I finally gave in, and upgraded the company’s iPod Touch for the purposes of testing the brand new iPhone app from 10 Downing Street. And then, as I spent an hour randomly resetting and restoring, I promptly remembered why I hadn’t upgraded for so long. Anyway…
On a technical level, the Number10 app is actually quite modest – just a pretty front end on its website’s RSS feeds, and the feeds from its YouTube, Flickr and Twitter accounts. But it’s really very pretty – and that kind of thing matters in the world of the iPhone. It feels like a perfect blend of native iPhone interface and the parent website’s house style.
It follows, coincidentally I’m sure, in the wake of recently-launched apps by both Labour and the Conservatives – and I’d say it’s the best of the three. The Tories’ somewhat dazzling effort may have more glitz, but the Number10 app feels better in terms of information delivery: and I like its one-click sharing button to send details to your Twitter and Facebook chums. (It’s quite surprising that neither the Labour nor Tory apps have sharing buttons.)
Not entirely sure who it’s aimed at, or what specific purpose it serves, other than providing an iPhone-optimised interface on those various web presences: but the same criticism can be levelled at many such ‘corporate’ iPhone apps.
I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions or predictions; I’ll leave those to other people.
Suffice to say, I’m increasingly of the opinion that web 2.0, as a phase in the web’s development, is over. I’m using almost exactly the same tools now that I was this time last year. It’s ages since any new technology (in and of itself) blew me away. And I’m very close to unsubscribing from TechCrunch, the trade journal of web 2.0. I just can’t think of the last thing I read in it which really excited me.
So here we are. It really feels like we have our winners in most of the ‘web 2.0’ categories: WordPress, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Basecamp, Google in various guises. And it feels like we have all the tools we need, most of them free of charge, to make things happen. Let 2009 be the year where we really start to make use of them.
What excites me?
- Optimised presentation on mobile devices, specifically the iPod Touch / iPhone (for now)… and as I’ve mentioned before, on games consoles like the Wii. By September last year, there were 3.6m Wiis in UK hands; and it’s been another big Christmas for Wiis. That’s a lot of internet-ready devices in a lot of UK living rooms.
- High definition video. We’re starting to see HD camcorders coming in at affordable prices, and YouTube is starting to deliver very high quality versions of uploaded clips. The quality is at least as good as TV, and sometimes I’d say better. I particularly like the look of the Canon SX1 (stills) camera – digital SLR functionality in a consumer product, with the ability to shoot HD video to SD card. £400’s a lot of money, but I’m still tempted.
- RSS. No, seriously. As an industry, we seem to have given up on mass consumer adoption. Instead, attention seems to be heading into how we can use it to create new sites in their own right, like Steph’s digitalgovuk catalogue or my own OnePolitics; or connect sites seamlessly across different CMSes. I’m even planning to build one site whose homepage will be powered primarily by its own RSS feed (too boring to explain). We need it more than ever, and it still isn’t letting us down.
- WordPress. Or more accurately, me using WordPress. I’m thinking up more and more clever ways to use it, and it’s almost a case of finding projects where I can squeeze in my new ideas – with or without the client knowing. 🙂 More details as things emerge, naturally.
- Cost-cutting. Having too much money is almost as bad as not having enough. It’s a magnificent opportunity for open source generally, and for people like myself (forgive me) who can whip up impressive solutions with it. The business cases for buying Big Ugly CMSes and hiring Big Ugly Consultancies will need to be very, very good.
- But most of all… good, substantial material going online. We’ve done enough trials and experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. Specifically, we’ve got enough examples to show that it won’t work unless you really make an effort. So let’s hope the ascent of Obama, and the prospect (however slim) of a UK general election inspire politicians in government and outside to really get stuck in.
We have all the tools we need, and it’s even easier than before. Let’s start delivering.
PS: Coincidentally – and yes, not a little ironically given the above – TechCrunch has today posted its list of ‘products I can’t live without‘. Most notable, to my half-awake eye, is the similarity with last year, and the gradual pruning of the more obscure names in favour of the Old Favourites. (Slightly surprised to see FriendFeed making the 2009 list, by the way.)
A few days ago, I bought an iPod Touch; and I can finally understand the fuss. I didn’t really want it; I’m not short of portable media players, and my Android phone gave me a perfectly good touchscreen to play with. But I’m very excited about mobile-optimised web interfaces at the moment, and felt I needed an iPod/iPhone to do some proper testing (as opposed to educated guesswork).
I’ve been especially blown away by the quality of videos streamed from YouTube. For example, I’m a big ice hockey fan – and the NHL (the big league in North America) is kind enough to put full highlights of every game on YouTube. But as you can probably guess, a flying puck isn’t easy to see in a heavily pixellated non-HD video stream. It’s a completely different story on the iPod Touch – crystal clear.
But – unless I’ve missed it? – there’s no easy way in the built-in YouTube applications, either on the iPod or Android, to log into your YouTube account and see your various ‘subscriptions’. On the face of it, it’s an extraordinary omission. Subscriptions are effectively your personalised EPG, allowing you to cut through the chaos, and get to the content you want. Isn’t that exactly what you want/need? So I did it myself.
That’s pretty cool… but here’s the really clever bit. If you have made your YouTube subscriptions publicly visible, you can call your own favourite channels into the dropdown – go to http://mytube.puffbox.co.uk/?account=yourname and you should see a familiar list. I should stress, my site never holds any personal information: it’s all coming in dynamically from YouTube.
Coincidentally, as I was putting the finishing touches to the site, I came across Charles Arthur’s piece in today’s Guardian about the Home Office crime mapping problems – which concluded thus:
The Free Our Data campaign thinks the practices outlined in the memo do not go far enough: what external developers especially are looking for is pure data feeds of events, rather than static maps… Ironically, the police’s efforts to meet the deadlines might be better aimed at producing those data feeds with time, location and crime form data which could then be used by external developers – who would be able to produce maps more quickly than in-house efforts.
I couldn’t agree more – and I hope my efforts over the last 24 hours prove the point. I’m amazed by how easy (relatively speaking) such things are becoming. The common thread across all the really successful web 2.0 properties is the availability of an API, allowing developers to work their own unique magic. As I’ve said before… Government needs to recognise this, and get in the API game. Not just as a ‘nice to have’, but as an absolute priority.
* 24 hours? Well, put it this way. It was working perfectly in Firefox, Safari (desktop and mobile), Chrome, Android… but not IE. It’s taken me the best part of a day to make it work in IE, and I still can’t really understand what I’ve done differently to finally make it work. Opera’s acting really strangely, but I’ve spent long enough playing with it for now.
I’ve just rebuilt my onepolitics website, which aims to bring together the latest from a personal selection of prominent political blogs into a single page. It’s the third incarnation of the site in less than a year: initially it was built in WordPress, then rebuilt in June as a more straightforward PHP/RSS-powered website. It’s had a steady trickle of people using it, measured in the dozens each day, but I’ve never pitched it as a public service: it’s always been for me primarily, but anyone else is welcome to drop by.
Version three recognises the primary use case of the key target audience (me): mostly on my mobile. And having just got my hands on a new T-Mobile G1 Googlephone, it seemed sensible to make the design work best in that context. So I’ve recoded the pages to give b-i-g touchscreen-friendly clickable areas, and applied some conditional code to select appropriate styling for the G1 and (as best I can) the iPhone. If you’re on something else, including a desktop browser, you’ll still get more or less the v2 design.
I’ve abandoned the filtering options, as it didn’t seem people were using them anyway. So now the site concentrates solely on its ‘homepage’ presentation of the latest 20 items from the political blogs considered by our editorial board (me again) to be the most prominent and influential. Updating is lightning fast, usually within a few minutes of an article’s publication, as it’s powered by feeds from Google Reader.
If anyone’s got an iPhone, could you try it out for me, and let me know how well it matches? I’ve tried to follow the Apple guidance, as far as I could be bothered anyway; and testiphone.com has been helpful (when used in conjunction with Firefox’s User Agent Switcher plugin).
PS: Quick Android tip. I’ve only seen it advertised on 18-month contracts, with no charge for the handset; but I got mine in a T-Mobile store on a 12-month contract for a £49.99 payment. I don’t know about you, but 18 months is a l-o-n-g time to be locked in.