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Sunday 1 January 2012

Dusting off the looking glass

It's that time again... to make a few statements I can feel ridiculous about later on. I did take an advance position back in October regarding Internet platforms, so no need to touch that topic again just yet (especially after the additional HTML5/Flash comments in November). As before though, let's take a look at what my hit rate is.

#1 Oracle's jostling on Java patents will hurt Java as a platform: yeah, although it's hard to notice, what with the chatter on cloud platforms instead. Still, you've got to write that cloud-hosted application in some language, and though evidence is sparse, it seems to me that more devs are picking other tools. Somewhat insanely, PHP still ranks well in those selections, which proves that these things don't follow any observable logic, though.

#2 Amazing natural motion control applications during 2011: well, not really, yet. XBox Kinect has supposedly continued to sell well, though Microsoft hasn't given any sales data since last March (when they announced 10 million units sold), but applications are rather lame. Some pretty amazing research stuff going on though, which will ultimately enable computers to truly augment live views into the real world.

#3 Flash and new computing devices: see the other posts, linked above. Progress is steady but impact will take several years. As for the long-term view; while my daughter already understands that tablets and phones are for looking at stuff and playing, and keyboards are for banging, I maintain hope that in the next couple of years, she will be able to interact with computers by speech as well as gestures. We'll still need to invent the new human-computer interface best practices for that age, though.

Facebook/Timeline did finally launch before end of 2011. What do you think of it? I haven't seen a reason to change my view since October, although the "social reader" apps like Washington Post's or Guardian's certainly are annoying. Don't know if I should expect media companies to learn how to interact with people, though.

Now, the predictions. This one's gonna be difficult. Not because the world would be ending this year, but because it seems like quite a few macro trends are converging. Lots to feel optimistic about: locally, the interest in growth entrepreneurship and globally, new forms of peaceful citizen democracy, and the ever-continuing development of technology (gene therapy and data-driven, preventative medical treatments are exciting). A few that I hope will turn out well, though it's going to be a bumpy road: the ongoing Arab Spring as well as the Russian pro-democracy movement, the Euro crisis, which could still lead to yet another banking collapse. And finally, some political and regulatory changes that are quite worrying, even if I've tried to avoid a position on politics, and especially politics outside the EU. Still, these bother me for both their privacy as well as anti-competitive aspects and lack of due process: ACTA, SOPA, NDAA. Still, these are hardly going to bring the Singularity around quite yet, dystopian though they seem.

However, I don't want to pretend I care about or follow politics closely enough to understand why these things always come years behind and over-reach, so I'd rather focus on something more tractable. In terms of professional interests, the trend toward hosted, multiplayer gaming is, by now, quite unstoppable. We're moving on from the Social Games 1.0 of Facebook Canvas, though, and the future is more for games where the players' actions impact each other. The challenge is, we need to learn to design these games so that while they truly have group interaction in their core, they still remains games; that is, masterable, repeatable and somewhat predictable experiences people can continue to enjoy, and a source of richness their lives might otherwise be lacking.

As always, comments welcome. This year this post was quite hard to focus on anything in particular, and maybe you have better insight. Let me know. In any case, Happy New Year! Whatever you do, make 2012 matter.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Where the chips fall - platform dominator for 2012

It's been about a year since I put my prognosis skills on the line and tried to predict where technology and consumer products are heading. Since today is National Fail Day in Finland, perhaps it's time to try again. Lets see how right or wrong I end up being.

Last year I noted a couple of things about mobile platforms and of the software environments best suited for creating apps on them. While this year has seen a lot of development on those fronts, little of it has been in surprising directions. HTML5 is coming, but not here yet. If WebGL and Intel's River Trail project were supported by the Big Three (IE, Firefox and WebKit, ie Safari/Chrome), that'd make an amazing game platform - but at least the latter is research-only at this point, and IE9 isn't going to support either. In the meantime, Adobe finished Flash 11, which now has hardware-accelerated 3D in addition to a pretty good software runtime, and, after only 10 days out, already has 42% reach for consumer browsers (at least judging by stats on habbo.com). Like I've said a long time, Flash gets a lot of undeserved crap due to the adware content created on it. We won't get rid of that by changing tech, and platforms should be judged by their capabilities in the hands of good developers, not by mediocrity. And, as far as mobile goes, the trend continues -- iPhone and Android battle it out, now also in courts as well as in consumer markets, while everything else falls under the wagon. If you're creating an app -- do it either with a cross-platform native toolchain, or with HTML5. If you're doing a game, do it with Unity or Flash, and build a native app out of it for mobile.

The interesting thing, to me, is playing out on the Internet. Google+ came out as a very nice product with well-balanced feature set, but (fairly predicably, though I was rooting for it) failed to catch the early adopter fancy for long enough to displace Facebook in any niche. Facebook, on the other hand, scared (or is going to scare) 40% of their audience by announcing Timeline (eek, privacy invasion!). Brilliant move -- you can't succeed today without taking such leaps that nearly half of your audience will be opposed to them, at least initially. Smaller changes simply aren't meaningful enough.

So, I'm betting on Facebook. I'd also guess that once they get Facebook Credits working outside of the Canvas, they're going to demand that any app using Facebook Connect log-ins will accept Credits for payment. I'd hazard a guess they're even going to demand FB Credits exclusivity. They'll fail the latter demand, but that won't stop them from trying it. Having your app's/game's social publishing automatically done by Facebook simply by feeding them events, and not having to think about which ones are useful to publish, is just such a big time saver for a developer, no one will want to miss out on it.

Not even Zynga. They're doing this destination-site, we're-not-gonna-play-inside-Facebook-anymore strategy, but continue to use Facebook Connect for log-ins. That's not because FB Connect is so much more convenient than own username and password (though it is), but because even they can't afford to let go of the "free" access to people's social network. That's the power of Timeline and the new, extended Graph API.

The chips are still in the air. When they fall, I think Facebook will be stronger than ever, but strong enough to displace the "rest of the Internet"? No. As a developer, I want to push Facebook the data for in-game activities, because that saves me time doing the same thing myself. As a publisher, I'm unsure I want Facebook to have all that info, exploiting them for their purposes, risking my own ability to run a business. As a consumer, it makes me uneasy that they have all that info about me, and while I can access and control quite a lot of it, I can't know what they're using it for. I don't think that unease will be enough to stop me or most other consumers from feeding them even more data of our lives, likes and activities. Still, they're only successful doing this as long as they don't try to become a gatekeeper to the net - nor do they need to do that, since they get the data they want without exerting control over my behavior. Trying to fight against that trend is going to be a losing strategy for most of us - possibly even for Google. Apple and Microsoft won't need to fight it, because they're happy enough, for now at least, to simply work with Facebook.