2013.09.22

Mind your Mind Share

It is almost 6 years since Apple announced and released the iPhone. I still remember Steve Jobs mentioning that his goal for the first year was to get 10M iPhones shipped; at the time almost 1% of the global mobile telephony market share. The goal seemed totally unrealistic to anyone involved in the industry as that would amount to several millions of units sold for a device that was, in many ways, severely lacking and overpriced (at launch). The iPhone came out, and despite having significantly inferior technical specifications in some of the most crucial benchmarks, such as the quality of its camera, the lack of 3G, the extremely slow CPU, the lack of MMS-support (a relatively obscure, yet somewhat ubiquitous feature of ‘feature’ phones, especially in Europe) and others, managed to exceed the 1% goal that Steve Jobs had set a year earlier. It soon became that the reference state-of-the-art device that exemplified everything that Apple had to offer in its nascent post-iPod era, where mass market was apparently successfully coupled with premium quality design and manufacturing and extremely high margins.

At the same time Google had already bought and was preparing for the launch of the Android Platform, an open source new generation smartphone platform based on linux and a slew of open-source libraries and APIs (including Java running on Google’s Dalvik VM) with a large ecosystem of vendors and supporters and Google at its centre. Google originally hoped to create a large ecosystem of OEMs, carriers and application developers all working for it and not against it. I had high hopes for Android in 2007, the same kind of high hopes you’d find developers, engineers, and ‘geeks’ worldwide having about ‘desktop linux’ around ten years earlier.

Contrary to desktop linux — and similarly to Microsoft Windows — Android gradually prevailed in the early smartphone wars, now commanding around 80% of the market share. But Android did not turn out what I (or Google, for totally different reasons) hoped it would; instead it evolved into a sprawling, chaotic, in some ways brilliant and others completely backward platform, combining the best of new technology, and geeky, specification based computing metrics and the worst of the technology industry compromises that accompanied computing since its early days. Fundamental concepts of mobile computing were butchered, like basic navigation, consistency, to manually controlling the power saving, managing tasks, having well-thought out, stable APIs, coupled with mediocre devices, widely varying user experiences and a generally poor roster of applications, as different device manufacturers created their own “skins” — as well as their own set of poorly designed and implemented software to accompany them — resulted in a desperate effort to differentiate their offerings from those found in the stock version of the operating system and an ever increasing pool of mediocrity. The irony, of course, was that the stock operating system was practically nowhere to be found except for Google’s own Nexus series of devices, a showcase of Google’s vision that permeated the developer community and diffused into the wider smartphone-toting populace. Devices cost just a small fraction less than Apple’s ‘closed’ iPhone, but demonstrated horrific deficiencies in performance and quality; the software stack was not optimized, power efficiency was poor, even with batteries much larger than those found on iOS devices. The hardware also lacked in some cases, like the response of the touchscreen, often blamed purely on the sub-par performance of Android, but apparently also caused by inferior hardware. Yet android was improving.

In a couple of years the number of android devices sold surpassed that of iPhones. Coupled with the global financial crisis, the iPhone failed to become a commodity device (at least outside of the large metropolises of the West, where salaries did not reach, let alone exceed, tens of thousands of $ or €) in the same way that the iPod had succeeded in doing a few years earlier. It was still the leading device, both from the design and technology perspective, but it was rapidly losing ground in terms of sales as people chose cheaper android devices. Apple was unfazed: it’s margins were still high, it still had the mind share. Above all, it still produced the definitive smartphone, the reference device that everybody else copied in one way or another.
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2013.03.17

SimCity (2013)

Of all the games that I’ve played over the past twenty five years or so, SimCity, in its various incarnations, has to be the one that I cherish and have spent time playing the most. Ever since I laid my eyes on the first version of SimCity in the early 1990s, I became enamored with it: it possessed this rare and seemingly magical quality you’ll get by reading books — one that you seldom get by playing video games, at least as far as I am concerned: it allows you to engage your imagination, think about aspects of the game that go beyond what the game mechanics, assets and design ever intended. A bit like playing a desktop RPG game, or — even better — Diplomacy, listening to a story or reading a book.
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» On CalDAV and Google.

People are annoyed about the demise of Google Reader. Yet more than Google Reader, a service I’ve used and loved for more than 7 years, I am truly annoyed by the fact that Google is canning CalDAV. And not just because CalDAV is an open, free and widely used protocol (all very good things), but because, in the past, Google has been a champion of open protocols, because its support for CalDAV was reaffirmed only two months ago when it dropped Exchange Support from its Google Docs apps. Because it demonstrates that Google has been somewhat cavalier with its use of ‘Openness’.

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2012.10.22

Using OTE’s 11888 to provide fast CLID data for FreePBX/Asterisk

For those using FreePBX (a configuration/administrative interface that manages Asterisk) there is a CallerID Lookup module, published by the FreePBX team. The module allows you to interface with data sources using several methods, one of them being http.

Like many companies, we maintain several systems that can be easily integrated with our VoIP PBX system, but we also receive a number of calls from the public, viz. companies interested in advertising on GEO|ADS, adding their business to AthensBook or ThessBook, or asking for a quote for a project. OTE recently revamped its aging whitepages.gr site and incorporated its content into their ‘umbrella’ 11888 business directory operation. The new site is faster, more beautiful and written in a more professional manner, as far as the markup is concerned, which makes it a perfect source of caller id information for a large number of telephone subscribers in Greece. Around one hour of Ruby scripting using Mechanize, Sinatra and some custom transliteration tables to convert the scraped names to their latinised counterparts (Cisco phones don’t seem to like Greek characters all that much) resulted in the following script (github)

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2012.09.26

Mango / Tears of Steel

Tears of Steel is the fourth film (and the first live-action short) by the blender foundation and a giant leap forward for the community and the software. It is a sci-fi film that showcases recent work on blender, including Compositing, the Cycles render engine and many of the features introduced in the blender 2.6x series, like BMesh.

Like most blender foundation films, this one suffers from the the usual suspects: bad audio, bad accents and now, for the first time, they are complemented by pretty bad acting (the guy with the monocle is borderline unbearable) and a somewhat frustrating script; surprisingly I found the music to be more than decent; yet the true value of this film is the amazing work on blender and the impressive gfx and cgi the artists created for it. If anything, leaving æsthetics aside, Tears of Steel successfully showcases how far blender has come and will hopefully spur more people to contribute and use this amazing piece of open source software.

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» Εκτός κατάταξης

Δεν ξέρω αν θα ήμασταν πάνω από την μεγάλη πλειοψηφία των Αφρικανικών χωρών στο Web Index του Tim Berners Lee, αλλά είμαι βέβαιος πως το γεγονός πως δεν είμαστε πουθενά στην κατάταξη είναι δείγμα της έλλειψης σοβαρότητας, ενδιαφέροντος και αξίας που δίνουμε στην δικτύωσή μας ως χώρα. Αν μη τι άλλο, εν διαμέσω κρίσης, οι επενδύσεις για την βελτίωση των δικτύων ευρυζωνικότητας φαίνεται να έχουν παύσει, οι επιδόσεις των υφιστάμενων συνδέσεων έχουν παγώσει ή χειροτερέψει για πολύ κόσμο και εκεί που η Ευρώπη περνά ταχύτατα σε δίκτυα νέας γενιάς με ευρεία διαθεσιμότητα VDSL2+ και FTTC/FTTB/FTTH εμείς ακόμη συζητούμε για εγκατάσταση περισσότερων mini DSLAMs έτσι ώστε να μην βρίσκεται η μεγάλη πλειοψηφία των συμπολιτών μας καταδικασμένη σε ταχύτητες κάτω των 5-6MBps. Φυσικά, στα μάτια των πολλών, όταν το διακύβευμα είναι η ίδια η επιβίωση, η ευρυζωνικότητα καταντά ένα γραφικό αντικείμενο συζήτησης. Κι’όμως, αν μη τι άλλο, αν η ‘ανταγωνιστικότητα’ της Ελλάδος θέλουμε να σημαίνει κάτι παραπάνω από την εξαθλίωση του βιοτικού επιπέδου των κατοίκων της, αν ο στόχος μας δεν είναι η εργατική τάξη, η αποδοτικότητα του δημοσίου ή η διαφθορά της Κίνας ή της Ινδίας αλλά αυτές της Σουηδίας ή της Φινλανδίας, τότε η ευρυζωνικότητα θα έπρεπε να θεωρείται μείζον θέμα στους κύκλους των αρμόδιων υπηρεσιών και υπουργείων. Και προφανώς αυτό σημαίνει πως η Ελλάδα — μάλλον — θα έπρεπε να εμφανίζεται στο ευρετήριο του Tim Berners Lee και δη σε θέση που δεν θα μας προκαλούσε συλλογικά κατάθλιψη.

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2012.09.02

Visualising geospatial data using SVG, Python and Javascript/d3

Geography is an immensely important tool in the modern business environment. Doing business globally was the first wave of the globalised economy, and the widespread use of internet-based services and e-commerce only accelerated and solidified the notion. The next wave came with mobility in the form of location-based services. Today everyone can create location-based tools that span the globe, and many companies do, but in my view this is akin to a car manufacturer producing a single model for Chinese farmers and European urban commuters alike. Hyperlocality, the concept that each location is worthy of particular attention, that it has unique characteristics and inherent value impossible to tap by going ‘global’ is slowly becoming a major trend. In 2009, while bootstrapping AthensBook, ThessBook and GEO|ADS it was our only choice.

For us geography is everything. We didn’t start global or even regional. We started local, paying attention to the needs of the people in Athens and Thessaloniki and expanded our featureset accordingly; with limited resources and funding. The importance of understanding geography is amplified when your geographic realm is a city, as opposed to a country or region. When we launched GEO|ADS in early 2009, the business world didn’t really know what to do with it. Even today, mobile advertising is still in the process of coming up with standards, conceptual or technical, the world is trying to understand how to use it, how to extract value from it. With GEO|ADS we were the first platform to provide meaningful, consistent high-resolution spatial analytics to our customers in 2009 for Athens and Thessaloniki. We always thought this was a fundamental point where we could contribute valuable, differentiated feedback, compared to the Web or traditional media.

Our spatial analytics reports have long been generated largely automatically as kml files, a de facto XML-based standard that originated alongside Keyhole’s Earth Viewer. Keyhole was a company funded by In-Q-Tel, CIA’s venture capital appendage, and focused on a single (publicly offered) product, the Earth Viewer. The application was very much ahead of its time and it was only through the acquisition of the company by Google in 2004 that turned it into a product enjoyed by the masses: Google Earth. Choosing KML was an easy decision for us, as the format is open and the output usable by everyone — Google Earth is free and infinitely more accessible, usable and engaging than your average GIS application. It is also deeply interactive, as users can zoom, pan and rotate around regions of interest extremely quickly, allowing business development managers and marketers choose locations for campaigns, expansion, targeting more easily and quickly than it would have been possible otherwise. Being XML based meant that we could write a relatively short Python script and leverage all the amazing facilities KML and Google Earth provide.

In addition to customer reports, however, as part of our operations at Cosmical, we often employ spatial analytics for internal use, to understand how our users interact with our applications, identify potential improvements or interesting types of venues to be considered for future versions and, enhance our hyperlocal character by identifying local trends and featured venues. For this purpose we have been using web-based technologies and more specifically SVG in conjunction with CSS and Javascript to create interactive, scalable and æsthetically coherent reports.

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» TextMate 2 is now available under GPL3!

Who would’ve thought a few years ago that this day would come! Given the success of TextMate 1.x and the unprecedented delay in releasing TextMate 2, I guess open sourcing it makes sense. But GPL3? Really?

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