I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Mutex Nintendo

John Gruber elaborated and responded to some of the criticism about his position that Nintendo should make iOS games:

Here is what I’d like to see Nintendo do.

Make two great games for iOS (iPhone-only if necessary, but universal iPhone/iPad if it works with the concept). Not ports of existing 3DS or Wii games, but two brand new games designed from the ground up with iOS’s touchscreen, accelerometer, (cameras?), and lack of D-pad/action buttons in mind. (“Mario Kart Touch” would be my suggestion; I’d buy that sight unseen.) Put the same amount of effort into these games that Nintendo does for their Wii and 3DS games. When they’re ready, promote the hell out of them. … Sell them for $14.99 or maybe even $19.99.

It’s a good idea, and one that Nintendo should probably do. But that’s not the problem.

I wrote about Nintendo’s predicament in 2011 and again earlier this year, and my theory remains:

Nintendo needs the profits of the high end, but they can’t compete there anymore. All of the growth is happening at the low end, which is mostly games that they can’t or won’t make. And even if they succeeded in casual gaming, it probably wouldn’t bring the kind of profit that they need.

I’ve previously argued that Nintendo shouldn’t make iOS games because it wouldn’t bring in enough money to solve their problems. But I was always thinking of making iOS games and making their own hardware as mutually exclusive. Gruber makes some great points that have convinced me that Nintendo could do both, and I no longer believe their theoretical iOS games would harm their hardware business.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about competition. The biggest lesson has been that in most cases, products and companies live and die by their own actions, not their competitors’.

Apple didn’t almost die in the ’90s because Microsoft was competing well: they almost died because their hardware was overpriced and their operating system was primitive and archaic.

Sega’s hardware business didn’t die because Nintendo and Sony kicked its ass: it died because Sega threw away the Genesis’ tremendous fanbase and success by sloppily releasing the Sega CD, 32X, and Saturn, all of which were overpriced, uncompetitive, and poorly supported by game developers and Sega itself. By the time the relatively good Dreamcast was released, most fans and game developers had lost all faith in Sega and moved on to other systems.

Nintendo’s strongest asset and greatest enemy has always been itself, its history, and its spotty record for making important decisions. Their hardware business is going to succeed or fail on its own, regardless of whether they release any smartphone games. Many people willing to pay a good price for a Nintendo iOS game would gladly also buy a Nintendo console or hand-held if it was good enough. And Nintendo still needs that, because they’ll make far more profit by selling people piles of $40 controllers and $25 plastic accessories than they could ever make on a $7.99 iPhone game.

The problem is that we aren’t seeing much evidence that Nintendo can produce any more hardware that’s good enough to compete with ubiquitous smartphones, cheap tablets, and their increasingly attention-competitive world of non-gaming killer apps.

Cree LED bulb flaw

I bought a bunch of these after this review, but I discovered a flaw in one:

After just 3 months of being installed in a downward-facing, open above-sink bathroom fixture that’s only on for about an hour a day, the glue that holds the glass dome over the housing gave out. I found it dangling there one morning, about to fall and shatter. I poked a couple others that were in open fixtures, and while no others were this bad, the glass felt a bit loose on some.

I’m still happy with these bulbs overall, but I suggest keeping an eye on them in open fixtures and being careful when taking the covers off of enclosed fixtures.

(I was able to leave the glass off and swap this bulb with an intact one from an enclosed fixture.)

It’s All About The Games

In the recent geek discussions about Nintendo’s predicament, many have cited the theory that Lukas Mathis details in Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology:

The basic idea is to use existing, cheap, well-established technology, and use it in new ways, thus allowing Nintendo to introduce new, innovative concepts at affordable prices. … Whenever Nintendo produced videogame systems that used established technology in surprising ways, it did well. When it tried to compete on specs, it did poorly.

I don’t think this is a reliable indicator:

The Game Boy won against better-specced competitors, because it used cheaply available parts in an innovative package. The better-specced Game Gear and Atari Lynx could not compete.

The Game Gear and Lynx were huge and heavy, and slaughtered batteries to power smeary, dim, horrible color LCD screens before screen or battery technology could pull that off acceptably. They failed because they sucked as products and never had any must-have games.

The Game Boy was just barely good enough hardware to be usable, and it came with a must-have, killer, once-in-a-generation hit game that worked well despite its hardware limitations and appealed to almost everybody: Tetris.

That’s why it succeeded.

It’s even more plain with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Both used cheaply available components (the low-end ARM chips in the DS, or the cheap accelerometers and infrared camera in the Wii Remote) in interesting new ways, and were able to outsell technologically superior competitors.

These are the two best examples of Mathis’ theory. The DS nailed cheap, portable gaming especially for kids, and the Wii was cheap and surprising. But the DS’ success had a lot to do with the incredible popularity of its Pokemon games, and the Wii was successful almost entirely because of Wii Sports, which is almost as compelling of a mass-market, must-have game as Tetris.

The Gamecube’s specs were easily superior to the PS2’s, and roughly on par with the Xbox’s, but the console failed. It was just a better version of Sony’s console, with fewer games. The Wii U’s controller sports a huge screen and increases the price of the Wii U, but fails to turn the console into something unique.

Here’s where I think the theory falls apart.

Nintendo’s core audience, like most core audiences in tech, will buy almost any system they release. But that core audience is aging and shrinking, and there aren’t a lot of kids being added to it.

Game-system successes are made by specific, exclusive, new, mass-market, category-defining hit games. That’s it.

Like “killer apps” in computer parlance, game systems become hits from specific games that are so good that people see or play them somewhere (often at a friend’s house) and want them so badly that they buy the entire system.

Nostalgia isn’t enough. New editions of old franchises aren’t enough. System-defining games need to appeal to people who don’t know or care about long-standing franchises.

Tetris sold a ton of Game Boys. Super Mario Brothers sold a ton of Nintendos. Street Fighter II sold a ton of Super Nintendos. Goldeneye, Mario Kart 64, and Super Smash Brothers sold a ton of Nintendo 64s. Pokemon sold a ton of DSes. Wii Sports sold a ton of Wiis. These games were all so good, and so compelling to the mass market, that people who didn’t care about any other Nintendo games would buy the systems just for them.

The Gamecube never had one of those games, and the Wii U doesn’t have one yet. It has nothing to do with their hardware.

There were great Gamecube games that Nintendo’s core fanbase loved, but none of them made a bunch of other people rush out and buy Gamecubes. We’ll see if the Wii U has better luck, but it’s not looking great so far: Nintendo can produce new editions of old games, but what will they do to bring new people in?

Dock+ mini-review

Continuing my dubious pattern of receiving new Kickstarter-ordered iPhone docks just before new iPhones are announced, the Dock+ that I ordered on Kickstarter last November arrived today.

Its design is extremely simple:

It consists of a heavy steel top, a flexible silicone (I think) base, and very-low-friction Lightning plug inside another blob of the same flexible silicone.

The Lightning plug is very well-done: the phone mounts and dismounts very easily. The plug also easily flexes in its rubbery mount, so you can pull the phone slightly forward while removing it and it doesn’t snag, resist, or pull the dock with it. It works far better than the Elevation Dock’s Lightning kit.

Minimal assembly is required: the steel top lifts off the silicone base (sometimes unintentionally — don’t plan on picking it up a lot), revealing configurations for four possible phone thicknesses. And you need to connect the internal Micro-USB plug yourself, but this is actually a feature: the cable is easily replaceable. The simple construction is great compared to the Elevation Dock: one could reasonably do an entire cable swap or phone-thickness change with no tools in about 10 seconds.

Build quality is mixed: while the steel top is smooth and seemingly well-made, the top silicone gasket seems poorly fit, with inelegant, abrupt edges and a small lip sticking above the top of the steel:

I also couldn’t get my phone to charge at first unless I pushed down firmly on it each time. The plug on mine is set slightly too low to make good contact. I don’t know if this is a design flaw or imprecise manufacturing of the silicone base.

Fortunately, the flexible design let me fix that in 10 seconds, for 10 cents:

The entire design feels squishy and imprecise. It doesn’t feel like a hundred bucks, that’s for sure.

But functionally, I like it a lot. If you want a dock, I tentatively recommend it. (I’ve only had it for an hour and don’t want to spend a week reviewing a dock, so take that with a grain of salt.)

And it works just as well with an iPad Mini as it does with my iPhone 5. The design is simple enough to accommodate both.

The Elevation Dock is much better-made (and better-looking, in my opinion), but it rigidly defined an inflexible design that failed miserably when a new iPhone came out.1

The squishy, imprecise design of Dock+ should actually reasonably future-proof it. In that way, this is actually the best-designed iPhone or iPad dock I’ve ever seen: it’s the only one that I’d expect to last at least two or three device generations.

You can preorder one if you’d like — the current shipping estimate is 3–5 weeks, but I wouldn’t count on that, so I’d suggest ordering soon if you want one. On the other hand, with the next iPhone due to be announced in just two days (and the next iPads pretty soon), it may not hurt to wait.

  1. To be fair, this was much more because of the Lightning connector than the new physical dimensions of the iPhone 5. But it didn’t hold up that well to the physical change, either. ↩︎

Yesterday’s iPhones

My favorite pieces on this were by John Gruber:

The iPhone 5C has nothing to do with price. It probably does have something to do with manufacturing costs (which are lower for Apple), but not price. Apple’s years-long strategy hasn’t really changed.

Ben Thompson:

As I wrote last week, strategy is about making choices, and Apple has decided to not even pretend to pursue market share, but instead embrace their up-market status.

…and MG Siegler:

But how is any of that going to help Apple sell more iPhones in China or India or in the developing world? It’s probably not. It appears now that this was always misdirection triggered by clueless reporting. Oh, Apple is working on a new, plastic iPhone? It must be a cheap one to sell in the rest of the world. Nope, it mustn’t.

Instead, what we get is a replacement for the iPhone 5. …

As a result, Apple can now offer customers something substantially sexier than “last year’s model” when they walk into a store looking for a $99 (subsidized) phone. At the same time, it eliminates the confusion that would have been caused by the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5 looking nearly identical to one another (subtle gold, notwithstanding). And it likely keeps their high margins on the device intact. It seems like a win-win-win for Apple.

It’s hard for Apple to surprise us with iPhones anymore. The supply chain has grown so large that parts start to leak months in advance, and by the time Apple holds an event to reveal them, we’ve already seen fully-assembled models on rumor sites.

Before yesterday’s event, we thought we had the 5C all figured out: a brightly colored, plastic, cheap iPhone 5 revision to push for marketshare in lower-priced markets. And while we were correct on the hardware (which wasn’t hard), we were all proven wrong on the purpose of this device.

The iPhone 5C1 isn’t the new low-end model: it’s the new mainstream iPhone. It’s the one Apple’s promoting more, marketing more, and making available for preorder. This is the new iPhone, and as customers and the press have repeatedly shown, a new external design is all that really matters when defining “new”.

The 5S is the Retina MacBook Pro of the iPhone lineup. Many of us will buy them, but they won’t be the best-selling model, and Apple doesn’t want them to be.

Apple’s intentionally pushing their flagship product downmarket. They’ve lost a lot of sales over the years because the iPhone was too good: people who didn’t want to spend $200 and up for a contract phone, people who thought they didn’t need a high-end phone, people who thought the iPhone was too fragile for their lifestyle.

The new 5C, and iOS 7, looks more casual and costs $100 less. The message is clear: this is a phone for everyone. Whether that holds up remains to be seen.

While the 5C looks solid and they’re going to sell an assload of them, I’m skeptical of some parts of this strategy: in particular, I think not making a larger-screened iPhone yet is a mistake. Not addressing the lower-cost market might also prove to be a poor investment in future marketshare. And the 5C doesn’t seem cheap enough to take a smaller subsidy and develop strong carrier-retail incentives, a strong growth strategy employed by manufacturers and carriers for Android phones for years.2

The biggest surprise at yesterday’s iPhone event was how unsurprising it was, even relative to my own low surprise-expectations having seen the leaked parts.

(Of course, the 5S looks awesome and I can’t wait to get one. But that doesn’t matter as much as it used to.)

  1. I’m going to stick with “5C” and “5S” instead of “5c” and “5s” for a week or two to see if Apple relents, like they did after a few days with “3G S”. ↩︎

  2. Anyone walking into a Verizon store in the U.S. asking about the iPhone since 2010 has probably had a salesperson try to talk them out of it. This is why: salespeople make more from the higher commissions on most Android phones.

    This has been one of the biggest drivers of U.S. Android marketshare. (It’s also why Windows Phone never took off — it had neither Android’s carrier retail incentives nor the iPhone’s strong customer demand to overcome their absence.) ↩︎

Too Much Change In iOS 7? Switch To Android

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Initial Geek and Tech-Press Reactions To The Last Four iPhones

iPhone 4S:

Reaction: That’s it?! Apple’s not innovating anymore! We didn’t get a real “iPhone 5”!

iPhone 5:

Reaction: That’s it?! Apple’s not innovating anymore! Not different enough!

iPhone 5C:

Reaction: Great move! They’re going to sell a ton of these! I might even want one!

iPhone 5S:

Reaction: TAKE MY MONEY NOW! Why can’t I preorder one? I can’t wait to get one!

iOS 7 Review

I’ve been using it full-time for well over a month. It’s solid on the iPhone. (I hardly use my iPad, so I can’t judge that version, but I hear it’s a bit less solid.)

It took me a few days to get accustomed to the new look, but after that, I loved it. Beyond the appearance changes, I’ve been greatly enjoying a lot of other features that I thought were stupid during the keynote, like Control Center.

Give iOS 7 a chance and let the new look sink in for a few days before you judge. You’ll probably like it. And then you’ll see iOS 6 somewhere and think, “That looks so old.”

Overcast: coming soon

In my talk at XOXO yesterday, I announced my next app: Overcast, a podcast client.1

The video of the talk will probably be available soon. In short: I love podcasts, both as a producer and a listener, and I’m doing my own take on an app.

Unlike some of my previous projects, this is already a very crowded market.

Icons of 18 existing iOS podcast apps

John Gruber described Twitter clients in 2009 as a “UI design playground”:

Twitter is such a simple service overall, but look at a few screenshots of these apps, especially the recent ones, and you will see some very different UI designs, not only in terms of visual style but in terms of layout, structure, and flow. …

Less obvious is the fact that different people seek very different things from a Twitter client. … There is so much variety because various clients are trying to do very different things. Asking for the “best Twitter client” is like asking for the “best shirt”.

Since then, weather apps have also clearly become UI playgrounds. I believe podcast apps are, too.

The “now playing” screen is the biggest design challenge by far. Everything’s in conflict: as many common controls as possible should be easily accessible, but you also don’t want too much clutter, and the touch targets shouldn’t be so close that people often hit the wrong controls. If you don’t display the square artwork at full width, it doesn’t look very good, but if you do, you lose the majority of the screen’s vertical space (especially if you care about fitting on the smaller pre-iPhone-5 screens).

Here’s how the top podcast apps handle this:

Apple Podcasts, Downcast, Instacast, Pocket Casts, Stitcher

They’ve all made different choices, and your opinion of each will depend on how much your priorities and preferences align with each respective developer’s. And, of course, that extends beyond the now-playing screen to the overall style of each app, the navigational structures, the major features each chooses to implement, and the hundreds of tiny design and implementation decisions each developer made along the way.

Overcast offers another take on most of the same problems and features by applying my priorities, design preferences, and implementation decisions. You might like it, too, but I don’t expect to “kill” any other apps in this market.

Since these other apps have been in development for years, I won’t be able to match them in feature-checklist comparisons for a long time, if ever. Rather than try poorly, I’ve decided to dramatically simplify. For instance:

If you need tons of features or anything I’m choosing not to do, you’ll probably be happier with one of the others. (Before I started using Overcast full-time, Downcast was my podcast app of choice.)

I’m adding some new stuff that I haven’t seen before in podcast players, and implementing what I think is the best set of core features from the existing apps. It’s my ideal podcast app.

I’m looking forward to showing it to you. It’s probably 3–4 months from 1.0. And, of course, I have years worth of ideas for future versions.

  1. Overcast plays podcasts. It does not produce podcasts. Pedants have suggested that I should be using the term “podcatcher”, but that’s a stupid word that nobody knows, so I’m not going to use it. Most people will correctly assume that a “podcast app” plays podcasts. ↩︎

Naming Overcast

People keep asking whether Overcast is the original name I wanted, or the alternative I picked to avoid a potential trademark conflict, a process I had tweeted about a few months ago.

It’s the original one I wanted.

The naming process might be interesting to other people, though, so here’s what else I came up with and why I decided not to use any of them.

I brainstormed many potential names in a giant text file over a couple of weeks, enlisting help from friends, Invent-a-Word, Wordoid, and lists of English prefixes and prepositions. Even if I knew a name was bad or unusable immediately, I still wrote it down in case it could later inspire a usable variation.

Instacast was taken, of course,1 but I wouldn’t have used it anyway. A business of mine that has nothing to do with Instapaper shouldn’t have a name that suggests otherwise, and the “insta-” prefix is so crowded today that I don’t think any new products should be named that anymore.

I was looking to satisfy as many of these as possible:

Naming a podcast app is tricky. First, I went through words ending or containing “cast”. Here were the top contenders:

Since the app has a server component, I explored more cloud-related names (which is what originally led me to Overcast):

Since I didn’t have a lot of good options, I took a different route: trying to evoke qualities of podcasts or the experience of being a podcast listener. But it was hard to find words that didn’t also evoke loneliness and weren’t already taken.

I tried references to dialogue and commentary:

I then explored terrestrial radio, audio hardware, and mastering:

I didn’t love any of these. Absolutely none. I showed lists to a few friends, and they all agreed: Overcast was better.

None of the other names made me excited to work on the app or announce the name in public. “Here’s my new app, Mediocrity!”

So I decided to take the hard road to get the right name, and arranged with the other trademark’s owner to use Overcast legally.

I love Overcast. It’s great on so many levels, and it’s practical, too: simple, memorable, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, relates to podcasting easily by ending in “-cast”, and not too crowded in commerce or Google despite being an English word.

The owner of @overcast on Twitter wasn’t interested in selling, and I couldn’t get it on Tumblr, Pinterest, or Facebook. So I registered @OvercastFM on Twitter,, Tumblr, and Pinterest, and I also took @overcast on just in case, but I’m not going to use it unless I get the matching name everywhere else in the future — consistency between services is more important than having the best available name on just one or two of them.

I couldn’t get the .com — its squatter wants $100,000,000 for it. That’s right, a hundred million dollars. I tried to get him to come down a bit, and he said he’d take $95 million. I offered him $1,000, which quickly ended negotiations.

I decided instead to register the .fm for $70, and I don’t think it will ever really matter that I don’t own the .com.

  1. Last week, when Instacast’s iOS 7 update was announced, I had to get a new icon made very quickly. But it was for the best — I like the new one better. ↩︎

  2. A presence on Facebook and Pinterest really isn’t my style, and it’s going to take me a while to figure out how to use them (now I understand why a business might hire someone to use social networks for them). Here’s why I’m trying it↩︎

Underscore Price Dynamics

Every iOS developer needs to listen to _DavidSmith’s most recent podcast episode, Real World Price Dynamics with Lauren Smith (it’s just 22 minutes).

Lauren is just one anecdotal data point, but you would not believe how many people I’ve met over the last few years who have said the exact same things to me. This is definitely the majority opinion:

I’ve gone back and forth on what Overcast’s business model should be. I’m definitely charging customers directly (rather than venture-capital or ads), but I’m still debating where, how, and for what.

I’m sure of one thing, though: the market for paid-up-front apps appealing to mass consumers is gone. If you have paid apps in the store, you’ve probably seen the writing on the wall for a while.

That model made sense when there were fewer apps available, but now that there are plenty of free and good-enough versions of almost anything, it’s a different game. Apps targeting niche markets can still find enough paying customers to stay alive if they’re much better than any free alternatives, but the number of apps in that situation is always shrinking.

I’m going to have a hard time justifying an up-front purchase for Overcast — that’s the fastest way to ensure that nobody outside of our upscale-geek world ever uses it. (Quick quiz: What would you guess is the most popular podcast app on iOS besides Apple’s? Check the footnote for the answer:2)

This is the real reason why Apple doesn’t care about upgrade pricing: there’s no demand from customers. The market has shown that free apps will be downloaded at least an order of magnitude more than paid-up-front apps, and smart use of in-app purchase in a free app is likely to make more money. Over time, this trend has only become stronger and more clear.

Paid-up-front iOS apps had a great run, but it’s over. Time to make other plans.

  1. This is why killing Instapaper Free actually increased Instapaper’s sales: I removed the closest, most “good enough”, free alternative to the paid app. But that only works as long as you don’t have much free competition. ↩︎

  2. You probably guessed Instacast, since people like us have talked about it for years. Nope. Maybe you guessed Pocket Casts, since they just had a big, well-reviewed update. Nope. For as long as I’ve been paying attention, Downcast has outsold both of them by a wide margin in both quantity and gross.

    But the most popular podcast app besides Apple’s, by far, is Stitcher. And it’s terrible. But it’s free. And I’ve had people in real life tell me, over and over again, that they “just use Stitcher because it’s free.”

    This is the real app market. ↩︎