• A life without Steve Jobs

    There’s naturally quite a lot of sentimentality going around today. I usually shy away from public mourning, something I feel the likes of Twitter and Facebook have exacerbated, finding it often mawkish and lacking any sense of perspective. The crux of it is, today is unlikely to be any different for the vast majority of us and it’ll be much the same tomorrow.

    But what about yesterday? What if Steve Jobs hadn’t returned to Apple in late 1996 and Apple had gone bust like so many industry experts at the time predicted? For most people who own an iPhone today, their life probably wouldn’t be any different. I cannot say the same for my own.

    I got my first Mac in April 2000, thanks to my progressive parents. Yes, you had to be progressive, or barmy, to spend £1249 on a Mac at that time. I was the luckiest 13 year old around, owning a laptop was almost unheard of outside of the business world at that time (for those who are interested, it was the iBook G3 366MHz “Graphite SE” edition).

    From that day on I was hooked. There were probably times when I should have been out cycling round the block a few times, getting fresh air, but were actually spent on Yahoo Mac Chat Rooms discussing how many USB ports I had or whether my graphics chip could handle Nanosaur at full res.

    Over the years I’ve anticipated every one of Jobs’ captivating keynotes, often spending hours deliberating with fellow fans what would be released. Hours, not wasted, but savoured. And as the years went on, so did my experience and what I could do with my computer. At 14 I was making websites on my Mac for several small businesses, making money other 14 year olds could only dream of. Of course that money was spent on more RAM or a new monitor for my new PowerMac. At 17 I got my first job repairing Macs at Apple-Juice and at 22 I moved to Munich, Germany, to get a dream job at equinux, a Mac software company. At 24 I went on to start my own company, a Mac and iPhone app translation agency, Applingua.

    It’s true to say I didn’t know Steve Jobs. I was never even lucky enough to get to see him speak live at MacWorld or WWDC. It’s also true to say I didn’t know what he was like behind that illuminated camera and according to many accounts, I’m not sure I ever wanted to either. So far-reaching were his decisions both at Apple and the tech-world as a whole, that it doesn’t matter if you knew the man personally or not. Almost every piece of tech you use today from your phone to your TV has, at some point during the design process, been influenced by Steve’s Apple in some way.

    Choosing to be a geek, an Apple Geek no less, has brought me to where I am today. From fan-boy chat rooms at 12 years old to running Applingua, where I get to work with other Apple Geeks on a daily basis. Even as I write this, on my MacBook Air, I’m sitting at a desk opposite a good friend who I got to know working at that Mac software house, equinux.

    As the Mac software developers Panic put it, “it’s not an exaggeration to say that everything we have today – from our apps, to our employees, to our office, to our houses, even to FaceTime moments with our kids and favorite songs fading in on an a rainy walk home – is thanks to Apple.”

    This is my thank you, Steve. Thank you for changing the way the world approaches technology. Thank you for indirectly providing me with at least four separate jobs. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet some amazing people along the way.

    Thanks Steve.

  • Hack Month – October 2011

    Applingua HQ is moving! From Tuesday 27th September, I will be based out of Amelia, Italy along with partner in crime, Joe Westhead. We both started our own companies 9 months ago (Applingua, helipad.me) and felt it was time to really put the pedal to the metal on a few ideas we have for 2012.

    Our aim is to power through a backlog of tasks, helping each other out where we can. I’ve got a wall in mind that will make a pretty good Scrum-board and I know the coffee is good enough in Italy to keep me working 12 hour days. At the moment we’re looking at between 4-6 weeks to produce some really great things.

    Why Amelia? Well my parents have a flat there so rent-free is pretty much always a winner. I know the town very well having spent pretty much every summer there since I was 18. It’s a little sleepy, but the internet speed is good, the ice cream is great and the pizza is even better. The town is on a hill so morning walks will really stretch my legs before settling down to a day of work. It’s also still 25 degrees sunny. What more could you want?

    I’ll keep you all updated on what we’re working on. Exciting times ahead!

    Amelia, Terni

    Amelia, Terni, Umbria, Italy, Europe, Earth, Sol, Milky Way… You get the picture

  • Pre-requisites to starting your own business

    A few of you will remember the government’s latest initiative to get the people of the UK starting their own businesses. The so called “Startup Britain Bus” has been touring the UK offering advice to potential new business owners. At least that’s what it says on the tin.

    Last week I drove into my hometown, Cardiff, where the bus was stationed for an afternoon. There will be people who have put a lot of work in behind the scenes so I don’t want to be too harsh in my critique, but it was, at least in my own opinion, an unmitigated disaster.

    I could rant here about how huge-corporation graduates from Microsoft, Intuit and Paypal were trying to sell their own products, but I think I’m going to leave things be. Instead I’m going to say what advice I would have liked to see, having already started up myself.

    I have an innate dislike of business speak. Ironic really considering I studied business at university, am an Economist reader and run a small business myself. I want to give you my three pre-requisites to starting a business, cutting out all the crap and confusion that normally accompanies these kind of things. Take from it what you like, but I believe they will set you on your path to achieving what you deep down have always wanted to do: start your own company.

    My three pre-requisites to starting your own business:

    1. Passion. You have to be passionate about your business idea. You are going to spend every waking moment for at least the next 12 months thinking about it. Don’t choose an idea because you think it’ll make you lots of money, choose an idea because you want to change the norm and do something new. Your main idea can be something old-hat, but make sure you are going into it with a little bit of you attached.

    2. Find out who you’re up against. When I wrote my original business plan I (stupidly) thought that Applingua was a never-done-before business. A day into my plan, I discovered I was so very wrong. Don’t ever assume anything. Spend at least a little time googling who you’re up against. Phone a few potential customers and ask whether they’d be interested in your product or service. Fortunately for me, my potential market is big enough for several competitors.

    3. Get a support network. Don’t attempt to start your own business without a support network. This can be friends, family, a bank or an investor. Starting your own company will take a lot out of you and you will need people to vent to sometimes (friends, family), but also share in the good times too (friends, family, investors). You will want people to talk things through with, to give you an outsider’s view of what you are doing. Never ever be arrogant, always ask for people’s advice.

    Your support network will unfortunately also have to include some saved money. I would recommend at least 3 months rent plus spending cash. I had to move back home to my parents house in order to start Applingua. Living here is rent-free and I’m now thinking of moving out. I am very grateful for my parents’ support.

  • An app, perchance to dream

    I recently made a small app to speed up the invoicing process at Applingua. As the majority of our customers are European, I must validate their EU tax number before zero-rating their VAT invoices. The EU provide a portal to do this validation, but anyone who has used it will know just how frustrating it is. It’s a problem, so this is my solution.

    The app is pretty basic, and pretty ugly too. It’s a v.1 that does the job – a “minimum viable product” for want of a better phrase. Currently you can enter the tax number, choose the member state it belongs to and Europa VAT will tell you if it’s valid and, if available, the address and company name. This saves considerable time over the EU portal that makes you enter considerably more data to get the same information.

    Making apps is certainly not Applingua’s main business, nor will it ever be. Europa VAT won’t even break-even with the time spent on it (a few days in total). However Applingua can profit from it in many other ways.

    Having an app on the app store gives Applingua a little street cred. I’ve dealt with iTunes Connect before, but now I can guide developers right through every step of managing localizations on Apple’s (awkward) platform. There’s definitely going to be a DevZone post on that soon. Additionally, I can now freely add localizations, screenshot code and fiddle with Cocoa Autolayout for new tutorials at my whim.

    Visit the app’s website: http://europavatapp.com

    Get the app directly hereClick Me

  • Q2: ROI on Time and Other Goodies

    Applingua Ltd’s second ever quarter ended on 30th June 2011 and, as promised in my Q1 ROI post, I’ve got some numbers to report.

    Q2 was incredibly different from Q1. Clients, developers and friends started referring to Applingua as an organisation in its own right and not as “Rob’s new project”. Revenue also increased and my client base tripled on Q1. The average number number of projects per client was and encouraging 2.5. 

    In my previous blog post I discussed how ROI  and ROI on Time tells only part of a much bigger story for new small businesses and “start-ups”. Return on Investment  alone can be used to decide whether a company is successful or not, it’s a superficial metric which assumes the sole purpose of a company is to produce maximum revenue. While Applingua could not exist without revenue, nor I without a salary, Applingua was not started as some get-rich quick scheme. Despite this, I still get that age old question from friends who hear I’m going at it alone, “so how much money you making then?”. If only it were as easy as incorporating and drawing a six figure salary over night.

    There’s so much more at stake. Learning opportunities, partnerships, networking. Even personal social life is affected by starting your own business. All things you can’t particularly quantify, but important nonetheless.

    At the end of Q1 I decided to compare 4 ROI metrics: ROI, ROI on Time, ROI (Social Life) and ROI (Learning). I wanted to take two solid financial equations and represent them alongside two of factors I deem important: Learning, because all I ever seek to do is learn new skills, and Social Life, because I’m fully aware no social life will eventually stop me from going at it alone and force me to return to an office environment where I can waste company time bond with colleagues over tea.

    I’m going to continue with these four metrics for Q2 to make a fairer comparison with Q1. If you would like to see how these percentages were worked out, see the original post.

    The big winner this quarter is clearly my return on monetary investment. Remember, however, that 3900% figure is 3900% ROI on initial investment (and I haven’t disclosed how much, or how little, initial investment was). The percentage shows gross profit, not revenue. ROI on time has also increased and I am now edging slowly back to my previous salary. I hope next quarter it will look more like 85%. Remember the bar is raised every month that goes by and is not simply my salary now vs before, but rather foregone salary over the last 6 months vs salary earned during the quarter at Applingua.

    Social life still takes a back seat again compared to my life pre-Applingua, but has improved considerably since being able to afford myself a fixed monthly salary and learning to say no at weekends unless absolutely necessary. I also set up @CardiffTweetup to meet new tech tweeps in my home town. Our second TweetUp is this week! Learning hasn’t particularly slowed down on Q1. I attended some great workshops (like this one), I learned a lot from new clients and from running a business. I also learned from my mistakes, I made a few which did cost me big on my margins, but we all live and learn.

    So there you have it. Applingua and my personal stats from Q2, April – June 2011. It’s been fun and things are definitely looking up for the future. Come back in 3 months and catch up!

  • My take on cleaning up the App Store

    A significant portion of my day is spent surfing the iOS and Mac App Store, scouting potential clients for Applingua and checking out what’s cool for my own iOS devices. Over the last few months I’ve found the App Stores, especially the iOS store, becoming ever more cluttered. Unless you are browsing the store on your iOS device, the whole experience is becoming increasingly cumbersome and, in my opinion, doing a disservice to a lot of great app developers out there.

    Some of these points are quite controversial so please feel free to discuss in the comments below! Here’s how I would try and clean up and raise the quality of the iOS App Store experience:

    1. Move iOS App Store and device management out of iTunes

    The original iPhone had been built on the success of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store to combine a phone with the highly capable, portable music device. It made sense that the original iPhone synced with iTunes to manage and transfer music in one easy place. When mobile phone “apps” were quite unfamiliar to the consumer market, it made sense to have the then-experimental iOS App Store in the place users were most used to.

    Well, times have changed. No longer is the iPhone sold on its music-player capabilities but rather the notion “there’s an app for that”. Apps have become the main focus and the hugely-successful, quality-driven App Store is one of the main differentiating factors over Apple’s competitors. I think it’s time to move the iOS store away from the iTunes Music Store into it’s own iPhone management app. I would propose a simple WebKit based app similar to the Mac App Store, which gives equal weighting to App management as it does Photos and Music. We currently seem to accept that both photos and Apps are secondary to music in the current setup, through several badly designed management tabs within iTunes.

    2. Separate Games from the rest of apps

    Apps that aren’t games feel second to Games on the iOS store. We all love to play a bit of Angry Birds or get frustrated at Doodle Jump – they are great games – but it’s becoming a bit too much like a high street game store. It’s difficult for users to discover new apps with games cluttering the view. Of the top 40 paid apps I could fit on my screen, 25 were games. That’s almost two thirds.

    UK App Store Top 40

    I’m not saying we should abolish games altogether – absolutely not. I just think that people are prepared to go into a Games category much more so than other categories. A metric would need to be worked out by which the top games could be displayed in the Top Apps lists. Perhaps it is as simple as a user preference to show games or not (or exclude any category you choose for that matter).

    3. Remove all Karma Sutra / 50 Sex Tips / Sex IQ tests
    Call me prude, but these apps are not what I had in mind when Steve Jobs famously said “We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone… Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.” I took that as meaning all this kind of stuff wouldn’t be on the App Store. It’s not that users shouldn’t be allowed to access this information, but selling these apps for profit almost makes the whole experience a little cheaper. One of these apps always seems to pop up when I run a search, as if they’ve been allowed to list every possible keyword combination. The App Store has so many rules and regulations you almost wonder how any these got in, but there you go. Someone at Apple obviously needs 1001 Sex Facts.

    4. Insist on Retina
    The next two points may be slightly more controversial than the others. It’s already difficult enough to get your App without hitch on the App Store, to start insisting on retina quality images may push some developers over the edge. For retina device users, there is nothing worse than a pixellated app icon or hazy, up-scaled text on a starting splash screen.

    I may also go a step further: give existing apps a grace period in which to update or kick them off. Of course this will unfortunately cause quite a few headaches for agencies and freelance iOS developers but you can always recharge. This would be Apple saying, update, or your app will no longer be for sale. Sure, it will piss people off, but app store policies already do that. Apple have reiterated over and over again: it’s our store, if you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

    5. Improve App Icon guidelines

    A good app icon may be one of the few marketing tools a developer has when uploading their app to the app store. If you are a developer who puts a bit of effort into your icon, you may not want Apple to enforce higher quality in all icons. But consider the following two sets of apps:

    The Good:

    Pretty app iconsThe Bad:

    Ugly App iCons

    As more an more people start dabbling with iOS development, I think we’ll see a rise in the number of bad, or rather effortless, icons leading eventually to an app store full of them. Apple should introduce guidelines sooner rather than later to tackle this. I’m not saying it needs to be a the point where you have to outsource your app icon to a professional designer, that would be quite discouraging, but subjectively more than 5 minutes effort should have been invested in the icon.

    And there you have it. My little rant about the current state of affairs on the iOS App Store. You may agree with me, or you may be glad I’m not the guy in charge. Either way, discuss below 🙂

  • Goodbye CDs. You won’t be missed.

    I have never been that collector person. I don’t care for having the real album case, or the DVD. I want everything digital so I don’t have to buy new bookcases every year to house CDs like Britney’s In The Zone, an album bought for me when I was 14 (but rather secretly enjoyed). Let’s face it, if there’s a nuclear meltdown and my 3 backup solutions are no longer attainable, I doubt I’ll be wanting to watch The Hangover just one more time before I finally lay down to be overtaken by scorpions and cockroaches.

    This rule hasn’t always applied to software though. I grew up through a time when software was a special thing. You didn’t just download $0.99 apps from a store, you went to a proper retail store, held the relatively huge cardboard box in your hands and experienced a sense of elation when each of the check marks under System Requirements met your exact setup. Software had real value, which also meant it had resale value.

    For that reason I’ve tended to keep a lot of software I’ve bought over the years. From OS X install disks, to Birth of the Federation to Visual Basic 6.0. As the years have passed I’ve slowly archived the older software into a CD wallet and got rid of their epic packaging.

    Today I’ve decided to cut the cord completely and get rid of all CDs. I must have used my CD drive twice in the last 3 years, I even install new OS X iterations via a USB flash drive these days as it’s ostensibly faster. Fortunately my speedy new iMac is ripping through all the important ones in no time at all, archiving them digitally should I ever need to use them again.

    There are those of you out there who may still hold a candle for physical media. I warn you however, I’m sure your children and especially your children’s children will laugh at you pitilessly if you’re still installing Office 2008 from a CD in several years time. Until then, I offer you a selection of mostly old Apple and MS software, should you want it:

    Just mail me iwantyourgoddamncds@robertlobue.com with your shipping address (worldwide) and they are yours…

  • What would you buy first?

    A few bloggers have been following Ben Brooks‘ lead by posting the software they would buy first if we had our time again. I don’t use a huge set of apps every day, but I’m pretty committed to the ones I do and keen to promote whenever the opportunity arises. Here’s my list:

    What’s yours?

  • A week away with the MacBook Air 11″

    Over a month has passed since I wrote my first impressions of the MacBook Air 11″ and I’ve been asked by several readers for an update on how I’ve been getting along with the Air. Well I can tell you all now: I still love it, with some caveats.

    I recently returned from a week’s holiday in Italy. Of course, when you run a small business (Applingua Ltd), it’s never really a holiday. I had an open mind before I went about how the Air would perform. On the one hand it’s ultraportable, easy to pack and has no problem running any of the software I use on a daily basis (Safari, SubEthaEdit, iTunes, etc). On the other, I was concerned about the 11″ screen compared to my usual 24″ LCD. Could I cope doing proper daily tasks on this screen?

    At the airport

    We all know the MacBook Air is the lightest Mac you can buy. I suppose I didn’t really grasp just how light until I was on my way through the airport and onboard the plane. The Air is truly amazing in this respect, on several occasions I just forgot I had in in my bag (unfortunately one of those occasions was at security when they rather impatiently informed me that I was supposed to take my laptop out). Getting it out in Starbucks just felt natural too. Slip it out of your messenger bag and it powers on in around 10 seconds.

    Flying with a budget airline is rarely a great comfort experience, but the small footprint of the Air meant I could angle the screen to a position that felt comfortable. My old 13″ MacBook would hit the seat in front of me, several degrees into the neck ache zone. I watched a film, did a little paperwork and the battery held up well. The Air left the house at 100%, 30mins use at the airport, 1.5hrs use in-flight ending up at about 57%.

    Oops, where’s that window gone?

    During the first weekend away, I’ll admit to not working much. Checking emails, watching a few films, browsing news websites and catching up with Hacker News is as good as doing these tasks on much more expensive machines. The built-in SSD makes the machine flash through basic tasks at least creating an illusion of an extremely fast machine. I couldn’t recommend this machine more for these sorts of tasks.

    By day three I had received an email from a client and had to get to work. I opened my usual array of around 6 applications and got to work. It wasn’t long before my original worry dawned on me: 11 inches is a small screen. Bear with me. My job often requires me to check app localizations comparing text to a few PDFs I have created. I like to divide my screen up so that both Preview is open and the application I’m working in. This allows me to look back and forth to complete work a lot more efficiently than using Command-Tab. Unfortunately this is no way possible on the MacBook Air.

    Some of you will be reading this and wondering what did he expect? Often you don’t really assess your needs until you have used a device properly over a longer period of time. Except this isn’t really a need, it’s more a preference. A way I prefer to work, rather than a way I have to work. I quickly decided that I should just change the way I work when using the Air.

    I can’t deny that there was a niggling feeling in the back of my head saying I should have opted for a 13″ MacBook Air. It has, after all, the same resolution as the basic 15″ MacBook Pro. Since being back, I popped into my local Apple Store to check out the 13″ Air. The 15″ MacBook Pro. And the 17″ MacBook Pro. Shock horror, not one of the MacBooks, Airs or MacBook Pros except for the 17″ could do comfortably what I wanted to achieve. The high-res 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pros are obviously also suited to people with better eyes than me. Not nice.

    It dawned on me that the way I work has evolved because I am a greedy desktop user with a high-res 24″ screen. I can’t say I would want to work 24/7 on the MacBook Air 11″, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d want to work fulltime on anything less than a 1920 x 1080 screen. No laptop can really satisfy me. Yes I am excluding the 17″ in the term laptop.

    Flash, bang, stutter

    Throughout the week speed wasn’t really a problem. There were absolutely no hold ups in my usual file management, compressing, email checking, iTunes-listening, movie watching. I would be lying however if I said there weren’t one or two times when the Air stuttered a little.

    The MacBook Air does not ship with Adobe’s Flash installed. This is because it drains battery, or so we are told. While I’m sure that’s also a reason, I couldn’t help but notice a warm MacBook Air after several hours use and several open applications did stutter a little on a YouTube video or two. Nothing major, but held up a Finder window opening by two or three seconds.

    Compiling an app also took a little longer than even my 4 year old desktop Mac (both have SSDs). I appreciate however that this isn’t a common task for a lot of you.

    Emails yes, compiling maybe

    So to ask me, would I buy the most basic MacBook Air 11″ again? I would probably answer with Yes, but with caveats. If you’re a word-processing, movie watching, iTunes listening user this is a perfect device: light, fast to boot and open apps, beautifully designed and ultimately the most lifestyle fitting Mac you will ever own.

    If you’re a home office worker and this will be your only Mac, then I would say think about it. If your job just involves the usual word processing and number crunching apps (Office, iWork, etc) then it’s probably fine. Think about an external monitor and maybe choosing the 4GB version.

    If you’re a pro user I think you already know the answer to this. The Air couldn’t be your only machine. Compiling, rendering, whatever tickles your fancy will take a lot longer on this machine than on one of the new Sandy Bridge MacBook Pros. As a second Mac, I can very highly recommend it.

    My question to you: how do you really use your Mac? Think about it. There’s a difference between theory (“I would like to do some video rendering one day”) and reality (“I just surf Engadget and MacRumors all day”). Then decide if the MacBook Air 11″ is right for you.

    [UPDATE: 27/11/2011] You may be interested in reading my First Impressions of the MacBook Air 13″ (2011)

  • First Impressions: Magic Trackpad

    In what appears to be a series of reviews of 6 month old hardware, I continue my previous post with a first impressions review of the Apple Magic Trackpad. Once again, spaghetti western approach.

    The Good

    • Beautifully simple. There’s nothing “extra”. It is just a trackpad. And it looks great for it
    • Multi-touch gestures. I bought the trackpad after getting used to using a trackpad again to swipe through pictures, to zoom and pinch, to clear screen up or to exposé down. The gestures are so natural, it’s how input devices should always have been

    The Bad

    • Without enabling ‘tap to click’, it’s difficult to use the trackpad on the arm of your sofa. Perhaps interesting if you are using one with a Mac Mini TV setup
    • I keep grabbing the device like a mouse. This is a case of stupid-user syndrome, but it’s weird to operate within a space, rather than over a space

    The Ugly

    • There is nothing ugly about this device. 24 hours with it has been bliss.

    One thing of interest for many people is the battery. Of course I haven’t had opportunity to test the battery life yet, but from my experience of Apple Bluetooth devices, there’s a reason why Apple sell a battery charger. My advice? I think I’ve found the perfect pointing device that exceeds just pointing. If you want to purchase, support the site by clicking here.

    Comments? Questions?