Make music on the iPad with Shapemix

We’ve been working on a fun, powerful, music-making iPad app called Shapemix and are thrilled to see it go live in the App Store!  We’ve been working with Colin Owens and his team to build the app and get it launched, and are thrilled to see some of the positive press it’s already gotten (check out the Mashable article).

The app is designed to help you create music in a fun, intuitive way that anyone – even those without a musical background – can pick up quickly.  The idea is to grab some tracks (at launch, there were over 100 free tracks in the Shapemix store), then mix them together to create completely new songs.

There’s two ways to mix tracks, each giving you different levels of control over your song:

Mix View

Each track is represented as a circle: as the song plays, you’ll see visual cues representing which track is playing and what effects are applied to it.  Tracking these circles around the screen changes the volume and pan of the track.

It’s a great way to get real-time feedback of changes you make for your song.  It also takes great advantage of the multi-touch capabilities of the iPad.

Time View

As you create your songs, you’ll get to a point where you want finer-grained control over what tracks are being played.  That’s where the time-view comes in.  It looks a bit like a traditional music-editing program, but still retains the app’s simplicity.

You can drag clips around, solo and mute, and decide exactly where each clip will start and stop in your song.

We were thrilled to be part of the development team.  Shapemix is made up of a number of great musicians, designers, and programmers.  Be sure to check out Shapemix in the iTunes store.

From Zero to a Million Users

Xobni and Dropbox, two highly successful VC-backed ventures, had an impressive growth in their users within a fairly short period of time (2 million users within 2 years).  Adam Smith of Xobni has a presentation discussing some many of the lessons learned from the experience of these two startups.

Of the strategies they tried, they used “learn without launching” techniques to gauge market fit: including AdWords tests, landing pages, and building a list of email addresses of people interested in the product.

Their private beta launches were also used to create scarcity and buzz, which further increased their waiting lists.  In addition, they made it very easy for users to tell their friends via social media.  A referral program even resulted in a 50% increase in signups.

Finally, and perhaps the most important point any entrepreneur needs to calculate, the acquisition cost of customers offset by the total lifetime value of that customer.  Finding the cheapest way to acquire customers while maximizing the lifetime value of that customer is the key to any business (some examples, including Netflix, are included).

Check out the slides.  It’s a great set of lessons learned for two highly successful consumer-facing sites that focused on doing one thing, and one thing very well.

Apple's Thoughts on Flash

There’s a very interesting article up on Apple’s site from Steve Jobs himself discussing the decision to keep Flash off Apple iPhones and iPads.  I thought I’d select a couple of the most interesting:

Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers. For example, many Flash websites rely on “rollovers”, which pop up menus or other elements when the mouse arrow hovers over a specific spot. Apple’s revolutionary multi-touch interface doesn’t use a mouse, and there is no concept of a rollover. Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices. If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?

In addition to the above, there’s also video which: decoding video to display on a computer screen using software requires a lot of the CPU (and kills battery life), while using a hardware-based encoding (H.264) is much more efficient.  Flash didn’t support H.264 until very recently.

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

One of the most intriguing points Jobs makes is the concept of being beholden to a third-party to make updates to their libraries whenever Apple introduces a new technology.  With the speed of changes in the iPhone OS, I can see his point.

Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

via Thoughts on Flash.

When To Place Ads On Your Site

Many clients have approached us for suggestions to monetize their site, and invariably there are questions about advertising. Although it’s easy to place ads on your site, there are reasons why it may not lead to the kind of revenue you might expect. There are also some drawbacks that need to be considered as well.

Of course, not every site is a good candidate for advertising in the first place. If your business model is about selling products or services through your site, incorporating ads could reduce your credibility (not always, such as if you place ads only on your blog for instance). On the other hand, if you’ve created a comprehensive site with an extensive library of content, advertising makes perfect sense.

When is the Right Time To Place Ads on a Site?

First and foremost, placing ads on a site is not a panacea for generating revenue. Chances are, you won’t see much revenue from your ads, and you can actually drive away traffic (and reduce credibility) by doing it incorrectly. Since each site is different, only the site owner knows the kind of expectations of its audience.

Take it slow: don’t place any ads on a site right off the bat (expect in a few circumstances). Instead, focus on building your audience. Increase the number of loyal users, get people to participate, and build your traffic levels. Use this time to establish credibility for your brand, and to become known as an authority in your field.

Advertising

Once you’ve built a solid audience, then it’s time to start experimenting with advertising. But again, take it slow. Try placing some Google text ads in an unobtrusive place on your site and gauge the reaction of your users. Then, continue to experiment. Try some text ads in other places around the site, try alternating between text and banner ads, etc.

At every step, keep very careful track of your results: reactions from audience members, traffic levels and impression counts, revenue results, and of course the click-through (CTR) rate. Meticulously track all of this in a spreadsheet, and be sure to provide ample time for each experiment.

Over time, you’ll come up with a set of data in your spreadsheet that identifies the key areas of your site that are best for advertising: what pages and the placement on those pages that generate the highest CTR. You’ll also learn what spots don’t help and detract from the usability of your site.

Setting up carefully-constructed experiments and allowing plenty of time will give you the data to optimize your advertising: giving you the greatest revenue with the least distraction for your users.

21 Creative Ways To Increase Your Facebook Fanbase

Yesterday, we created a Facebook page for Draconis (yes, it took us this long to do it).  For now, it’s just mirroring our blog content, but we may do more with it in the future.

In the meantime, I was curious about getting people to check it out.  Here’s a roundup of some creative ideas for getting people to become your fan: 21 Creative Ways To Increase Your Facebook Fanbase | Social Media Examiner.

Getting started with online marketing

As a web developer, I work with a lot of entrepreneurs: some are established and looking for a simple web presence, but the vast majority are building something completely new, and they need help spreading the word.

Marketing online is a huge subject, but the key concepts applicable to most sites are fairly straightforward:

  1. Get people to link to you (especially blogs and well-respected sites)
  2. Maintain your own blog with frequently updated (and tailored) content, and practice good SEO techniques
  3. Consider paid advertising

Getting backlinks

One of the main tasks involved in promoting a new web site is to get other people talking about it. This serves a number of purposes, first and foremost is gaining valuable backlinks, which greatly improve your search engine rankings. It’s also one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks.

The process is fairly straight-forward. Identify and rank blogs that discuss your subject material. Using a site like Technorati (or just Google) will help you pick out relevant sites. Then, rank them based on popularity and suitability. This ranking will help you prioritize your high-value sites from your nice-to-haves.

Once you’ve identified the sites to contact, work on a compelling pitch. It should be short and get to the point quickly (preferably in the first sentence or two). Be sure to include why the blogger should write about your site, and even include helpful content they might use in their own article. Make the blogger have to do as little work as possible to write about your site. This increases the likelihood of a post.

Once you’ve crafted your pitch, send it out. Be sure to personalize it for each blog though: include the writer’s name, and some relevant notes about why your site is perfect for their blog. Once you’ve sent out the pitches, you need to be persistent (but not annoying). Follow up after a week or so with another personalized note (and tweak your pitch). Bloggers are just like everyone else: they’re very busy and are likely deluged in email every day.

Practice good SEO techniques

Search Engine Optimization isn’t a panacea of web marketing, despite what many snake-oil salesmen might have you believe. SEO is really just the ticket to entry: if you aren’t practicing good SEO, you could be hurting your site quite a bit.

In general, SEO is fairly common-sense: use proper web coding and design practices and don’t play tricks with web crawlers. A good web developer will do this automatically (and a bad one could get you banned from search engines). There are a number of other techniques you can do, however, that can make a big difference.

The key here is to update often, and to tailor your updates to the kind of keywords you expect your target users to enter into search engines. As an example, if you’re a toy company, you’ll want to tailor your content to mention key toy-related words (“action figures”, “dolls”, etc). By doing this, you’ll be setting up relevant information for people in your key demographic, who are more likely to come to your site when searching for “action figures” or “dolls” on a search engine.

Updating frequently via a blog is also helpful in SEO because it gets search engines to crawl your site more frequently. Why is this good? Well, for one thing, search engines are increasingly interested in the timeliness of the content they crawl. Information that has just been posted online is presumably of greater interest to web searchers then content from years ago. Keeping your content and web site updated frequently can be helpful in your search engine rankings.

Paid advertising

The first two aspects noted above are considered “organic” web marketing, and can have the biggest impact on your site. The downside is they are extremely time-consuming to implement. For some sites, however, paid advertising makes a lot of sense (especially if you have something of a budget). It’s a quick way to start getting your site noticed, and it can be quite affordable.

Paid advertising comes in two flavors: CPC (Cost Per Click) and CPM (Cost Per Thousand impressions). The former is the typical model of search engines like Google, where you pay some amount each time a person clicks on your ad in search results. CPM, on the other hand, is often used on higher-traffic destination sites, and you pay a certain amount to show your ad to visitors (an impression is every time a page is loaded).

In general, you’ll want to start with CPC and then consider branching out to CPM, primarily because the barrier to getting started with CPC is so minimal. In fact, all you need to do is setup a Google AdSense account, write some ads, and set a daily budget, and you could have ads showing today.

So, just how effective is paid advertising? Well, it depends on several factors: how much time and effort (and money) you’re willing to put into your campaigns, and how effective advertising is going to be for your target user.

Tailoring CPC ads via Google and other search engines requires a lot of fine-tuning. You should be familiar with A/B testing, landing pages, and willing to experiment with your content. It can take quite a bit of time to nail down a highly-optimized paid advertising campaign, and you’ll need to work with your web developers to get the landing pages just right. Once you have a well-oiled advertising campaign, it should start paying for itself (and you can even track those conversions automatically).

CPM advertising is a little different, and usually involves some graphic design. You’ll often need to put together some catchy-looking web banners and corresponding landing pages to create a successful CPM campaign. You’ll also need to do your research: finding the right web site to place your banners requires you to get in depth on their users. Make sure you’re buying ad space on a site that reaches a lot of your target users, and tailor your web banner and landing pages to them explicitly.

Wrapping Up

Web marketing is a complex subject, and the key takeaway here is that it’s also time-consuming. With a good team at your disposal, you can avoid many of the mistakes of inexperience (some of which can cost you greatly).

Ultimately, it’s a process of fine-tuning. As you experiment, you’ll learn what avenue and message works best at reaching your target customer, and what web marketing techniques result in the highest return.

From Gmail to MobileMe

When I purchased an iPhone 3G (upgrading from the first gen), I also purchased the companion MobileMe service, and I’ve been giving it a test run since.  At the time, I was hoping for a replacement to Google’s Gmail, but unfortunately, it’s not quite there yet.  I thought I’d take a few minutes to offer some tips to the MobileMe Email team, as well as start a discussion on email services in general.

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Internet radio as the killer iPhone app

Since Apple launched the App Store for iPhone OS 2.0, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for what might be the next killer app for the iPhone.  I’ve often thought the iPhone would be a game-changer in the mobile environment, allowing people to think of their phones in a new way.  These mobile devices are no longer simply a phone with added-on Internet access, but a complete communications and personal computer system.  With games and other non-communication-oriented apps the iPhone has achieved much towards this end, but there’s one additional category that has the potential to be a game changer in an unexpected way: internet radio.

The Pandora and AOL Radio apps are designed to allow you to stream radio to your iPhone or iPod Touch.  The introduction of fast 3G Internet access on the iPhone represents a significant threat to satellite radio and, to a lesser extent, terrestrial radio.  Consider the implications.  A user has an iPhone that’s the same size as an iPod (or a Sirius Stiletto) that can stream radio while in the car, walking down the street, or inside a building.  The iPhone can hop onto WiFi networks (same with the iPod Touch) or use 3G.  Even Edge connectivity allows for decent streaming.  All that adds up to great wireless access – as good as, or better than, satellite technology, since 3G and Edge connections work indoors whereas satellite doesn’t.

Accessibility aside, the real advantage is the phenomenal flexibility streaming radio provides.  Take Pandora for example.  It’s a streaming radio program for the iPhone that creates a customized radio station matched exactly to your tastes.  But even the simple ability to skip over songs you don’t like, a basic feature of Pandora, is inherently absent from any pre-programmed content station.  Such a simple feature goes a long way to improving your listening experience, and it’s almost embarrassing in the age of TiVo to not be able to skip over content you don’t find interesting.

With greater accessibility and significantly greater flexibility, streaming Internet radio will become one of the biggest threats to satellite radio over the next few years and will become a killer app for the iPhone.  Cell technology is getting better at providing high-speed Internet access, and already there are a number of very good streaming services that match listener’s tastes to music.  As the iPhone becomes increasingly popular among consumers and access speeds increase, satellite will suffer.  Satellite’s only hope to stay competitive is to offer enough exclusive content that listeners won’t be able to part ways with satellite radio without missing their favorite programs, but even that strategy is tenuous at best – it will only be so long before the content creators themselves decide to head for the greener pastures that Internet streaming radio provides.

New Draconis Software Site Design

Just a quick note about our new site design (if you haven’t noticed already).  We’ve put a lot of effort into redeveloping our site, hopefully conveying a fun, bright feel.  The main change, though, is what’s no longer visible: our network monitoring system RSP.  As a company, we’re moving in a different direction and have decided to make our site focus on our consulting efforts.

The Draconis Software website has gone through many different iterations over the years, and I’m particularly happy with the direction it’s going in.  As time goes on, we’ve worked hard to simplify our web presence, putting up only the most interesting and necessary information about our company and what we’re up to.  This has been one of the principal tenets of the web 2.0 design movement, and we’ve certainly practiced this with our clients.

But, enough about our thoughts on the site: we’d much rather hear what you think!  What do you like/not like about the new design?

Switching to Gmail

gmailOne of the things I had been meaning to do for some time was to switch all of my email over to my Gmail account. The idea is simple: I have a lot of different email accounts, and it’d be great to keep them all in one place, backed up, and always accessible. So, setting up Gmail to access each of my different email accounts (well, five of the most important, and the rest just forward to my gmail address) was trivial. The hard part, however, was getting all my previous messages into Gmail.

Here’s a quick overview of how to get all of your old emails into Gmail as painlessly as possible (and one way that preserves dates!).

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