apps

Facebook is in the press lately because the company is forcing users to communicate with friends through a separate Messenger app instead of the main Facebook app. The former is #1 on the app store but people are rebelling by slamming it with 1-star reviews. Privacy is also a common rallying cry, the accusation being that the app is too aggressive with permissions.

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Nobody likes to be forced to do anything, so it’s not surprising to see people react negatively. Many are still wary about online privacy, even as it is an increasingly illusory concept.

We think those knee jerk reactions are overblown. Facebook Messenger is a decent product and it’s no more aggressive in its privacy policies as other messaging apps.

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I purchased the Chromecast eons ago, partly out of curiosity and partly because the price was low enough to be an impulse buy.  I haven’t used it much as my PC is directly connected to my big screen TV so the Chromecast’s raison d’etre doesn’t apply in my case.

Recently, I discovered a killer app for the Chromecast – all you hardcore people probably know about this already; I was late to the party because of the iPhone 5S – and it changes everything for the dongle.

It’s called Popcorn Time for Android.

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The new Foursquare 8.0, just released today and after unbundling, is of particular interest to me as it was basically what feecha versions 1 and 2 tried to do starting from two years ago. Feecha had a broader scope: it wasn’t just about food and places but about news, events and activities too. Our implementation was also a lot less structured with a feed approach, instead of the lists and directories you see in Foursquare.

The similarities are there: Default content is about what’s around the user. Users’ experiences were personalized by who they follow and what interests (i.e. tastes on Foursquare) they have. They get alerted when something relevant and interesting is nearby without needing to open the app. Foursquare’s “Tips” section was basically our main news feed and you level up (i.e. expertise on Foursquare) when people appreciate your contributions.

Sadly, we gave up on that ambition when it came to version 3 because of one key reason: we just couldn’t get enough good data. We relied on users to create useful content and that proved exceedingly difficult. Foursquare 8.0 — at least for food and places, and with their archive of 55 million tips — is executing that vision a lot better than we could.

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Instagram is testing their new app Bolt in Singapore, New Zealand and South Africa for iOS and Android, and I got my grubby hands on it.  Bolt is one-tap photo messaging, like a simpler Snapchat.  And you know what…I kinda like it, though I don’t know how defensible it would be as a business.

It’s attractive and single-minded.  There’s no confusion to the app’s purpose.  One tap to send a photo or video might not seem much different than say, Snapchat’s three taps, but surprisingly it’s increased the number of messages I usually send.  Maybe that’s because testing Bolt is top-of-mind, but I don’t think so.

One tap messaging feels so effortless — it’s easier than typing a text and yet can say so much more.  Sending dozens of photos and videos throughout the day to let someone know how things are going doesn’t feel like work.  With Bolt, it feels natural.

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Foursquare is pivoting to a focus on place recommendations – e.g. restaurants and cafes – and this made us wonder how the app actually stacks up to the competition already there. Food is the biggest category and since we are in Singapore and food is inherently local, we examine the competition here: Yelp, Hungrygowhere, SoShiok, 8 Days Eat, Pickat and Burpple in addition to Foursquare.

We pit all seven apps against each other, reality game style, to see who comes out on top. The answer may surprise you.

Note: We tested the iPhone versions of all seven apps.

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Recently, Foursquare had split itself into two: one new app, Swarm, to focus on check-ins and seeing friends’ locations; and a new recommendations app to compete with Yelp. The latter will keep the Foursquare name.

This division makes no sense. We’re not even talking about the wisdom behind unbundling, although that’s still questionable. Founder Dennis Crowley made that division because he thinks recommendations is the future and he wants to give it the best possible start, thus inheriting the Foursquare namesake and its 40 million user base. This is success theater because what makes more sense is for recommendations to be the new app, and for Foursquare to still be about check-ins.

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We previously wrote how Skype did a smart thing by creating one consistent design for its version 5 across iPhone, Android and Windows Phone.  It’s smart because it will save time and raise the probability of a high performing, consistent experience.

App developers should test and iterate their apps’ design until satisfied of greatness.  If you have a different design for each OS, that’s multiple times the amount of work needed to test and iterate.  Totally unnecessary.  A great design is universally intuitive; an iPhone user will be able to use a well-designed Android app and vice versa.  And if they can’t — requiring the back button to navigate the Android version for example — guess what, that’s not a great design.

There are many examples of good cross-platform design and the most obvious one is Instagram.  The Android version is nearly identical to the iPhone version.  When the design works, why risk changing things just for the sake of the OS?  Of course, you should still take into account each OS’ quirks.  For example, with feecha the sharing function is native to Android, whereas we had to custom build it for iPhone.  But if we were to port feecha to Windows Phone, it will look exactly like our design for iPhone and Android.

Then there are apps that are designed differently for iPhone and Android, and often to bad results.  One such example is Yahoo Sports.

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Yahoo has acquired Flurry for a reported $200 to $300 million.  Ostensibly it’s for Flurry’s targeting ability and fledgling ad network; but I have a more sinister suspicion, totally unfounded.

To wit: Yahoo’s ambition is to be your daily habit, whether that’s mail, news, weather, etc.  Increasingly, that means mobile.  However, their impact there so far is questionable.  What Yahoo app is a must-have?  None.  How can they be smart enough or visionary enough to create the next Snapchat?  The next Instagram?

Flurry can be the answer.  Mine the Flurry database and analyze which apps are doing well — based not on fluff like hype and press coverage, but on the actual metrics that count like growth, retention and engagement.  Study those apps and then decide whether it’s something Yahoo should clone.

Nutty conspiracy theory?  Maybe.  Given Yahoo’s disappointing results so far, Marissa Mayer may decide it’s time to change the rules of the game.  “What matters is we build products that people love,” she said.  If Yahoo can’t do that on a level playing field, maybe it’s time to cheat a little with Flurry.

With Microsoft in the news recently (18,000 in layoffs!), we thought we’d check in with Skype 5.0, which launched last month for iPhone and will soon debut on Android. Skype used to be the name in messaging, but in today’s mobile world the venerable brand has become an afterthought to Whatsapp, LINE and even Google Hangouts. So how does Skype 5.0 fare?

The Skype team apparently rebuilt the app from scratch with a focus on speed. I’m glad to report the new version doesn’t feel slower than its competition. It looks good too. Microsoft wisely decided to stick to one common design (Windows Phone) and apply it everywhere. One nice upgrade is that if you use Skype for both desktop and iPhone, if a message is read on one it’s automatically marked as read on the other.

However, Skype remains as unusable as ever. Why? Contacts still works like it’s from the 90s. To message a new contact, I have to first search, hope the right person shows up and then manually add her. What makes it worse is that I haven’t used Skype in a long time, so most of the contacts in the “people” section are outdated.

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Oh Samsung.  Did you know the Korean giant has its own Android app store?  The friendly, local Samsung team asked us to put feecha on it and we were happy to oblige.  Just a few hundred downloads later over the next three months, we’ve been neglectful about uploading new version updates.

Perhaps our experience wasn’t the exception, because Samsung recently revamped its app store from the ground up.  It’s called Samsung Galaxy Apps now with a fresh coat of paint.  The cool thing about it supposedly is that it has “hundreds of apps” that are exclusive to Samsung Galaxy devices.

Guess how good those apps will be?  If you guessed “not very,” you’d be right.  The best Android apps won’t limit their potential market by being exclusive to a second-rate store; it’ll be on Google Play.

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