Offline Magazine

Among the many things I’ve been working on for the past six months is spending a bit of time helping entrepreneurs Tom Smith and Brad Flaugher realize their very canny vision for mobile publishing. It’s called Offline Magazine, and it debuts today in the App Store.

Each month, Offline delivers five essays about culture, comedy or design, curated as a proper issue (I wrote one of the pieces in the debut edition). The Offline app itself is beautifully designed (not by me, but by Trevor Baum) and purpose-built for mobile reading. That last bit is incredibly important; this is a reading experience expressly designed to complement reading habits on phones and tablets, not demand new, unnatural ones.

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Night Mode for Mobile

If you’re reading a book late at night on your phone or tablet, being able to set the interface to night mode is essential. Dimming the screen to black and reversing the user interface elements and text out of that background is much easier on the eyes in a darkened room, and easier on relationships, too, if your partner is trying to sleep next to you. I use this all the time in both Kindle and iBooks (the latter, by the way, is my preferred reading app because of the former’s eye-gouging use of justified text — how do people read in that app?!).

But if you’re reading your email, Instapaper, Twitter, your RSS client, or just about anything on your mobile device, there’s no night mode. In fact, outside of these book reader apps, I can’t think of another app that acknowledges the fact that sometimes users open devices in dimly lit environments, and that an interface with a single level of brightness may not apply to every situation.

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At Home with Facebook Home

I took a so-called “stay-cation” last week to work on the house. I also spent a bit of time playing with Facebook Home on my HTC One X. I was excited to try it, because the prospect of adding a layer of elegance on top of my One X, which is awkward in just about every way, was very appealing.

Facebook Home delivers on that promise, if not completely then at least on a few levels. Installation was painless, and the immediate experience of running what essentially amounts to a Facebook-fueled screen saver on my phone’s home screen is a powerful emotional moment. I found myself getting pulled into Home often, flipping through many more status updates than I normally do on Facebook’s Web site. Its full-screen pictures are truly beautiful; Facebook’s engineers and designers have pulled off some fancy trickery that makes just about every image — and every status update comes with an image — look great.

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Facebook Home at First Glance

Somehow last year I ended up owning an HTC One X in addition to my iPhone. It’s never been particularly useful (AT&T has stranded it with an older version of Android) but now it has a purpose in life: the One X is among a few of the first phones that will run Facebook Home, just announced yesterday with much fanfare. I will definitely be installing Home on my One X when it launches on April 12.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about Facebook, most of them negative. But I do respect what they’ve done. You’ve got to; awful as it is in so many ways, it’s too massive, and too difficult to ignore.

Facebook Home, at least at first blush, only gives me more reason to respect them. I see at least two reasons to believe that the company may have pulled off things that other, similarly massive companies have tried and failed at.

First, Facebook Home seems to be a genuinely fresh approach to what a phone operating system can be (whether it really qualifies as an OS or not is debatable). Its conceit is that it eschews the ‘app-centric’ approach that almost every other smartphone OS takes, preferring instead a ‘people-centric’ approach. If it works, it will be a meaningful differentiator in the market, and more or less exactly what I criticized Blackberry for failing to do with their newest phone products.

Second, Facebook Home aims to wholly subvert the resident operating system on the Android phones on which it runs with Facebook’s own ecosystem. I think mostly of Adobe in this regard; for years, they’ve taken an insurrectionist approach with their Creative Suite software, piggybacking what amounts to an entire, largely unwanted operating system’s worth of code (if not features) along with Adobe’s otherwise useful applications. It’s always been a bear for end users, and it has hardly succeeded in establishing CS as a beachhead for doing anything other than what you would have turned to Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator for without it.

If Facebook Home sees wide adoption among both users and developers, it will achieve exactly what Adobe strove for: supplanting the OS that came preinstalled on your hardware (unless of course you buy the HTC First) with something entirely different, effectively stealing customers away from Google. That’s incredibly bold, and if they pull it off, wow. I won’t like them any more for it, but I will respect them more.

One more begrudging note of appreciation, offered again with the caveat “if Facebook Home succeeds”: this could be the definitive contribution to the argument that Mark Zuckerberg is the most talented product designer since Steve Jobs.

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Magic and Mobile Apps

Apple long ago abandoned its original “Magical and Revolutionary” tagline for the iPad, probably out of some embarrassment at how the word ‘magical’ made so many of us groan. But the more I use, build and learn about touch-based software, the more I think magic is really a key component of this stuff, even if it’s not exclusive to the iPad.

I thought about this recently when a co-worker introduced me to Moves, an iPhone app that tracks the number of steps you take, with the aim of getting you to be more physically active from day to day. Once downloaded, you use Moves by doing… well, almost nothing. The app does everything for you, recording and parsing out your steps by mapping where you’ve traveled over the course of the day, how far and how fast, all with no user intervention required. All you have to do is the walking part, and the app quite literally does the rest, generating a complete, metered itinerary for all the walking and (most of) the places you visited in a given day.

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The Race for Mobile News

Here is a quick list I made of some of the many mobile news apps that have entered the market over the past few years: Prismatic, Circa, Pulse, News 360, Summly, and Zite. These are all serious, well-funded and/or well-staffed entrepreneurial attempts at building the next great news brands. You can probably name at least a few others.

To some degree or another, they all propose to define a new kind of news reading experience that lies at the intersection of mobile access and customizable headlines. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. But none of them have truly come to own this category, and similarly none of them have become indispensable mobile brands the way that say Instagram has.

This situation puzzles me, because reading the news is one of the core use cases on a mobile phone — just about everyone does it. It surprises me that we’re almost six years into the iPhone-fueled smartphone era, and we don’t yet have a commonly agreed upon winner among news apps. Not just a clear leader in downloads, installs and active users, but an outright brand leader, an approximate equivalent to what CNN was in the first decades of cable news.

There is a distinction, of course, between producing original news, like CNN does, and aggregating or repackaging it, like almost all of these apps do. And maybe the fact that these brands have already come up against the limits of their popularity suggests that aggregation will always be inferior to original news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run that turns out to be the case; research suggests that legacy news brands enjoy an advantage in mobile (at least for now).

Still, I highly doubt that the combination of mobile access and customized headlines has already played itself out fully. While I take nothing away from what these apps have done so far, it strikes me that we are still just learning what mobile news consumption means, and how it’s very different from traditional or even desktop media models. As our understanding matures, new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models.

If you also have a little bit of faith that technology will continue its heretofore unceasing forward march, then it becomes quite reasonable to expect that we are due for huge innovations in relevance and automated customization sometime in the next decade, which will benefit this category of software immensely. That is, solutions to the challenge of creating a news experience tailored just for your interests (explicit and implicit) are bound to get more and more sophisticated — and accurate. The company that is the first to combine such technology with a truly advanced understanding of mobile news consumption will become the next great news brand.

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Android Doubles Down on Design

It’s probably a good idea for everybody involved in design to follow closely what happens with Android Design, a portal that Google launched yesterday as part of a new initiative to raise the mobile platform’s user experience to the next level. Aimed squarely at Android developers, the site sets out a creative vision (tied closely to the awkwardly-named Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0 release); its central tenets are “enchant me,” “simplify my life,” and “make me amazing.” Those three ideas are supported by a series of design principles and a library of design patterns and building blocks that should make it easier for developers to adhere to the vision.

All in all Android Design is a well-executed package, and it’s significant in that it’s the first — or at least the most cogent — articulation of what designing for Android is all about. It puts forward clearly delineated concepts that Android developers should hold in their heads when they set out to create a product on this platform, and backs those up by identifying the specific, tactical methods that Google feels are most effective at arriving at these ends. Good stuff.

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Kindle Fire Does Not Fire the Imagination

For obvious reasons, I’m an iPad partisan, but I do want to see the tablet market get more competitive. For that reason, I was excited about the Amazon Kindle when it was announced and so I pre-ordered it immediately.

When it arrived, I had an out-of-the-box experience that, as it turns out, would be indicative of my feeling about the device in general: good, not great. As I powered it up for the first time, the Fire spent about five or ten minutes downloading and installing a software update, leaving me unable to even use it. Not great. But it installed the update just fine, and thereafter it was mostly a glitch-free experience. Good.

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A Popular Misconception

Popular Science on iPadThough I opted for a 3G-enabled iPad that won’t be delivered until later in the month, I was able to get my hands on a Wi-Fi-only model today, one of two devices that we bought at the office. In my limited use so far it feels terrific, though until I’m actually in possession of an iPad I can call my very own, it’ll be still too early to decide how much I like or dislike it. Without really being able to customize a machine like this for my needs — installing my preferred apps and loading my personal data onto it — it feels a little bit like a model home; attractive enough, but not really cozy just yet.

In playing with iPad-optimized apps, I’m watching with particular interest to see how content publishers are approaching the platform. One that has gotten a fair amount of exposure is the Popular Science app, a digital version of the longstanding print magazine that has put forward an ambitious, visually rich attempt at embracing the things that only a tablet device can do.

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