Nicky Wishart is a 12 year old from Eynsham, a village in Oxfordshire, England, where the local youth club is slated to close due to austerity. He decided to organise a protest outside of Prime Minister David Cameron's nearby constituency office (after all, Cameron once told Parliament, "we need youth clubs, we need things to divert people from crime"), so he posted a call-to-action on Facebook. In response, the Thames Valley Police's anti-terrorism squad visited Wishart's school, pulled him out of class, and warned him that he would prosecuted if the protest led to violence, even if he decided not to attend.
Hundreds more youth clubs in England are slated for closure. 20 out of 27 of the clubs in Oxfordshire alone are set to close.
When Nicky Wishart began a campaign to save his popular local youth club from closure, he might have been praised for showing the type of community-minded spirit that his local MP, David Cameron, has championed since he entered Downing Street. In fact, the 12-year-old's reward for attempting to rescue the centre – a small, brick hall in the leafy Oxfordshire village of Eynsham – was a visit from the police.
After his plans to hold a small protest outside the constituency office of Mr Cameron were spotted by anti-terror officers on Facebook, Nicky was pulled out of a lesson and warned by police that he would be held responsible if any violence broke out. Without his mother with him, he was frightened. "It was terrifying," said Nicky. "I was told that I could be arrested if there was any trouble at the protest. I was also told that I could be arrested even if I decided not to go myself. I didn't know what to do."
Apple has set up an official store on Tmall, the marketplace operated by e-commerce behemoth Alibaba. Tmall is currently the world’s second largest online retailer and is set to overtake Amazon’s top position by 2015, says analysis firm Euromonitor International.
The Cupertino, California-based company already has 10 Apple retail stores in four Chinese cities and its own China-facing site, but using Tmall gives it a major new channel, as well as several new marketing tools. As the Wall Street Journal reported, expanding its retail presence in China is important because, as in the rest of the world, the iPhone’s market share there has declined as it faces competition Samsung and other Android device makers.
Setting up shop on Tmall gives Apple access to Alibaba’s new social networking tools, which Alibaba developed after inking a strategic partnership with Sina Weibo, the highly influential microblogging platform with 50 million daily active users. Yesterday, the two companies launched Weibo Payment, which integrates with Sina Weibo and helps users to engage in a “social shopping” experience. For example, when someone shares an item, a “buy” button now automatically appears that lets his or her followers view product details and purchase it using Alipay, Alibaba’s payment platform. Weibo Payment also gives Apple a new CRM tool as it localizes it marketing efforts for China. For example, its Tmall store is currently getting ready for “Red Friday” promotions on January 10, an annual promotional event by retailers to herald the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
The home screen as it stands cannot last. In reality, what we’re looking at is the end times for the traditional grid of icons that we’ve become so familiar with since the iPhone was introduced in 2007.
There is simply too much context available via the sensors, camera, radios and other inputs we carry around in our pockets not to take advantage of it.
The icon grid design was used in many early smartphones running Palm and Symbian and Windows Mobile. But the iPhone really launched that design into the public consciousness and then Google cemented it with the launch of the first touch screen Android device. I’m not here to argue about firsts, but Apple was essentially responsible for making the grid the ‘standard’ in the eyes of a lot of people — both iPhone users and people who picked up other smartphones running on other operating systems.
But, seven years later, the choices made by Apple to honor the grid demand re-examination. The thought process is relatively simple to disassemble. The grid had been used by other smartphone makers and even Apple’s Newton. It was simple, easy to understand and friendly to people who were being introduced to multitouch — which was for most people a brand new way to interact with touch screens. This was the same process which led it to utilize real-world allegories like bookshelves, page curls and ‘buttony’ buttons.
But that home screen belongs to a bygone era. We’re acclimated now and any new users of smartphones have the collective installed user base to help them along.
Now is the time that the home screen begins to take advantage of the thing that we’re going to be hearing an absolute junk ton about in 2014: context.
I have a ton more thoughts about why 2014 will be the ‘year of context’ for mobile software and hardware, but for our purposes it’s enough to point at a few recent trends. Among those are Google Now, Apple’s ‘Today’ section in Notification Center, Facebook Home, Cyanogen Mod and home screen customization companies like Everything.me and, yes, Aviate.
These various products are all efforts to leverage the contextual signals that our mobile sensor platforms are able to collect and transmit. Where we are, who we are, what our intent is, what our environment looks and sounds like and what we do when we’re there. That context can be used to customize the way that our devices look, feel and work based on our own personal signals.
At this point, a home screen that customizes itself to you, personally, feels as inevitable as a well-worn pair of shoes.
TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler noted a symptom of this recently. The ‘first app you open’ in the morning is becoming more important real-estate than your home screen. In reality the first app you open when you turn on your iPhone is ’springboard’, the home screen. But up to this point it has remained relatively static, with only a couple of minor nods to active icons like the clock and calendar.
Android home screens have always been more malleable, allowing for personalization and customization on a deeper level. Which is why some people really like Android.
But this isn’t just about customization, it’s about reaction and organization on a contextual basis. Which brings us back to Yahoo’s recent acquisition, Aviate.
Aviate is a home screen replacement for Android that interprets signals from you, the user, to present you with the apps, content and alerts you want right when you need them or even before. It groups apps into automated collections. This makes the home screen simple and clean.
It also has elements of app discovery, says Aviate’s Mark Daiss. Aviate will look at the apps that you have and use the most and suggest more like it. The goal for the first run at Aviate was to cover roughly ’80%’ of a user’s day, says Daiss. That includes the major components like getting up, traveling, working and going to bed. From here on out it will be about fleshing out the moments in between.
Daiss credits Facebook Home for creating an awareness of what a launcher was and how a customized home screen could change the experience. Despite the fact that Home didn’t exactly turn out well, Daiss notes that other efforts like GoLauncher have seen success, with that offering currently clocking in at over 100 million installs on Google Play.
One of the reasons I believe Facebook Home’s initial try failed was that it was too insular. Even the most dedicated Facebook user needs more than just one network’s worth of information. That’s why I was curious about Yahoo’s plans for Aviate.
Yahoo SVP of Mobile and Emerging Products Adam Cahan says that the company isn’t interested in turning Aviate into some sort of ‘all Yahoo apps’ portal. For now, it will expand the beta program and get more users checking it out. “Think of this as an extension of [Yahoo] Search,” Cahan says.
The extension of search metaphor is an apt one, as contextually aware home screens will be all about using anticipatory ‘searching’ through our apps, habits and use cases to provide us with better experiences. Aviate will now be able to tap deeply into Yahoo data like search, weather, maps and more to inform contextual experiences. But, Daiss is careful to note, Aviate will still choose the best, most definitive data source possible — even if that’s not from Yahoo. With the best data comes the best experiences.
Daiss lays down the core components of what he feels a contextual computing experience are. First, it needs the right input signals, then it needs the information that’s pertinent to the situation and then it has to provide the right user experience.
Part of what they’ve discovered at Aviate is that this experience often involves offering information and context from inside the apps right out on the home screen. But this isn’t a one-shot widget, this is a continuously personalized experience.
One of Aviate’s more popular features is a ‘swipe down’ screen that can offer you context from inside various apps at any given moment. Swipe down at a restaurant and you might get information about what’s good to eat there from Foursquare or Yelp. Swipe down at home and you’ll get alarm settings, a do not disturb toggle and a schedule of meetings.
If you’re an iOS user and this is sounding familiar, yes, this is why Apple acquired Cue. Because its swipe down ‘today’ section has the seeds of this kind of contextual computing, but it needs a lot of water and care to grow. Control Center and Notification Center need to grow up, quickly. (It’s also, I feel, one of the major reasons Apple changed its design so drastically with iOS 7 — it needed a more flexible framework to build within.)
Aviate and other intent-based home screens are champing at the bit to offer people a better experience. And Google Now has an immense amount of head start simply by virtue of the enormous amount of data it has from its users.
Unfortunately, once you start talking about how much these intent-based systems know about us and can anticipate our needs, the spectre of the NSA and government spying programs rears its head. Yahoo, Google and Apple were all targeted for data collection and that’s unlikely to go away. There are some incredibly complex and sticky moral quandaries headed our way with this new contex-heavy world, but that’s probably a discussion best handled in a focused chat about the trend.
For now, we have Yahoo acquiring Aviate in order to make sure that it has a hand in this new world of context-based software. It has the resources to juice the back end with user data, and it’s going to be a big platform for Aviate as a (relatively) agnostic prototype of the custom home screen. And if it’s turning and burning as much as it appears to be on mobile, Yahoo is very interested in how this battle for the home screen turns out.
What’s intriguing about this is that it’s very much a ‘technology company’ move. So much of the confusion about Yahoo and its new direction — I feel — has been rooted in the inability by some to come to grips with the fact that Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer is comfortable thinking of the company as both, and so are her new lieutenants. Yahoo has an enormous amount to prove still. No amount of hot young talent Botox is going to magically turn the company around.
But I don’t find the company’s investments in technology confusing. In this new contextual computing age, if you’re a media company not investing in your own technology, you’re probably not being…anticipatory enough.
Revolv, the device that connects all your smart devices, will begin sales in selected Home Depot stores across the U.S. and on Home Depot’s website.
As a reminder, Revolv could become an important piece of the so-called Internet of Things. It’s a simple $299 box that you plug in your house, and after that you can control all your smart devices from your phone and get smarter triggers.
For example, TechCrunch’s Matt Burns tested the Revolv with a Nest thermostat, WeMo outlets and a Kwikset deadbolt. These devices couldn’t talk together and didn’t know that they existed in the same house. Now, instead of having to open three separate apps, everything happens in the Revolv app.
And thanks to location sensing, when someone is close to his or her home, Revolv can turn on the heating (Nest), switch on the light (WeMo), unlock the door (Kwikset), etc. It’s as simple as that.
Software could still be improved as the geofenced area only works with one smartphone. It could be an issue if you leave your house but someone is still there.
Other integrations include Sonos, Philip Hue lights, Insteon and GE smart systems. As some of these devices are already available in-store at Home Depot, adding Revolv to the lineup will put the device in front of interested eyeballs.
It’s been a busy week for Alibaba Group. The Chinese Internet giant just debuted Weibo Payment, a new payment platform developed for microblogging platform Sina Weibo, and today the company took another significant step for its mobile ecosystem by announcing plans to launch a mobile gaming platform. Like Weibo Payment, Alibaba’s mobile gaming platform will compete directly with products from Tencent.
Though Alibaba is already best known for dominating China’s large and rapidly growing e-commerce market, the company has taken several steps over the last year to create an ecosystem that can potentially meet almost all of its users’ online needs. For example, in addition to its mobile initiatives, Alibaba also launched a smart TV operating system in July.
Its mobile gaming platform will allow Alibaba to tap into a potentially lucrative market. According to China’s GPC, a gaming industry group overseen by the government, the country’s mobile gaming market was worth RMB 11.2 billion, or about $1.9 billion USD, in 2013, up 247% from a year ago. The GPC also said that the number of mobile gamers in China increased 248% in 2013 to 310 million.
As smartphone penetration in China grows, driven by the availability of relatively inexpensive Android handsets, Chinese Internet companies are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the mobile Web. The competition to create an alluring mobile ecosystem will likely heat up in 2014 thanks to the rollout of 4G in China. Tencent is arguably doing the best so far with its mobile efforts, thanks in large part to WeChat and gaming platform. Meanwhile, competitors like Alibaba and Baidu are aggressively ramping up their mobile strategies. For example, Baidu recently purchased app marketplace 91 Wireless for $1.9 billion, the largest acquisition so far by a Chinese Internet company.
Alibaba’s mobile gaming platform will complement its two gaming-related verticals on Taobao, one of the company’s e-commerce sites, and give developers access to payment options, virtual currency and game data that can be stored in AliCloud, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary. One of the key selling points for Alibaba’s mobile gaming platform is its 7:2:1 revenue sharing model, which means that game developers will take 70% of sales, Alibaba 20% to cover the costs of distribution and marketing, and the remaining 10% will be donated to charity.
The company’s existing mobile ecosystem already includes a messaging app called Laiwang, which was designed to compete against WeChat, mobile shopping apps, Alipay Wallet, and a stake in mobile browser UCWeb, which claims 400 million users worldwide.