablet if it can be “the one” device. What do you think about tablets and all the hoopla?

Going the Distance

I was completing my training for the upcoming Rideau Lakes tour this morning . The tour is the highlight of the spring cycling season in Ottawa and I thoroughly enjoy riding in it.  During training I’ve been tracking all of my ride times with ReportAway! for FreshBooks as an exercise log.

Being a work day and feeling guilty about having too much fun, I stopped to check my BlackBerry for customer messages at Pink Lake . I was disappointed to see my BlackBerry was the proverbial “brick” :^( .  I’ve been having intermittent SIM card failures on the old Bold 9000 lately. Perhaps bouncing around in my bike pack is a formula for a premature device upgrade. In any event I had to pull the battery out and muck with the SIM card to get it going again.

When I returned from my ride I remembered to stop the ReportAway! activity timer and send it to the FreshBooks service. For those of you who think this article is just about yet another obnoxious,  over oxygenated cyclist, this is where I’m going to disappoint you. The point of this article is “Going the Distance”, and it’s about taking the time to write robust software so end users don’t have to make up for crappy software.

When we implemented activity timers in ReportAway! we anticipated all kinds of things that could go wrong with your device while you were timing your work. For example we felt it important that activity timers survive all kinds of scenarios like;

  • exiting the application
  • device resets
  • OS upgrades
  • entire device replacements (assuming you do a backup and restore :^)

One could argue that incurring the extra effort to cover these cases is unnecessary, but consider the consequences of not doing it. The end user could have an inaccurate or lost time record. That’s not fair to push on an end user.

I’ve done a quick look at some competitive products and some of them don’t even maintain timers if you exit the application. This my friends is crappy software and you should avoid it. Look for mobile applications where the end user’s time is put ahead of the developers. We think we have achieved this with ReportAway! and hope you consider giving it a try….even if, sadly, you have to use it to track your billable time rather than your cycling time :^).

Huh, ReportYourWay to Fitness?

I’m a big believer in the benefits of exercise. Each year I spend more time working out than ever. I’ve often wondered, where do I spend my time exercising?

I’ve tried many different logging techniques over the years. Paper, calendars, spreadsheets all worked for a couple of weeks but I would always loose interest because finding my log took more time than making an entry.

Good or bad, I carry my phone with me everywhere. I have found that using the Activity Timers in ReportAway! for FreshBooks have really made it easy to keep track of my work-outs. Here is what I do;

  1. Create a Project called “Healthy Living”.
  2. Create a Task for each type of exercise you wish to track and associate each with the “Healthy Living” project. For example, in my case I have tasks for “Cycling”, “Running”, “Weights”, “Walking”, and “Paddling”.
  3. When I begin a workout I start an activity timer and associate it with the “Healthy living” project and applicable task for that workout.
  4. Stop the activity timer at the end of the workout.

It takes 3 clicks to start a new activity timer in ReportAway! and because I always have my phone with me, I (almost) never miss logging a work out.

One of the other great things about tracking your workout in ReportAway! is the ability to filter the time entry list based on task. This makes it easy to answer questions like “how much time did I spend cycling over the last 3 months”? Too much I’m told by some….;^)

I developed ReportAway! primarily for business use. But it works really well for tracking work outs. Give it a try and above all stay fit.

Choosing a Mobile Application

Mobile applications are everywhere, but what makes a useful one? I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a great mobile application while on the road (training on the bike, not the plane :^) . Here are my thoughts on things to consider when picking a mobile application for your business.

1. Not the Lowest Price!

As consumers  one of the first things we are conditioned to consider in any purchase is price. Thus price is important in choosing a mobile app right? WRONG,  with mobile applications price should not normally be a consideration. Consider two applications that perform the same general function. App “A”, at $5.99 is half the price of App “B” at $9.99.  “A” is a great deal right? But compare a $4 savings against other considerations that will affect you ever single time you use the application. Price is irrelevant when you consider the value of your time or the integrity of your data.

Price is irrelevant when most mobile apps cost less than a movie ticket. Avoid the temptation to pick a mobile app based upon price.

2. Support

Mobile applications are becoming more intuitive and easy to use all the time.  But for business applications that integrate with other systems or services, there are times you are going to need assistance and the vendor needs to be in a position to provide it in a timely fashion.

Make sure support is available and it is clear how to engage a developer”s support function.  Is the developer providing timely support via a published email address or even willing to talk on the phone?

Look for online resources like documentation or video guides that allow you to quickly answer your own questions. Also, online user forums and FAQ’s should also be available.

Many applications may not require much support. But for those that do, when you need it you need it badly so make sure it is available before you buy.

Make sure your vendor has support elements in place and is in a position to help when needed.

3. Data integrity.

Phones have an annoying habit of getting lost or damaged, and they have a life expectancy approaching that of a fruit fly. Migrating to a new phone is a common use case and lets face it upgrading to a shiny new phone is a little like Christmas morning.  But, what happens to data you entered into that old puppy? After a few uses you have spent as much “equivalent value”  of your time as you did buying the app. Loosing data is equivalent to loosing time (or worse if the data cannot be re-created!).

Make sure you understand what happens to data when you migrate to a new device or upgrade the application. Don’t assume all applications always magically look after data integrity for you. It’s a great test of a developers support function to ask them about this before sales.

4. Feature Velocity

It’s hard to earn a living in the mobile application space. It’s like the pop music business in that there are low barriers to entry and for every top ten hit maker, there are thousands of struggling artists. In the music business if one song doesn’t  “make it”, artists create another and try again. And so it goes in the mobile application development business. Many developers are forced to take a “shot gun” approach to developing applications. Create many apps and hope like hell one of them is a hit. Regrettably, many developers are forced by necessity to abandon additional development on applications early in their life cycle.  The result is an application with little or no future enhancements.

Look for evidence that the application has a future. Also look for signals from the developer that they plan additional features and are listening to user feedback.

5. Performance and Usability

My favorite apps are those that have desktop equivalents, but are so easy to use that I chose to use  the mobile version. For example, the BlackBerry contacts application. Even when I have MSOutlook open and on a screen in front of me, I’ll reach for my BlackBerry to look up contact info. It doesn’t make much sense to me except it is just easier and faster to use than is Outlook.
Great mobile apps have been designed with careful consideration to requirements such as, one handed use, minimal clicks or gestures to do something useful, and careful placement of UI components to optimize the most common usage scenarios.

Also, look for applications that support off line operation. There are still lots of operational scenarios where data coverage is poor over the cellular network (like in most airplanes!). Applications that must have a network to do anything useful are going to drive you nuts. First because, even with today’s fastest 3G networks, device to server latency is high enough that usability suffers. Second because data usage is a billable item in many countries. Look for applications that minimize their use of the radio network and are designed to avoid latency in the user interface. Caching data on device with intelligent synchronisation is key to having a responsive application and minimizing potential for extra wireless data charges.

Look for applications that have a free trial so you can confirm the performance and usability meets your expectations before purchase.

In building the ReportAway! series of mobile applications we consistently focus on optimizing these 5 considerations because we not only develop ReportAway! we also use it in our own day to day business operations.

This is not a complete list, but it is the top five things I think are important when looking for a mobile application. Please add a comment if you think I’ve missed anything important to you.

Cheers,

Randy

Repeating Patterns

Welcome to my blog! I’m Randy from Acire Systems and this is where I share thoughts on  getting the most business value out of your mobile device as well as mobile application development topics.

I entered the workforce when desktop computing started getting traction with early adopters. Software in those days was focused on a specific task (e.g. word processing was the “killer app” ;^). Consolidation of functionality and integration between apps was yet to come. At the time, I was interested in being an entrepreneur and creating a glitzy new software application that would make the world adore my brilliance. Frankly, I had insufficient experience to make it happen so I stuck with the security of a job as desktop computing, the Internet, and cloud computing evolved to where they are today. But then something changed for me… I had a couple jobs in a row in the wireless space. First with RIM, then with Bridgewater Systems.

During 2005-2008 I had a great job in Product Management with Bridgewater Systems but I was restless and needed a change. We were helping large wireless service providers deal with the challenge of explosive growth of mobile data traffic in their infrastructure. Much of this traffic was coming from smart phones and the applications on them. It occurred to me (and of course many others) that smart phones were(are) going through a very similar adoption cycle as desktop PC’s did in the 1980’s . Thus a pattern of technology adoption has repeated, and the missed opportunity of the 1980’s has returned. Like the PC of the 1980’s, mobile application development is the “wild west” of software development today and opportunity is abundant.

While the opportunity for mobile apps is similar to that for desktop software in the 1980’s, there are also some big differences. The largest and most obvious difference is the influence of the Internet. Because of the Internet, people are more connected and have more choice in how to market and buy solutions.  In particular, online stores selling digital content did not exist in the 1980’s. This is great for both vendors and users. Vendors can access huge markets with modest Sales and Marketing costs. Users can find solutions easily and comparison shop.

The other large difference these days is the low barrier to entry for developers of mobile applications. Tools are free, run-time environments are forgiving (somewhat) for novice developers and the computing resources on a modern smart phone is wildly abundant relative to the typical PC of the 1980’s. In other words, you don’t need 10 years of software development experience and a pile of cash to develop a useful application. The end result: competition is rampant amongst mobile developers and consumers are enjoying a large supply of inexpensive, and sometimes useful, applications.

I started Acire Systems in 2008 to create software that makes it easier and more appealing to do business on your mobile device. My first product line called “ReportAway!” makes it easier to capture time and expenses and generate invoices while on the road. My measure of success for ReportAway! and Acire Systems is two fold. First, when given the choice, users will reach for their mobile device rather than their laptop to perform a task. Second, that I can build a viable business that supports my family and  community off sales and service of mobile applications.

I’ve got a pretty big backlog of Blog topics to capture. You’ll see those published in the weeks and months ahead.

Happy Reporting!

Randy



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