BBC iPhone apps? I think there’s a better way

Last month the BBC announced that it would launch a limited number of mobile app, starting with News and Sport  and then possibly an iPlayer app. Unsurprisingly the NPA promptly complained that the BBC would “damage the nascent market“, and now the BBC Trust as said that it wants to review the plan and that means a delay.

Well I don’t know about whether such a move by the BBC would have an impact on the market or not (although I agree with Martin, I think it was inevitable that the Trust has would review the plans), but I do think the BBC could tackle the problem in a different, more open way.

BBC News on mobile

There’s a lot of hype and hyperbole around mobile apps – and in some ways you can understand why, lots are downloaded and some folks are making money from them but I’m not so sure it’s going to last. I suspect that mobile apps are successful for a few reasons:

  1. They are hooked into a big marketing push. Apple et al. are all publicising their stores on your handset on the telly, on posters and in papers.
  2. The app stores are targeted and people know where to look, the Web could be The Store (as it’s been for other things) but that’s not how regular folks appear to see software nor do they want to dig about for what to install.
  3. The Web (mostly) only works when you’re online, apps (mostly) work offline too.
  4. Some stuff can only be built as a native app (rather than via the web), probably.

But as phones expose more of their API to the browser, as HTML 5 with its support for offline browsing and other goodies becomes adopted and, as libraries and support become available so the technical and user experience barriers start to become less relevant — it may once again be universally seen as sensible to develop web apps. Of course either the fear of being locked in or being locked out of the relationship with their customer might kick companies along a bit too.

So in the near future we should be able to build web apps every bit as good as mobile apps? Yes, but I would go further: for most of the things the BBC wants to do, the technology is already good enough. And with a web focused mind set you can start to invest in the sorts of things you can only do server side — just look at the sorts of things Google are building: word processors, voice communications, email clients, image recognition, maps etc. I think it’s better to embrace the future than play catch-up with the near past.

But what if I’m wrong and mobile apps are the future of content delivery? Well the BBC could still take a different approach – one where it licensed its content in such a way that others could build apps with its content. Of course, unless things changed, the app would need to be non-commercial and the use of the BBC logo and brand would be protected. Of course the non-commercial aspect might be reviewed under certain circumstances — indeed the BBC already licenses content to third parties both outside and inside the UK via its commercial arm BBC Worldwide, why not online? Although I can’t see any circumstance under which the BBC would allow use of its brand and logo since this is central to protecting its reputation, to avoid this sort of thing.

If the BBC did license its content in such as way as to allow others to build stuff then we might see all sorts of interesting innovation on all sorts of different devices and not just mobiles. Perhaps I’m missing something but I don’t see why the BBC needs to control the entire distribution chain, from encoding to eye balls, when distributing content over IP but not when broadcasting to your TV or radio. The BBC doesn’t make its own televisions nor radios instead it lets the market manage that bit, why not encourage the same sort of thing on the web?

Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-11-24

Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.
Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.

The Shape of Alpha – using mass data to reveal the perceived shape of geography [Code: Flickr Developer Blog]
“Plotted all the geotagged photos associated with a particular ‘Where On Earth ID’ (a database of places and bounding boxes, which describes the spatial hierarchy between places) to generate a mostly accurate contour of that place. Not a perfect representation, perhaps, but something more fine-grained than a bounding box.” How cool is that!?

Neighbourhood Boundaries [tomtaylor.co.uk]
Using the Flickr shapefiles to show you where the world thinks its neighbours are. Tom has written a bit about it here: “Of course, it’s not always right, so Flickr give you the option to override the place they guessed, with a more accurate name, as you perceive. For example, a photo taken near South Bank might better be described as Waterloo, or Embankment. Over time, this database leads to a more accurate representation of the shape and boundaries of the places in question, comprised of thousands of people photographs. Flickr are good enough to release this data in the form of shapefiles.”

The First 100 Days – what past US Presidents did in their first 100 days [goodmagazine.com]
Interesting to see how the first 100 days appear to be a good indicator for the tone and direction of the rest of the presidency. I now know what all Presidents and PMs should be made to answer “what will you do in your first 100 days”.

The BBC have hired a full time MusicBrainz server developer! [MusicBrainz Blog]
Just the sort of thing we should be doing. Helps the Web, helps the MuiscBrainz community and helps the BBC.

How to Price Your iPhone App out of Existence [Safe from the Losing Fight]
There will be an iPhone app bust. The current prices simply aren’t sustainable. Either developers will crash out of the market when they discover they can’t make a living off their current prices, or the gold rush developers will lose interest and leave when they realize they can’t make a quick buck off the store. The developers left standing will be the ones who set reasonable prices for their applications.

Users, Twits and Cameramen Under Fire [Nick Reynolds At Work]
Wise words from Nick – who continues the good fight in the war to kill of the UGC term. It is such a rude and self limiting term.

Life in the Linked Data Cloud – Calais Release 4 Coming Jan 09 [OpenCalais]
OpenCalais is to release its data as RDF and join it to the LOD cloud.

The mobile computing cloud needs OAuth

As Paul Miller notes Cloud Computing is everywhere – we are pushing more and more data and services into the cloud. Particularly when accessed from mobile devices this creates an incredibly powerful and useful user experience. I love it. The way that I can access all sorts of services from my iPhone means that an already wonderful appliance becomes way more powerful. But not all is well in the land of mobile-cloud computing; a nasty anti-pattern is developing. Thankfully there is a solution and it’s OAuth.

"Mobile phone Zombies" by Edward B. Used under licence.
"Mobile phone Zombies" by Edward B. Used under licence.

So what’s the problem then? Since Apple opened up the iPhone to third party developers we have seen a heap of applications that connect you to your online services – there are apps that let you upload photos to Flickr, post to Twitter, see what’s going on in Facebook land all sorts of stuff. The problem is the way some of them are gaining access to these services by making you enter your credentials in the applications rather than seeking to authorise the application from the service.

Probably the best way to explain what I mean is to look at how it should work. The Pownce app is an example of doing it right as is Mobile Foto – these applications rely on OAuth. This is how it works: rather than entering your user-name and password in the application you are sent over to Safari to log into the website and from there you authorise (via OAuth) the application to do its thing.

This might not sound so great – you could argue that the user experience would be better if you were kept within the application. But that would mean that your login credentials would need to be stored on your ‘phone, and that means that you need to disclose those credentials to a third party (the folks that wrote the app).

By using OAuth you log into Flickr, Pownce etc. and from there authorise the application to user the site – your credentials are kept safe and if your iPhone gets stolen you can visit the site and disable access. Everything is where it should be and that means your login details are safe.

To be fair to the iPhone app developers this type of delegated authorisation isn’t always possible. Twitter, for example, still hasn’t implement OAuth and as a result if you want to use one of the growing number of iPhone Twitter app you need to give up your user-name and password. I find this incredible frustrating – especially from a service like Twitter where (according to Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder) “the API… has easily 10 times more traffic than the website“.

Safari for Windows

Matt seems to me to have the answer for why Apple released Safari on Windows:

There is only one reason Apple released Safari for Windows and that is because they were forced to. By making the iPhone development environment web based apps only they had to release Safari for Windows so people could test their applications.”

As Justin Williams points out:

With the announcement of the iPhone SDK being based on Safari, Apple was forced to put Safari on Windows, so they could attract Windows developers to build iPhone applications. By having the barrier to iPhone development as low as, building a Web application, it wouldn’t make sense for Apple to only allow Mac using developers to build those applications.

Safari is a gateway to iPhone development.”

It may also explain why Apple chose to enforced their font rendering instead of using the native Windows sub-pixel approach ClearType.

The iPhone looks great but I hope they release one without the phone…

iPhoneThe iPhone looks just great – Apple have obviously spent a lot of time working on the iPhone’s UX. There are numerous features, both big and small (like slide to unlock), that I’m sure will make it a great device to use.

It is a great example of how art and engineering should come together to create a lovely piece of technology, I for one can’t wait for it to be launched in the UK.

But as lovely as it is I would like Apple to release an upgraded 80GB iPod with iPhone’s nice big multitouch screen, built in photo management software, camera etc.; but without the phone bit.

You see – I don’t want to always carry around a big ‘smart phone’; I like my mobile phone to be small, with great battery life. But I also want a better iPod to access my music, photos and video and it would be nice if it also had a good built in camera.

The trouble is I’m sure they won’t because of the price point of the iPhone ($499 & $599) vs the iPods ($249 & $349) means there isn’t room for such a device.