September, 2011

  • Canadian Mobile Developers' Blog

    Like HTML5? Like Phone Apps? Then you’ll LOVE Mango because…

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    A few weeks ago, I wrote a post referencing how you as a developer don’t have to be torn between building mobile experiences in HTML5 or native phone apps.  In fact, with the upcoming Mango release for Windows Phone, the “better together” story is a strong one that allows you to take advantage of great HTML5 goodness while harnessing that advantages that the native platform provides (like push notifications and live tiles) to create a full, rich experience for users and a manageable one for developers.

    To that end, I was very excited to learn that Nitobi, a great Vancouver-based company with a strong history in building mobile development platforms, has announced the release a beta of its popular PhoneGap framework supporting Mango.  This is a really big deal, not only for Microsoft, but for you as a mobile developer.  PhoneGap is a framework that is already available on platforms such as iOS, Android and Blackberry that allows you to build apps using HTML5/CSS3, JavaScript and native phone resources to create amazing mobile experiences catered to the targeted phone platform.

    In a very high-level nutshell, PhoneGap allows developers to create application experiences by building code in HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript and wrapping it in a native phone platform app.  PhoneGap generally takes care of the “plumbing” for the web code to communicate with the actual app it is wrapped around.  This allows you as a developer to leverage your web skills in creating the app’s content and then take advantage of the great, native features that the phone platform itself provides.  It is, as I like to call it, a win-win.

    There are literally thousands of apps built leveraging PhoneGap across all of the phone platforms available today.  This presents a great opportunity for developers with existing PhoneGap apps to port their solutions to Windows Phone Mango.  With IE9 as the browser on Mango, the ability to leverage HTML5 and CSS3 capabilities on the phone while merging it with the great native features of Mango brings a new and fresh look for your apps that can reach net new users.

    If you’re new to PhoneGap but know HTML5 or web development in general, then chances are it’s a great place to start if you’re interested in building apps for Mango as you can leverage those web skills and then learn how to code in some of the great app offerings that Mango provides.

    Oh, and if you know nothing about building Mango apps but you want to know how to start (or know how to code for Windows Phone 7 but want a primer on Mango), the Mango Jumpstart training course is now available on demand!  I blogged about the Mango Jumpstart training course a couple of weeks ago.  It was a two-day, deep-dive, online training course that was delivered live for free.  We have recorded each of the 14 sessions in this two-day course and they are now available for you to watch whenever you want.

    The sessions available in this course are as follows:

    1. Mango Jump Start (01): Building Windows Phone Apps with Visual Studio 2010
    2. Mango Jump Start (02): Silverlight on Windows Phone—Introduction
    3. Mango Jump Start (03): Silverlight on Windows Phone—Advanced
    4. Mango Jump Start (04): Using Expression to Build Windows Phone Interfaces
    5. Mango Jump Start (05): Windows Phone Fast Application Switching
    6. Mango Jump Start (06): Windows Phone Multi-tasking & Background Tasks
    7. Mango Jump Start (07): Using Windows Phone Resources (Bing Maps, Camera, etc.)
    8. Mango Jump Start (08a): Application Data Storage on Windows Phone | Part 1
    9. Mango Jump Start (08b): Application Data Storage on Windows Phone | Part 2
    10. Mango Jump Start (09): Using Networks with Windows Phone
    11. Mango Jump Start (10): Tiles & Notifications on Windows Phone
    12. Mango Jump Start (11a): XNA for Windows Phone | Part 1
    13. Mango Jump Start (11b): XNA for Windows Phone | Part 2
    14. Mango Jump Start (12): Selling a Windows Phone Application

    So, what do you need to do now?  Here’s a little list that is worth checking out:

    • Download the Windows Phone Mango RC tools.  It’s the first thing you’ll need to start developing apps for Mango.
    • If you’re new to Windows Phone development or looking for training, check out the Mango Jumpstart Training course links above.
    • Interested in PhoneGap for MangoDownload it here. 
    • Bookmark our Windows Phone Development resources page.  It contains a great list of resources on Mango that you’ll want to have handy.  We’ll be keeping the content fresh so check back on occasion to see what’s new.
    • Start coding apps and games for Mango!

  • Canadian Mobile Developers' Blog

    Why Can’t We Be Friends? Art and Function in Windows Phone Apps.

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    Even ten years ago, “experience” was not really something that was given much thought in building software.  More often than not the primary goal of a piece of software was simply to display results, or data.  How the data or results were displayed was more often a function of technical specifications than it was a matter of user-centric design.  That is to say, while the user was often a part of the process of creating specifications for a software solution, the end result was often not differentiated on being tailored to the user, but rather the data.  It can be argued that if you polled software publishers ten to fifteen years ago on what user-centric design was, the answer would largely be centered around presenting as much data to a user on a single screen as possible (“less clicks is more productivity”).  The end result was focused on process rather than personalization and taking into account how the user works (which is not the same as process).

    That line of thinking was certainly acceptable in the past, but things are much different today.  As web platforms became richer and aesthetic design became more important to the digital consumer experience, users frankly demanded more of the software they used.  Gone now are the days where "battleship grey” is acceptable.  Software that is successful in today’s market often makes effective use of user-centric principles including the determination of user personas, natural flow of information, content taxonomies, effective and intelligent use of colour, wireframing and storyboards among other things.  Making the right experiential decisions in the software design stage has become just as important as making the effort to test the code prior to flipping the switch on a production instance.  If that sounds bizarre, think of it this way:  what use is the best, most robust software solution if your users hate the way it works for them?  If the user doesn’t buy into it, the software solution has ultimately failed in its objective.

    The phone as a platform is no different, especially in mobile platforms that are truly modern and provide great amounts of feature capabilities out of the box (GPS, modern browser, multitasking, notification engines, etc.).  The base experience that the platform provides enables software developers to create an even richer, more user-centric experience with the apps that they build on top of their chosen mobile platform.  With Windows Phone, Microsoft has built a unique base experience (in Metro) that software publishers can leverage to create applications that truly raise the expectations bar for users and the apps they install on their Windows Phone device.  The rest of this post focuses on the things that you as a developer/designer can do to create a truly amazing and user-centric experience within your Windows Phone apps.

    Fresh and Simple

    The Metro Design Language used in Windows Phone was inspired by everyday signs that are universally recognized regardless of cultural, educational or personal background.Windows Phone represents simplicity in design.  When describing the principles of modern Windows Phone design, you may have seen phrases like “fierce reduction of unnecessary elements”, “fast and responsive”, “focus on primary tasks” and “content, not chrome”.  All of these phrases revolve around the idea of making it easy for users to find the information they need. 

    When wireframing your app, think of the following things:

    • Prioritize: Top level screens should not be cluttered; make use of secondary (or “deep”) screens to provide detailed information.  Think of it like this – top level screens should be the 30,000’ view while deeper screens provide the elemental details.  Ultimately, top level screens should provide actionable data to the user, but if the user wants more information they can get it from deeper screens.
    • User Orientation:  Data should be order logically.  If you are thinking of putting two or more very different data groups on a single screen, you likely should be separating those groups into separate screens.
    • The App Bar: The only buttons that should appear on any screen are buttons that are considered primary to the screen’s action.  If you have put a button on a screen that is likely not expected to be used often or is not pivotal to the functionality of the page, you should instead transfer that button to the app bar.
    • Metro before Brand: Apply the Metro design to the page before you inject any branding on a page.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is in fact the most effective way to build a Windows Phone app. If you focus on the branding first, it is sometimes difficult to design the page to be consistent with the look and feel of the phone platform.

    App Navigation

    Hub and Spoke is a fundamental navigation principle for Windows PhoneNavigation in your Windows Phone app should respect the flow of the Windows Phone platform.  Always use the hardware back button for going to the previous screen and never create a navigation structure that breaks the back button stack.  Simply put, this will cause the app to fail certification.  It’s also the most common reason why apps fail the certification process in the first place.

    Below are some of the more important considerations around Windows Phone app navigation:

    • Hub & Spoke Model: Design the page flow of your app to resemble a hub and spoke. Focus on creating one major page and section off features of the app on separate pages from that main page.
    • Predictability: If you design your app to match the flow and spirit of the Windows Phone platform, your app will be much more intuitive and therefore predictable to the user.  Predictability does not equate to being dull or boring.  It means the user will actually enjoy your app more as he/she will understand what comes next.  The less the user has to think about how to get to a piece of information when using your app the more fun it will be.
    • Integrated Experiences: If your app makes heavy use of functionality that is found in the foundational experiences (aka:  hubs) on Windows Phone (like Music & Videos, Pictures, People, etc.), then you should integrate your app into those services rather than building your own. Not only does it save you the effort of implementing your own code around those features, it actually makes your app look and feel much more slick and integrated with the phone experience overall.

    Creating a User Journey

    It’s one thing to think you have a killer app idea.  It’s an entirely other thing whether that idea translates into a popular app.  Your intent as an app developer or designer is to create an experience that is lasting and meaningful.  Actually, that is the goal of not only mobile app creators but of any app creator in general. Aside from solutions that are considered “one-offs” or temporary solutions, what really drives us all is to create apps that frankly everyone wants.  Your ultimate goal for success may differ from someone else (e.g.:  “I want to become rich from the revenue from my app” vs. “I want to be popular because everyone downloads my app” vs. “I want to make a positive impact on someone’s life because they use my app”), but the fundamental desire is the same:  “I want people to download and use my app”.

    So when you are thinking of your app, there are three major questions you need to ask yourself before you hit Visual Studio and Blend:

    • Will this app be useful to my users?
    • Will this app be usable by my users?
    • Will this app be desirable to my users?

    If the answer to any of those questions is no and your intent is to make your app as popular and relevant as possible, then you probably need to think a little longer on the problem space your app is trying to solve for.

    Keep in mind this general mobile app statistic:  The average mobile application is opened by a user once.  Only around 1% of all mobile apps are used regularly long term.

    So how do you entice users to first download your app, then open your app more than once?  There is no one right answer, of course, but there are three guiding principles that greatly enhance your chances of getting to that goal:

    • Attract
      • Make the user want to download your app by providing a strong business case.  Take great care in authouring your app’s description in the Marketplace and make sure you clearly identify the value propositions for users to want to download your app.
      • Cocktail Flow is a great example of a Windows Phone app that attracts users.Embrace Metro in your App:  The best apps, regardless of the mobile platform you target, are almost always the ones that adopt the look, feel and spirit of the mobile platform it lives on.  For Windows Phone, this means using Metro in your apps.
      • Be thoughtful when you Insert your Branding:  The branding of your app is clearly important, but make sure that it flows with the look and feel of Windows Phone. If the branding is jarring or feels out of place, users will not be as likely to re-use your app.
    • Delight
      • Invite users to explore your app.  If you make it fun for users to navigate through your app and find things that they will say “Hey, that’s cool!” to, then you’ve likely won over your user right then and there. Curbside Cuisine delights users by allowing them to discover interesting app functionality, almost by accident.
      • Keep the app fresh by providing updates.  If an app goes stale, they are less likely to open it again.  Try to have a deliberate schedule for functionality updates.  Provide value-add features in as many updates as possible (i.e.:  not just bug fixes).
    • Retain
      • Let your app tell a story.  This can be done through an interesting yet effective navigation structure, great visual experience, providing some delight in surprise and yet be predictable enough that the app is intuitive.
      • Amazon's Windows Phone app makes use of Metro but also retains users by allowing them to extend their reading experience across devices by allowing the user to start reading where he/she left off on a different device.Evolution is not just a term coined by Darwin. Apps can (and should!) evolve over time.  This can include ways for users to retain and build collections of information that can be referred back to, functionality within the app that evolves with changing trends, fresh information being provided by the app whenever possible and many other ways.
  • Canadian Mobile Developers' Blog

    Dude, Where’s My Mango Update?

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    Photo Credit:  Mohammed Aly By now, many of you have probably seen the news that carriers around the world will start pushing updates very soon and through the next couple of months.  It’s exciting because many that have seen and used the Mango update for Windows Phone in its beta format have seen it to be a very usable, interesting and viable platform that rivals any of the mobile platforms out there today.

    Like you, I’m excited as well.  I have been running the beta (build 7712) version of Mango on my own phone since around late July and it’s made me much more productive on the go.

    So, with all that said, when can you expect the Mango update to be released by the 3 major carriers supporting Windows Phone in Canada?  The answer is “soon”.  I can’t tell you the exact date because that is something that is managed not only by Microsoft but also by our carrier partners, so saying a date right now on this blog would make a commitment not only of Microsoft but of our carrier partners as well.  I can tell you Canadian users waiting for Mango will get it in the publicized timeframe that Eric Hautala statedin his post (which I linked to above), however.

    What can you expect in your Mango update?  Well, here’s a few of the features that I love:

    • Multi-tasking: All apps (original Windows Phone 7 apps or Mango apps) will support multi-tasking.  The awesome thing I’ve noticed is that this addition doesn’t affect the battery in a significant way from what I’ve seen.
    • Threaded Conversations:  Start a conversation on SMS, switch to Facebook and then to Messenger in one single conversation thread.  No need to start a new thread in separate apps; the phone is smart enough to manage the thread regardless of the service!
    • Enhanced Live Tiles: The Push Notification service for Windows Phone is top notch and it became even richer and more meaningful with Mango – Live Tiles continue to push useful app info to your tile, but also you can now use the back of the tile (which flips on the start screen) to provide even more info.
    • Threaded Conversations in Outlook: You know that awesome feature in your desktop client for Outlook 2010 that allows you to manage an email conversation in a thread so you don’t have to search your inbox for historical responses?  Yeah, that’s supported in Mango.  Bazinga!
    • Internet Explorer 9: The browser on Mango has been rev’ed to the newest production browser from Microsoft available on the desktop, namely IE9.  It’s essentially the same rendering engine as well as the GPU acceleration capabilities that IE9 has on the desktop to make graphics super-fast.  Oh yeah, and it supports HTML5.  Boom.
    • Full Sync Support for Office 365, SharePoint and SkyDrive: Ok, so sync support with SkyDrive and SharePoint existed in the initial WP7 release, but now we also support Office 365.  Great for small and medium sized business support.  To the Cloud
    • Native integration for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn:  You’re a social butterfly, eh?  Well, in addition to Facebook integration found in the initial release of Windows Phone 7, we have also now added Twitter and LinkedIn in the same manner.  Boom again.

    So where can I check in on my update and scheduling by my carrier?  As with previous updates, Microsoft will hold the latest information on the Where’s My Update page on the Windows Phone portal.  Right now (as of the publication time and date of this post), there’s 3 updates listed, all showing “Delivering Update” status.  As an FYI, none of these updates are Mango (7008 was the initial test update from January, 7390 was the NoDo update in March which introduced copy and past among other things and 7392 was a security update  from April that fixed a certificate issue).

    So stay tuned and rest assured that the Canadian carriers supporting Windows Phone will be pushing out your update in a timely fashion!

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