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Mr. Jobs, Domino’s Calling!

I’ve recently discovered creating a successful iPhone application is a lot like baking a pizza. Take the best ingredients, like skillfully crafted code, bold and flavorful interface design and combine with a dash of love and you may end up with a delicious dinner. Unfortunately for App Store developers, once you’ve rolled the dough, spooned the sauce and added the toppings, the delivery process itself can often be frustrating.

Apple’s process of getting apps reviewed and posted to the App Store leaves much to be desired. Once submitted, we developers must sit back, cross our fingers and hope everything is in order so that the “pizza” makes it to your device in a timely fashion. One of the criticisms of the App Store in recent months is that it can take more than 2 weeks to have an app make it’s way through the review process, sometimes only to end in rejection. When this happens, the problem must be corrected, the app resubmitted and the developer goes to “the back of the line” and starts all over again.

Since most developers would rather have too much feedback rather than too little, one way to ease the pain of the review process would be to add more feedback. Developers love feedback, whether it comes in the form of bug reports, reviews, emails or simple sales figures. In the world of home pizza delivery, when it comes to awesome feedback, no one beats Domino’s.

When a customer orders a pizza from Domino’s online, they receive instant feedback on the status of their order via Domino’s über-cool pizza tracker. The tracker tells you where in the cycle of delivery your pie is, what time it started the last phase and who’s currently working on it. It may sound corny, but this is exactly the kind of feedback developers need when submitting software to the Apple App Store. Imagine a meter that outlines each part of the approval process with time and date annotations for each step. The App Tracker would be of enormous assistance to developers, ensuring proper completion of each part of the submission process. A developer could track their “pizza” as it made its way to the store and get a better sense of when to expect final delivery. It could also help Apple internally so they know what phase a particular application was last in if a problem arises.

Such a system would allow companies to better plan their product’s marketing efforts and direct their resources more efficiently. Not to mention reduce the level of stress associated with being left in the dark regarding your application’s approval. Apple recently implemented a small counter for developers to let them know what the average approval time for their applications are in iTunes Connect. This was a great first start, but I suspect that with a bit of love, and a few lessons from the folks at Domino’s, getting through the app store approval process could be as easy as pie.

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Losing Control

Anyone who’s worked for themselves knows the satisfaction of being in control of your own destiny. The perception that by sheer force of will and hard work, you can be successful at what you do. Those who take on the challenge of owning their own business are often considered “control freaks” and more often than not, perfectionists. I never really realized just how much of a control freak I was until this past weekend when, completely without warning, I had none.

Last Friday, the Iconfactory’s popular Twitter client, Twitterrific, fell victim to the so-called Twitpocalypse bug, which caused the mobile version of our application to suddenly stop working. Thanks to the efforts of our talented engineer, Craig Hockenberry, a fix for both versions of the client was submitted to the App Store within a day. To Apple’s credit, the free version of the fix was approved swiftly and allowed the majority of our users to continue tweeting with minimal interruption. And although the Premium version of the application was also approved in record time, the displeasure from our user base, not surprisingly, came even quicker.

From the moment the bug hit, both Talos and I had begun monitoring tweets of users mentioning Twitterrific in their posts. What started as a trickle, soon turned into a deluge of upset and frustrated users. We began responding to individual tweets and Travis, our project manager, responded to support emails. The Iconfactory is a small company, we’re not Adobe or Google or even the Omni Group. All three of us did our best to let users know what was going on, and thanks to hundreds of RTs, word started to spread about the bug and our efforts to combat it. Unfortunately, Twitter is a very big community and it was impossible to personally respond to everyone. Even now, there are many people on Twitter who don’t know why their copy of Twitterrific isn’t functioning and there is very little I can do about it.

The best we could hope for was that the majority of users followed @twitterrific and would eventually receive news about the fixes. The troublesome part is that although I know the majority of users now have a working version, I still feel uneasy knowing there are potentially thousands that don’t even know about the fix. Part of this is due to the lack of communication channels, and part is due to the nature of the App Store approval process. As developers, we must turn control of our applications over to Apple to have our iPhone software published. This process can take days or weeks and until it runs its course, our hands are quite literally tied. By the time updates are published it may already be too late.

All of us at the Iconfactory count ourselves lucky that Apple recognized the seriousness of the bug we were facing and pushed through the Twitterrific updates as quickly as they did. We know we messed up and we thank the App Store team for helping to pick us back up off the floor. That being said, I didn’t sleep much in the days after the bug hit because there was a part of me that knew hundreds of tweets were flying by every hour from Twitterrific users I was powerless to help. As with most control freaks this usually means even more work, more testing and more diligence to guard against these kinds of catastrophic failures in the future. But that’s okay with me since I’m not anxious to give up this level of control, or sleep, ever again.

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Time Warner Rate Hike Isn’t About Bandwidth. It’s About Control.

When my friend and co-worker, Louie Mantia, moved to Greensboro, NC in November of 2008, one of his first orders of business was to sign up for Roadrunner high speed internet with Time Warner. A few days later Louie had everything he needed. He could surf to his favorite websites, perform online banking, watch videos, rent movies online, download software updates and even work from home.

What Louie didn’t need however, was cable TV service.

Thanks to the recent rise in entertainment websites like Hulu, online movie rental services like iTunes, Netflix & Amazon and easy to use desktop software like Boxee, many computer users are deciding to forgo traditional TV. This small, but certain fact lies at the root of why Time Warner Cable recently announced it was adding Greensboro to a set of test-bed cities for a planned bandwidth cap and rate hike. Time Warner knows the sand is shifting beneath their feet and they are willing to do anything, including angering entire cities, to help stem the tide.

Local blogger Roch Smith has been out in front of this issue as has the Greensboro News & Record’s own Joe Killian. Both have outlined the potential problems as well as the frustration for typical computer users and word is starting to spread. Unfortunately, my attempts to get local talk radio personalties Brad & Britt to discuss the subject on air met with predictable, if disappointing results.

Bascially, Time Warner’s proposed bandwidth caps of 5, 10, 20 and 40GB per month are preposterous. To help put it in perspective, 5GB of bandwidth a month (the lowest plan) equals just 170Mb a day. Anyone who’s surfed to YouTube or listened to more than a few podcasts knows that 170Mb of bandwidth gets eaten up in the blink of an eye.

Time Warner’s highest proposed plan of 40GB doesn’t even come close to what modern internet goers use in an average month. Simply downloading 2 or 3 HD movies from iTunes will put you over this limit and into paying $1.00 for every additional GB. Over your limit and want to rent an HD movie from Netflix? That’ll cost you an extra $8.00 over and above the price of the movie itself. It’s nothing short of obscene.

Over at Ed Cone’s blog, noted Internet founder Vint Cerf puts forth the idea that bandwidth is constricted at the edges of the net, which could make it difficult for providers to keep up with demand. I’ve heard that this could be one reason companies such as Time Warner feel that rate hikes of 1000% (like the one Time Warner is proposing) are unavoidable. If this were true, digital movie downloads from Time Warner itself would also count against your total bandwidth usage, but they don’t. No, Time Warner’s move is an obvious ploy to keep control of what and how you watch. The cable that brings Time Warner On-Demand movies to your living room TV is the same cable that provides you with your favorite episode of Battlestar Galactica from iTunes. Since TW fears losing more and more television subscribers to free sites such as Hulu, they’ve decided split the difference and soak those of us who have changed our viewing habits from the TV to the computer.

I won’t stand for it, and neither should you.

If you think this cap and rate hike doesn’t effect you because you don’t live in Greensboro, Rochester NY or San Antonio TX, then think again. Once outrage dies down in these markets, Time Warner will begin to spread the same plans to other parts of the country. Other internet providers will adopt similar capping plans and your days of unlimited bandwidth will be numbered. To be clear: I do not support bandwidth caps of any kind. If you want to charge me extra for unlimited access, then do so to a reasonable degree. I don’t mind paying extra for premium services like unlimited bandwidth and faster speeds, but at the prices Time Warner is proposing, my next bill could be $400-800 and that simply is out of the question. That said, Time Warner’s own data proves the rates are just a smoke screen.

In the meantime, if you’re as upset about this as I am, then you should make your voice heard. Contact Time Warner and let them know you won’t stand for limits on your internet surfing. Contact Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple and others and let them know that Time Warner’s proposed rate hikes are about to force you to drop them as paying customers. Then call, write and email your local representatives and have them stand up to corporate greed. Like many places around this country, Greensboro’s unemployment rate is sky high. People are hurting, and yet a large corporation like Time Warner thinks it can impose outlandish rate hikes on average internet users with impunity. Roch Smith promises to have a list of contacts of local reps soon. Keep an eye on his blog for more info.

Lastly, don’t settle for bandwidth caps. Petition for unlimited access. Internet usage is only increasing and caps make absolutely no sense. Do you want to be tied to a bandwidth monitor while you surf? Do you like to be told that you can’t download what you want, when you want it? If not, I suggest you get off your butt and get moving. There’s very little time left.

UPDATE: Roch has posted an excellent bit about who to contact in Greensboro about this matter and how to approach the topic with them. I urge you to head there, check it out and follow up asap.

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For the Buckaroo In You

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is one of those films. You know the ones I mean, you either love them to death or you hate them with the passion of a 1,000 burning suns. Being the child of the 80’s I am, I fall squarely into the former category when it comes to Peter Weller’s hero, Buckaroo.

I first watched this quirky film back at R.I.T. with my good friends David, Anna, Bob & Jiffy, all of whom still share my affinity for Team Banzai and their globetrotting, save-the-day antics. I got on a Buckaroo kick a few weeks back and whipped up a Team Banzai Patch icon that was released over at The Iconfactory as a QuickPix as well as the desktop I’m making available today. If you’re a fan of Buckaroo, then head over to my Goodies page and download Team Banzai for your iPhone, Mac or PC desktop and be the envy of all your buddies. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are!

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Greensboro Joins the Cult of Mac

After several false starts, months (even years) of waiting, and disputes with their retail neighbors, the new Greensboro Apple Store finally opened this past weekend. Although I’ve done my fair share of waiting in line for openings, this time things were a bit different. The level of excitement and enthusiasm as we stood in line Saturday morning was surreal. We arrived a little after 7am and were about 20 people from the front of the line. We came prepared and dressed in layers to keep warm.

The morning was spent swapping Mac stories and meeting new people. The day before a group of my friends and I from the Iconfactory stopped by the unopened store and happened to run into a WXII News crew. They had asked us why we were looking forward to having our own Apple Store and we even managed to get in a plug for Twitterrific.

When the moment of truth arrived and the doors finally opened, we were greeted like rock stars courtesy of the whoops and cheers from the store employees. After running down the line and high-fiving over 20 people, I can start to understand why some think Mac users are part of a geeky “cult”. We browsed the hardware, and Talos even ended up becoming the 1st official paying customer in Greensboro. After about 30 minutes we made our way to the exit, went outside and was greeted with our first real glimpse of the true size of the line waiting to get in. Checking out the photo essay from the News & Record it’s easy to see just how many people had come for the opening. Absolutely incredible.

While the store opening itself was a wonderful and throughly geeky experience, I’m more gratified to finally have a place locally where I’ll be able to go and purchase new Apple hardware, learn new software and have repairs made. The staff at the Apple store are always on call to help users with any need and I plan to avail myself of their hospitality every chance I get. From all of us, to all of you, welcome to Greensboro, Apple!

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Greensboro Apple Store Opening Set

According to an unofficial announcement in the News & Record, the date for the opening of the Greensboro Apple Store has been set as Sat., February 21st. The new Apple store at the Shops at Friendly Center is reported to be North Carolina’s largest and promises to be a Mecca for Apple fans across the triad. All this is conjecture of course since there has been no official word from the Apple retail website.

Center hours are from 10am – 6pm on Saturdays, so I think it’s safe to assume the new store will open at 10am that day. I and a bunch of the guys from work will definitely be attending the opening so perhaps we’ll see you there. Just watch for the gaggle of geeks wearing the Iconfactory t-shirts. Just one more week folks!

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Greensboro Apple Store Update

Yep, it’s still there and it’s still being worked on. The only visible difference on the facade of the future home of the Greensboro Apple Store is the corporate logo and URL that’s been added in the past week. My friends Anthony, Louie and David managed to sneak a peek inside when nobody was looking and reported that the Genius Bar logo is on the wall, and the interior is coming along. They said it seemed “big”, but I’m dubious since there’s no displays, shelves, etc yet.

At any rate, if the word on the street is true, hopefully sometime in February we’ll have a new place to go and buy shiny new Apple hardware in Greensboro. All of us at the Iconfactory can hardly wait. You can be sure we’ll be right there in the front of the line when the store opens. If you want to see the latest pictures of the store, head over to my Flickr page for some pictures that no one but Apple junkies would find thrilling.

UPDATE: A little bird, no not that one, told me that the Greensboro Apple store should be done and open by Valentine’s Day. Keeping my finger’s crossed!

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Things I Learned at Macworld

Unlike most of the people I follow on Twitter, Macworld 2009 was my first expo in many years, and the only one where I’ve been one of the exhibitors. The week was fun, exciting and a lot of work. Now that I’m back home in Greensboro, I thought I’d impart some of the knowledge I gained during my experience. In no particular order, here are a few of the many things I took away from my trip to Macworld 2009:

• Expo food is over-priced – Ya know how they charge like $4.00 for a bag of popcorn at the movies? Macworld is like that but a x1000 worse. A pathetic bologna sandwich and a bottle of water came to $12.50.

• Floris Natural Benefits Soap – The Intercontinental San Francisco had some of this product line in our room and I couldn’t get enough of it. I must try and track down the Jabon hand soap for use at home!

• Craig has groupies – I mean I knew people loved Craig, but I didn’t realize they would actually wait in line to talk to him. Every day on the show floor was filled with people waiting to chat with Mr. Hockenberry, they just couldn’t get enough of him. All of that attention made me realize just how proud I am to be able to work with him.

• Mel’s Diner has the best lemonade – I’ve drank a lot of lemonade in my time, but the lemonade I enjoyed at Mel’s during the expo was, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever had. In my life. The perfect blend of sweet and tart that should not be missed.

• Chairs are precious – Our kiosk at the show only had one chair. I was told that to rent another for the week it would have cost $200. After spending almost 7 hours on your feet $200 didn’t seem that bad. When some bastard stole our one chair on Friday morning, we almost had a freak out. Luckily Travis was able to procure another in short order.

• Rickshaw computer bags – New product. CEO and owner gave me a demo of the bag and had me sold at like the 5th feature. If you are in the market for what could be the best computer bag you’ll ever own, check them out.

• Basil Thai on Folsom – Of all the wonderful places we ate while at Macworld, this little restaurant on Folsom Street was the best. From the appetizers to the wonderful desert and everything in between, it was to die for. Ged gives Basil Thai 5 stars!

• Meeting people – By far the best part about Macworld was simply meeting everyone. Tweeting with people is great, but Macworld reminded me that face to face contact can’t be beat. I met so many awesome people at the expo I can hardly keep track of them all. I especially enjoyed meeting the TUAW crew including Mike Rose, Christina Warren and Nik Fletcher. Other notable Mac heads I met during my week in San Fran included: Arlo Rose, Dan Moren, Rick Yaeger, Chris Pirillo, Rich Seigel, Michael Simmons, Scott McNulty and Arne Fismen.

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Market Yourself An iParadigm

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball links to an intriguing piece by Paul Kafasis on the state of the App Store. The post compares Walmart’s strategy to sell disposable, cheap goods to those of App Store “ringtone” developers which are forcing down prices. My friend and business partner, Craig Hockenberry wrote about this very topic a few weeks ago in a piece that put him in the crosshairs of quite a few people.

After Craig’s piece was published, and indeed after reading the post by Kafasis, some are under the impression that more expensive “AAA” apps are doing just fine thank you very much. The theory goes that one only has to look at the App Store top 10 list to understand it’s not price that gets you into the top 10, but quality. This, plus marketing on the part of the developer are all that’s needed to boost your software into the top 10 of the App Store. Reading through the comment thread at Inside iPhone it all seems so simple. All a developer has to do is market their app and the rest will take care of itself! Why didn’t I think of that?

The part I love the most is that the people making the “just market your app!” comment have no real idea how much effective marketing costs. Oh sure, you can go far on viral and word-of-mouth marketing, but it all pales in comparison to even a small banner graphic in the App Store. The Iconfactory could spend tens of thousands of dollars buying up targeted advertising space to promote Frenzic, but it still wouldn’t be 1/10 as effective as the front page graphics that Dropship, Marley and Texas Hold’em are enjoying (for free) as I write this. Not only that, but I have no way to track metrics for advertising pointing at Frenzic in the App Store. I can’t gauge how effective a $75 blog ad versus a $2,600 DF sponsorship is because Apple doesn’t currently give me stats of people clicking through to my software. Anyone who says “Just market it!” doesn’t have a solid grasp on how the App Store works.

Another example is Rolando. People are holding this app up as the ultimate example of a quality, non ringtone app that is enjoying success in the store. It is true that Rolando is a fantastic game worthy of the top spot it once held. It is also true that Apple promoted Rolando from DAY ONE in the App Store with major graphics both in iTunes and on Apple.com. All that exposure helped to get Rolando into the top of the store when it launched. But its $9.99 price point is like an anchor. As I write this, Rolando sits at #30 in the top 100, and #10 in games. Let me repeat that. #10. In games.

So what is in the App Store top 10 right now? iFart Mobile is number one which is still riding high on a wave of PR thanks to being originally barred. Crash Bandicoot, which is featured in national Apple television spots is #2. Tetris, perhaps the most well-known video game in history, is #3. Three more ringtone apps come in as 4, 5 & 6 including the months old iBeer. Touchgrind, which also enjoyed prominent Apple billing, is #7. Bejeweled 2 is number 8, PocketGuitar ($.99) is #9 and SimCity rounds out the top 10. All of these apps either enjoyed uncommon press exposure, have a nationally known brand or are priced at $.99. Quality definitely plays a role in getting to the top, but price and “Apple love” play a larger part.

Does this all mean that developers like myself will abandon making quality iPhone applications like Twitterrific and Frenzic? Of course not. I just wish that people who think they know how the App Store works would admit that they really don’t. The App Store is still in flux and much is unknown. What I do know however is that there are key factors to getting to the top of the store, chief among them being price and exposure from Apple. No amount of 3rd party marketing, done on a small developer’s budget is going to change that simple fact. What’s worse (or better, depending on your point of view) is once you are in the top 10, even if you’re app is a “limited utility” ringtone app, because you’re in front of millions of eyeballs both on the device and in iTunes, you’re bound to stay there.

I don’t know exactly how to fix the App Store, but everyone I’ve spoken with agrees that it needs fixing. If not fixing, at least a change in how it favors certain apps while hindering others. The more we talk about this stuff, the better it will be for both developers and customers alike.

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Time Keeps On Slippin’

Inspired by a recent tweet from my friend Craig, I’ve sat down and thought about the various forms of media / technology transitions that I’ve personally taken part in. This list is amplified by the fact that my 39th birthday is coming up and for some reason, I’m keenly aware of my age.

How many of these evolutions have you experienced? Do you have others you could add to the list? If so, I encourage you to post them in the comments section. Are these changes painful reminders or fond remembrances? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

• • •

vinyl > 8-track > cassette > CD > MP3

Walkie talkies > rotary > touch tone > cordless > cell

Finger paint > crayon > Lite-Brite > Etch-A-Sketch > Magna Doodle > WACOM

8″ floppy > 5 1/4″ > 3 1/2″ > SyQuest > Bernoulli > ZIP > removable

Apple IIe > IIgs > IIvx > Performa 6400 > Powermac G3 > PM G4> Dual PPC G5

Mattel Football > Merlin > Quiz Wiz > Game Boy > Nintendo DS > iPhone

Laserdisc > VHS > DVD > Blu-ray > Bit Torrent

Coca-Cola > “New” Coke > Coca-Cola Classic > Coke 2 > Coca-Cola Classic > Coke Zero > Coca-Cola Classic

Rubylith > Letraset > Pagemaker > QuarkXPress > InDesign

Adventure > Ultima > Bard’s Tale > Moria > Diablo II > World of Warcraft

Dewey Decimal > microfiche > Encyclopedia Britannica > Wikipedia

Odyssey > Atari 2600 > Intellivision > Nintendo ES > SEGA Genesis > Super Nintendo > Playstation > N64 > Game Cube > Wii

serial > SCSI > USB > Firewire > USB2 > WiFi

Play-Doh > Tinkertoys > Lincoln Logs > Erector Set > LEGOS

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Why Icons Matter

I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my career as an icon artist that a client considered their icons to be an after thought. After spending hundreds of man hours and pouring thousands of dollars into software development, some clients just refuse to devote the attention needed to the glyphs that act as both button and branding. At the Iconfactory, we try and educate clients about the importance of icons and how they strengthen a company’s brand as well as communicate a product’s core concepts quickly and easily. It may sound like marketing fluff, but years of experience have taught me it’s the truth.

So when it comes to designing our icons for our own software products, we almost always end up obsessing over them. The redesign of the application icon for xScope went through nearly 20 different revisions before we settled on a final version. This time around, the drama was caused by the new icon for Frenzic for the iPhone.

Standing Out From The Crowd

When it came time to design the icon for Mobile Frenzic, we knew we wanted to use a 2D translation of the OS X version from the desktop. However, unlike Mac desktop icons which have a canvas size of 512×512 pixels, iPhone and iPod touch app icons are limited to 57×57 and look best when designed straight on. At first we decided to translate Frenzic.com’s fav icon which was a pie of green and orange wedges on a glossy black base. Early beta versions of Mobile Frenzic used this icon, but there was a problem. It just wasn’t eye catching.

Our artist, David Lanham, went back and added a neon-like inner glow that gave the impression of the icon being lit from within, like it was a piece of plexiglass. The results were effective and with the addition of a high-tech circuit board motif, I knew we had a winner. The icon both stood out on the iPhone’s home screen and did a wonderful job of branding “Frenzic” on the device. Despite these successes, there were those among us that thought it stood out a little too much.

As artists, we often get butterflies the first time we show a client our designs. In this case, the “client” was Frenzic creator and lead programmer, Wolfgang Ante. We’ve had a close working relationship with Wolfgang for years and even though he almost always loves everything we do “out of the box”, he was hesitant about the icon’s treatment. Both he, and our own lead programmer, Craig Hockenberry played devil’s advocate and thought that the glowing, high-tech icon might be too dissimilar to be effective. The design didn’t seem to follow conventional wisdom for iPhone app icons and we debated the pros and cons of the design.

In Expertise We Trust

The great thing about working at the Iconfactory is that we play to each other’s strengths. While I may have ideas about how a particular software feature might work, I trust in the skill and expertise of Craig and Wolfgang to pull off the actual programming. I often put my faith in their hands when it comes to coding, and likewise, they do the same for us when it comes to design. This is more than I can say for many of our clients who think they know best when it comes to icon design. Despite a client’s lack of experience of how icons communicate, where they are seen, or the technical details needed to pull them off, I often get lectured on how they should be rendered or what form they should take.

So, in their wisdom, Wolfgang and Craig set their hesitations aside and let the designers do their job. The result was a unique and compelling application icon that was simple to understand, easy to spot and visually unique from all other iPhone application icons. Maybe its even helped sell a few extra copies at the same time.

All too often icons are treated as second-class citizens, especially in the App Store. Lately, developers have taken to plastering “SALE” or “60% OFF!” within their icons. They’ve become lazy and let the iPhone software mar their design with glossy highlights which obscure efforts to brand their software. They use dull colors or pile on heaps of detail that just adds unwanted noise to an already cluttered array of choices. After the flashy ad pitches have faded, the icon still has to live on the user’s device and is often the first line of interaction with the product. Fight the urge to cheapen your brand and instead give your icons the love and attention they deserve. You’ll still sell boat loads of copies and your users just might end up thanking you at the same time.

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We Have A Winner

Back in July I wrote about a new pocket video recorder that was due out from Kodak, the Zi6 HD camera. Kodak was positioning the device as a “Flip Killer” and people started tweeting and talking about it like crazy. When it was released, a bunch of the people I follow on Twitter bought the Zi6, but for one reason or another were unsatisfied and returned it, including my friend Dan Benjamin. In Dan’s blog post on the Flip vs the Zi6 he stated that the picture quality of the Kodak camera simply wasn’t up to snuff, especially in low light conditions. He also complained about stability and audio recording performance.

This past week Flip came out with a brand new entry in the pocket video space, the Flip Mino HD camera which is their answer to the Zi6. Given Dan and others’ hesitations about the Zi6, it would seem that Flip once again has the upper hand.

Not so fast.

Another friend and blogger, Scott McNulty, has posted an excellent side by side video comparison of the Flip Mino HD and Kodak Zi6 pocket cameras. To my eyes and ears, the results are pretty clear – the Zi6 wins hands down. Even from this short test, the Zi6 performs extremely well in all light conditions, even outdoors at night. The Zi6’s image is clearer, has truer color and increased detail than the Flip’s. The image stabilization of both cameras is about equal. As far as audio goes, some people will indeed like the fact that the Flip’s microphone picks up less ambient noise, but it also results in a muffled track that will most likely need to be amplified when edited. Not good.

When you look at the video comparison of the two cameras, and you factor in the Zi6’s increased screen size, it’s ability to take macro shots and its expandable storage capacity via smart media, I think the Zi6 comes out ahead. In addition, one of the complaints against the Zi6 vs the original Flip was that it was more expensive. With the release of the Mino HD, the Flip is once again the more expensive of the two, even when you factor in the rechargeable lithium ion batteries that users like John Lawson say you’ll need for the Zi6. Personally, if you’re recording in HD I’m not sure why you’d want a camera with inferior picture quality anyway, but then again, that just might be me. Thanks to Scott, I’ve finally made my decision and put the Kodak Zi6 on my Christmas wish list. Ho ho ho!

UPDATE: Andy Ihnatko has done his own comparison and interestingly has reached the exact opposite conclusion. He thinks the Mino’s picture is better. He’s on the preverbal “crack”. The Zi6’s image is much sharper, more defined and has better depth of color than the Flip. He does agree that the Zi6’s audio is better, which now there is no doubt about. So apparently if you like washed out images that need level adjustment and audio to match, the Flip is the camera for you. Personally, I’ll be sticking with the Zi6.

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RIM: What, me worry?

There are very few surprises left in the world, so when something outside my experience comes along, I prick up and take notice. Lately the shock of the new comes in the form of commercials from Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry line of smart phones.

Before April of 2008, RIM never saw fit to advertise its products or services to the general public, instead relying on its core business of Enterprise users to carry them to profitability. Despite calls from BlackBerry surrogates to build brand awareness, RIM was content to go about their business confident that nothing could erode their firmly entrenced army of “CrackBerry addicts“.

Then came the iPhone.

When the iPhone was released in June of 2007, RIM CEO Jim Balsillie shrugged off Apple’s entry and denounced the iPhone as a light-weight consumer device that would have little, if any effect on their core business market. At first this might have been true, but as the success of the iPhone grew and owning a smart phone became “cool”, even Research In Motion could see the writing on the wall.

In June 2008 Apple released the second generation iPhone, the 3G and again the media reported that RIM “wasn’t worried” about the iPhone. Deon Liebenberg, regional director for RIM actually said that the iPhone’s release would be good for BlackBerry since “BlackBerry will offer a serious [Enterprise] solution that Apple can’t.” Strangely enough these comments came just about the time RIM aired its first consumer commercial to the public.

In September Research in Motion missed sales targets for the BlackBerry device despite having recently expanded their product offerings. The addition of new (and potentially confusing) models to its already complex product line includes a phone with no physical keyboard, something that Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis had publicly stated wasn’t for RIM. Now come commercials that profess the BlackBerry to be more than just a tool for corporate email and Enterprise calendering. RIM wants to be hip.

In the end, all of these developments increase competition, and that is a good thing. It spurs innovation, lowers prices and gets companies like RIM and Apple off their complacent asses to develop and market better products. RIM’s recent moves will hopefully spark improvements to the iPhone as well as encourage Apple to correct service problems with Mobile Me. But the next time you hear an arrogant CEO brush off Steve Jobs, Apple or the iPhone just remember to take what they say with a huge grain of techno-salt. They probably have a commercial in the wings ready to advertise the stuff they just railed against.

UPDATE: Apple released its financial information for Q3 in 2008 this week and in terms of total revenue, Apple’s iPhone has outsold RIM’s Blackberry handily. Not bad for a company that has only been in the smart phone market 15 months.

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iPhone Wallpaper Problems Persist

I’ve written before about the problems the iPhone has regarding synched photos and wallpapers. Basically, in order to save HD space, Apple employs a custom dithering algorithm to compress any image that is synched to an iPhone or iPod touch. This has the effect of adding a slight grain to images that contain smooth gradients. I previously posted a workaround for this problem, but it only was effective if you were willing to jailbreak your device.

With the release of the 2.0 version of the iPhone firmware, I was hoping Apple would have improved the quality of synched images, but sadly that didn’t happen. I also got my hopes up too high when a new feature arrived in 2.0 allowing users to save images displayed in Mobile Safari to the photo library. Press and hold on any image and you will receive a dialog to save the image for later use, including as iPhone wallpapers. However, as I recently discovered, this new feature mangles images even worse than synching them.

You can see in the above example three magnified portions of a free wallpaper we offer at the Iconfactory. The image on the far left is the original JPG image saved with 100% quality from Photoshop. The second version is what happens to your wallpaper once it is synched via iTunes to your photo library on the device. While this version isn’t optimum, it is passable (barely) thanks in part to the dense pixel density of the iPhone’s display. The third example illustrates what happens when using the new “Save Image” option after you surf to a graphic, tap and hold. Due to high JPEG compression, image quality drops dramatically. Artifacts abound and for some reason, the OS even scales the picture up from its original dimensions creating interpolated pixels and a fuzzy image.

While the new option of saving images directly from the web is quicker and easier than manually saving and then synching images via iTunes, in my opinion, the poor quality negates the ease of use. Until Apple gets its act together regarding photos on the iPhone, users will have to put up with sub-standard images. This is a problem made all-together more frustrating considering the iPhone was lovingly designed to display stunning graphics, be they photos or videos.

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Greensboro Apple Store Update

Back at the end of July I took a picture of what I was sure was the future home of the new Greensboro Apple Store. Unlike my first guess, I was sure this time I had the actual location of the retail space and submitted it to The Unoffical Apple Weblog. The fine TUAW folks indulged my Jimmy Olsen fantasies and posted the picture to the cheers of Triad Apple fans. Unfortunately, last week Talos found out that the store in the picture will in fact be a new William Sonoma and not the Apple Store. So much for that Pulitzer Prize I was gunning for. Now comes this video from Greensboro WXII News 12 stating that the Greensboro Apple Store is indeed delayed until February of 2009. A major bummer to be sure, but if what the reporter in the piece is saying is true, then we have a good reason for the delay. I’ll take a larger Apple Store if it means we have to wait a bit longer. Must. Be. Patient.

FOX 8 Profiles The Iconfactory

If you’ve ever wondered just what I do at my day job, then this awesome 2 minute profile of the Iconfactory explains it pretty darned well. We were proud to be considered for WGHP’s “Made in North Carolina” series broadcast right here in the Triad. The goal of the series is to highlight companies that you may not realize are in NC, but that make things you know and use every day.

I didn’t realize that Texas Pete or Crest Toothpaste were made in North Carolina, so its fun to see just what the good folks of the Tarheel state are up to. Stewart Pittman of Fox 8 came by this past Monday and interviewed us to find out more about what we do and how we got started. The resulting segment pretty much nails what goes on at the Iconfactory each and every day. Stewart said he had a blast filming our office with all our toys we have on hand to keep our creativity up, and I think that comes out in the video. If you didn’t know better, you’d think we design toys instead of icons for a living. Our thanks go out to Stewart and everyone at Fox 8 for having us, we had loads of fun.

UPDATE: I’ve gone ahead and put up a better version of the video over at Vimeo that includes the Fox 8 intro and outro bumpers. Enjoy!

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Goodbye Flip, Hello Zi6!

News this week across the Internets that Kodak is getting into the portable video space in a big way with their supposed “Flip killer”, the Zi6 Pocket Video Camera. The news of this device is exploding onto the scene, almost like the original Flip Ultra did back in Sept. of 2007. I’m very excited about Kodak’s Zi6, but first a bit of history.

For months I had heard the hype surrounding the incredibly easy to use Flip Ultra. On blogs, in tweets and reviews, people everywhere were professing their love for the gadget. The Flip seemed to do for video recording what the iPod did for music listening – make it super easy and fun. I resisted jumping on the band wagon for months until I finally went to the Flip homepage and saw a sales pitch that I couldn’t resist. A man held up an old high-8 camcorder and said “You probably have one of these in the closet, but you don’t use it anymore, right? You have to find tape, charge it, lug it around, and by the time you do, the moment is over. It’s just not fun.”

I felt like a tool. How did he know me so well? I hadn’t shot video of anything in years because pulling out the camcorder was such a chore. Even worse were the hours of footage sitting on tape that no one would ever see because it was too difficult to capture and edit. From that moment on, I was committed. I ordered a cute, orange Flip Ultra and instantly felt like I was “back in the game”. However, over the next two weeks I came to realize that much of the hype surrounding the Flip, was just that… hype.

First, the good points about the Flip Ultra:

• Ease of use – It really is just point and shoot. It’s so easy I think even my mom could use it which is great.

• Picture quality – I found the picture quality to be good enough for almost all of my needs. The exception is medium to low light.

• Importing – Getting video onto my computer is fast and easy. The flip-out USB port means no cords to lug around.

But for each of these good points there are several bad ones as well:

• Fixed focus – You can’t shoot closer than about 1.5 feet from the lens. Sucks for tight shots, close-ups & forget about macro.

• Small screen – Because the 1.5 inch screen is so small, it’s difficult to tell when things are in focus or how they’re framed.

• Body shape – The lens protrudes from the body of the device and risks getting scratched. Sadly this is true of the new Flip Mino too. It also means the camera can’t sit properly on a flat surface.

• Encoding format – The flip encodes in MPEG-4 ASP (.avi) which means that it’s not ideal for Mac users. Feh.

Along comes Kodak, a company that used to be near and dear to my heart, to make a version of the Flip that addresses all of these negatives. According to the product specifications, the Zi6 will cost about the same as the Flip Mino (assuming they don’t immediately drop the price), and give you much more bang for your buck. Just take a gander at just some of the ways the Zi6 bests the Flip:

• HD video – Where the Flip is confined to 640×480 VGA, the Zi6 shoots in stunning HD 720p at 60 frames per second.

• Big screen – The Zi6’s 2.4 in. LCD screen is almost a full inch bigger than the flip which should make framing shots super easy.

• Mac love – The Zi6 encodes its clips with H264 compression as .mov files, perfect for use in iMovie on the Mac.

• Expandability – The camera has an SD/SDHC card slot that can hold up to an additional 32GB of video.

and the biggie for me:

• Focal range – The Zi6 has a “Close-up” mode that allows a minimum focal range of just 2 inches. Perfect for macro video captures of small objects like insects, LEGOs, etc.

The Zi6 webpage says the camera will be available sometime in August. However, when I placed my pre-order for the device on Amazon.com, their product page says the gadget will be shipping on October 1st. I’m not sure who’s date to believe, but since I waited to get one so long in the first place, I think I can live a few more months for the awesome Zi6. In the meantime, anyone wanna buy slightly used Flip Ultra? Come on, it’s orange!

UPDATE: Andy Ihnatko has started his testing of the Zi6. So far he’s only posted a single frame from one of the captured videos, but the results are pretty impressive. Check it out.

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What of Frenzic?

The launch of Apple’s App Store was one of those moments that developers live for. After weeks of coding, designing, testing, tweaking and debating, Twitterrific for the iPhone and iPod touch was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews. All of us at the Iconfactory, especially the big guy in Laguna, are all gratified that users seem genuinely happy with Twitterrific for the iPhone. Apple’s handheld hardware is a wonderful new development platform that’s bound to get better with time, and we were pleased to be present at launch.

However, throughout this whirlwind day, I kept receiving emails about another of our software products and why it wasn’t included in the App Store kick-off. That application of course, was Frenzic. More than a year ago, I posted on my blog asking users to write Apple in support of bringing a native version of our addictive Mac-based game to the iPhone. You showed your support for our efforts to bring the best possible version of Frenzic to the iPhone, and now thanks in-part to users like yourself, that native version is becoming a reality.

I’m here to tell you that Frenzic is definitely coming to Apple’s handheld party. Some of Craig’s coding buddies got an early sneak peek of Frenzic at WWDC, and it’s only gotten better since then. The mobile version of Frenzic is confirming my suspicions that this is how the game was always meant to be played. Placing pieces is fast, responsive and fun as all get out. There is a tactile sense of immediacy when playing Frenzic on the iPhone or touch that simply isn’t present in the desktop version. We still have tons of work to do, but trust me when I tell you it’ll be worth the wait.

In a way, I’m glad Frenzic wasn’t ready for today’s App Store launch. There are already tons of great games available for the iPhone. Pangea’s Enigmo and SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball both come to mind. Frenzic’s day will come, and when it does, all of us at ARTIS Software and the Iconfactory hope you’ll give it a try. The Mac desktop version’s slogan has always been “Addiction never felt so right.” Thanks to the App Store and iPhone, I think players everywhere are about to get addicted all over again. For now, hang tight and hone those reflexes. You’re gonna need it!

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Serenity Now!

To say things have been a little hectic at work lately would be an understatement. For the past several months, we’ve all been working hard to get you-know-what for the iPhone in ship shape. With the impending launch of the App Store, all of us have had our hands full and then some. In the midst of this massive effort, this 4th of July weekend, David and I travel to New York City to give a talk at the ICON5 Illustration Conference at the invitation of our friend and fellow artist, Von Glitschka. I can’t remember the last time I flew on a holiday and I can only imagine the travel nightmares that await us. My iPhone will be good and charged and packed with plenty of episodes of Futurama and Deep Space Nine.

Then there’s the little matter of day-to-day work at the factory. We’ve been snowed under at the office for months with a huge project that has kept us all busy every minute of every day. Having constant work is great, but it also makes it difficult to focus on internal projects like [REDACTED] and certain freeware releases that were only supposed to go on for a month, but due to forces outside our control, inevitably stretched into the future. If we could just get the R&D lab to perfect that cloning machine they’ve been teasing us with, everything would be peachy. However, as of this writing, there’s no word yet. Those bastards.

Somehow in the middle of all this madness, the gang at the Iconfactory managed to pull off an elegant punking of our dear friend and co-worker, Craig Hockenberry. See, back at WWDC Mr. Hockenberry came away with an ADA for his incredible work on Twitterrific for the iPhone and being the gracious man he is, he let Corey bring it back to North Carolina so the rest of us could get a fleeting glimpse of the “cube” before its return to Laguna Beach. Well, we thought it would be fun to create our own DIY ADA and mail that back to him just for kicks. We documented the creation process which you can find on the Iconfactory’s Flickr page. Needless to say the prank succeeded in putting a big smile on Craig’s face while relieving some stress around the office.

The good part of all this mayhem is that it keeps life interesting. There’s always a new challenge on the horizon, be it software, freeware or paying projects. Believe it or not, client work can sometimes provide a respite every now and then from the pressures we end up imposing on ourselves. Personally, if I can just get through July, I think I’l be just fine. Serenity now! Serenity now!

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My Home Away From Home

It always fascinates me to see what people’s workspaces are like. I love getting an inside look at how artists, programmers and designers organize their desktops and select the tools they need to do their job. Some workspaces border on zen-like art, while others take on an air of controlled chaos. Some of us work in our homes like my friends Wolfgang Ante or Craig Hockenberry. But most of us spend the majority of our weekdays at “the office”.

And so, I thought I would throw my hat into the ring and give you a small peek at my workspace. My desk at the Iconfactory in Greensboro is where I do much of the pixel-pushing, writing, designing and illustrating that helps keep the bills paid and clients happy. Each and every day, I’m fortunate to work in a creative atmosphere surrounded by talented and dedicated people. Like many of us these days, I’ve tried working at home for extended periods, but it just doesn’t suit me. I love the bustle of the Iconfactory and the creativity our “open plan” offers the group (except when more than 3 of us are on the phone at the same time). I hope you enjoy this small behind-the-scenes look where I spend my days. Head on over to Flickr to check it out. Enjoy!