Google’s New Android Training Site Offers App Design Advice and Tutorials

As data this week hinted that Apple is paradoxically gaining on Android among developers starting new apps, Google launched a new Android Training site for to help newbies this week.

The site provides classes to help developers figure out basic issues like designing for multiple screen sizes. Each is made up of a few lessons.

They try to push best practices like: if a user’s battery runs low, an Android app can should be able to change its state to preserve its charge. The classes also show different tricks that developers can use to alter the layout of their apps for devices with different screen sizes — which is important because of Android’s overwhelming issues with fragmentation.

There are a couple specialty classes as well. Developing for Enterprise has a single lesson about Enhancing Security with Device Management Policies. While RIM’s Blackberry platform has long had a core audience in the enterprise segment, Apple and now Google are eyeing corporate customers. The sections covers topics like declaring a policy, adding a device administrator and policy controller (who would control access to the phone’s sensitive data), and dealing with policy differences in various Android OS releases. An example is the Password Minimum Upper Case policy which is only available starting with Android OS 3.0 Honeycomb (API level 11). The Monetizing Your App‘s single lesson is about Advertising without Compromising User Experience. It provides examples of how to use banner ads without frustrating consumers.

The Google Training site offers other technical resources like sample code and articles on problems such as avoiding memory leaks and tutorials — including the ubiquitous “Hello, World.”

Sencha Touch 2 Makes Web Apps Into Native Apps in One Line of Code

App-building tool provider Sencha is set to release a major update for Sencha Touch that will let developers build native Android and iOS apps by adding a single line to their mobile web code. Their Sencha.io service, currently in beta, lets web developers build mobile cloud services using JavaScript and other web tools. Sencha Touch 2 is expected in in the second quarter of 2012 while pricing and other details for Sencha.io have not yet been determined.

Sencha’s Senior Director of Product Management, Aditya Bansod tells us that developers can expect a huge performance increase for Android devices in particular when Sencha Touch 2 is released. The ability to build iOS apps using web development tools may be especially interesting to developers who use PCs running Microsoft Windows because Sencha developer tools run on Windows as well a Mac OS X, it means that Windows-based developers can build mobile apps for iOS without a Mac.

Sencha focuses on providing tools for building desktop and mobile web apps based on HTML5 and JavaScript. Some of Sencha’s development tools are as both free Open Source downloads and as paid commercial license products. There have been 500,000 downloads of its desktop and mobile development products so far. The firm has 300,000 registered developers and 1.6 million active developers.

Sencha’s mobile development tools includes Sencha Touch, Sencha Touch Charts, Sencha Animator, and Sencha.io. Sencha Touch is an HTML5 mobile JavaScript framework for developing touch friendly mobile web apps that can deliver audio, video and offline data storage. It supports webkit based mobile browsers (Android, BlackBerry touch devices, and iOS). It can also be used with PhoneGap (now owned by Adobe) to create native apps with access to device APIs for access to systems such as a camera or contacts list. Sencha Touch Charts is an add-on to Sencha Touch that can build interactive graphical charts. Both Sencha Touch and Sencha Touch Charts are available under two license schemes and pricing. These products are available free of charge for non-commercial use under the Open Source GPLv3 license. Both are also available with a commercial license for $99 per seat for each product. Sencha Animator is a $199 tool that can generate CSS3 time-line based animation that supports hardware acceleration for maximizing rich media and can work with any mobile ad network.

Bansod tells Inside Mobile Apps that while Sencha products are easy to learn and use, the firm held five free roadshows for U.S. based developers this month to help them get started. The firm also provides paid four hour in-house training courses. Given Adobe’s announcement that Flash would no longer be developed for mobile devices, there is an increased need for developers to come up to speed on HTML5 and JavaScript. Bansod also points out a recent case study about Dyad Communications, which migrated from using Adobe Flash and Flex to Sencha Touch to convert large Flash sites into mobile HTML5 web sites in just a few weeks.

Sencha.io consists of four services: Login, Data, Messages, Deployment. The Login service provides social authentication using Facebook Connect with support for Twitter and OAuth currently in development. The Data service provides a mechanism to share data between devices as well as between users. Sencha.io’s Messages service can queue the data either on the device or in the cloud if both parties are not online at a given time, which we can see being used in a multiplayer turn-based game. Finally, the Deployment component can provide a place to house and run applications. This can be found at developer.sencha.io. The Deployment piece gives experienced web developers the ability to deal with server-side applications without dealing with traditional server software development tools.

Sencha.io provides a way to synchronize a mobile apps with the cloud. Bansod says that its main goal is to provide a cloud offering for web developers more familiar with JavaScript than languages like Java, Python, or Ruby. The product can even enable working with data when the mobile device is unable to reach the cloud. Bansod notes that Sencha.io is designed with the assumption that periodic disconnected experiences will be the norm for at least the next couple of years. The goal is reduce app behavior in these circumstances that might tax the mobile device’s battery.

No pricing has been announced for Sencha.io. However, Bansod says that Sencha expects to use some kind of metered pricing model similar to services like Amazon Web Services or Microsof Azure.

Sencha currently has more than 80 employees and has gone through two major rounds of funding with a $14 million first round led by Sequoia Capital with participation by Radar Partners in mid-2010 and a $15 million second round led by Jafco Venture with participation from Sequoia Capital and Radar Partners in October of this year.

Springpad’s Social Notes, Data Access Bring it to 2.5M Users

Evernote isn’t the only productivity app around.

Springpad, an intelligent note-taking and information organizing service, has racked up 2.5 million users since its launch three years ago.

Founded by Spring Partners, the app has added about 500,000 users in the last two months, according to the company’s chief executive Jeff Janer. The company originally set out to build a desktop browser-based service and attracted 40,000 users by March of last year. But it really started to take off when it released its mobile apps for Android and iPhone.

Springpad was created around the notion that people have problems discovering good information that they can’t act upon right away.

The app is organized around the principles of saving, organizing and acting. The app doesn’t simply collect the text and media you save to notes. It does this by also allowing saving formatted meta-data, organizing data drawn from Facebook friends’ “likes,” and a substantial collection of data with “enhanced information” such as price comparisons, movie showtimes, product reviews and links to make OpenTable reservations. The app has access to information about 800,000 products, 700,000 recipes, 450,000 books and 300,000 restaurants. This information enables the ability to do price comparisons or notifications for price drops based on scanning a product barcode.

About three-quarters of Springpad’s users access it from a mobile device, with 50 to 60 percent using more than one device (usually a phone and a desktop computer) over the course of a month. The typical person uses Springpad for a few minutes via a mobile device and an average of more than 30 minutes from a desktop web browser.

One of the things Springpad has not actively publicized is its API for developers. There are third-party developers have started to build products that interoperate with Springpad, however. ExpensePad (Expenses for Springpad) for iPhone, for example, is a $1.99 app that lets the app user track expenses stored in a Springpad notebook. Third-party developers can do more than store and retrieve data in Springpad notebooks. They also have access to the large store of Springpad data for products, receipts, books, restaurants and more.

Janer noted that Springpad users have told them that they want to expand the scope of available information from a personally curated set to one based on trusted social circles. We saw some of this when Springpad added its ability to create specialized notebooks based on Facebook friends’ Likes. We can expect to see more of this social curation of notes going into next year.

Springpad’s revenue model is based on a unique advertising method that keeps the notes themselves ad-free. When users search for products, movies and other goods, there are advertisements. So Springpad users only sees ads that are directly relevant to what they’re looking for.

The 15-person company is based in Charlestown, Massachusetts and raised $4 million from Fairhaven Capital in June 2008. The company might seek a second round of funding early next year.

A Look at Unity’s 3D Gaming Development World with CEO David Helgason

After growing its registered user base by 50 percent to 750,000 developers over the past six months, San Francisco’s Unity Technologies looks poised to become the leading way that mobile developers incorporate 3D art and animation in their games.

We caught up with the company’s chief executive David Helgason to learn a little bit more about where this Sequoia Capital-backed company is heading.

While Unity has long catered to web and console developers, it’s making in-roads on Android and iOS. While Unity Pro costs $1,500 for tools that enhance light mapping and provide audio filters, developing for Android or iOS requires add-ons priced at $400 each for the standard versions and $1,500 each for the enhanced Pro versions.

The Android add-on produces a binary installer for that platform while the iOS add-on creates code that is compiled using Apple’s Xcode. It is possible, with careful planning and design, to build a single installer for multiple form factors within a platform. An example of this is an app that runs on both the iPhone and iPad. Approximately 45,000 licenses have been sold so far.

While Unity tools are probably best known for development of popular iPhone games like Shadowgun and Battleheart, it’s been used by automobile manufacturers to build vehicle configurations in car showrooms as well as educational apps like Virtual History Roma for the iPad. Helgason said the company has scored partnerships with companies like set-top box company Roku, Nokia, RIM and Sony Ericsson.

Helgason says Unity has wide appeal because it’s easily approachable by hobbyists without any development background. That’s in line with the company’s broader mission, which is to democratize game development. At the same time, Helgason says Unity’s power, flexibility and workflow make it a useful tool for professional developers too. There are teams of about 200 people that use the software. He added that the average number of Unity work sessions per month is between 12 and 14.

The company has also opened up a few other revenue streams beyond its licensing business in the last few years. The Unity Asset Store lets developers sell content to each other like tree models and explosion scripts. Some developers have made as much as $10,000 to $20,000 in a single month in sales from the store, he said.

Helgason said the company is exploring Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 platform and its Metro user interface for tablets and the desktop, even though the company has gone on record in the past saying it will not support Microsoft Windows Phone as a target platform.

Unity has about 150 people, with 30 people in the California office. Helgason said that except for the early years up until the mid-2000s when Unity was a game development company, it has been profitable. Unity has gone through two rounds of funding with $2.5 million initially from Sequoia Capital and then $12 million more from WestSummit Capital in China and iGlobe Partners in Singapore.  Helgason said that these funds were raised as a buffer and haven’t been spent yet.

Smule CTO Ge Wang on Why Android Apps Aren’t Coming in The Near Future

Smule CTO Dr. Ge Wang.

Smule, which practically invented the smartphone-as-musical instrument category, is consolidating power with the recent acquisition of Khush and a $12 million round of funding this year. 

We caught up with Smule co-founder and CTO Ge Wang to learn more about the Khush acquisition along with the company’s product development philosophies and plans for next year. The Khush deal extends Smule’s lead in the music category. While terms weren’t disclosed, Wang said that the acquisition is a combination of stock and cash that brings the 35-person Smule team and Khush’s eight employees under the same corporate umbrella. But the teams will remain independent and in their respective locations. Khush products will keep the Khush branding for the foreseeable future.

The acquisition has all of the ingredients necessary to make for a productive cultural match. Both Khush and Smule were launched at major universities on opposite coasts and both companies have co-founders, who currently hold faculty positions at their respective schools of Georgia Tech and Stanford University.

I asked Dr. Wang if Smule and Khush would venture beyond iOS to produce creative music apps for Android. He said that while they have been exploring that platform, the high audio latency found in most Android devices makes it difficult to develop the kind of apps for Android that they have for iOS. He also said that no other platforms like Windows Phone are currently being considered for future app development.

Both Smule and Khush have been experimenting with revenue models over the past year. Some apps are free with in-app song purchases while some are paid apps with in-app purchases.

Wang said the Magic Piano apps for the iPad and iPhone illustrate the shift in their revenue model. The iPad app was released first as a paid app. However, the iPhone app that followed as released as a free app. This shift to free reduces barriers to entry for apps and could potentially funnel more users into generating revenue for the company from in-app purchases.

Smule is one of the few developers outside the games category that has managed to attract and retain users at a respectable level. With the Khush deal, Smule now has 30 million downloads on iOS so far. Obviously, that’s not as high as gaming-centric companies like Outfit7 or Pocket Gems. But it’s a very, very respectable number.

Smule also tracks other types of activity across its app portfolio. For example, more than 13 billion notes were played using Magic Piano a month after its release. Then there are more meaningful of examples underscoring user engagement. A Japanese user of Smule’s Glee Karaoke app recently organized a singing collaboration around the song “Lean on Me” as a show of support for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March. Five thousand voices have joined in at this point according to Wang.

With more than $25.5 million in funding from investors including Bessemer Venture PartnersGranite Ventures, Shasta Ventures and Floodgate, Smule is one of the more heavily backed mobile app companies around.

 

PBS Kids, WGBH’ New Augmented Reality Math App Gets Kids Moving

PBS Kids and Boston-based public broadcasting station WBGH are testing the waters in the nascent space of augmented reality with a recently released free math app for the iPhone. FETCH! LUNCH RUSH is designed to help children in the six to eight-year-old age range improve their arithmetic skills.

The app uses augmented reality, which is a technology that overlays virtual data or images over the real world, to enhance teaching math.

To play the game, you have to print out pieces of paper showing special augmented reality markers. (Players can either get these markers sent to them from the app by e-mail or they can be downloaded from the PBS Kids site.) Each piece of paper has a number from one to ten along with special markers that trigger the app’s augmented reality technology.

The app then shows arithmetic problems with answers ranging from one to ten. The goal is to point the iPhone or iPod Touch’s camera at the marker with the correct answer. After that, three-dimensional drawings of sushi float over the paper in the the iPhone’s live camera feed and then award the player points if the answer is right.

While many of the PBS Kids iOS apps are either $1.99 or $2.99 (the lone PBS Kids Android app Super Why! is $2.99), the Fetch! Lunch Rush app is free. The app is part of suite of products developing using funding provided by PBS Kids from the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn Grant.

PBS’ partner in developing the app, the public broadcasting station WGBH, had a small in-house team develop this app in about six months. They brought in a curriculum specialist, who could make sure the educational content was right for the age target, and an augmented reality consultant. Part of the challenge was to build an augmented reality app that could accommodate a six- to eight-year-old child’s small hands.

The team choose an open-source augmented reality software library called ARToolKit from the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab). They had to get around a few issues in making sure ARToolKit could support both versions of the iPhone 4 and 4S: the CDMA version for Verizon’s network along with AT&T’s GSM one. They also pulled open-source art for the three-dimensional images of sushi.

PBS Kids is currently looking at building even more augmented reality-based apps that might include sound and gesture based interfaces. PBS Kids Interactive Director of Technology Jeremy Roberts said the team is also looking at whether they can use augmented reality for apps on smart TVs.

So far, the reaction has been pretty positive. Roberts said some parents make the game more challenging by hiding the pieces of papers and making their children literally find the answer. Best of all, the app gets children physically moving to answer math problems.

 

Smule’s Acquisition of Khush Creates 30M Download Music App Empire

Smule and Khush — two of the best-known developers behind popular music-making apps like I Am T-Pain and Songify — have joined forces.

Smule, which is backed by more than $25 million in venture funding and was co-founded by a Stanford Ph.D student and professor, said it acquired Khush for an undisclosed amount of cash and stock.

Smule is best-known for its unique music apps like Ocarina, I Am T-Pain and the Glee karaoke app. Khush’s apps are LaDiDa, Songify and Talkapella. LaDiDa is like a reverse karaoke app, that listens to a person’s singing and then automatically adjusts the key of the music being played back. Songify creates music from a person’s spoken words and has been downloaded 5 million times.

Both companies have academic professors behind them, with Khush bringing talent from Georgia Tech and Smule representing Stanford. Several of Khush’s founding employees have also spent time at Stanford. So these seems like more of a smart merger that consolidates the music category a bit instead an outright win or exit.

Together, the companies say they have 30 million downloads between them. Both companies use a mix of free and paid apps with in-app purchases for consumers to get extra songs. While apps from the two companies regularly pop up on the top free or top paid app charts, they’re less visible on the grossing lists where they tend to get crowded out by games. Smule’s Glee app tends to be ranked around #300 or so on the grossing list.

We would bet that a big portion of the company’s revenue comes from brand partnerships. Smule, in particular, has done several deals with artists and brands like Fox Entertainment to bring apps like I Am T-Pain and Glee to the store.

Smule’s investors include Bessemer Venture Partners, Granite Ventures, Shasta Ventures and Floodgate. Investments from Shotput Ventures, angel investors Pat Matthews and Yee Lee and research grants from the Georgia Research Alliance and the National Science Foundation are among Khush’s backers. Smule recently raised $12M in funding on top of $13.5 million from before.

Unity Gets 750,000 Registered Developers For Gaming Platform

Unity Technologies, which provides a platform for developers to create high-quality 3D games, said that the company has now registered more than 750,000 developers. About one-quarter, or 200,000 of them, are active on a monthly basis and more than 250,000 developers have signed  up in the last six months.

Unity provides tools that help gaming companies get around technology issues like rendering, creating terrain and managing lighting in very high-end games. The company has raised $17.5 million to date from investors including Sequoia Capital.

Unity says growth is coming from a content marketplace and a new game distribution service the company launched a year ago. The marketplace helps gaming companies sell art assets like animations or objects like 3D barrels that can be strewn about strategy or first-person shooter games. Unity splits the proceeds 70-30 with developers and the store has 50,000 registered developers with 2,200 packages there. The top vendors there are making about $10,000 per month, up from about a $2,500 rate a year ago. Its distribution service, called Union, doesn’t have very many details about where these games are sold or their conversion rate. However, the company says developers keep 80 percent of the proceeds from a sale.

 

Update: Big Fish’s Subscription-Based Gaming App Pulled From Apple Store

Update: This was pulled from the app store. Big Fish says they’re not sure why. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber suspects it was an error. We’re not sure as other developers who have talked to us said they were considering pursuing the subscription model in recent weeks, suggesting that such an option might still roll out.

Seattle’s Big Fish Games appears to be the first to jump on the bandwagon of offering gaming subscriptions on iOS , a brand-new way to monetize games on top of advertising, in-app purchases and sales.

Big Fish, which has made several popular paid iPad apps that we’ve covered here, plans to charge $6.99 per month for access to their library of games, according to Bloomberg. An introductory subscription fee of $4.99 per month will be in effect until sometime early next year when it will be raised $6.99.

There will also be a free service, where play will be limited to 30 minutes per day and subsidized by advertising. We’ve reached to Big Fish Games for more details about the economics of such a model and how they’ll decide to charge for different apps, but we suspect we won’t hear back from them until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The key benefits we see for subscriptions are:

Subscriptions will encourage brand loyalty to developers: Big Fish subscriptions will apparently work like the Netflix app does, where there’s a single app from the developer with many games contained inside. Instead of having to download many apps, users can just jump around from game to game inside a single app. This will encourage users to test out many titles from a single developer, replicating how developers cross-promote one game inside another — except this may have a stronger effect.

Developers could nudge consumers to jump to a slightly higher monthly spending level: We could see developers giving discounts or all-you-can-eat premium currency if consumers sign up for the subscription version. Update: Actually, all-you-can-eat currency is probably a bad idea. After bouncing this off of more developers, we’re hearing that premium or exclusive content on top of in-app purchases might be the way to go. It’s not clear if Apple will allow an app to simultaneously offer subscriptions and in-app purchases though.

But we also see the potential for abuse: Apple and the leading mobile-social gaming developers still haven’t found a perfect solution to the problem of parents being unwittingly charged hundreds of dollars for in-app purchases. While they do get refunds, parents still complain from time to time in comments on this site. We could see the same issue cropping up with subscriptions for games if children use the 15-minute window after their parents enter the iTunes password to sign up for lots of games.

Big Fish said it generated $140 million in sales last year and may be considering an initial public offering, according to Bloomberg. That level of annual revenue is comparable to the more than $100 million in annual revenue that Seattle’s PopCap Games did last year before it was acquired by Electronic Arts this year for up to $1.3 billion.

GREE, KDDI Sue Rival DeNA For at Least $14M in Damages

The lengthy rivalry between Japanese mobile-social gaming giants GREE and DeNA is turning litigious.

GREE has partnered with mobile operator KDDI to file suit against DeNA, saying that the company engaged monopolistic practices. Specifically, the suit claims that DeNA would not provide links to social games in DeNA’s mobile gaming network Mobage, if they also appeared on competitors’ networks.

GREE says it sent DeNA a cease and desist order that asked the company’s board of directors to pass a resolution saying it wasn’t using these “illegal acts” and wouldn’t commit them in the future. DeNA did not file any appeal, so GREE says that the cease and desist order “became final and binding in August 2011.”

The lawsuit is asking for a minimum of 1.05 billion Japanese yen or $14 million in damages. GREE is asking for at least 900 million yen or $12 million of that settlement, while the remaining 105 million yen or $2 million will go to KDDI.

The rivalry between the two companies is fierce as the mobile gaming market in Japan has become saturated and mature there. Both companies are trying to expand to the West in launching global mobile-social gaming networks that duplicate their revenue models abroad.

DeNA acquired ngmoco:) last year for up to $403 million and the subsidiary recently launched an English-language version of the gaming network on Android. GREE similarly acquired a U.S. based mobile-social gaming network called OpenFent for $104 million this spring and will roll out a brand new global network next year. DeNA says the Japanese version of Mobage had 32 million users in its last quarterly earnings report while GREE said it had 27.7 million users there on both its network and OpenFeint.

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