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Top 20 Pinterest Personalities (It’s Not Who You Think)

June 8th, 2012 06:30 admin View Comments

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it’s no wonder that Pinterest is growing faster than Facebook and Twitter at the same point in their histories. It’s not just Pinterest’s incredibly fast growth, however, that makes it fascinating. While the most popular users on Facebook and Twitter are celebrities and consumer brands, Pinterest is about ordinary people who have extraordinary passion. Here, then, is a list of Pinterest’s homegrown superstars.

20. Joy Cho / Oh Joy! 812,026 followers Joy curates over 50 boards, but her most popular ones share fashion and home goods for the whimsical woman. And just in case that’s not playful enough, there’s also one dedicated entirely to balloons.

19. Leah Dent 833,455 followers Leah’s boards are all made up of two ideas.” For example, “halls and stairs,” “ingest and imbibe” and “shin and dig.”

18. Satsuki Shibuya 885,195 followers A self-described designer/creator/explorer, Satsuki Shibuya’s boards range from typography she loves to sleek housewares.

17. Ieva Mazeikaite 910,947 followers A freelance interior designer, she posts pretty kitchens, lovely bathrooms, and fireplaces and pretty shoes.

16. Jonathan Lo 899,258 followers Jonathan’s “Personal Stylin” board features men’s clothing and accessories that look like they’re straight from the pages of GQ.

15. Pennyweight 910,098 followers Pennyweight, who loves “pretty fashion, wonderful tunes and Mexican food,” shares her favorite ideas for everything from 9-to-5 (work) and beyond (parties and vacations).

14. Kate @ Wit + Delight 719,612 followers A designer and blogger, Kate is “currently obsessed” with almost a thousand sweaters, dresses, vests, shoes, accessories and more. P.S. She really likes stripes.

13. Rashida Coleman-Hale 924,959 followers A fabric designer, Rashida’s boards include “fabulous tutorials,” colorful and inspiring photographs, and an entire board about her favorite fabric: linen.

12. Justina Blakeney 984,690 followers Like many of the people on Pinterest, Justina is both a designer and a blogger; however, she is also a “mover & shaker, newlywed, mom-to-be, and jungalow-dweller.” This is reflected in her boards that show off her love of bohemian style for both the closet and home.

11. Christine Martinez 984,722 followers Christine’s “penchant for pretty” inspires with “Words to Live By” and dreamy interiors.

10. Ez Pudewa 1,034,530 followers It’s the little details that inspire Ez Pudewa. Unique gift wrap, unexpected home décor and holiday ideas make up just a few of her 58 boards.

9. Bright.Bazaar 1,053,421 followers Crafting, fashion (for him and for her), interiors, food, flowers and weddings, this color-obsessed blogger’s boards have something for everyone.

8. Michael Wurm, Jr. 1,074,095 Anyone with a sweet tooth will swoon over Michael’s “i bake” board. His “i cook” board looks pretty delicious, too. Bacon Guacamole Grilled Cheese Sandwich? Yes, please.

7. Daniel Bear Hunley 1,332,726 followers Style for the Southern gentleman. Daniel Bear Hunley’s boards include masculine prints, style, home goods, packaging and more. Oh, and his “Ferocious Animals” will make you squeal with delight. In a supremely manly way, of course.

6. Anna H. 1,364,886 followers Thirty-nine boards and 3300 pins featuring textiles, clothing and design inspiration. All organized by room.

5. Caitlin Cawley 1,399,662 followers Inspiring homes, closets and street style make this Boston-based graphic design major one of the most followed people on Pinterest.

4. Mike D 1,444,858 followers Obscure design, gorgeous cartography, distinct illustrations and general “awesomeness.”

3. Maia McDonald 1,480,006 followers A self-proclaimed “visual nerd,” Maia McDonald’s boards represent her affinity for painted portraits, romantic weddings and adorable babies. It’s also worth noting that she’s a creative coordinator for Williams-Sonoma.

2. Jennifer Chong 1,761,890 followers “Graphic designer, food lover, photography enthusiast, traveler” says it all about this Long Beach, California, pinner with over 1.65 million followers.

1. Jane Wang 2,982,983 followers Jane Wang is the single-most-followed user on Pinterest. Her quirky and frequent pins have earned her almost 3 million followers. Well, that and the fact that her son is a co-founder of the company.

Source: Top 20 Pinterest Personalities (It’s Not Who You Think)

RWW Recommends: The Best Subscription Music Streaming Service

June 8th, 2012 06:30 admin View Comments

When’s the last time you purchased a CD? For an ever-growing number of consumers, the last time they pulled the cellophane off of a CD jewel case is but a distant memory. Many high school-aged kids have never had the experience, and likely never will. 

Instead, music consumption has moved online to channels both legal and not. Peer-to-peer file sharing, MP3 stores and cloud music lockers have been joined by all-you-can-stream subscription apps. These services are quickly becoming a huge hit with mainstream consumers, and may even help reduce piracy. But which one offers the best experience? 

In terms of pricing, there’s essentially no difference between the key players. Rdio, MOG and Spotify all offer limited free accounts, which they ultimately hope to convert to premium, ad-free, mobile-accessible accounts for $5 or $10 per month. That leaves these services to duke it out over their feature sets, and it’s a close fight. 

When you stack all of these services up against one another, Rdio and Spotify both come out on top, for slightly different reasons. 

Rdio and Spotify are, for the most part, remarkably similar. They both have huge libraries of music from all four major labels and many independent labels. Both offer apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone, and each has a presence on miscellaneous other digital entertainment devices. They both integrate with Facebook, if “frictionless sharing” is your thing. 

They also make very good competition for one another. Each service has a feature or two that bests the other provider in some way.

Spotify: An Infinitely Extensible Library of Music 

Spotify’s biggest advantage is its ability to merge your local music collection with its massive cloud-based library. It would be impossible for any streaming service to offer access to every song in existence, but Spotify does the best job of letting the user plug the gaps. Syncing one’s music through Spotify can eliminate the need to use the platform’s native music player and even free iOS users from the shackles of iTunes.

Another major perk of Spotify is its third-party add-on apps. Late last year, the company opened up its new platform so developers can build HTML5-based apps that run within the Spotify desktop client. While the apps have yet to be ported over to any mobile platform, the functionality they offer is extremely promising. 

Rdio: Superior User Experience 

While Spotify has certainly captured the bulk of the available buzz since its U.S. launch last year, it doesn’t entirely outdo Rdio. 

What the two-year-old startup lacks in library extensibility, it makes up for with exceptionally designed apps on mobile and the desktop. Unlike Spotify, Rdio also has a Web app, allowing users to enjoy the service in the browser without having to download software. 

Mysteriously absent from Spotify’s apps is a way to easily navigate one’s collection by artist or album. Instead, browsing of content is based on playlists and search. It’s functional, but inconvenient, not even bothering to borrow from a convention that has existed since the first iPod. Rdio doesn’t make this mistake: The music is arranged by artist and then broken down into albums, as it should be. 

Rdio also appears to have certain popular albums that Spotify lacks. Pink Floyd’s studio albums come to mind. Overall, Spotify has a bigger selection of music, so this is another thing that more or less balances out between the two, depending on one’s tastes.

Source: RWW Recommends: The Best Subscription Music Streaming Service

Millennials: They Aren’t So Tech Savvy After All

June 7th, 2012 06:30 admin View Comments

Conventional wisdom has it that kids and young adults now coming of age have been so steeped in everything from video games to social networking that they bring amazing new technology skills to the workforce. The truth may not be so rosy.

Even as millennials (those born and raised around the turn of the century) enter college with far more exposure to computer and mobile technology than their parents ever did, professors are increasingly finding that their students’ comfort zone is often limited to social media and Internet apps that don’t do much in the way of productivity. One professor at the University of Notre Dame, for example, reports that many of his students don’t even know how to navigate menus in productivity applications. 

Spreadsheets Go Begging

In U.S. high schools, students usually get some exposure to word processing and presentation applications, but spreadsheet skills often go untaught. And Web skills – including basic HTML coding techniques – are even more rare.

Some students, of course, like to figure out such skills on their own or attend schools that make computer productivity part of the curriculum. But there are surprisingly few of them.

According to the fall 2011 release of UCLA’s annual Freshman Survey, only 38.1% of incoming college freshmen self-identified themselves as above average in computer skills, compared to people their age. A paltry 3.2% of students identified a computer-related planned field of study.

Instead, most Millennials use technology for fun and games. That same survey revealed that 94.8% of the freshmen were on online networks like Facebook for some duration during their last year of high school.

Time to Get Serious?

Why is there such a gap in serious technology skills? Schools are hard-pressed to provide the required equipment and software for computer training, not to mention adequately trained teachers and staff to deliver effective courses. And when skills are taught, they’re mostly limited to productivity-level tools, not more technically challenging Web development and programming.

Rapid innovation is another issue. As technology continues to advance, slow-moving educational institutions can’t keep up. So many schools end up teaching outmoded courses based on products and technologies no longer in wide use.

The private sector, sensing the widening chasm between technology use versus real skill, is stepping in to fill this gap. Udacity offers free online courses in computer science, physics and artificial intelligence. Treehouse offers low-cost access to courses on Web programming and design, as well as iOS development. Codecademy runs free classes on Web fundamentals and Javascript, among other topics.

This is a big deal. Today’s students face a job market that increasingly clamors for real technology skills, not just the ability to post party pictures on Facebook.

Schools and colleges will do their best to adjust to meet the need, and private alternatives will continue to flower. But the real answer is for the great majority of students to recognize the importance of technology productivity, not just amusement. Only then will Millennials find the tools they need to live up to their reputation as technology leaders.

 

For additional information on learning computer and programming skills, check out: 

Computer Programming for All: A New Standard of Literacy

Ladies Learning Code Team Aims to Fix Programmer Education – One City at a Time

Source: Millennials: They Aren’t So Tech Savvy After All

Avoiding Password Breaches 101: Salt Your Hash

June 7th, 2012 06:25 admin View Comments

“Change you passwords now. Like, every password you use on every website you have ever visited.” You may have heard this advice from tech publications and mainstream rags after password leaks were discovered at LinkedIn, eHarmony and Last.fm. It is a good idea to change passwords at least a couple times a year anyway. But the problem does not lie solely with the users. It also lies with the way companies approach password security.

Cryptographic hash function (Source: Wikipedia) Since the leaks were revealed, tech pundits have been feigning outrage over LinkedIn’s subpar salting and hashing of passwords. In fact, LinkedIn did not salt passwords at all. For the sake of clarity, let’s define what those terms actually mean.

For security gurus, this is kind of like “How to Protect Users 101.” Both hash and salt are cryptographic (code making or breaking) terms for functions that obfuscate passwords in a database, so they can’t be tracked back to a particular user. 

A hash is simply a way of organizing large data sets. In the case of LinkedIn and other companies that have been breached, each item within those data sets is a password for a single user. In a cryptographic hash function, which is specifically what we are talking about, the hash is a digital fingerprint for a particular user. 

In simple terms, think of it like this:

User + Password –> cryptographic hash function –> unique, unrecognizable data point within a table of data points

It is not enough simply to hash passwords because, at its base, hashing is just a way to organize and randomize data. This is where salting comes in. You have probably heard of terms like 48-bit and 128-bit encryption. These are derivatives of salting a hash. Where the hash creates an identifier (the fingerprint), the salt scrubs the identifier and scrambles it so as to be completely unrecognizable except to an administrator who holds the keys to unlocking the encryption. If a hashed password is salted, then it becomes basically useless to hackers because it becomes much harder to crack and trace to its source. Hackers who look for profit, by nature, tend not to spend a lot of time on projects that are not worth the time required.

Passwords that are hashed but not salted become susceptible to brute-force hacking techniques. The malicious hacker jargon for this (among other things) is SQL injection, a way to hook into a data set and extract information from it. 

One of the reasons why so many sites have been hacked and passwords leaked over the past couple of years is because so many security vendors offer the same type of solution. One of the first password “scramblers” out there was called MD5, built by developer Poul-Henning Kamp in 1995. He announced on his blog today that he is letting his product go to end-of-life, and that it is no longer a safe way to encrypt passwords, especially for large sites. 

Kamp suggests that large sites not rely on vendors or use techniques with which hackers are familiar.

“All major internet sites, anybody with more than [50,000] passwords, should design or configure a unique algorithm (consisting of course of standard one-way hash functions like SHA2 etc) for their site, in order to make development of highly optimized password brute-force technologies a ‘per-site’ exercise for attackers,” Kamp wrote.

That really gets to the crux of the issue. Companies like LinkedIn, eHarmony, Last.fm and others need to be more proactive in how they manage and secure user passwords. It is not enough to use whatever is available on the market and tack it onto your system. As we have seen time and time again, Internet security is something that companies and users need to be proactive about. For companies, do not take the easy route and trust to fate that hackers will not target your databases. For users, change your passwords, create unique passwords for every site that you use and change them often. 

It is easy to blame companies for not securing user information. Rightfully so, if the company was negligent in how it took care of the information. But security is a collaborative effort. As a user, assume that your information is always vulnerable and do everything in your power to protect it. 

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Source: Avoiding Password Breaches 101: Salt Your Hash

Apple is Trying its Best to Kill HTC (And Doing a Pretty Good Job)

June 7th, 2012 06:01 admin View Comments

There is blood in the water, and the big fish are circling to put the struggling, wounded little fish out of its misery. The little fish, which has some good qualities to offer the world, is having more and more trouble keeping the big fish away. This is happening now to smartphone manufacturer HTC – and the biggest fish of all, Apple, is circling in for the kill. 

Original HTC Evo For three consecutive years, Apple has sued Taiwan-based HTC over patents to block the sales of the manufacturer’s Android devices in the United States. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that HTC has been known to make some of the best Android devices on the market. The first HTC Evo and many of its other earlier handsets were perhaps the biggest and brightest examples of how Android smartphones could challenge Apple’s iPhone across the the U.S. and the world. The Evo was big, it ran “4G” (WiMax), and it had a kickstand. As recently as the third quarter of 2011, HTC’s phone shipments were up 93%, with strong growth both in the U.S. and China from smartphones like the Evo, the Rhyme and the Thunderbolt. 

This year, Apple has filed injunctions with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to block, at least temporarily, the sale of the HTC One X on AT&T’s network. The One X was available at AT&T stores for a little more than a week before U.S. customs started blocking shipments of the device based on Apple’s patent claims. HTC has finally busted through Apple’s blockade for now, though, and the One X will go back on sale at AT&T on June 10. 

Get It Now, Though, Because…

It may not be available for very long, though. Apple has once again filed suit with the ITC, looking to block not just the One X and the Evo 4G LTE (coming to Sprint) but basically every smartphone that HTC imports into the U.S. – 29 models in all. This is a continuation of the previous legal battles between the two companies, stemming from a ruling by the ITC in December that HTC infringed on a patent known in its shortened form as ‘647. 

Apple is suing everybody in the Android manufacturer ecosystem. This is not news. In fact, HTC was the Android manufacturer that Apple sued in 2010 over patents related to mobile devices, software and design. At the time, HTC had the sexiest Android devices and looked like it could be a giant in the ecosystem. While HTC is still large, it has since been eclipsed by Samsung as the top Android manufacturer, as the South Korean device maker has flooded the world market with a wide variety of Androids. What is different for HTC in its battle against Apple is that it is losing the strength to defend itself. 

HTC has revised its revenue projections for the year, based on weak sales and the fact that it has to clear inventory left over from 2011. Part of HTC’s projections, especially when it comes to old products, stem from the fact that the company did not release any decent phones in 2011. In fact, HTC has not had a truly great phone on the market since the original Evo was released – at least not until the One series was announced and released this year. 

HTC has become vulnerable in the patent battles that are being waged across the globe. It does not have a position of strength in comparison to the other large Android manufacturers. Motorola holds 17,000 patents and now has the financial and legal backing of Google to help protect it against the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Nokia. Samsung, a company that sells more devices than Apple, has its own cadre of patents, a robust global presence, a mountain of cash and a stout legal team. Samsung has also faced import bans on its smartphones and tablets, but never in a market as important as the U.S. In comparison to Motorola and Samsung, HTC is caught in the wind.

Darwinian Selection?

Principles of nature are at play here. Let’s say that the Android manufacturers are a large pack of wolves. Each is proud and independent on its own, but together they pose a formidable challenge. The way to weaken a group is to systematically eliminate its weakest link until the total strength of the pack is diminished, leaving the largest members to fend for themselves outside of the group’s protection. In this case, HTC is the weak member, and its adversaries are looking to isolate and destroy it. There is little in this case that that the pack can do to save its member, even if it wanted to. 

HTC is also being attacked from its other flank. Nokia has filed patent suits against HTC (along with Research In Motion and Viewsonic) and has also contacted the U.S. ITC to stop imports of HTC devices. It has also been reported that HTC will be locked out of manufacturing for Windows 8 devices, an action that may have a lot to do with the fact that Nokia is well committed to Microsoft and its Windows Phone platform. There are multiple sharks in the water. 

There is no coincidence in the timing of Apple’s attack. HTC may have had a bad 2011, but it took a step back from its approach and completely reimagined its core line of Android devices. The One series and its various iterations are all top-quality devices along a variety of sizes and price points. HTC was about to make a big push in the U.S. and around the world. Yet, just as sales were ramping up, the One X disappeared from AT&T, and consumers were left scratching their heads. The new lawsuits may restore that situation pretty quickly.

In the end, consumers are worse off because of this battle. The best Android device currently on the market has limited or no availability in the U.S., and now, the rest of HTC’s smartphone lineup is in jeopardy as well.

Source: Apple is Trying its Best to Kill HTC (And Doing a Pretty Good Job)

What Facebook and Apple Will Gain by Teaming Up for iOS 6

June 7th, 2012 06:03 admin View Comments

If the latest reports are to be believed, we’ll soon be doing a lot more “liking” from our iDevices. That’s because Apple is expected to roll out Facebook integration in iOS 6, allegedly not unlike it did with Twitter in the last major update to its mobile operating system. 

The baking of the world’s biggest social network deep into one of the world’s biggest smartphone operating systems is a move that, while incredibly delayed, will present important advantages to both companies.  

What’s in it for Facebook

When Twitter’s deep integration with iOS 5 rolled out, the microblogging service saw a huge increase in daily sign-ups. Facebook, which is already well on its way to tallying up its billionth users, probably won’t see quite as big of a jump in new users. In some markets, Facebook may see a noticeable uptick in signups as a result of the iOS integration. But the biggest advantage for the newly public social giant will likely be increases in content-sharing and user engagement.

With Facebook baked right into iOS, sharing content on the social network will be considerably easier. Not only will the integration simplify single sign-on authentication within third-party apps (and thus reduce the already minor friction there), but its role in Apple’s own native apps will be a boon for Facebook. Safari and the Camera app alone will be substantial pipelines of content funneling directly into Facebook, enabling easier sharing of articles, blog posts and photos. 

In many ways, the fact that these apps don’t already function this way is absurd. For the last few years, the relationship between the two giants has been, in Facebook’s parlance, complicated. Now that they’re warming up to one another, users will get some useful, if long-overdue, features.

What Apple and iOS Stand to Gain

When the words “social” and “Apple” wind up in the same sentence, it’s usually followed by some form of ridicule for Ping, the company’s most serious social networking effort to date. That’s fine. Apple has plenty of strengths; this just isn’t one of them. Deep Facebook integration into the company’s mobile OS will help amend it with some badly needed social features. 

Apple has always strived to provide the most optimal user experience possible. As social networking weaves itself ever more deeply into the lives of hundreds of millions of people, it becomes a bit harder to achieve that goal without teaming up with a company like Facebook. 

It’s no secret that discoverability has long been a shortcoming of the iTunes App Store. Apple is expected to fix that with whatever comes of their acquistion of Chomp, but in the meantime, the Facebook integration in iOS 6 will help boost exposure for many popular apps. The partnership reportedly includes native “liking” of apps on iTunes, which will generate more awareness of apps within the Facebook ecosystem and also offer another measure of popularity beyond what’s gleaned from Apple’s own metrics and user-generated reviews. This also opens the door to another marketing opportunity for developers.

It’s worth noting that the nature of Apple and Facebook’s partnership is still unclear. TechCrunch reported on the alliance a few days ago, but as Cult of Mac’s Mike Elgan points out, the report doesn’t indicate that the integration will necessarily be as deep as Twitter’s iOS presence. Elgan runs through a list of reasons why he thinks Apple is unlikely to get too cozy with Facebook, and his analysis is worth a read.

Assuming the integration is a meaningful one, the real winners here just may be users, given that so many are already actively using social networks from their iPhones and iPads on a daily basis. Like last year’s Twitter integration, plugging Facebook into iOS will simply make it easier for people to do what they’re already doing. Removing even a little bit of friction stands to improve the user experience considerably.

Source: What Facebook and Apple Will Gain by Teaming Up for iOS 6

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury, 1912-2012: The Beating Heart of Science Fiction

June 7th, 2012 06:30 admin View Comments

He was . . . well, he was Ray Bradbury, and for six decades that name was enough to tip you to the reading experience awaiting you below the byline. 

Not the specific type of experience – Bradbury wrote across genres, categories, modes, media: fantasy, science fiction, mystery, suspense, horror, domestic comedy and drama, poetry, movies, television, plays.

But the experience you get when reading any brilliant, distinctive, original writer – that combination of voice and language, imagination and insight, narrative and tone, all of those things that come together to create a real writer’s work.  That experience became something that was distinctively a Ray Bradbury Story  very early in his career.

Keith Ferrell was the editor of OMNI magazine from 1990-1996, during which time Ray Bradbury did him and his son a kindness that still resonates, and reminds him that Ray was not only a great writer, he was a great and thoughtful guy.

Born in Waukegan in 1920, Bradbury moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1934, by which time he was already putting in long hours teaching himself to write. His early efforts were aimed at the science fiction and horror pulps, and were put together after school or between stints at jobs that included hawking newspapers. He was more a child of the Depression than the Twenties in many ways, and his childhood in the heartland most often informed the writing he created in California. The combination of nearly inflexible get-the-work-done discipline at the typewriter, a rich imagination and a gift for evocative language marked him as someone to watch – at least among the community of Los Angeles sci-fi fans.

That community had plenty to watch. After selling his first story – a collaboration with Henry Hasse – in 1941, Bradbury produced story after story (he used to advise young writers to write a story a day, every day), quickly finding markets for his unique, poetic, often nostalgic takes on science fiction, fantasy, horror tropes.

His work wasn’t to every editor’s taste. The Bradbury byline didn’t appear in John W. Campbell’s Astounding (now Analog)¸ the leading sci-fi magazine of its day, home to Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, van Vogt and most of the others who created much of what we recognize as modern science fiction. But in other magazines – Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder – Bradbury began to mature as a writer, and his elegant, often elegiac tales, particularly his stories of  colonists on a lushly imagined, eerie and magical Mars, began attracting attention. Whether they were science fiction, or science fantasy, or pure fantasy became a matter of some debate. 

What they were, of course, were Ray Bradbury stories, and there was only one source for them.

By 1950, when the colonist stories were collected as The Martian Chronicles, he was ready to move beyond the science fiction magazines, and his work began appearing in The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and other leading – and far better paying – periodicals.

He didn’t leave the science fiction world behind. His 1951 novella The Fireman appeared in Galaxy, by then supplanting Astounding as the leading sci-fi outlet. But when the novella, expanded to near-novel length under the title Fahrenheit 451, appeared in book form, it found a readership far beyond the boundaries of science fiction. (The book, about book burning, remains one of the most frequently banned books in the United States, despite the fact that it contains not a single obscenity. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single obscenity anywhere in Bradbury.)

The marvelous roll of stories and books – Dandelion Wine, The October Country, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, dozens of other books and hundreds of stories written between the ’50s and the ’00s – found an enormous audience, including generations, now, of students who encounter his stories in American Literature texts rather than in science fiction magazines.

But Bradbury was never a pure science fiction writer or a pure fantasy writer, or any kind of writer other than a pure Ray Bradbury kind of writer, enormously influential, often imitated but rarely well. He used sci-fi, fantasy, other genres as colors in his literary palette, putting them to his own ends rather than shaping his talent to fit expectations of a particular style. 

No one who produced and published as much work as Ray Bradbury could be completely consistent. He was not a natural novelist. Some of his works are far superior to others. But at his best – and there is, frankly, a pretty substantial shelf’s worth of Bradbury’s best – he was exceptional.

A Ray Bradbury story brings a distinctive voice, a fine sense of language and story, an acute memory and understanding of place and time, of love and fear, and perhaps above all a sense of joy and wonderment – even in the scary stories – at the nature of humans, the universe we inhabit and what we do to and for each other. And he brought those gifts, along with the special effects that science fiction permit, to a world of readers far beyond the boundaries of the genre from which he emerged.

In the last few days The New Yorker published a special science fiction issue. Hard to imagine that happening in a universe where Ray Bradbury hadn’t written – right up until nearly the end of his life – those daily pages that showed us decades ago just what was possible in a sci-fi story.

Possible, that is, if you’re Ray Bradbury.

He was – and for that, readers far into the future, will remain grateful.

Source: R.I.P. Ray Bradbury, 1912-2012: The Beating Heart of Science Fiction

The Facebook Phone: Why Facebook Has to Try, and Why It Will Probably Fail

June 7th, 2012 06:00 admin View Comments

Facebook views itself as more than a social network. It aspires to be an operating system for the Web, or a platform in the mold of those built by Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft. So as the computing world shifts toward mobile, Facebook would be foolish not to claim as big a stake as possible. That means more than just apps: It means a Facebook phone.

Why Facebook Must Make a Phone

The main argument for a Facebook phone is this: With a bunch of mobile apps and half a billion mobile users, Facebook is already one of the biggest mobile services. But to become a mobile platform – exponentially more valuable than a service – it needs more. Thus, the recent reports that Facebook is trying to figure out a phone.

Facebook’s PC-based platform has helped drive huge increases in its membership, value and revenue on the plain old stationary Web. It has given Facebook the power to force big developers like Zynga to exclusively use Facebook’s payments service for in-game transactions. And it has enticed thousands of media and technology companies to build their own membership bases on the back of Facebook’s login system.

In the mobile environment, though, Facebook is only part-way there. Some aspects of its platform work fine on mobile devices. Some, in theory, work great, like quickly shooting and uploading photos without a computer (thus, Facebook’s new photo app and pending Instagram acquisition). But developers aren’t building huge games on Facebook’s mobile base. They’re using Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, Amazon’s Android-based app platform and their respective payment tools.

To become one of the top mobile platforms, Facebook then needs to compete with Apple, Google and Microsoft for the attention of phone buyers, carriers and developers. It needs to build a phone platform that’s significantly better than its competitors. And it needs to do this despite having little experience with operating systems and mobile platforms.

It’s a big problem, but pretending Facebook isn’t ambitious enough to tackle it would be selling Mark Zuckerberg short. If Zuck is today’s Bill Gates, why wouldn’t Facebook build the next Windows?

The reward, by the way, could be huge. The smartphone market is still less than one billion units per year and set to grow dramatically over the next decade. It’s unrealistic to assume that Facebook’s phone business could be nearly as profitable as Apple’s, but if it were to generate even $100 in profit per device, a tiny percentage of the mobile market could amount to billions per year. And if Facebook hits the jackpot and creates the next big thing in mobile, device sales could easily outpace Facebook’s advertising business.

The odds of this happening are low. But given Facebook’s size and ambition, why not try?

How Facebook Could Make a Great Mobile Device

Cloning the iPhone with Facebook blue everywhere is probably a bad idea. But I’d like to believe that someone at Facebook, or someone Facebook hired, could come up with a novel and useful idea for a mobile device that people would pay for and use.

One idea I like is the notion of a connected, social camera, floated by Dave Winer. Why a camera? Winer writes, “Because that’s really what it’s about, photos and videos. And that’s a much more wide-open, and still largely untapped[,] market… I don’t doubt that the guys at Facebook see this too. And if they see it, how could they not be making it.”

Amazon’s Kindle is a huge hit and has sold millions of units because it does one thing – delivering e-books – better than anything else. If, somehow, Facebook could build a social, connected camera that’s so good it’s worth owning in addition to a phone, that could be a hit. This isn’t obvious, but it’s not impossible, either.

Think of other things people buy and own that aren’t phones and could be more connected and social. Watches? “Quantified self” exercise wristbands? What could Facebook do here?

Or, taking a different tack, how could Facebook be disruptive on the service side of the mobile equation? Could it offer cheaper smartphone service than Apple or Google phones have access to? Free texting to your Facebook friends? Free access to all Facebook services? The carriers wouldn’t let Facebook get away with anything too crazy, but perhaps there’s room for something interesting enough to justify buying a Facebook phone for your kids.

Why Facebook Will Probably Fail

I am optimistic enough to think it’s worth it for Facebook to try, and keep trying, to do something in the mobile platform industry. Facebook is big enough that it can experiment in important new areas. Especially in a market that’s as big and lucrative as mobile. As long as Facebook isn’t reckless with its spending, it should try.

But what you always hear about hardware, that it’s such a tough business, is true. It’s one thing to develop a nice, functional mobile product. It’s another to build a great business on it. Ask the folks at Palm, whose Pre was arguably the second nicest phone after the iPhone and nonetheless forced Palm to sell sooner and for less money than it would have liked. (Also: Imagine if Palm were for sale today. Wouldn’t that make a great little acquisition for Facebook?)

Apple is so successful in mobile because it is the best in the world at software, hardware, apps, media, marketing, retail and the supply chain. Facebook lacks expertise in all of these areas. A few of them alone won’t generate the right balance. It takes all of them to thrive.

Another challenge: Facebook is accustomed to making many small, incremental changes over time. It is constantly redesigning its products, rolling out updates here and there to batches of users. In hardware, it doesn’t work that way. You need to build something that is rock-solid, ready to ship and will last a long time, and then update it infrequently.

Perhaps this is why Apple has been less successful than Facebook with Web- and social-based products: It’s not constantly tinkering with them. But it’s also why Facebook could have a tough time designing a mobile platform.

The One to Watch

Mobile will be a particularly interesting and meaningful challenge for Facebook. The company is already discovering that mobile advertising is very different than Web advertising. It could be a much bigger opportunity for Facebook than the PC, or it could be much smaller. If Facebook can crack the mobile hardware or platform world, it could really pay off.

Mobile has the potential to make Facebook far more relevant than it is today, or it could be Facebook’s great equalizer. The next few years will tell the tale.

Also: Why Facebook Terrifies Google

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Source: The Facebook Phone: Why Facebook Has to Try, and Why It Will Probably Fail

Foursquare Takes on Yelp With Recommendations. Our Verdict: Good Start, Not There Yet

June 7th, 2012 06:31 admin View Comments

Today location check-in app Foursquare unveiled a new design for its iOS and Android mobile apps. It now focuses on recommending places for you to go, based on your current location. It’s also more social. This is a sensible pivot, but Foursquare is not yet at the place it needs to be.

My usage of Foursquare dropped off markedly over the past year. It was one of those apps that was addictive for a while, being the mayor of my local cafe and so forth, but then it just became a drag. That’s because there weren’t enough real world rewards for checking in – too few retailers offered incentives such as discounts. Today’s redesign aims to entice people like me back to the service. Not to mention hook the many millions of mainstream users who haven’t yet tried it. 

With this release, Foursquare becomes a direct competitor to the current recommendations leader, Yelp (whose tagline reads: “Real people. Real reviews”). This means that Foursquare will need to beef up its database of real world reviews, even though it will rely mostly on the implicit recommendations of check-ins. Foursquare is also aiming to beat Yelp on the social part, hence social functionality has been enhanced in the new version of Foursquare.

The Pivot

This is quite a change in the core use case for Foursquare. Previously, you opened up Foursquare to “check in” to a place. When I was a more regular user, I tended to use it in one of two ways: 1) to check into exotic locations when I was traveling, or 2) to keep my mayorship at my favorite local cafe. That check-in use case is still a big part of Foursquare, but it’s been augmented with the “Explore” functionality. This enables you to search for something, like “sushi” or “cafe”, and Foursquare will recommend places nearby.

The goal then of Foursquare has moved from checking in (where, as mentioned, the real world benefits turned out to be small), to discovery (where the benefits are potentially bigger, in that you could find great new places to visit).

More Social

The redesigned app feels more social. Comments are more to the fore now and you can see more check-ins when you visit a person’s profile. You’re also encouraged to “share your adventures”, with the help of larger images and maps that display faces. The Facebook integration has been tightened: when you first open the new app, you’re prompted to add Foursquare to your Facebook Timeline. Also your check-in history is more accessible now – you can now search through your check-in history, similar to how Timeline works in Facebook.

Overall, there are a lot of neat feature upgrades in the new Foursquare. There’s less focus on the gimmicks (mayors, badges) and more focus on places, people and colorful images.

Another similarity to Facebook is Foursquare’s renewed focus on brands. For example, the History Channel is on Foursquare and has so far recommended nearly 1,500 places with interesting histories.

Things To Improve On

It’s not all beer and skittles. The user interface feels a bit crowded now and I got confused several times when tapping around the Explore section. So the design needs some work – especially to make it more intuitive to new users. But these things will get smoothed out over time.

Also if Foursquare wants to compete with Yelp, it needs to find a way to encourage more of its users to leave “tips” (aka reviews). Currently when you check in, you’re asked “What are you up to?”. That’s a Twitter-like prompt, but really Foursquare needs to be asking something like: “What do you think of this place?”. This would encourage more people to leave useful tips/reviews.

Will The Pivot Work?

Overall, this feels like a great move by Foursquare. The commercial aspects of check-ins didn’t work out, but along the way Foursquare managed to amass a valuable store of data about places and where people go. Also, where they spend their money. So switching to recommendations, a la Yelp, is a smart move. That said, I think Foursquare needs more than just implicit check-in recommendations. It needs to beef up its explicit recommendation database (= tips).

Will Foursquare be able to entice a mainstream market to “explore” using its app? Let us know in the comments.

Source: Foursquare Takes on Yelp With Recommendations. Our Verdict: Good Start, Not There Yet

Facebook Launches Simple Mobile Payments

June 6th, 2012 06:30 admin View Comments

Many Facebook users are not aware that they can pay for items in Facebook without leaving the company’s ecosystem. The social giant’s payments system, called Credits, has worked with apps that run on its platform for several years. But this functionality never really transferred over to its mobile initiatives. That changes today as Facebook rolls out a payments system for mobile Web apps tied to its platform. 

There are several ways a company can create an online mobile payments system. It can become the processor itself and store credit cards on file. It can work through banks and payment processors like Visa, America Express, MasterCard or even PayPal to execute transactions. Or, it can team with the mobile operators to create direct-to-carrier billing where you make a purchase with your device and it shows up on your cell phone bill. 

The last option is what Facebook has chosen for its mobile payments initiative. The company has partnered with mobile operators in 30 countries to create a direct-to-carrier billing system for mobile Web apps available through Facebook. That includes all four major carriers in the United States (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) and the United Kingdom (02, Orange, T-Mobile, Three and Vodafone). 

The goal is to make it much easier to pay for in-app purchases. It is well known that the more steps users have to go through to verify payment information on a mobile device, the more likely they are to abandon that purchase halfway through the process. Previously, trying to verify a transaction in Facebook could take as many as seven steps. That is five or six steps too many when all you are trying to do is buy $2.00 of extra game credits in Farmville. 

For developers, integrating the new payments system should be relatively easy. It is a matter of tying payments options within an app to Facebook’s back-end processor through a simple API and a couple of lines of JavaScript. 

Facebook is in the process of building out its mobile app ecosystem. That includes the Facebook App Center that was announced last month and, now, an easy-to-implement and easy-to-use payments system. Those are two very important ingredients when creating a flourishing apps ecosystem: a central application repository and a way to pay for those apps. Apple, Google, Microsoft and even Research In Motion (with the BlackBerry App World) have all been able to do this effectively. Facebook’s efforts to date have been haphazard and have worked against it creating a distinct mobile ecosystem for its platform. 

Essentially, Facebook is getting organized for a mobile push. One of the company’s greatest fears is that the platform will be relegated to being a mobile presence and not a mobile player. In that scenario, while Facebook has a robust presence on mobile devices as perhaps the most-used application of all time, it lives at the mercy of the other mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android. That is fine for many companies. But those companies did not just have a $100 billion initial public offering and see their stock price drop more than 30% shortly thereafter. 

Facebook cannot be just another app. It is too big and too important to too many people (developers, users, marketers, advertisers, its own employees) to take a passive route in mobile. That is why it must consolidate and simplify its mobile approach. For a long time, Facebook believed that all it had to do was tie its robust application ecosystem to its extraordinarily large social graph and people would share and download apps en masse. That decentralized approach proved not to work, hence the App Center. Now, Facebook has to support App Center and the first step is a simple payment system. That is what is being rolled out today. Search, discovery, customer support, rankings and other support structures will likely come in time. 

In the grand scheme, what does this mean? It means that Facebook aims to be a mobile player, not just a presence. It means that Facebook aims to stand next to Apple, Google and Microsoft in the platform wars. It means that Facebook has a strategy to make money off mobile that is more than just advertisements and turning user data into effective banner displays. 

Is the fact that Facebook is acting on its mobile strategy a sign that it plans to come out with a Facebook smartphone? Not necessarily. It is a lot harder to create an operating system than an app store. But, if Facebook does plan to create its own device, it should have all the ingredients to help it succeed from the moment it is released. 

Source: Facebook Launches Simple Mobile Payments

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