iTunes AppStore & The Tyranny of Choice

When I’m looking to buy a new video game, I have 2 primary sources: The first is Video Game blogs (I generally read Joystiq & the IGN Xbox feeds), the second is my friends – whom I mostly to use to ask about games I’ve first heard about via one of the above.

But my practice for learning about new apps is different – it’s nearly 99% from my friends, 1% from blogs (if I’m being honest, mostly from Daring Fireball, which is my (and many, many other people’s) go-to place for new Apple/iOS-related opinion. Since about 1 month after it opened, the iTunes App Store itself has been more or less useful useless (thanks, Evan!). Cream doesn’t rise to the top in that store. Look at the top 5 apps in any category – you’re as likely to see utter garbage as you are a beautifully designed app or brilliant, original game (based on how network TV works, I’d go as far to say as the most original NEVER get the most attention). This because the metric used for the top charts is based on downloads (Top) and sales (Top Grossing). There’s not really a mechanism for “most interesting” and if there were, unless it was weighted by people’s whose opinions I like, would still not be useful.

It ends up that I now more or less completely ignore the App Store as a source of recommendations for apps. Even the app-related blogs aren’t so hot, because, for them to be useful filters, Its needs to be focused on particular categories of apps – or it’s just too general – similar to how sites that review all forms of music pale compared to sites that mine just a few genres. Whatever the issue is, the App Store is failing for me as a source of new apps – I’m paralyzed by the Tyranny of Choice: Which of the 18283 education apps do I want? Hell, even deciding between the 120 “Hot” Education apps is too much choice.

What’s needed is a sort of “social ranking” mechanism – sort of like the vote up/down of Reddit, Digg, etc. But actually, what I’d like is something even more refined. I’ll state now that I really don’t care what the vast majority of the world thinks. I care about what people that I respect think. These vote up/down algorithms should be measured in concentric circles: First & foremost, what my friends like. If, say David likes an app, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll like it too – at least based on historic precedent. & I don’t care about 5-star ratings. All I care about is thumbs up/thumbs down. The next circle out from that should be what friends of David, but who aren’t my friends, think about an app – one of those birds-of-a-feather ideas – if David likes this people, maybe I will to. Beyond that, should be people who’re influential “generally” think. Leveraging something like Klout could be useful for this level of recommendation. I might not know the person from Adam, but if more often than not apps that they recommend are subsequently recommended by people in their circle of friends, that’s a good sign.

This seems like a perfect area to start exploring interest data-mining/app possibilities. While you could simply shoe-horn on an up/down voting method over the existing, more-or-less useless 5-star rating system, I don’t think even this is necessary. Here’s what I’m imagining:

  • An iTunes plug-in that allows me to share what Apps I own (I’m equating ownership as a “thumbs-up” – this might be overly simplistic, but it’s a place to start). This sharing could be anonymous or not. Maybe I need to actually “rate” an app to share it, so I can hide apps I don’t want to rate or share.
  • Leverage my existing social networks to see which friends I care about. This is a well-established method: Let me “follow” my twitter, facebook, linked in, google/yahoo/hotmail contacts, etc. I strongly believe that this system needs to asynchronous – more like twitter than like facebook.
  • As I like apps that someone else has already liked, the weighting the system gives to that person’s likes, relative to me, should be weighted higher – because it means that I’m more likely to agree with them in the future – a bayesian weighting system.
  • Over time, as my circle of followers grows & shrinks, as people in my circle add/remove/rate up/rate down apps, I’ll have an ever-changing list of suggested apps. Which makes app developers more money, makes apple more money, makes my devices more useful to me.

So there’s some hitches that I see in all of this as I currently have it down:

  1. People have to download a plugin to iTunes (or, they have to sign into a website then manually find their apps). This manual start-up process is a rather large barrier to entry.
  2. People actually have to rate apps & do it regularly as their app-library changes. A code-snippet that could be added into apps, similar to the existing “rate us in the app store” would be nice & helpful – but would require this get big enough.

Thoughts, people? Is there already something like this out there? If not, and you’ve got some money, want to fund me to make it? Or, want to make it yourself? Let me know – I’ll be an eager tester of it!


How to improve the Oscars

Like (based on the evidence of my Twitter feed) a lot of people, I watched some of the Oscars on Sunday night. It was a pretty horrible telecast, as is standard. The hosts were desperately unfunny, the “in memoriam” forgot Farah Fawcett, the dance number was cringe-worthy. And yet, somehow, listening to the winners give their thanks, whether pointed & cogent (Mo’Nique), touching (Jeff Bridges) or so sweet I assumed a team of Hollywood’s best writers had been hired to craft it (Sandra Bullock), it rises above all the crap to be touching. The Twitter back-channel chat, like all live “communal” events I’ve watched recently (with the exception of the super-bowl – apparently football fans are not witty), greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the show.

aside: Given how much I love the twitter back-channel chatter, I would love some way to show my twitter feed on my TV for certain events – as a sidebar, perhaps. Not sure if that should be a cable-provider interface or built into the TV, but I could see it being fun.

But, as always, the middle part of the show sags. And there’s a very good reason for it: None of the recipients of the mid-show awards are celebrities. Virtually none of the tv audience knows who these people are, and they, as a rule, don’t know how to deal with the limelight. So here’s my (by no means original) suggestion for the Academy for upcoming awards: Only televise the acting/directing/music awards. Don’t let screenwriters, editors, designers or even producers speak. These are the behind-the-scenes heroes of cinema, not whom the public associates with the films.

There’s already a technical Oscars. Why couldn’t either that show be expanded, or there be a third show, for the “technical production staff”. This show could be expanded to include all sorts of vitally important on-production technical work that isn’t currently awarded (my vote for first new award: Credits design). These technical production people could then have an awards show that is truly about them, where they can actually invite their friends and family, not just be the one guy in the crowd no one recognizes. By getting rid of all of the categories that don’t highlight the celebrities, the show itself could be shorter, tighter. There’d be room for special recognition for lifetime achievements, letting recipients speak, rather than just standing & waving as Roger Corman did on Sunday night. Much like they have a presenter talk briefly about the technical awards, someone could talk briefly about the production awards, highlighting the winners there.

Wanted: A twitter/comment plugin combo

When I post an entry (such as this one), I have a wordpress plugin (called Twitter Tools) that sends out a tweet (meta-linking update: like this) telling everyone that I’ve posted something. To manage comments, I use Disqus, which, amongst other systems, allows people to authenticate at twitter to then post a comment. Which is nice, and I like it.

But! Sometimes, seemingly more often than not, people will @-reply to me on twitter with a comment on my post. And I will often @-reply someone else about their post (that was announced on twitter). So here’s what I want:

  1. When I post an entry that sends a tweet, capture and store the ID of the tweet that I sent.
  2. Whenever someone @-replies or retweets that stored tweet, aggregate that to the comment-section of my blog, so that the entire related conversation is visible in one place.
  3. For bonus points, given that everything I post is also pushed as a post to Facebook & everything I tweet ends up as a status update on there too, it would be great to extract any responses to those as well, in the comments section of my site.

Does anyone know if such a thing exists?

BCHydro Power Outage Alerts: A suggestion

Today, when the power went out at work, the first thing I did (after getting my laptop tethered to my phone) was to go to the BC Hydro Power Outages page, then check the list of outages and finally, double-checked the map to see if that was the correct area. As I clicked on the map, I noticed that each outage has a unique ID (quite sensibly).  I then noticed that there was a mobile site. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the iPhone, because it’s a super-old-school WAP deck.

But! Here’s my suggestion. Given that there’s a unique ID per outage, why not let me “sign up” to receive updates? everytime an engineer updates the status of the outage, there could be a system in place to deliver that update to me automatically. Ideally, I’d be able to choose any number of ways of getting updated: Email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, whatever,  but the most simple to implement would probably be email updates.

That way, I wouldn’t have to constantly check the site, or worse yet for BC Hydro, call them, and everyone would be happier because they can passively receive information rather than having to actively hunt it out.

Beyond this manual per-outage-sign up idea, the next step would be for me to be able to create an account at BC Hydro and input one or more addresses that I would like to “watch” for power-service updates. For instance, I’d like to know about power issues at my house & at my office.

I don’t know if this power outage/service data is “public”. If so, this seems to be another great open data hack for some determined person to build out. If anyone from BC Hydro IT sees this, I’d certainly love to talk with you about trying to build this out – I can’t (at a quick glance) find a way to get this information easily off-site for use by a “power-watcher” app.

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