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Swimming against the tide?

I’ve been a long time fan of Adobe’s Creative Suite, from way back when they started binding together their various apps to slay the mighty Quark Xpress.

I’m a CS5 user myself and, despite the frequent criticisms of growing bloatware, the CS Suite is an awesome and comprehensive set of tools, in fact it covers pretty much everything a graphic designer needs. But the accelerating development path (and more particularly the expense involved) of the recent CS Suite upgrades has raised a few heckles in the Creative Industries. It’s understandable that a company of Adobe’s scale needs a certain degree of profit to sustain their considerable momentum and also that they clearly wish to be seen as catering for the ‘Pro’ market, but the entire concept of software ‘Apps’ is currently undergoing serious re-evaluation as the platforms, marketing practices and the Apps themselves continue to evolve.

There’s an increasing number of alternatives cropping up to seriously challenge Adobe’s products and, while Adobe always had competition, the nature of their competitors has changed significantly. As the Mac OS has gained in popularity (including an overlap with the booming iOS world) developer resources have grown to reflect this. The big guns of the software market have always had competition from talented independent developers, but now those independents have access to a very mature programming ecosystem - and online marketplaces on a scale that they could never have dreamed of just a few years ago.

Granted these competitors are usually stand-alone applications and no-one is producing the convenient all-in-one toolbox that Adobe offers. However, a set of well designed single-focus applications, operating to industry standard file types, can achieve similar results and often with only a little more inconvenience. But by far the most compelling reason to try any of these competing apps is that they’re only a fraction of the cost of the Adobe products, so even if you have to buy three or four apps it’s still a huge saving over the cost of the complete Adobe Suite.

In the Creative Industries, as with many others, the trend driven by ever-improving digital toolsets has been towards a low (and decreasing) cost of entry for new talent. This has helped reveal some amazing new talent in Music, Design, Video and the Arts in general. But Adobe’s pricing policies for their Creative Suite appears to go against this low-cost trend, most noticeably with the new services and extensions to their existing CS Suite, intended to encourage content development for iPad/tablet publishing.

Currently the potential of the iPad as a publishing platform is generating a lot of excitement, with some very interesting start-ups making their intentions known. For example, this post (from the Adorama blog) on the impressive work from Pushpoppress, initially for Al Gore’s ‘Our Choice’ iPad book:

A team of ex-Apple engineers have created a specialized book publishing service for iPad. Originally created for a one-off multimedia version of Al Gore’s environmental opus, Our Choice, Push Pop Press has emerged into a full-fledged development platform, which promises to bring drag-and-drop simplicity to the process of creating multimedia books. It’s an obvious competitor to Adobe’s suite of digital publishing tools for iOS, which have a prohibitive price barrier and learning curve, suited more for developers than artists and writers. Now you don’t need an engineering degree to design an attractive user experience.

Of course it has yet to be seen if they will eventually sell this software to the public - and if it really will be as easy as it appears to produce such specialised content. But, like a few others, they see the opportunity for a lightweight dedeicated authoring App and I believe their approach to this is definitely on the right track.

And this from Wired Magazine:

The 800-pound gorilla in this digital space is Adobe, whose tools are used to create some tablet periodicals (including the iPad version of WIRED magazine). But the complexity — and expense — of Adobe’s Creative Suite is an opportunity for new entrants in the self-publishing game.

Sadly I think it is very unlikely that Adobe will attempt to make their pricing more competitive, as they still appear focussed more on the established (and presumably better monied) Pro market rather than those struggling to become the next generation of that market.

So what do you think?

Are you an established Pro who can easily afford the latest and greatest from Adobe and could care less about their costs?

Or are you a design graduate trying to balance your need for quality software tools with your bank account?

A new icon for iThoughts

Ithoughtsicon 114Much as I love using my iPad it’s only as good as the apps that run on it and ‘good’ for official ‘business’ apps is especially important as these are not for casual entertainment. Efficiency and fit-for-purpose are the main reasons for buying business apps in the first place.

A while ago I was looking for a good mindmapping app for my iPad and, while waiting for the ‘official’ Buzan app, I discovered iThoughts HD. The Youtube demos were very impressive and it was further encouraging to read some very positive testimonials to iThoughts from a lot of folks whose opinion I respect, including one of my heroes, Steve Krug.

IThoughts HD makes great use of the iOS touchscreen, offering an intuitive and fluid experience that makes it easy to focus on the work of actually building the mindmap, rather than the tools being used to build it. I’m convinced the touch interface actually makes for much more efficient mindmapping experience than a desktop UI, there is something unique in driving data around the screen directly just using your fingers. I find this with many of the more ‘mature’ iOS touch apps, where the developers have taken full advantage of what iOS is capable of. Some tasks seem to be a natural fit for a touch-driven interface, if the apps themselves are designed well.

Most good developers will put their best into programming and coding their app, which is the right thing to do after all, but some surprisingly neglect the presentation of their app (and it's usefulness) to potential customers. Unfortunately neglecting the presentation of an app could significantly hobble the sales potential of the finished offering.

The iTunes App Store is an eye-candy battleground, with the bar already set high for quality of presentation. When faced with a row of competing and similarly featured apps a potential customer will be easily swayed by a more polished, professional and 'expected' icon for an app, rather than a weak ‘DIY’ attempt from someone who is obviously not a designer.

I have actually bought some great functioning apps that display poor branding and icons, but only after fairly exhaustive research in gaining enough trust to overcome the mis-matched branding. Unfortunately most potential customers won’t undertake that amount of work before deciding on buying an app.

So I contacted Craig Scott, the developer of iThoughts, and suggested that improvements could be made to the core icon for his app and the presentation of it via website, iTunes Store, etc. Craig was under no illusions about the quality of the existing icons for iThoughts HD and readily understood the need for improvement. Although I’m familiar with mindmapping apps I asked Craig to brief me on how he wanted iThoughts HD presented and, taking this into consideration, I proceeded to develop some concepts for a new icon style for iThoughts HD.


Ithoughts icons sketches


From the initial pencil concepts Craig chose one to take to a more polished visual treatment, he had a clear idea of the elements we should use in the icon as he primarily wanted to convey the purpose of the iThoughts HD app itself. So I worked on the concept of branched nodes, a fairly direct visualising of what a mindmap typically looks like. I particularly wanted to keep the elements strong and simple, for swift recognition and clarity at the smallest image sizes, such as document attachment icons. We both agreed on a strong contrasting colour scheme, saturated blues and a bright orange, for contrast on the finished icon. The icon works best when it is quickly identifiable, to help sales in the iTunes Store and for actual use on the iOS device itself.

Ithoughts oldnew icon

I’m pleased to have heard positive feedback from Craig that the new-look icon was well received by his customers and it’s also good to see that the presentation of the iThoughts app now more closely matches the experience of using Craig’s excellent software.


Ithought masthead banner


Craig was lucky too when iThoughts was chosen to appear as a featured app on the iTunes Store. I created a few banners for this and enjoyed seeing iThoughts displayed prominently on the storefront, for a short while.

If you’re familiar with mindmapping, and are an iOS user check out the iThoughts apps, for iPhone and iPad.


MiFi Review

The short summary: Fast and easily portable mobile Internet for any WiFi enabled device.

The not-so-short full story: read on…

Some time ago I enjoyed a trial period from for their MiFi device and here’s how I found it, primarily as a companion for my iPad. The iPad I’m using is the 3G version, so I was able to directly compare performance of the MiFi against the onboard access via the O2 network.

For a start I did some stats-only testing using the excellent Speedtest (iTunes link) app on my iPad. This provided me with some ‘hard science’ figures on access speeds, although what it actually means when using the browser in a ‘real world’ situation can feel quite different. Access speed depends on quite a few variables, but the figures below show an averaged ‘typical’ result for the locations I tested this at.

At Belfast Airport location:

iPad via MiFi: Upload : 1151mbs  -  Download: 1574
iPad via 3G: Upload : 350mbs  -  Download: 200mbs (Strange result, but that’s what Speedtest was showing me!).

In Lisburn town centre:

iPad via MiFi: Upload : 1625mbs  -  Download: 995mbs
iPad via 3G: Upload : 240mbs  -  Download: 600mbs

Although I was accessing both and O2 via 3G the access speeds were noticeably faster for in almost every test I performed, for both statistics and real browser behaviour. This makes a very convincing case for the MiFi. 

Also, as a not-very-scientific example I accessed several Wikipedia pages to see what these download figures mean in real terms when wanting to browse the web. I choose the same set of pages and forced a total refresh of the cache on iPad between reloading the pages each time.

Basically I found that fully downloading a lightweight Wikipedia page took about the same time (6 seconds) on an iPad 3G cell network connection as it did via the MiFi - but when accessing larger pages I could see a significant improvement on the MiFi. Strangely I also did some comparisons using O2 Openzone and found the MiFi still had the edge in speed. I expected Openzone would easily have delivered the fastest access, but this was not so.

The Mi-Fi unit itself is sturdily built and appears capable of withstanding a fair degree of abuse, although I did find a few minor issues with the model I was using. In some instances the buttons along the side of the MiFi were a little stiff to operate, the casing seemed to be a tiny bit too close a fit on the model I was using and this sometimes impeded the movement of the buttons. This was only an occasional and minor issue though, powering up and activating the various functions was easy enough, once I was accustomed to the startup sequence. In any case have now replaced the device I was testing with a newer (and much better designed) model. I’ve seen the new version up close and it obviates the minor physical issues I had with the earlier model, the new version is pretty much a complete redesign - and very nice it is too.

I found the icons on the screen a little cryptic at first, but after a quick scan over the brief user guide all became clear.

Basically there are five status icons to show: 1)Power on/Battery 2)Network access 3) WiFi 4) High-Speed network 5) Roaming

These icon LEDs also change colour to indicate status changes for some of these features, e.g., red for ‘no cellular access’ and green > amber > red for battery status. On the current model this has all been replaced with a much simpler single LCD panel.

With regular use the status icons are understandable at a glance and a simple power-on sequence can be performed quickly, after which the MiFi can be returned to a pocket or bag and you can browse away without giving it a further thought. This is the essence of the MiFi - turn it on connect your device and off you go browsing/emailing, Twittering etc., and I must say it performs spectacularly well at this.

The WiFi network password is clearly labelled on each device, just key it into your iPad/laptop and it should connect right away. It is also possible to connect up to five devices with the MiFi, handy if you need to connect an iPhone and an iPad, or a laptop at the same time, or if you wish to share your connection with others.

Overall I found the MiFi to be a terrific device - an absolute must-have if your devices do not include SIM card features of their own - and if you find yourself bereft of a WiFi zone (which, in my part of the world, is most of the time). It really does live up to it’s promise of easy and fast mobile Internet access and makes a great companion for an iPad. Of course you are obliged to carry an extra device for mobile access but the compact size of the MiFi and it’s ability to operate from a pocket or bag makes it an easily portable choice. Battery life for the MiFi was pretty useable too, I was getting about 4 hours plus of continuous use and it will automatically time out to energy-saving mode if you forget to turn it off.

Incidentally, something else I noticed, when I accessed a Youtube video via 3G on my iPad I received the very compressed ‘3G’ lower quality version of the video, but connecting via the MiFi served the video in whatever resolutions were available - good to know that.

Please note that the model I tested has now been replaced by a much-improved updated model, which improves the already good MiFi in almost every respect, from aesthetics and ergonomics to build quality. I would definitely recommend a MiFi as an excellent mobile Internet solution for those who don’t already have SIM-enabled devices, or even for those who do and are flush/nerdy enough to afford an alternative network access. The Pay As You Go prices are modest and there are also some good deals on MiFi contracts, checkout the MiFi section of the site for details. are also pretty active on Twitter, account name is: @ThreeUKLatest if you’re interested in following them.

Eyeing up the MiFi


The kind folks at 3Mobile sent me one of their popular MiFi devices to try out with my iPad and, although this is not my full review, I wanted to put up a quick post about it.

The device is pretty small and will easily slip into a pocket or bag, the MiFi also appears to hold a charge for a good while. I've heard quite a few people expressing interest in this as they have bought, or are thinking of buying a WiFi only iPad and indeed this is a very good solution if you're thinking of buying the non-3G version of the iPad.

There's an added bonus in that the MiFi will provide Internet connection for any other WiFi devices that you own too, e.g. I can easily connect my iPhone, or Macbook Pro using the WiFi.

I'll have more details to post later, after I have a chance to test it out more fully, but I can say already that I've seen some surprising speeds from it around my home town of Lisburn.

So far, so fast then, more later.