March (2014) Madness

Things are a little slow on the Tribal Method side of things, as I’ve been on a push lately to get the website for our local maker organization, Tarrant Makers, in decent shape.  Quite a bit more involved than the requirements here… so far, anyway.

There’s a lot of intersection between these two ventures, though: many of the project ideas I have will benefit Tarrant Makers and many related community-oriented operations.  As you read through the list, it should be obvious which ones those are.

I’ll probably tackle hubfish next, since the necessity for identifying free venues for community activities has become increasingly apparent.  This is where I’ll need help, so if you’re interested, chime in!

Meanwhile, back to the grind…

App Dissection: Here You Go for Windows Phone 8

As many of you know we released our first app recently, Here You Go for Windows Phone 8.  As I write this, we’re up to about 70 downloads and a half dozen reviews.  Of course we’re hoping for even more of both, and that’s where customer feedback comes in.  There’s not much to go on just yet, but two customers have provided comments that tie in with our future app update plans.

The Windows Phone store doesn’t show all of the reviews just yet, so I’m pulling the quotes below from the Dev Center page.  I’ll address the feedback by explaining our development decisions so far and what/why we intend to do next.

First, a rehash of the app’s purpose for those unfamiliar.  Here You Go is intended as a location-sharing app with an emphasis on routing.  The essential idea is that the user will share their location with a recipient, and the recipient will receive an email of links that are designed to launch a routing app on their device.  One important goal was to support any platform and form factor, as I’ll explain later.  Now to the feedback.

Michael writes:

App is useful for people who need to remember where they were for appointments and further meetings, or maybe for sharing where a cafe is for example.

That’s an interesting comment and is actually an extension of the intended use.  The original goal was to focus on sharing the location with others, but Michael raises a good point: it can of course be used to mark locations for future routing by the user.  We’ll have to give some thought to how we can better support that.  It might make more sense in such a case to save the location information as a Task instead of using email.  We had intended to add Task support anyway.

Michael says further:

However lacks functionality in share method (email only)…

Yep, that’s a sticking point.  His assessment is supported by another customer, Ilia:

No SMS support? Emmm.

Michael and Ilia, we hear you!  Email was definitely not our preferred mode of sharing.  The decision to focus on email was driven by the following factors:

  • Limited messaging options.  SMS (text) would be ideal, but its message size is limited.  To accomplish what we’re trying to do, we needed support for far more characters than a single SMS message can offer… and we didn’t want to spam recipients with numerous messages per incident.
  • The desire to support multiple platforms.  While the app itself currently only runs on Windows Phone 8, we didn’t want to limit the recipients to just that platform.  It’s important to us that the output be useful to anyone, on any operating system, any device.  Since there’s no easy way to determine the recipient’s platform, we elected to send a message that has links for all.
  • Microsoft’s messaging approach.  Microsoft has chosen to separate the various Windows Phone messaging services, and make their interfaces modal.  This means that each one needs to be launched separately, and require direct user input for each service.  This reduces the ability of programmers to integrate and automate messaging.  Microsoft had good intentions for their requirements, but they can be an impediment for developers and even users.

That said, we think we have a useful solution: Microsoft Azure Mobile Services.  We’re going to try hosting the output on a website, and sending an SMS to the recipient with a single link to their full message.  Ideally, we would even be able to detect the recipient’s device type and tailor the ultimate message accordingly.  We’ll see!

Michael had a final comment regarding our choice of an app name:

…has a misleading name, linking to HERE which a quality app should not need to do.

We’re going to disagree with you there, Michael.  Our intention was to focus on Nokia’s HERE Maps as the primary routing solution, and believe that there’s no harm in using the name to show that relationship.  In addition, there are several similar apps with “here” in their name (“Here I Am” was our original name, but was already taken).  Finally, we included a disclaimer in the app to explain that we’re not actually affiliated with HERE, and use mixed case to further drive the point home.  However, we can make that even more clear by including that disclaimer on the app’s store page, so thanks for prodding us there!

So far we have not seen any feedback via email, so I want to encourage customers to take advantage of that channel to open up a dialog with us.  The email address is included in the app.  And please provide details with your rating!

Thanks to those who have taken the time to download and use Here You Go.  If you haven’t tried it yet, get it here.  It’s free!

Here You Go!

35e54fbc-ddad-41f3-b1c5-e0bf7b5aa7b3Finally, our first app is released!  I’ve described it previously but to summarize, it’s a location-sharing app that sends routing app launchers via email.  The email content is platform-agnostic, which means you can access routing via the major platforms.  The app itself only runs on Windows Phone.

The target user is the new teenage driver but the app can be useful for anyone who needs to send their location to anyone as part of an automatically-generated route.  In addition to directing someone to a person in need, it can also be used for pickups, deliveries, games and just about any other sort of connection.

This first version is full featured but there are already plans for further enhancement.  One will be to add appointment saving, but we’re also exploring other messaging options.  SMS is good for quick messages but limited in size of each message, so at best it could be used to send a link that connects the recipient to a web messaging service other than email.

At some point we will be releasing the code to open source, so it may show up on other mobile platforms.

Download and rate; your feedback is appreciated!

The Infinite Starting Line

Like many of you, I’ve held tight to the dream of Doing My Own Thing for many years.  I won’t bore you with all the impediments that frequently derailed that dream (I’m sure you have your own) but suffice to say with my youngest son finally completing high school I’ve found it much, much easier to focus on my own adventures.

A lot of things have come together just in recent years to help me get going, too.  3D print-on-demand is now a viable service thanks to operations like Shapeways, Ponoko and iMaterialize.  That’s helped me kick out a few invention prototypes at an absurdly low cost compared to the last time (late 1990s) I did product design full time for a living. As I related at post404 in 2012, it’s not hard to do CAD on a budget, either.

The same goes for software development; thanks to Microsoft’s BizSpark entrepreneurial program combined with Nokia’s developer resources, I’ve got every tool I need to produce high quality apps for Windows and Windows Phone.  And the Qt platform provides everything I need for open source software endeavors.  Finally, thanks to Intel I’ve been provided the necessary hardware in return for promoting their products and services (love that Haswell CPU!).

So many things coming together.

But the starting phase of this start-up seems to last forever.  So much groundwork, planning, preparation… so little doing, comparatively it seems.  In fact, as noted before, I’ve opted not to even bother with project management for the first product (location-sharing app Here You Go) largely because there were too many unknowns as I taught myself Windows Phone development.  Here You Go has been stuck in the last 5% of development for quite longer than the 95% took.  Hoping to have it out soon!

Of course it must be said that I’m still working two jobs while cranking this thing up, and so far only have one other person putting significant time into it (for free so far).  As we get some successes out there, we’re hoping to attract the attention of additional collaborators and contributors.  Part of my dream is to help others fulfill theirs, and Tribal Method will eventually be able to do so.  Feel free to contact us if you’re interested– once we leave the starting line, it’s off to the races.

Positive Driving

I’ve never liked the term Defensive Driving, even as I have always agreed with the principles and practices.  Defensive gives off the wrong impression.  I like Positive Driving.

For some months, I’ve been working contractually for the Burlington Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) company in an area of engineering known as Positive Train Control (PTC).  The idea is to implement expert systems that take some background process burden off of the train crew, allowing them to focus on the situations that require heads-up human processing.

And the whole time, I’ve also been working on a GPS-oriented Windows Phone app at home.  A few days ago I got the notion that maybe I can combine these two interests.

Hmmm… time for some positive thinking

Finnophilia

Directly and indirectly, I owe a lot to the country of Finland.  Both employment at Nokia and numerous trips to that northern country have helped me grow as a creator and manager.  Yeah, I’m still an impulsive, overly-curious kid in many ways but I believe I’ve matured a bit in recent years and largely due to my various Finnish experiences.  Finns can be practical to a fault, and working/socializing with them has helped this excitable, talkative artist/engineer gain some much-needed self-discipline.

Through friendships and conferences I’ve become aware of the burgeoning start-up scene there, particularly in the cool college town of Tampere (think Austin or Boston of the Arctic circle).  Nokia’s recent struggles have ironically served to fuel an eruption of entrepreneurship, as released employees take advantage of new programs and funding to bring their own dreams to life.

Right now the big thing is Slush, a fairly new two-day conference taking place this year in Helsinki.  Judging from my personal Twitter stream (@texrat), interest is running extremely high right now.  Subjects cover the gamut, from lifestyle to health to, of course, the expected heavy dose of tech.

I live in an area of Texas that’s trying to whip up the same sort of local enthusiasm, but it’s not quite there yet.  We’re too slow to embrace change here.  The Finns seem determined to overcome stereotypes of stoicism by rushing passionately into start up territory, decorum be damned.  And it’s refreshing to witness first-hand the openness to ideas in Tampere especially.  I’ve seen a handful of strangers sit down at a table in New Factory and walk away with a new business idea.  Here we would have to invite the lawyers first.  That has to change.

I plan to start writing more occasionally on the Finnish start up scene, so if you’re interested, make sure to follow this blog!  You may find something worth bringing home.

Evolution of an App

wp_ss_20131030_0001I mentioned in the last article here that I’m coding up a little utility app for sharing one’s location.  I’m teaching myself XAML and C# in the process, and constantly testing usability/functionality.  Even without the learning-as-I-go factor, my software development process tends to be very organic, iterative, experimental.  Much to the frustration of Steven, Tribal Method’s project manager, who would love to see this inaugural project attached to a predictable timetable.

That should certainly happen with the next thing out of the gate, but for now Steven will have to contend with a string of missed milestones.  ;)

I’m a huge fan of usability.  That can’t be overstated.  User-antagonistic interfaces frustrate me profoundly, and they are legion.  Utility developers tend to focus almost exclusively on the utility aspects of their craft, and that’s only natural– UI is often an afterthought.  That speeds up initial development, but can create problems for subsequent releases.  So even as a utility-oriented developer I prefer to incorporate usability into the earliest stages of software development, which slows down phase one development but has proven to be the best long-run approach.

Our current project, the Here You Go location-sharing app, has gone through numerous UI overhauls.  A large part of that has been caused by the Windows Phone developer learning experience; this is vastly different from anything I’ve done in the desktop world.  But even more, the evolution has been due to dynamically testing, testing, testing not just functionality but how one gets at that functionality.

This app began as an emergency aid and that’s still its main focus.  A user in an urgent situation should be able to get the quick assistance they need without plowing through dialog after dialog on page after page.  I’m still refining my solution, but the new screenshot above shows the core concept: as much of the functionality as possible should be accessible through a single, intuitive, unobtrusive interface.  So far that’s achieved and incrementally improving.

I do expect the Help page to grow, and as the app gets used I also expect user feedback to eventually drive the need for a full-page Settings panel, possibly necessitating an entirely new page.  But even then, the goal to keep things simple and obvious will be paramount– even if it slows releases and runs afoul of project milestones.  App development is more about customers than project managers.  ;)

In the Zone, They Can’t Hear You Scream

Deliver HereWhen I get as quiet as I have been here lately, it can only mean one thing (hopefully): I’m working!

Lately I’ve been teaching myself C# for what will be my first published Windows Phone app.   I’m not a fan of semicolons and braces but I’m managing to deal with them.

The idea for this particular app came about as most do I’m sure: sudden need.  One night my youngest son was riding in a pickup that got stuck near a lake, and he wasn’t sure how to tell me where he was.  I immediately realized the need for a location-sharing app.  I found a few in the Windows Phone store, but none performed as I wanted.  The idea I got was that an app should identify the sender’s location, then share that via SMS and/or email to recipients as nav app launcher links.  For instances, Nokia’s HERE Maps suite supports what’s called URI launchers; send coordinates in a particular string form, and if the recipient has the appropriate app loaded it will be launched with a click.  In this case, HERE creates automatic routing from the recipient to the sender.  Perfect!

The main beauty of this approach is that you can make the output platform-agnostic.  Regardless of the sending device, the message(s) can contain a variety of links supporting any and all platforms.  It’s also easy to fall back on web-hosted map services if on-device app launching fails.

Testing so far has been mixed– some URIs that are claimed to work have not for me so far.  I will probably ship with what I can verify and depend on customers to help me figure out the gaps.

This will be the first Tribal Method app and will be completely free.  In fact, I’ll be posting the code and more details on its development later.  Watch this space!

BizSpark Achievement Unlocked!

logoStep one of our public development plan has been accomplished: we were accepted into Microsoft’s helpful BizSpark program!

Next, we will use the tools provided to develop some fairly easy software solutions, with the focus on Windows Phone.  We remain open to other platforms and opportunities, but this gets us close to another hopeful milestone: qualifying for AppCampus.

Stay tuned!

What’s behind Tribal Method?

In early 2012 I summed up my aspirations and exasperations in a post at my vanity site, texrat.net.  My goal at the time was to create a unique solution to creative collaboration, one that fit into the habits and workflows of people who normally steer well clear of project management.  The “sticky note and napkin” crowd.

I had first researched the field to see if anyone else was in that space.  I didn’t discover anything that scared me off.  However, friends soon responded with pointers to fledgling ventures that were aiming to get there.  Those projects could use some SEO work, apparently.  ;)

So I throttled back that dream, which in turn put others on hold.  See, I had originally intended to focus on that collaboration solution, and identify individuals or teams who could take over and bring my other ideas to life.  The Tribal Method service would support them.

I don’t want to put a lot of effort into plowing a crowded field, so Tribal Method will now be an organization directly dedicated to bringing those ideas to life.  A core team is assembling and we are looking for as-needed contributors as well.  The ultimate intent is to empower technical and artistic communities, support civic hacking, provide some unique design and software solutions, and make the collaborators wealthy.

Some of the ideas are very small and serve niche needs; others are pretty grandiose and will require significant time and resources.  We will start small and build on each success.

If you’re interested, contact us via the form here.  But note that we will start with people very well known to us.  You can help us get acquainted with your skills and experience by pointing us to your accomplishments.

Thanks for taking the time to read,

Randy