May 17, 2011

Software Patents: One Developer's Perspective

Will the now ubiquitous "Pull-to-Refresh"
 mechanism patented by indie developer
Loren Brichter face similar outrage? 
Many app developers woke up to find some unpleasant mail waiting for them on Monday morning. It appears that Lodsys, a patent holding company, has contacted several independent iOS developers about claims of patent infringement regarding use of the iOS "in app purchase" method. They claim that use of this technology violates U.S. Patent 7,222,078, which they had purchased from inventor Daniel Abelow.

I am not one of the developers who has been contacted by Lodsys, so I can not comment on any of the specifics relating to those individuals.  However, Lodsys, in an effort to clarify their position and quell a public relations storm, created a blog.  You can read their blog here.

Intellectual Property Protection

Patents relating to software methodologies are difficult for many people to grasp. Unlike a more physical, tangible product, software is an abstract creation that develops in someones mind, is written in plain text characters, but then is transformed into something useful (or in the case of may iOS applications, something beautiful).  For many people, if they can't hold something, they have trouble completely understanding it. Or the complexity behind a simple "Click to Purchase" button seems absurd.

Personally, I am the inventor of software methodologies that benefit from intellectual property protection.  They are in a different field, completely unrelated to mobile technology.  In this field, protection of ideas is essential to the longevity and sustainability of the companies.  However, it should be apparent that protection of ideas is essential to the longevity and sustainability of any company.

The most obvious case of this is Apple.  For the most part, computing hardware is a commodity.  One might be designed and packaged by Jon Ive, but when you tear them down, they have basically the same components.  What is the difference between the iPhone and Android?  Software Patents.  Apple's superior iOS operating system (and the software patents that protect it) is the reason that consumers prefer the iPhone and Apple has the revenue and resources to continue to innovate.

Pull to Refresh Angst in the Developer Community

The immediate ripple through the developer community was one of say the least.  It seemed unfathomable that a patent holding company would go after indie developers, when the biggest fish in the world, Apple, was on the hook.  In Lodsys' blog, one of the most interesting claims they make is that Apple licenses this patent for their use; although it is not clear in what capacity (i.e. for their software or for the iOS SDK).

As a developer, I would have thought that a feature included in the official SDK would have been adequately licensed to cover use by developers.  I would have thought that this was one of the expenses covered by the 70/30 split in app sales revenues with Apple.  Still, most of the developer outrage was not as well placed, but instead focused on vilifying Lodsys and proclamations that software patents are evil.

This situation made me remember a similar indie developer outrage...but from the other point of view.  In the fall of 2010, Facebook was chastised by indie developers for "borrowing" the innovative "Pull to Refresh" mechanism that was pioneered by Loren Brichter in the Tweetie iPhone app by AteBits  Facebook later apologized for what they called an "oversight" and fixed the code attribution.  When Tweetie was acquired by Twitter, it become known that Brichter had filed a patent for the "Pull to Refresh" mechanism.

If this patent is awarded, will there be similar outrage in the indie developer community when AteBits (one of their own) seeks licensing fees for a feature that has become ubiquitous in many iOS apps?

In Closing

As an active developer, inventor and scientist, I have a strong belief in the protection of intellectual property...especially software.  Yes, there are different levels of patent enforcement (and Lodsys may be on the bottom rung), but the entire system can not be disparaged because of this.

To many indie developers software patents may look evil, but it serves their interests just as well, if not better, as those of large corporations.  It is what prevents a large studio stealing all of your ideas and reproducing your games.  It is what allows you to invest time and resources, knowing that you can benefit from your innovation and diligence.  It is what will allow indie developer Loren Brichter to knock on the door at Facebook and tell Mark Zuckerberg, "We need to talk.".

May 14, 2011

Happy Orthodox Mother's Day

I wonder if someone will will
play peek-a-boo with me?
The inability of Christians to decide between the Julian and Gregorian calendars means many Orthodox children are unwrapping their Christmas presents in January. While the week late observation of holidays is just one of the many discrepancies in Orthodox practices, it provides a perfect rationalization in our family to celebrate important events on a later date. For example, when I happened to be traveling for work on my birthday last year, we just celebrated my Orthodox birthday a week later.

Last Sunday, I had to invoke our Orthodox observation policy since we were returning home from an out-of-town wedding on Mother's Day. Since spending all day in airports and on airplanes seemed like more of a punishment than celebration, we officially postponed it until today.

Real Mother's Day

God knows how a popsicle sculpture (my 5 year-old's present), a complete line of macaroni jewelry (my 3 year-old's present) and a life-size tracing of my 2-year old (his present) would have held up in a suitcase, but that morning I regretted not bringing the presents. We exchanged cards, but it all felt a little unofficial without homemade presents (also because it was happening in a hotel room). Thankfully, the rush to pack the suitcases and wrangle all the kids to the airport overshadowed everything else.

In addition to early boarding with children, another compelling
reason to fly Southwest drinks on Mother's Day.
Once we boarded the plane, the kids all agreed that mommy should get the window seat as a "Mother's Day" present. This was actually quite a selfless gesture, as positioning next to the window seat ignited a 2-hour battle on the flight down. Not that we were keeping score, but the 3-year old won...she just wanted it more.

Finally, once the novelty of climbing over the top of seat wore off (about an hour), everyone gave mommy the greatest gift of all...they fell Mommy something she hadn't had in a very long time...4 hours to herself. To top it off, Southwest Airlines gave her the second greatest gift of all...a complimentary Bloody Mary to enjoy in solace.

Orthodox Mother's Day

With 3 kids, getting an hour to yourself (even
if it is to cut the lawn) is the greatest gift of all.
Our family officially celebrated Mother's Day this morning and all the homemade gifts from the children were cherished dearly. We made our traditional trip to the nursery and bought flowers for the yard. Despite it being 50 degrees in May, we planted them all.

I surprised Margret with something that she has been asking for for years...a new lawnmower. While that may seem a little unsentimental, it's what she really wanted. Then, as a family, we gave her one last hour to cut the lawn...or an hour to herself...depending how you look at it.

Happy Orthodox Mother's Day!

April 29, 2011

Dick and Jane and Vampires (and App Discovery Week)

Promo code giveaways are now accessible directly
within the Moms with Apps app on Page 2.
As "App Discovery Week" came to a close last week, it capped off the largest app promo code giveaway of its kind since the iPhone revolutionized mobile computing. When it was all said and done, 3972 applications were given away with a value just shy of $10,000. A special thanks goes out to all the developers who donated promo codes for their apps.

By design, the promotion was meant to encourage app discovery by randomly giving away anonymous apps. A user wouldn't know what app they were getting until it finished downloading. This approach was met with very mixed responses. For those people who received an app they liked, they loved the idea. Those people who received an app they didn't like thought it was terrible idea.

Our use of Push Notifications to begin each giveaway was also met with mixed reviews. The majority of users treated it like a game, waiting anxiously by their iPhones, ready to click. However, more than a few people felt the Push Notifications were intrusive (and annoying) and went so far as to let me know they were removing the Moms with Apps app1.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The feedback we received from everyone, both the good, the bad and the ugly, was very helpful and in the future promo code giveaways will be conducted differently. The most important difference will be that giveaways are now built directly into the app. On Page 2 of the Moms with Apps app, there is a new category called "Promo Codes". When promo codes are available, they will be listed here. Be sure to follow Moms with Apps and BabyBinks on Twitter and Facebook to be the first to know when promo codes are available.

In the future, we will also be more reserved about sending Push Notifications for promotions. In general, we send out a notification every Friday to remind everyone about special App Friday promotions run by the Moms with Apps blog. In addition, we will send out notifications on other special deals or events that we believe will be of interest to the majority of our users. For example, a notification was sent out when entire catalog of "Everyday Mathematics" applications were set to Free to kick off the NCTM conference.

On Discovery

Despite all of our efforts, we acknowledge that the act of "discovery" can not be artificially created. It can be encouraged, as we did through this promotion, but there is no substitute for those serendipitous circumstances that introduce you to something you didn't know existed (but always needed).

These are the kind of events that took place for me this past weekend. While playing hide-and-go-seek at our public library with my 2-year-old, I happened to tuck behind a bookshelf and found myself face-to-face with "Dick and Jane and Vampires". Yes, it's a real book. Yes, it's as great as it sounds. And now our family has a new favorite book.

In that same spirit, I hope that iPhone and iPad owners will take time to click past the first page of iTunes and look past the Top app lists. There are a lot great educational apps just waiting to be discovered. I don't know if you'll find something as great as "Dick and Jane and Vampires and Calculus", but you will definitely find some fantastic apps that will soon be your families' new favorite.

1. For instructions on how to change how your device receives notifications from any app, please see this tutorial.

April 18, 2011

Catholics Come Home: A Cautionary Tale

Forgive me for I know not what I do.
And can I have a pony?
The Catholic Church has spent considerable marketing effort to lure lapsed Catholics back to church with its "Catholics Come Home" campaign. In it, they make an appeal to those who have been away to come back and rediscover how the Church can enrich their lives. Our family goes to church enough not to feel that this is message is directed at us per se, but we do have the occasional "attendance dry spells" that seem to happen when life gets in the way of securing our position in the after-life.

Giving Up Not Going To Church

In additional to the traditional "giving up soda" offering during the Lenten season, we decided to give up not going to mass. It started out good and we made it to Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a great way to break back into the Church going mode because its not a full mass. Plus the "dirt" on everyone's heads is enough to distract the kids enough to keep them in the pews for 45 minutes.

Depending on how Catholic you are, sometimes you can convince yourself that going to Ash Wednesday mass counts as Church for the week (since technically it is not a holy day of obligation). We are just unholy enough to subscribe to this justification so we missed the next Sunday. The following Sunday we had an out of town birthday party, which according to my Catholic school graduate wife, somehow trumps Church. I think it has something to do with serving your fellow man, but either way, no one complained.

If You're Coming Home, Check the Liturgical Calendar

The combined guilt of years of Catholic school had finally burdened us enough that we resolved to go to mass this past Sunday. Per usual, we arrived about 5 minutes late to mass. Normally, this is actually a good thing, as we can sneak in the back and then are properly positioned to leave right after communion. This is an expert Catholic move that can only be perfected by years of practice. The trick is to wear your coat to communion. You can't go back in the pew to get'll get trapped. That's a classic mistake.

As we walked into Church the unusually large crowd gave me pause. When I looked down, I realized that we were in big trouble. It was Palm Sunday!

Growing up, Palm Sunday was the one chance a year to practice your basket weaving skills without ridicule. Since the mass usually runs twice as long due to the reading of the Passion, you have more than enough time to convert a handful of palms into all kinds of handy things. I usually make bracelets. My kids lack the dexterity (and patience) for the fine are of weaving, so when they see the palms they see one swords.

At Least We Got Great Seats

It was a packed house, which usually means standing in the back, however, my 5-year old was eager to point out the empty front row seats. Before I could say a word, she took off down the aisle, interrupting the homily, as we apologized and crept behind her.

Her enthusiasm in the front row was not based on religious fervor, it was driven by her disturbing new interest in pantomime. She likes to mirror all the movements the priest makes during mass. At certain times it can be highly inappropriate, but most of the time it's very cute.

The Danger of Being Reverent

Trying to atone for our tardiness, the disruption, and my daughter's pantomime of the Passion of the Christ, I bowed my head to offer up heartfelt prayers. After completing a few Hail Mary's and several pleas for more patience as a father, I had a good feeling that someone was watching over me.

While bowing your head is a universal sign of reverence, it leaves your parenting quite compromised. When I looked up, I realized that the feeling that someone was watching over me was not as spiritual as I has hoped. Before me stook the priest pointing his finger at floor. Slightly confused I looked at my daughter, who, not breaking character, was also pointing in the same direction. Following their fingers, I finally saw what he was getting at. My 2-year-old son drawing on the floor. He had spent the length of my prayer channeling an inverse Michelangelo.

I would later learn my wife had put the Sharpie in her purse to keep it away from him, but she had take our middle-child to the bathroom, leaving the Sharpie unguarded. So I spent the next 30 minutes trying to nonchalantly remove permanent maker from a marble floor using nothing but baby wipes and my foot.

Forgive Thy Neighbor

Thankfully, part of being Catholic is that strong sense of forgiveness that you are compelled to show your neighbors. The priest was very gracious about the incident and assured me that both he and God would forgive me. Although, he said he could not speak for our church's historical curator.

So, as many lapsed Catholics are sneaking into Church for their bi-annual (Christmas and Easter) obligations, I offer a few warnings on the dangers of being too late, sitting too close, and being too reverent. And for God's sake, never leave the house with a Sharpie!

Happy Easter.

April 11, 2011

Moms with Apps Presents "App Discovery Week"

All week long, users of the Moms with
Apps app will receive push notifications
directing them to promo codes for
educational and family friendly apps.
As larger publishers and recognizable brands are beginning to take the App Store more seriously, it will undoubtedly become even more difficult for small, independent app developers to get noticed and attract customers. Most independent developers work on shoe string budgets, are self-financed by personal savings, and are fueled sheer determination. This is especially true of the educational app market, as it represents a mere fraction of the Game market, and holds even less possibility for financial success (even with a hit).

The "gold rush" days of the App Store are long gone, and even with little prospect of breaking even, the indie developers tirelessly work to fill the App Store with high-quality titles that rival those of the largest, most established studios. While these developers can easily compete on app creativity and technical execution, it will become increasingly challenging to compete against their marketing resources.

We've Got Spirit, How About You?

One thing that the indie developers do have is community. While big studios look at their contemporaries as competitors, indie developers have camaraderie among themselves. This cooperative spirit is what drove the formation of Moms with Apps.

Formed by a few mom developers who met while promoting their apps on Twitter, it now includes over 300 developers (including dads) focused on educational and family-friendly apps. Together, these developers are banding together sharing ideas and strategies, trying to claim a stake of the educational app marketplace before there isn't any room left.

Feeding Word of Mouth

One of the missions of Moms with Apps is to help promote independent children's and family-friendly app developers. While our promotion methods can be considered "grass roots" campaigns, they are actually perfectly suited to the way that people discover new apps....word of mouth. With this in mind, Moms with Apps is proud to introduce App Discovery Week.

This week, Moms with Apps will be giving away 500 promo codes per day (Monday-Friday) through the Moms with Apps app. Collectively, the giveaway is worth over $4000. Each day, several times a day, users of the Moms with Apps app will receive a push notification that will direct them to a special page in the app. On this page, they will find promo codes donated by Moms with Apps members. Users can simply tap the "Redeem" button to instantly redeem the promo code on their iOS device.

Putting the Discovery in App Discovery Week

As you can see, there is no information about what app you are downloading. This is the discovery part. While recommendations are the number one way that people decide to purchase apps, they also bias customers to the download the same apps. People are less likely to buy apps that they've never heard of...even if it is only $0.99.

So this week, download a few new apps courtesy of Moms with Apps and maybe you'll discover a new app that will become one of you children's favorites. If you do find one you like, please make an effort to tell a friend or write a review in the App Store.

Don't Tell Your Friends About This

The promo code giveaways are on a first come, first download basis, so users should be ready to move quickly when they receive the push notification. However, if you want a little heads up, we will be sending out updates via Twitter and Facebook to let you know when we're about to send the notification. Simply become a fan of BabyBinks on Facebook and follow @babybinks on Twitter.

Don't forget: You can only redeem the promo codes through the Moms with Apps app, which is available as a Free download in the App Store.