If Austin were a browser, these would be my Favorites

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my monthly contribution to AustinStartup.com, in which I referenced work by the IC2 Institute identifying and explaining the model of a vibrant, regional technology ecosystem that the study’s authors called the “Technopolis.”

After a harsh stretch during the post-dot com years, Austin certainly seems to be undergoing a renaissance – an Austin 2.0 phenomenon, in its own way – as one of the great Technopolises in the country. Recent evidence is its designation in the July issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine as the “No. 1 best city for the next decade.” Personally, this feels a little bit like the video game jinx where so many players appearing on the cover of EA Sports’ Madden football have run into career-limiting (or ending) situations shortly thereafter.

But Madden-like falls from greatness notwithstanding, the Austin metro area’s recognition as a great place to work and build companies is largely girded by having such a great quality-of-life to offer.

I know from my own experience that our family considered Austin a quality-of-life move, more than 15 years ago when we came to the city. We were seeking refuge from common big-city problems, like crime, traffic, and pollution. Of course, there were trade-offs, like the higher cost of housing (as compared to elsewhere in the South), the sharper divide in racial boundaries and overall lack of ethnic diversity, and the more unchecked suburban sprawl. But, overall, Austin delivered on the quality-of-life promise for us.

And, if you haven’t kept track of the quality-of-life recognition that the city has received recently, it continues to show well. Just counting the first six months of 2010, here are some quick highlights courtesy of the Greater Austin Chamber:

  • No. 2 most innovative city in the U.S. – Forbes, May
  • No. 3 most dog-friendly city in the U.S. – DogFriendly.com, May
  • No. 1 place for young adults – Portfolio.com, March
  • No. 1 local music scene – Budget Travel, February
  • No. 2 best place to retire and row – Rower’s Almanac, January

At the macro level, scoring at the top of those lists is great for the city, but at the micro level, what are examples of some of the hundreds of enterprises and amenities contribute to securing Austin’s top finishes?

Fortunately, Austinites aren’t a shy bunch and can be quite articulate and passionate in their loyalties and favorites. Besides voting with our dollars every day, Austinites literally vote for their favorites in polls, many prominently featured in the hometown weekly, the Austin Chronicle.

In this spirit of naming names, I offer my own, personal list of favorites – in no particular order of priority – representing the on-the-ground micro-ventures that make Austin my hometown for life:

Ok, ok, ok…basically we think pretty much every Austin 6th Street / Red River venue is killer in its own way and, even though the district seems to be going through frequent bi-polar swings – from bordering on seedier, grittier, darker to hipstery, celebreality, pre- and post-yuppie – there’s still no place like it and I love it. 

The “Live Music Capital of the World” nickname may be getting dissed more frequently these days (including by our current mayor, who admits his tastes favor Salzburg and Vienna), but personally I think the 365-nights-a-year diversity, raw intensity, and volume of options is unbeatable.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 3

In my prior two posts, I wrote about designing “The Tao of Cupcake” iPhone app, using Mockapp’s PowerPoint templates.

As I said previously, having long ago let my “coding saw” get a little dull – other than the occasional few lines of HTML or Excel macro – I had no interest in going beyond the design into programming, testing, and submitting the app for the iTunes store.

No…for purposes of this experiment, I was satisfied with some quick scanning of app dev and hosting options. There are plenty.

However, back to the whole focus of this series of posts – the importance of design – you have to line up the app that you want with the production options. When you do that, the number of choices may get smaller quickly, especially if you have a tight budget.

For example, while Cupcake is a fairly simple app from a display perspective, my concept of how it would work involved shaking the iPhone (comparable to shaking your Magic Eight Ball), to trigger the “answer” sequence to the question.

In order for this to work, there would need to be at least two little events/actions that would have to be in the app: one for motion detection and a second one, triggered by the motion, for a random number generator providing a result that would be interpreted as one of three responses by Cupcake:

Yes – random number divided by 3, with a 0 remainder

No – random number divided by 3, with remainder 1

Perhaps, Maybe, or Indecisive Cupcake – random number / 3, remainder 2

I may have missed it in my admittedly quick scan of interweb articles about app hosting options, but those two functions were not part of the templated services offered by most providers. Instead, what you more commonly get for the quick DIY apps are mostly standard picture and text content, with common lists and functions (for example, dialing and maps+directions), like those by Appbreeder for example. Good stuff, for sure. But, not for Cupcake.

So, while I chose a 1st-draft design as my stopping point, I’ll admit I did go with tiny step further with my faux app. Since I had the Cupcake mock-up looking like I wanted, I had to get it over to my iPhone, just so I could see what it looked like on a live device and show a my kids.

After a bit of searching for iPhone document readers, I settled on using a free app called FileApp by a group called DigiDNA. I’ll have to confess that I was a bit freaked out from a security perspective about giving an app – whose developer I knew nothing about – the ability to wirelessly connect, using a pre-set IP address to my laptop’s file directory.

Also, although the FileApp file transfer worked fairly effortlessly, the PowerPoint mock-up itself doesn’t render properly in FileApp. The main problem seems to be that certain formatting gets lost or over-ridden (like text that is centered in the original gets left-justified in the FileApp rendered file) and certain objects display incorrectly.

But, for my experimentation purposes, it wasn’t worth investing more time in searching for a better rendering, free app, like I would have if I were demo’ing the end result for a customer.

So, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed The Tao of Cupcake and picked up a few helpful tips along the way. As always, we’d love any feedback or additional sources of note.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 2

In my previous post, I wrote about the current range of options for someone wanting to develop an iPhone app.

Curious about the process myself, I conceived a very simple app – based on the classic Magic Eight Ball toy – that my kids helped me name “The Tao of Cupcake.”

With the general concept in mind, I set about thinking through how the app would work. One of the things I was reminded of very early in the process was how important design is.

In my long ago days when I cut my teeth designing and programming in such relic languages as 360 Assembler, COBOL, PL1, and Pascal, it was pounded into my head by mentors (and reinforced through experience) that designing and testing were equally important, if not moreso, to coding.

A couple of design aids I turned up to help me with Cupcake were Mockapp and Mockup for the iPhone and iMockups for the iPad, just for starters.

I decided to work with Mockapp, since it is essentially a set of templates available to use for designing in Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote, as shown in the screenshot above. It is also tweetware, free to use, with the requirement by its creator, Dotan Saguy, that your use of it be tweeted to help promote its availability.

The Mockapp template objects were very easy to use and the in-slide documentation and examples were helpful. Because of the rapid evolution of the iPhone UI (not counting the introduction of the iPhone 4), a few of the buttons and images were a little off, but for the most part the look is relatively authentic.

So, in a couple of hours, I pulled together the artwork, shot the photos of Cupcake, assembled the animated GIFs, and mocked up the basic flow of the app.

I’ll be the first to admit that – other than the mock-up instructions that accompany Mockapp and viewing some of the other apps on my phone – I did zero studying up of best practices or Apple-required iPhone UI conventions…definitely a step that should be taken seriously by someone designing more than a toy app like Cupcake.

Fortunately, there a bunch of resources available to browse, just a Google search away, like this Slideshare preso from Bess Ho from late 2009 or this more recent quickie post of best practices from January 2010.  

One last piece of the puzzle is to show you what the “The Tao of Cupcake” mock-up looks like. To do that, I resorted to a PowerPoint-to-Youtube converter program, again after a bit of interweb searching. The program I chose does a satisfactory job, although it is from a company (person?) that I knew nothing about and, thus, had that little bit of hesitation with before downloading the package and running it on my laptop.

And, as an annoying sidenote, you can see that they splay across the middle of every slide a not-so-subtle watermark with their URL for an evaluation copy of the converter. NOTE to developers (and to self): nothing wrong with promoting one’s fee-based software in the free version, but it can be just as effectively promoted by making it a lighter-shaded watermark and/or footer at the bottom of the page versus in the middle.

I’ll wrap up my iPhone app design experiment with a few final thoughts in the next post, Part 3.

The Tao of Cupcake – Part 1

Some may have taken from my post last month about returning my iPad that I’m something of an Apple hater – the company, not the fruit. Not so.

Yes, I’m a fan of the Wintel platform and have spent the better part of my professional career building enterprise systems that relied on x86 and MS-Windows/DOS architecture.

But, I’m also a big fan of Apple. I can still vividly remember walking into a ComputerLand store in downtown Houston, Texas the first week in 1984 they had the brand new Macintosh 1.0 machines in stock and coveting one. Too expensive for my second-year Arthur Andersen (aka Accenture) salary.

Fast forward to present day and in the last 10 years, I have personally bought – for my immediate family members or myself – 1 iMac, 1 Macbook Pro, at least 6 iPods, 3 iPhones, lots & lots! of iTunes store content (software, games, apps, and a couple hundred songs and counting). Oh yeah, and 1 iPad.

Speaking of which, I wanted to spend a moment on a small, personal experiment this past week in iPad/iPhone app development. I’ve been wanting to design an app, just to see what the process is like and to force my hand in tracking down some of the alternatives.

For my application, I decided to keep it simple and light-hearted, so I chose a variation of the magic eight ball. Rather than use the eight ball, though, I chose a bobblehead dog that everyone in our family got this past Christmas. (You can get your own; they’re cheap and really fun party gifts for kids.)

For some reason, my teenagers decided to christen my particular dog “Cupcake.” And, for a very pragmatic reason, Cupcake ended up planted in the rear window area of my Toyota Corolla – pragmatic, because with the make, mode, and exterior finish of my car being very popular, the addition of Cupcake makes it much easier to pick out in a crowded parking lot.

When my kids noticed the up-down, side-to-side, and round-about movement of Cupcake’s head, it quickly became the unofficial family magic eight ball proxy. So, much like the coin toss and other single function “toy” apps that are available in droves on the iPhone, I decided to pursue my experiment using Cupcake.

It was pretty easy to track down a few resources and articles that provided some of the app-building options, including an anchor piece from late 2009 posted on ReadWriteWeb by Sarah Perez. The options range from programming in Objective C and going “by the book” using Apple-supported / endorsed tools, to using one or more third parties to handle some (or all) of it for you.

With the third party path, what you will find, not surprisingly, is that the market for mobile app development is a white-hot competitive space. The good side of that is that there are a variety of alternatives and competitive pricing to purchase design, development, and/or hosting of your app. Some require modest programming skill (e.g., basic HTML), while others require not much more than drag-and-drop, point-and-click skill, while still others are turnkey shops that take your idea and for a fee do all of the work.

The downside of the variety of alternatives is the risk of making a bad choice, winding up with a platform and/or provider that doesn’t/don’t meet your expectations in the cost, functionality, troubleshooting support, or some other aspect that is important to you. So, obviously, doing some due diligence and homework in advance of selecting an option is important.

A critical part of this homework is investing a bit of time in designing what exactly it is that you want your app to do. We’ll pick up with the subject of design next, in Part 2 of the Tao of Cupcake.

What Is Beauty Worth?

A photo I took years ago of the main altar in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica was recently included in an auction of various visual art creations (paintings, sculptures, photos, etc.) in a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art.

Donating my artwork for sale got me to thinking about creativity and, more broadly, our human and natural expressions of beauty. A couple of movie scenes leapt to mind as insightful commentary on the subject.

In the Academy award-winning film “American Beauty,” there is a mesmerizing scene with two of its teenage characters when they watch a video of a plastic bag drifting in the wind that the young man filmed and describes as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” The message is that beauty is all around us, we just have to take a moment to look for and recognize it.

Contrast that scene with one from another Academy award-winning film, “Wall Street.” In a key scene towards the climactic end of the movie, the two main characters – a Wall Street mogul and his protégé, played by Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, respectively – are discussing the nature of wealth.

Douglas’s character points to a painting on his office wall and remarks “this painting here…I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars – I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real…and the more real it becomes, the more desperate they want it.” It’s a classic moment of film – all in a single take, I might add. You can download the clip to watch it, since there isn’t a readily available trailer playing it.

These contrasting perspectives on beauty were perfectly juxtaposed recently when a Picasso painting set the new world record for a work of art selling at auction for more than $106 million. I thought the New York Times critic’s description of the dynamics driving the price were fascinating.

In summary, if I may, he said the buyer of the Picasso topped all others in competing for a prized trophy, not a work of creative brilliance or unique, historic painting of great beauty. Or, in the critic’s words:

These days, there’s so much money in so many hands, and so many of those hands are after trophy art, that record-breaking has become routine, de rigueur.

Two, three, four million extra? More? Worth it. After all, if you’re the evening’s big spender, you not only suddenly own some fantastically valuable object, but your extravagance gets a mention in the news. Lay out the same bucks for a hospital wing, and who cares?

Indeed, the global art world is a fabulously diverse study cultural anthropology. I had a vague sense of this unique diversity, as a semi-literate layperson and visual arts admirer.

But, the full color of this magnificent sub-culture was brought home in totally engrossing way when I picked up a copy of Seven Days in the Art World. It is a fantastic read.

Likewise, I had a chance to spend a couple hours last afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse to be completely entertained watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the new movie by the graffiti “entre-tainer” Banksy.

If you are like me and are a fan of a good story, regardless of the topic, then my hope is you will be enchanted with both of these, like I was. But, in addition to being a total riot (in the case of the movie) or page-turner (for the book), they both offer some lessons from the world of visual arts for the world of entrepreneurship.

Specifically, that truly original creations frequently involve years of preparation, significant doubt and mental anguish, financial struggle and self-sacrifice, enormous passion and an unrelenting drive that often borders on the edge of what most others would observe as physically or psychologically reasonable.

Sound familiar? If so, I toast you, my fellow artists, patrons, and participants in the creative art of conceiving and building new products, services, and the companies that result. And, hopefully, I’ve just reminded you that the left-brain business types and right-brain creative types are often much more alike than they are different.