A very mild defense of in-app purchases

A very mild defense of in-app purchases « John Moltz’s Very Nice Web Site:

I come not to praise in-app purchases but to not bury them.

Really, I hate the in-app purchase racket. I hate how it’s abused by so many developers. I will always favor an app that has a list price and no in-app purchases over one that’s going to nickel and dime me or even just make me pay to unlock levels or features.

The in-app purchase racket preys on people like the lottery. Pay another dollar and maybe you could win today! Oops, not today! Well, see you tomorrow!

Turns out, surprise, a lot of people like the freemium model

The thing is, the in-app model can work for both sides. It potentially solves a number of problems for developers. It was a big push for webOS, back in the day, to try to create opportunities for the developers, and it’s turning into a useful tool for developers when used intelligently. 

And yes, it can be abused, but that’s true of pretty much everything. 

How does it help developers?

It saves developers from the pain of having to deal with the “free trial” app and the “paid full” app. you can ship one app and use in-app to unlock the paid features. the pain of this “one app in two” are legion, starting with the pain of actually convincing users to buy and switch to the full app — and then getting their data from the free app to the full app through all of the security restrictions. 

It’s a very effective tool against piracy. It shifts the revenue point so that cracking the app and installing a free, stolen copy isn’t nearly as useful to the pirates. Some app developers I talked to back when I was dealing with this stuff for real found that many of the folks using pirated apps were still doing in-app purchases for things, turning them into part of the revenue stream. Even if they don’t, it’s a lot harder for them to take full use of the app without in-app. 

It can be an effective alternative to trying to convince users to pay up for “really good App 2″, given that Apple and pretty much every other app store has decided not to implement paid upgrades. You can offer “really good app 2″ for sale in the store, and for existing users, upgrade “really good app” to include the features of the new app in a way that they can be unlocked with a in-app upgrade at a discount. It may not work for all apps and all code bases, but the option is there. And for some apps, it can make sense to create features and enhancements that are offered through in-app instead of going the “really good app 2″ route.

I in many cases encouraged developers on webOS to think about in-app, especially as a way out of the “free app/paid app” hell that so many of them dealt with. Users generally love the “try and buy” option and shy away from paying for things they aren’t absolutely sure off unless they can test them out. But if you have a free demo app, it can become painful to try to convince them to move to the paid version. A well thought out demo with unlock lowers the pain points of both of these situations. AND screws over the pirates. 

That said, yes, some apps abuse in-app, especially off in game land where you’re constantly being nudged into buying more diamonds so you can buy more stuff. My view: I don’t mind that, if I’m getting good value, and by value, I’m talking about game-hours compared to the amount of money I’m spending. I recently played a game for a good number of weeks, and put a fair bit of change into it (let’s just say “I could have bought a really good XBOX game for that….”); and I think it was quite  a fair cost to me, given how many hours I got out of it. And then one day I’d decided I’d played it enough, and I thought as it advanced to really advanced levels it lost its game balance somewhat, and so I deleted it and moved on. I don’t regret the dollar amount a bit, given I probably ended up paying something like $0.30 an hour to play, more or less. That seems fair compensation to a developer to me (I know, horrors, to those of you who think $4.00 for a game a developer spent 18 months building is expensive. Those of you who think that’s a ripoff need to get a new hobby)

Now I’m playing the latest version of a game in a series I’ve played in the past. This one has shifted from the price up front to the in-app (aka “buy more diamonds!”) model. It’s okay, but the game play is, IMHO, too heavily biased towards “if you don’t buy this better armor you’ll die a lot, and you can only buy the better armor with diamonds, of course…” and so I’m dying a lot. And I’ve tossed a little money at it to experiment with their game play model and pricing, and to be honest, it’s going to get deleted soon. It’s okay, but…. the balance is too heavily weighted towards “buy more diamonds” for my taste. So they’ll end up getting a lot LESS of my money, because they got too greedy in their game balance. 

And that’s the answer here: if you try a  game and find it greedy, throw it out. And send them an email to the support folks telling them why. If it’s not fun because they tweaked the game balance in greedy ways, don’t play it. If you don’t play it and don’t send them money, they’ll get the message. If it’s fun and you’re getting a lot of gameplay hours out of it, well, everyone wins, right?

That’s my basic model: I know what I’m willing to fork over to have a good time. I value it as a rough “per hour” cost. The more fun a game is, the more I’m willing to adjust that “per hour” cost towards “sure, I’ll buy more diamonds”. the more they seem to be keeping me from enjoying the game until I fork over money for more diamonds, the faster I trash it and move on. I expect the developers to set a game balance that’s fair to both sides, not just them. If they blow it and get greedy, well, there are another ten bazillion games in the app store waiting for me to try them out… 

Developers deserve a good living. in-app gives them opportunities to do so. But that doesn’t mean you should let them hold your fun hostage, either. Push back on that and say no by deleting the app and not wasting your time or money on greedy ones. That’s the way to send the message not to abuse in-app. 

(and no, not gonna mention app names. they’re irrelevant for this discussion, and I’m not looking to review or publicize them….)

Posted in Computers and Technology, The Internet

Thoughts on the new Smugmug and how this fits in to my universe. Or doesn’t.

Recently Smugmug unveiled their long-in-development revamp of the service (Trey has a good review of the changes and new capabilities). I took a look at what they did and I was pretty much blown away; they’ve done a very nice job of updating the look and improving the infrastructure. The more I dug into it, the more impressed I was, and I can heap nothing but praise on the Smugmug team for what they accomplished. They resolved most of the issues people tended to gripe about the Smugmug service, including all of my issues.

The only significant missing piece is a competent blogging module. You can’t, for instance, take a site like mine and move it to Smugmug yet. You could take a big chunk of it, but if you’re running any kind of significant blogging piece, you still need to host it separately. In some quick talks with Smugmug’s support team, it’s clear they realize this and it’s on their roadmap, so I won’t nag them about it (too much).

But the lack of it complicates answering a question like “Where do I host my blog and photos” if you’re a serious or professional photographer looking for a simple answer. If Smugmug hosted blogs as well as Squarespace I think my recommendation to everyone who aren’t committed to self-hosting would be Smugmug, but there are still enough capability differences between Smugmug, Squarespace and Photoshelter that the decision can get complicated (and fodder for a future, long, and possibly really boring blog post… but for now: the more important your blog is to you, the more you should be leaning towards Squarespace. The more your photos take precedence over everything, the more I’d be leaning towards Smugmug. Photoshelter strikes a nice balance between…)

I’ve been using NextGen Gallery on my WordPress blog. They’ve just released a major upgrade, which is undergoing the typical 2.0 birthing pains, so while it looks interesting, I haven’t installed it for testing quite yet. I rather like how it interacts with WordPress, and the new release seems to be quite nice, and integrates some features that will let me retire some third party additions I’m currently using in my design. (Maybe. in theory. we’ll see).

In theory, these are decisions you can make that you don’t have to revist for three or four years, or longer. I like my current blog/site design, and I really like the underlying pieces that it’s built on. There’s no inherent need to tear it to pieces, not without a really good reason. To do so would take time and time is always a critical resource in life that I’d rather not waste on IT geekery.

Unless there’s a really good reason. Smugmug may have given me that reason with their redesign. It seems to be that good.

The Smugmug update happened as I’ve been trying to figure out some necessary changes to my web sites. My blog and various other things all live on a shared server environment that we’ve been using with great success since about 2004. Some of the things we use that server for are ready to be retired, and Laurie and I both have plans to add some new toys to the mix over the next few months, including a blog Laurie is ready to launch on a new domain. I was just about ready to commit to a couple of VPS servers, one for my blog/domain and one for Laurie’s, when Smugmug’s new setup hit.

But for now, all of that’s on hold while I figure this out. It’d be insane to make the move and then try to bring Smugmug on board too, or move to it. I can’t wait too long, either, because as this week’s blog outage pointed out, my old site is having some challenges (which, I’ll note, my existing hosting company is working on resolving. But it still makes me think it’s time to upgrade the server infrastructure, given I’ve been living on that class of server for about a decade).

All of this turns into a compromise between the capabilities the options give me, the cost in time and resources (and money) that it’s going to take to implement the changes, and the cost in time and resources (and money).

A quick look at the various options bring forward these:

Stuff everything on an all-in-one hosting service like Photoshelter or Squarespace — rejected because I’m really not interested in a 100% redesign right now, and I definitely don’t want to deal with the time needed for a proper data migration. (shudder) — or the pain of breaking all of those URLs that currently exist on the blog. If I were a new(er) blogger without a legacy of thousands of blog articles to worry about moving around, honestly, I probably would.

Stuff everything on Smugmug — I can’t, because they can’t support my blogging needs. If/when they do this, then they become a full peer competitor of Photoshelter and Smugmug, and if their blogging tools are as good as their photo tools, then this segment of the market really becomes interesting….

(Digression: What Smugmug is today is a really kick-butt photo hosting site, not a one-stop-shop for a full online presense. If you need that, Photoshelter is my preference, but Squarespace isn’t far behind. And Smugmug is a lot closer to taking them on today than they were a month ago.

But today, I think their primary competitor is 500px.com. Where a month ago I would have given the nod to 500px as the better service, with this redesign, it’s clearly swung back to Smugmug, except for mobile apps, where 500px does a good job. Flickr is in this race, too, but the way a Kia would be in a race between a BMW and a Mercedes. In terms of pricing, Smugmug is the most expensive, but has the best feature set and presentation; I can’t even say Flickr is the cheapest, because a comparable set of features on 500px is cheaper than Flickr’s “pro” or “ad free” versions. Which should worry Flickr, and I wish them good luck figuring out how to be more competitive iwth their peers. /Digression)

Host WordPress for the blog, and then host images on the blog server: effectively what I do today, using NextGen Gallery. It works, but if I wanted to get serious about offering print sales or e-commerce, it’d involve a good bit of work. Work that I’d get “for free” if I moved all of that over to Smugmug. Which leads to….

Host WordPress for the blog, host images on Smugmug for display and blog publication. Which effectively means ripping NextGen Gallery out of the site and replacing all of those images and galleries with equivalent on SmugMug. so when I said “for free” that was ignoring implementation time and costs. Both solutions are fairly complicated and fairly time consuming. There is a middle ground….

Host WordPress and blog images as today, add Smugmug specifically as a print/ecommerce sub-site, and all new imaging is hosted there instead of the blog server. In other words, leave NextGen gallery in place as legacy material, and put new material on Smugmug and over time slowly migrate there. This would have the lowest implementation hassle, but ultimately the highest costs in things like server expenses and maintenance/upkeep.

None of those are perfect or easy options for me. I’m actually leaning towards that last one; it’s the bigger pain in the long run, but the easiest pain in the short run. It also limits the risk of adoption. There’s even a working example of this — check out Nicolesy’s print shop.

I kinda wish Smugmug’s new system wasn’t quite as good as it is, because they’ve complicated my decision. But it is, and it’s a worthy system to consider integrating into whatever it is you’re trying to do online.

It’s fair to say I’m really impressed with the new SmugMug, enough so to figure how out to best spend some money on them….

Posted in Working on Web Sites

Looking at Flickr today

I was on Flickr for a long time, and then dropped the service for a while. Last December, I decided to give it another try — they’d released a nice refresh of the look and feel and Marissa Mayer had finally made it seem like there was some hope for Yahoo. it’s now been about eight months, and I think it’s time to step back and look around and talk about where Flickr is today.

In the time I’ve been back on Flickr my images have generated over 80,000 pageviews. That’s 80,000 views with very little “push” on my part, either from my blog or other services. All I’ve really done is post notes about images to Twitter when I add images. There’s clearly an audience that is on Flickr and looks for things on Flickr and we can talk about all sorts of problems and challenges at Yahoo and Flickr, but an important bottom line is that it sure feels full of people.

That said, it’s not without its challenges….

The biggest challenge Flickr has to face is that Google+ has stolen away the social aspect, and G+ has become the place photographers head to socialize and network. Flickr still seems to have a strong body of people who search it for images — almost all of the usage requests I’ve gotten over the last year have initiated via Flickr — but I wonder if that’ll continue if all the energy of the photographic communities have shifted to other services. This feels like it’s happening more because of user habit and flickr’s relations with search engines and less about inherent strengths with today’s Flickr.

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My favorite error in the whole universe. If you link up to Flickr images, and then make a change, even if you re-upload in place. I understand the technological reason behind it, but I also know that they could create permanent redirects and route all of those links through those, just like, oh, Bit.ly does. But they haven’t, and if you’re someone who has a tendency to go in and rework images, well, Flickr can become a bucket of pain. The good news: a good link tester spider wandering your site will find these. The bad news: you have to actually understand the phrase I just wrote (if you are running a Mac, check the App Store for a tool called Integrity). And use it. And manually fix the links manually.

Which is why I’m where I’ve used flickr and linked to it from other places I’m replacing all of those links with ones that one won’t break so easily. Which strongly reduces the utility of Flickr for me.

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The other thing about Flickr that’s been bothering me is that the stats seem to be unreliable. I’ve seen multiple instances of images where the image itself reports one number, and the stats in the stat area report another, much smaller number. They never sync up, once “not counted”, always uncounted. So while it’s rather nice to see 80,000+ views of my images since December, in reality, it looks like the number is somewhat higher. How much? I dunno, since I have to trust the stats here and the data indicates I can’t. I guess the good news is it’s undercounting. but it’d be better news if it was accurate. The image shown above didn’t exist on Flickr two hours preivously, so it’s rather hard to understand any rational explanation for recognizing 88 views all time but only 14 of them today, when both numbers exist in a time scale of, well, two hours. It seems like there are two counters here, and they define “view” differently. Or else one is just dropping itself on the floor at times. However those numbers are getting out of sync, given that views is a primary aspect of that thing that is so important to photographers called “bragging rights”, well, it’s hard to write it off as unimportant. What else is Flickr making mistakes on if something this basic is wrong?

There are other aspects of Flickr I’m not thrilled at right now. They just added that new purpose “Yahoo” menu on top of the flickr. I understand the branding and marketing aspects and I hope Yahoo makes everything work, but it’s not only a hack, it’s an ugly one. With images where presentation is crucial, things that uglify the site those images are being presented on are bad things.

Other things on my gripe list? Some pages (the tags page, for instance) are amazingly slow to load. The nice new design they put on the front page and the image detail pages hasn’t been rolled to a number of the secondary pages (like tags). So Flickr still feels like a work in progress. And the thing that used to make Flickr special — the social/group aspects — hasn’t been significantly updated or enhanced in I don’t know how long. It now feels like little more than a 90’s version of Vbulletin, and almost all of the groups I used to enjoy interacting in are stagnant shells, and all of the energy and vibrance that an active and interested set of users sharing with each other has migrated over to Google+. It’s gone stale so long it’ll be hard for Flickr to bring back this magic.

Does this mean I’m thinking of bagging Flickr and pulling out again? No, but it definitely gets a grade of “Incomplete”. And it’s hard to justify putting a lot of time into Flickr, so I find myself treating it the way I do Facebook, where the time I spend there depends more on who I’m interacting with that’s there than my initiating things. Flickr’s becoming a cul-de-sac on the information superhighway.

We’ll see how this changes in a year. There’s time, but…

Posted in Photography

Putting it up on the wall

About a week ago, I wrote Why You Should be Printing Your images, where I talk about some of the reasons why I think serious photographers need to print their images and not be satisfied with viewing them on screen.

I’ve been doing exactly that. This weekend I finished printing the final prints for five images. All of them are 11×14, which I’m going to be putting in 16×20 frames. I’m using Epson Exhibition Fiber paper for these prints, which is a paper I absolutely love.

One thing I realized when I decided it was time to add some new prints to the wall was that over time everything I’d printed and hung over the last few months has been landscapes (this conflict between Chuq the Bird Photographer and Chuq the Landscape Photographer is not new), so I was determined to make these new images all bird images.

Since I’m gearing up to start a significant project this fall when the Geese and Cranes arrive for the weekend, I wanted at least one image to relate to that. I also wanted a Brown Pelican and one of my Acorn Woodpecker images, since those are a couple of my favorite birds.

Here are the images I finally decided on. They’re all printed now, and drying out overnight before I mat them, and over the new few days I’ll get them hung. The test prints — the good ones, at least — will head to work and get added to my “yes, they really are free” bin I keep there (hey, it’s better than throwing them out…). I’m going to try to cycle out new images every month or so just to keep things fresh and make sure I’m constantly working on new images and keeping my printing habits going….

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Acorn Woodpeckers, the clown birds. I can sit and watch them for hours. I’m also lucky that I know of a place where a family lives and works where I can watch from a roadbed on a hill so I’m at eye level with them…

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Bushtit. A nemesis bird. They tend to skulk deep in bushes and trees, and they never stop moving. If you want practice on stalking, focusing and shooting on the run, try to get good pictures of this species. This image I love, and it only took me six outings over four months. To get one usable image…

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Dawn at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There aren’t a lot of things that will get me out of bed at 4:30 in the morning voluntarily, but a visit to the refuges is one. To be there as the light breaks and the birds wake up and get on the move for the day is a stunning spectacle, even more of one than the evening fly-ins. Even though it’s usually damp, cold and you better remember your DEET (trust me!), it’s an experience you really need to try to understand.

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Sandhill Crane. Another shot from Merced. I typically visit the refuges 2-4 times over a winter season; this year, I’m hoping to double that number of visits. I’ve got a project I’m trying to gather content for, and the sandhill cranes and geese that winter in the Central Valley are a central part of that….

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Finally, a Brown Pelican. One of my favorite birds, one of the species that drew me into birding. I never get tired of watching them. I never get tired of photographing them.

For these prints, I wanted at least one portrait image. I don’t take enough portrait-format shots, and I think most nature photographers forget to flip their cameras often enough out in the field and end up with compromised or heavily cropped compositions. That’s a bad habit of mine I’m trying to make sure I fix, because some subjects just need to be in a portrait orientation….

Posted in Photography

Why you should be printing your images….

I’d been meaning to get back to printing for a while and my sinuses and I have been arguing again, so this weekend seemed like a good one to stay home and work on things. Looking at my walls, I realized all of the prints I had up were landscapes — no birds. It was time to rectify that.

Off to Michaels I went, and I grabbed 5 16×20 frames and mats to fix 11×14 prints, which are my preferred size for putting on a wall in a house. And off I went, starting with this image.

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I really like working with the acorn woodpeckers. There’s a family living in the oaks at the bald eagle nest overlook. The advantage of that is that the overlook is on a fairly steep hill that puts you at tree-canopy height, so when the birds are cooperating a bit, you can get straight on shots of them. There’s a granary literally right next to the pull-out on the side of the road.  So with some patience, some really nice shots are possible.

I think this rendering of the image is pretty good. I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of days trying to optimize it, knowing I was planning on trying to print it. If you look at it on the screen, you probably don’t see much of a problem with it.

But when you print it? That white highlight right next to the woodie’s head goes nuclear. You might as well tint it bright purple; it blows out, and on the print, it’s all you see. It grabs the eye and dominates it. It’s brute ugly. So that needed to be fixed. This turned out to be tricky. It seems like a good candidate for cloning out and using content aware fill in photoshop to nuke it, but photoshop insisted on trying to fill it either with the branch or with the woodie’s head. oops.

Instead, I popped over to Nik Viveza and used a control point to give me the ability to drop the exposure and bring the white back into balance with the other bright areas shining through the tree canopy. And since I’d fired up the plug-ins, I also did a round-trip through Color Efex, where I tweaked the contrast a bit, but more importantly, used the Neutralize White capability to remove a very slight greenish color cast, and then the add structure tool to bring out some more detail. After I use the plug-ins, my standard workflow is to run it through DFine to cut any noise, and if I’m aiming at print, I’ll sharpen it with Sharpener Pro (for online, I’ll sharpen with Lightroom’s export tools).

Online this doesn’t look massively different, but you can see some differences. Notice that white blog now isn’t so — white.

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Online, the difference is subtle. In print, it’s significant and the difference makes or breaks the image.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make here: it’s (relatively) easy to process an image so it looks good online. Online imagery is a lot more forgiving. Distributing images at 600px (as I do on the blox) or 900 or even 1500px on the long side The limited color gamut of sRGB and the limited pixel density of an online image can hide a lot of little flaws.

But when you print it out, those flaws have nowhere to hide. This is even more true the larger you print — I typically start at 8×10 because it’s faster and less expensive, and once I’m happy with a print at that size, I may bump it up to 11×14, sometimes even larger. I plan on experimenting with even larger images down the road, but for now, my printer and I are limited to about 13×19.

It is amazing how many problems that don’t show up online appear when printed. Even when I have a print I like at 8×10, going to 11×14 drags even more out of hiding. It’s especially frustrating to think you have an image finished and ready for final print at 11×14 only to push out that first one and see a new generation of dust spots show up, or a lack of noise reduction, or screwed up sharpening, or…

So there is almost always a round of fix-up to be done to make an image usable in print. And even if you’re online centric, if you compare the two images above, changes made to fix or improve the print will make your online image better as well.

This is why, if you are committed to being the best photographer you can be, that at some point you have to start printing your own images. It will make you a better photographer and your images better images. You don’t need a big, expensive printer (although I bet once you start printing your own images, you’ll want one!) — you can get started for under $250. I’d suggest not buying an “all in one” type printer; they can turn out good prints, but they’re not designed for high quality photo prints. Look for an inkjet with at least six ink tanks. I currently use and like the Epson printers and my main printer is the Stylus Photo R2880. I’d look for one of Epson’s printers with the “Rnnnn” designation, or at the minimum one in the “Stylus Photo” line. Canon also has good printers but I haven’t used one for a while so I can’t recommend one. HP consumer printers are behind the technology curve compared to Canon and Epson, and their inks are brutally expensive, so I recommend against them. Other brands? I haven’t evaluated: I stay with Epson or Canon here. If you want to explore other manufacturers, have fun, but you’re on your own.

Get yourself a couple of boxes of good glossy 8×10 paper and you’re good to go. No need to get fancy starting out, I’ve been using up my supply of HP paper (bought when I was working for them at Palm), and I just ordered in a couple of boxes of Epson’s Premium Glossy. I use this as my “beta test” paper, so to speak, and don’t print on more  expensive papers until I’m completely happy on this one.

But we’re not going to talk about premium papers today. Just grab yourself a printer, get a box of paper, and start printing and studying your prints.

 

 

Posted in Photography