Multi-Device, Multi-Platform, Companion Apps

The heart and soul of any good piece of application software—regardless of the device on which it runs—is its ability to allow you to achieve a task, find a piece of information or essentially get something done. Well-written software is built from a solid awareness of the steps that go into achieving a particular outcome and provides the features and functions that an end user needs and/or wants to follow those steps and attain their desired goal—whether that’s creating a digital work of art, chasing dragons, or finding directions to your favorite restaurant.

Most applications are, understandably, designed to achieve all of those tasks on their own—that is, all the functions necessary to complete the desired goal lives within the software itself—although it may access external data sources—and runs on the device for which the application was written. One notable exception to this rule is software plug-ins, which can provide additional functionality to a “host” application environment: for example, image filtering tools for Adobe Photoshop or audio processing add-ons for digital audio workstation software like Cakewalk’s Sonar or Apple’s Logic. Plug-ins, however, run within the same environment and on the same device as the home program.

A more important trend that is starting to emerge is the arrival of multi-device, multi-platform companion applications. These are apps that run on devices other than the host, yet work hand-in-hand with the host application, allowing the separate devices to more easily or more fully achieve a task than either device could do on its own. These types of apps represent a potentially huge new opportunity for app developers on all types of platforms that, I believe, could transform the world of mobile—and PC—software. For one thing, they allow applications—and individuals—to easily cross the gap between different platforms and devices. Want an Android or iOS app that truly works with your Windows PC? No problem—at least conceptually.

In fact, because companion apps acknowledge and embrace the multi-device, multi-platform reality that we virtually all now live with every day, they represent an exciting path for the future. Plus, they avoid the all too common problem of trying to adapt a popular application on one device to another by just building a cut-down—or beefed up—version of the app for the new device. A well-conceived, well-written companion application takes advantage of the unique capabilities, input characteristics and other functions of each platform, and yet lets you more fully achieve or enjoy the task at hand with your set of devices. (Plus, it doesn’t worry about the tedious process of porting or trying to duplicate functionality on another device that isn’t ideally suited for it.) In a word, it makes these often disjointed set of devices and experiences work as a system.

For example, as a musician who writes and arranges songs for my band, I’ve been using MakeMusic’s Finale application on a Windows PC for literally decades. But about a year-and-a-half ago, the company introduced Finale SongBook for the iPad, which takes the music notation files created on a PC and lets you view them digitally on an iPad—turning that iOS-based device into an easily searchable, highly readable digital music library and music stand. It’s a great example of achieving a higher level of capability by extending the functionality of a core application across devices and platforms. A completely different example is DreamWorks’ new Dragons Adventure game for Nokia’s new Windows RT-based Lumia tablets. The game features a clever integration of Nokia’s navigation data into the environment, but even more importantly, DreamWorks also created a Windows Phone-based application that parents can use to build environments or tweak other settings that can be sent over to the game running on the tablet. It’s a simple, yet highly effective way to get the devices—and the people using those devices—working together.

Now, you could argue that companion applications aren’t a completely new idea—but I will counter that mobile-focused, cross-platform, functionality-optimized apps are a relatively recent phenomena and one that I believe will have some exciting and important new entrants in 2014.

Touch Computing and The Re-Birth of the Software Industry

It seems like you can’t go anywhere in Silicon Valley without hearing about someone who’s making an app. Apps are all the rage these days and software engineering is one of the hottest jobs all over the world. But in the not too distant past, there wasn’t this much excitement around software.

In fact, I have heard from many executives who have been around a while that the excitement around software and apps today reminds them of the same excitement around software when personal computers were first gaining steam.

Although there are some similarities between the industry today and the PC software industry when it was first getting started, the excitement around software today is taking place on an entirely different kind of computer. The excitement around software today is entirely focused on touch computers like smartphones and tablets.

Smartphones are contributing and are the device that began this new app economy but tablets are where the next real software innovations will be focused on in my opinion. I say this because I am a big believer in the tablets ability to take significant time away from the traditional PC. Our research indicates that consumers are comfortable doing the vast majority of tasks they used traditional PCs for in the past on their tablet. Because of that point we feel the tablet represents one of the most exciting platforms which will lead a new software revolution.

Starting Over

I think a strong case could be made that much of the focus of the software industry over the past few decades has been on professionals and the workplace. In my opinion, only in the last five years have we had what I would consider a pure, mature consumer market. The maturity of the consumer market for personal computers is the foundation that has led to the rebirth of the software industry. If the first phase of the software industry was focused largely on businesses, then the next phase will be largely based on consumers.

Although we can articulate what is happening by proclaiming that the software industry is being reborn, in all actuality it’s starting over. The first software phase was all about creating software for desktops and then eventually laptop computers. Both were driven primarily by mouse and keyboard input mechanisms. The software generating all the excitement today is fully around touch as an input mechanism. Given the drastic differences between touch computing and mouse and keyboard computing, software developers are reinventing or at the very least re-imagining their software around touch computing. It is this reinventing and re-imagining of the software industry — brought about by touch computing — that leads me to believe it’s almost like it’s starting over more than it’s being reborn.

New Hardware Is Driving New Software

This rebirth of the software industry is being driven primarily because of new hardware that’s selling like hotcakes to the masses. Although it’s easy to get excited about all the shiny new smartphone and tablet hardware, it’s important to remember that hardware is only as good as the software it runs. I could own the most amazing and elegant piece of hardware, but if it runs poor software, it’s no better than a paperweight.

When I speak with software developers who are driving this new phase of software, they’re largely focused on the iPad and the iPhone. These two platforms are giving software developers valuable experience in gaining expertise, making the next generation of touch software much more personal. This is important because new platforms incorporating touch are on the horizon based on Windows 8.

Windows 8 presents a radical departure from the normal desktop/notebook operating system that Microsoft usually churns out. Windows 8 will be the first OS to combine a touch-based operating system (called Metro) with a mouse-and-keyboard operating system and a familiar Windows interface. These two experiences combined together will lead to a new generation of notebooks, desktops, and tablet-notebook hybrids, all with touch interfaces.

Regardless of your opinion about Microsoft’s approach with Windows 8, the reality is that over the next few years, touch computing is coming to a wide range of laptops and desktops.

What’s Next?

That’s a great question, and my answer may surprise you. I believe the next big software craze will be around television. I know it may seem crazy to think about running apps on your TV, but that’s what I think is next. Google is already going down this path with Google TV, letting software developers make apps for the big screen; Samsung is also doing this with its line of Smart TVs. And there’s speculation that Apple has big plans for the TV industry — if that’s true, I believe apps will be a part of the strategy.

Even though there are products on the market that let you run apps on your TV, those developers have yet to re-imagine their apps on the big screen. Just as software developers are having to re-imagine their software for touch computing, they will have to do the same thing for the TV.

We live in extremely exciting times and things will get even more exciting. I firmly believe we will see more fascinating innovations centered around personal computing hardware and software over the next 10 years than we ever saw in the past 30 years of the PC of the industry, and I’m glad that we’ll get a chance to observe them firsthand.

Why Silicon Valley Needs a New Name

I was visiting with one of Silicon Valley’s bright thinkers last week, Kanwar Chandra the CMO of CSR and founder of Sirf, and he told me that Silicon Valley is really no longer Silicon Valley. In fact, he said it needs a new name. He went on to say that Silicon Valley has really become the Valley of platforms.

He astutely pointed out that it is the center of mobile and wireless development platforms with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platform driving major growth around the world. And with Intel jumping on the low voltage processor bandwagon, along with the many Valley companies building IP around ARM cores, it is also the center of platform development in mobile related processors for companies to build next generation mobile devices. The company he founded, Sirf, is the leader in GPS processing and much of the GPS and mapping platforms are being driven by Sirf and other companies in the Valley related to location based hardware and software.

It is now the center of activity in social networking with Twitter and Facebook leading the way with their various platforms that people can develop on. eBay and Craigslist were created to be major platforms for driving eCommerce and both companies are based in the Silicon Valley region. The Bay Area has also been at the heart of BioTech thanks to the pioneering work of Genentech and work at Stanford and UC Berkeley along with many Valley based biotech firms. The Valley’s VC’s are backing start-ups in green energy here in Silicon Valley in a big way that suggests that the Valley will become a hotspot for alternative energy platforms too.

Companies in the Valley are also leading most of the major cloud based projects and initiatives with and Oracle’s Web based apps providing critical platforms for enterprise. And we will soon see the introduction of Apple’s iCloud and I am willing to bet that they will define how the consumers see and understand what the cloud is all about.

More importantly, Apple’s iCloud will become a major platform for innovation. And of course, Google’s cloud programs are already a big hit and as they make their cloud based business tools more robust and take on Microsoft with their cloud initiatives from an Open Source approach, they too will provide a major cloud based platform for business and consumers.

This shift from silicon being at the center of the Valley’s tech existence to one of platforms driving its future growth is actually quite significant and one that needs to be recognized. To frame our region as just Silicon Valley these days does it an injustice.

But here is the problem. If we see the Valley’s reason-to-exist moving from Silicon to platforms, what do we call it? Silicon Platform Valley does not roll off the tip of the tongue. Or perhaps Technology Platform Valley is the right name. Or how about Silicon Valley now Platform Valley? OK I admit that I am very bad at naming things.

So, I need your help.

If Silicon Valley has evolved beyond its core technology and is now becoming the center for broad technology platforms, is there a better name for it then Silicon Valley? I know the tendency will be to just leave it as it is, but somehow I sense we need to grab hold of this idea of it being the center of new and innovative platforms and embrace it wholeheartedly.

So, while the chance of actually changing its name is remote, I am still open to any good names you can come up with that perhaps we can push behind the scenes and at least get people seeing Silicon Valley for more then being just the center of the universe for silicon based chips.

Your comments and name suggestions are appreciated.

If you feel obliged please comment below or feel free to send me electronic mail at

The Need for Smarter Mobile Notifications

Push notifications on our smart phones and tablets are shaping up to be a central part of our experiences with those devices. The concept itself has many benefits, particularly where it lets us get information quickly and choose how to respond to that information. I have however recently had an experience with a notification that not only frustrated me but in turn forced me to conclude that we need smarter notifications.

The experience was several weeks back and it was with the CNN app. Tennis is among many of the sports I enjoy watching on TV. I especially like the major tournaments where 3 out of 4 are held in other parts of the world. The most recent major tournament was Wimbledon held in England. I watched many of the big match’s leading up to the championship between Rafael Nadal and Novak Jokovic.

Because of the time zone difference between the US and England the time for the championship match was on a Sunday morning. We had family things to do that morning so I set my DVR to record the finale. Perhaps you know where this story is going. Later that morning as we are driving around and I heard my phone alert me of a notification. Responding quickly to nearly every sound my phone makes, I quickly pulled it out to see a message from CNN saying Novak Jokovic had defeated Nadal and won Wimbledon.

Given that I was recording this match I would have loved to watch it without knowing the outcome. However the CNN app gives me no options to tell it not to send me any alerts related to sports or in even more detail which sports. Therefore the outcome was spoiled for me entirely and thus frustrating.

Perhaps deeper personalization of our phones would give apps the information necessary to know more about us and craft notifications that way. Or perhaps some level of context awareness could be used to dictate which notifications I receive and when.

Notifications are needed but they should also be smarter. However we solve this problem there needs to be a way for us to tell our smart devices which bits information we would like to be notified of and which ones we don’t need to be bothered with. This level of app personalization needs to be a key part of how we think about software in the future.