Wednesday 29 September 2010

Over The Air 2010

This was my third Over The Air and it more than lived up to the expectations set by the previous two. Billed as “a grass-roots mobile developer event”, Over The Air is an unmissable event on the mobile developer’s calendar — a weekend of fresh presentations from people who are at the cutting edge, mixed with an overnight hack-a-thon competition with prizes awarded in the final presentation.

This year the organisers went for a couple of keynotes (including the major coup of Tim Berners-Lee on the Sunday morning) as well as over 40 seminars on topics ranging from business oriented pitch and product workshops and DIY PR; through introductions to design & prototyping tools such as Flowella and iProcessing; all the way to detailed technical explanations and tutorials such as using Paypal’s mobile SDKs and Bryan Rieger’s excellent presentation on building mobile and desktop compatible web sites (of which more later).

I’ve put my rough notes on the presentations below, but it’s worth checking out the other presentations that were spotlighted on Slideshare and the other blog entries featured in the overtheair twitter stream.

I also entered the hack-a-thon competition and won Best Hardware Hack as well as Best use of “other features”?! for my LEGO Mindstorms robot with an iPhone brain that followed faces. I’ll be posting the code for my hack shortly…

Keynote: the art of emotional design

Aral Balkan — @aral

  • when computers made the impossible, possible, features mattered
    • …and it didn’t matter if the interface was hard
  • mobile phones are now a commodity, but we’re willing to pay extra for some things
    • “I think Apple is on to something”
  • you cannot compete on features any more:
    • when infrastructure is commoditized, the differentiating factor is User Experience
  • Le Petit Prince: “perfection is achieved … when there is nothing left to take away”
  • you need someone with the authority and responsibility to say “no” to extra features
  • “usable” = “edible”
  • we want to aim for “magical”
  • Aral tries to stay “naive” so that he can understand interfaces from the point of view of an everyday person (not a developer)
  • don’t trick the user
  • build in “delighters”
    • not required for interaction, but…
  • oslo bullet train ticket machine:
    • just a credit card slot
    • exit also has a credit card swipe
    • can get a receipt later online
    • made a difficult decision: knew that fraud rates would go up
    • but worth it for increased usage
  • dangers:
    • weakest link is what is not under your control
    • e.g. facebook pulled the plug on Feathers for Facebook (now Feathers Visage) without warning, just as the app was featured on the German and Austrian app store

DIY research workshop – informing the design process

Mark A.M. Kramer — @mamk

  • users have different issues to those in the mobile industry
  • Mark does “nomadic ethnography” — mainly based on trains :-)
  • often finds himself being a participatory observer
  • Mobile research methods
    • e.g. woman on circle line instinctively knew when network was available — put the paper down and switched to checking her mail
  • iPhone is a good ethnography tool — can take pictures secretly!
  • mobile also enables surveys in the field
  • culture is changing:
    • mobile is enabling “just in time” — e.g. “just google that”

Mark then showed us various interviews:

  • inventor of makerbot and thingiverse:
    • “share or die”
    • integrate game mechanics into whatever you’re doing
  • reactable music interface:
    • play along
    • make it fun
    • can really make instruments with accelerometer
  • feature phone user from Eastern Europe (no smart phone culture):
    • want something I can read my magazines on (comic books)
    • but want it portable
    • I’ve seen others using iPads etc.
    • social shaping of technology
  • 10 year old — what I like about my iPod touch:
    • app developers will become rich if they make something that people like
    • he likes games
    • doesn’t want to pay for things

things to think about:

  • eWaste — what about all those unused phones?
  • social isolation
  • generational differences
  • impact on children
  • designing for inclusion & accessibility

Orange Mobilise – the mobile volunteering initiative

David Simoes-Brown (Strategy Partner at 100%Open), Jogesh Limbani (Head of Open Innovation at Orange R&D UK)

  • Orange using open innovation to encourage ideas to come in to Orange
    • The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki
    • Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky — 100 million hours of adverts watched over one weekend in America, equivalent to the amount of time taken to create wikipedia
  • Orange want to help minutes matter
  • Tuangou (cloud clout buying) in China
    • gathering people together to negotiate a discount
  • Orange want to capture 5 minutes a day from the 3h 45m TV watching for volunteering
  • Have previously launched Orange Rock Corps — can earn a ticket to a gig by volunteering
  • 1 million people giving 5 minutes = a decade of real time
    • Orange building an app (iPhone to begin with)
    • Gathering ideas
    • Promoting existing apps
  • Challenge:
    • can pick an app from suggested ideas
    • contact the author and go
    • OR submit an existing suitable app
  • Orange will launch the top three voted apps & actions in October
  • Will also launch 7 other apps & ideas as chosen by Orange rather than community
  • Voting criteria:
    • You’re on the bus with five minutes before the stop — what can you do?
    • Popular & used often
    • Has a clear social or environmental benefit
    • Practical & attractive to a sponsor charity — needs a backup
    • Looking for a balance of actions:
    • research | lookout | reach out | skill set
    • Also looking for a balance of purposes
  • suggest to look at latest & most active rather than top scoring

Rethinking the Mobile Web – a pragmatic look at creating an accessible and inclusive mobile experience

Bryan Rieger @bryanrieger

Bryan gave a fantastic presentation about how to make workable web sites for mobile and desktop use. There’s also a whole load of discussion on slideshare below the presentation about different approaches. The how-to bits of the presentation start from about slide 104, but there’s a load of stats up front to convince you that having a mobile-friendly site is worth it, and that mobile-friendly does not just mean iPhone…

  • iPhone in US only covers about 6% of the population and only 4% of 5 major EU countries
  • Huge impact but not huge penetration (at least of people, but huge percentage of traffic…)
  • nice comparison of older (desktop) Macs vs recent mobile phones
  • feature phones of today are the smartphones of yesterday
  • the old devices don’t suck
  • stats from 02/2010
    • lots of Opera Mini in Nigeria
    • lots of BlackBerry in Australia
    • in Feb. the UC proxy browser ate Nokia’s Chinese market share
    • Nokia bought Novarra in March 2010…
  • going forward, main browsers in use are WebKit and Opera Mini
    • coming up later are Mozilla Fennec (will be Firefox Mobile), Ovi & UC proxy browsers
  • why is it ok to say “this site works best on Safari 4”, when it wasn’t ok to say “this site works best with IE 4…”?
  • design “mobile first”
    • @media queries often fail — so taking a desktop site + media queries results in a desktop site on mobile
    • mobile site + @media queries => desktop site
    • not a new idea — just progressive enhancement!
  • use screen and handheld types for first stylesheet
  • book recommendation: DOM Scripting by @adactio (if jQuery not available…)
  • will resize and compress image for you
  • infographics may need reinterpretation for smaller screens, rather than just resizing
  • a bit of a dream: Bryan would like to extend the <img> tag to have multiple images for different screen sizes
  • Q&A: Opera has device stats available from

Viral Survival Kit: Cloud Computing for Highly Scalable Apps

Matt Wood, Amazon Web Services —

A quick overview of Amazon’s cloud services. Useful for working out what you might need. I was kind of hoping for something more technical, but this is good too. Especially useful is the link to the Amazon Simple Calculator, so you can work out how much your requirements might cost.

  • Amazon started with two servers (1 db, 1 app server)
  • They refactored so that:
    • dev teams could request resources on demand
    • wouldn’t have to worry about scaling & reliability
  • AWS is a datacentre abstraction
  • can provision a server in about 20-25 seconds (though Windows servers take a little longer due to security certificate isses)
  • guardian open platform is delivered using AWS

S3 & CloudFront

  • all data is replicated to three different centres
  • scaled automatically as demand rises
  • can have a reduced redundancy service at lower cost (only 5 9s rather than 11…)
  • CloudFront provides CDN

other services

  • RDS: relational datastore — MySQL as a service
  • EBS: elastic block store
  • EMR: elastic map reduce — hadoop on demand
  • VPC: virtual private cloud — elastic resources in the cloud appear in your own network through a VPN
  • CloudWatch: monitoring, autoscaling
  • ELB: elastic load balancer

some detail

  • m1.small available for about 8¢/hour
  • m1.large has more CPU etc
  • t1.micro is even smaller, only 2¢/hour
    • tight RAM constraints (600Mb), but has automatic CPU scaling
  • can plan over longer term and get reduced price (0.07¢/hour if you pay $50 upfront)

designing for failure

  • can attach an elastic IP address to an instance
  • if server fails, can just repoint to another instance in the same datacentre
  • also deal with datacentre failures
    • four regions (East Coast, West Coast, Dublin, Singapore)
    • each region has multiple availability regions
  • RDS can enable master/slave with an API call


  • can pull monitoring data into ganglia
  • monitoring can be connected to autoscaling
  • can set thresholds for setting up and killing servers
  • integrated with availability zones


  • can have multiple roles with fine grained access
  • provide mitigation against DDOS
  • default-deny firewall
  • see for details
  • data stays within regions

Q & A

What Would Picasso Do — a panel of art and technology

Another brilliant Bryan Rieger production: find six people with interesting ideas and ask them to inspire the audience by talking about what they liked. It worked…

Tom has been thinking about…

  • Joseph Beuys: “everyone is an artist”
  • Music industry history is minuscule compared to whole history of art
    • we focus on near-sighted things
  • Art doesn’t seem to scale
    • engineering efforts can take 100Ks of people
    • what would art equivalents look like
  • Constraints feed creativity

mills is enabling creativity…

  • granimator: enabling the public to create screen backgrounds
    • invite artists to contribute assets
  • making creativity accessible

matthias has been playing with plasticine…

  • dali from 1950s: gem-decorated heart with pumping action
  • we work on the surface with the gems at the moment
  • need to work deeper
  • plasticine interfaces — when they’re rough, people want to grab them and play
  • Sony has a big blue design book
    • explored wireless headsets in 80s
    • worked in the home, but in shared spaces you would get someone else’s music
    • dismissed at the time, but might now be treated as an interesting feature

Jason has been looking at apps…

  • UK is much more advanced than US in area of IPTV & set-top boxes

Filip has been thinking about art…

  • linear vs dynamic
  • goals vs accidents
  • framing / positioning
  • interactive vs reactive
  • sense of ownership

Q & A

  • Are creative apps on iPad/iPhone merely frivolous?
    • e.g. Brushes, Magic Piano
    • TH: 11-point multitouch is not frivolous
    • JF: a device to interact with while watching TV
    • TH: Jeff Minter: apps for Amiga
    • no intermediation — straight onto the screen
  • Are there any useful consequences of art-related apps? Can they be applied to productivity-related apps?
    • TH: epic win: a todo list manager that takes game mechanics and gives you experience points for completing todo items…


This wasn’t a presentation on the main schedule, just the cabbie who started @tweetalondoncab talking about where he’s got to and where he wants to go.

  • gone from 2 drivers to 120!
  • however, can’t cope with more than 3-4 jobs at a time


  1. customer DMs to @tweetalondoncab
    • may have to come back to them and get further details (inc phone number)
  2. the chair account (protected account) advertises the job (removing specifics) with phone number of person in chair
  3. drivers get a text alert when tweet sent from chair account
  4. driver responds with a phone call and gets job allocated
    • receives phone number and address of pickup
  5. chair account sends out that job has been allocated
  6. chair account informs customer of their driver’s details
  7. driver contacts customer by phone when they’re ready

also have @cabup protected account that provides shared information updates on demand & traffic — added value for drivers who join in

future ideas

  • would like to include cab sharing
  • still want to advertise to all drivers as it’s their decision to take it
    • first come first served at the moment
    • but would like to add in how long the driver would take to get there
    • especially for higher value jobs (e.g. Victoria -> Gatwick)
  • want to attract people who would normally order a private minicab

constraints & ideas

  • dealing with 3-4 jobs coming in at once
    • if can see all cabs on map, would be able to tell customers that can’t help within 30 mins
    • driver claiming job is pinch point
    • have a link to a page with how many minutes to be there
    • claim the job automatically
    • could have a form to submit info, so jobs are better structured

Keynote: Sir Tim Berners-Lee

I didn’t get to take many notes during Sir Tim’s keynote as I was busy finishing my hack (of which more in the next post). He was an inspiring speaker in his own way — you could see the passion for his subject shining through.

His main points were about ensuring things are referable, and that the reference can (and should) be done with URLs.

  • if an app doesn’t have a URL then it can’t be linked
  • it doesn’t get the interestingness — people can’t use it for other things