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App beta testing gets better with new TestFlight SDK

Developers looking to beta test their apps before getting them into the App Store have a number of options for finding and communicating with beta testers, but few are as slick and easy to use as TestFlight. Now the provisioning tool gets even better, thanks to a number of updates in version two, which made its official debut on Monday.

The new version of TestFlight comes with an SDK that allows developers to make their beta testing process a lot more involved, and it provides improved tools for gathering feedback. Feedback and communication are key to a successful beta test (which is why I’m not a great tester myself), and the new features available to developers through TestFlight’s API are all about improving information flow between devs and testers.

Highlights of what developers can look forward to include:

  • In-App Questions. Trigger questions at specific checkpoints to get feedback from users as they’re using the software exactly at points where you think there might be an issue.
  • In-App Updates. Make sure your test group is on the same page with in-app update prompts, which also allow you to update to the latest version instantly over the air.
  • Feedback. In-app forms and tester email responses all feed into the developer dashboard and allow for instant replies between tester and coder.

There’s more, too, so be sure to head over to the official TestFlight website and check it out if you’re interested. Developers and testers alike can still sign up for free, too, and all of these new features arrive as free updates for existing and new users alike. Inevitably, TestFlight will have to bring some tiered paid options or advertising to the table to keep things going, but judging by developer response and its adoption by big brands so far, it won’t have too much trouble getting people to pay for the product when it does.

As for general consumers, even if you never actually use or see TestFlight in action, you’ll probably feel its effects: A better beta process with more communication options built in should lead to better shipping products popping up in the App Store.

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App beta testing gets better with new TestFlight SDK

Developers looking to beta test their apps before getting them into the App Store have a number of options for finding and communicating with beta testers, but few are as slick and easy to use as TestFlight. Now the provisioning tool gets even better, thanks to a number of updates in version two, which made its official debut on Monday.

The new version of TestFlight comes with an SDK that allows developers to make their beta testing process a lot more involved, and it provides improved tools for gathering feedback. Feedback and communication are key to a successful beta test (which is why I’m not a great tester myself), and the new features available to developers through TestFlight’s API are all about improving information flow between devs and testers.

Highlights of what developers can look forward to include:

  • In-App Questions. Trigger questions at specific checkpoints to get feedback from users as they’re using the software exactly at points where you think there might be an issue.
  • In-App Updates. Make sure your test group is on the same page with in-app update prompts, which also allow you to update to the latest version instantly over the air.
  • Feedback. In-app forms and tester email responses all feed into the developer dashboard and allow for instant replies between tester and coder.

There’s more, too, so be sure to head over to the official TestFlight website and check it out if you’re interested. Developers and testers alike can still sign up for free, too, and all of these new features arrive as free updates for existing and new users alike. Inevitably, TestFlight will have to bring some tiered paid options or advertising to the table to keep things going, but judging by developer response and its adoption by big brands so far, it won’t have too much trouble getting people to pay for the product when it does.

As for general consumers, even if you never actually use or see TestFlight in action, you’ll probably feel its effects: A better beta process with more communication options built in should lead to better shipping products popping up in the App Store.

Related research and analysis from GigaOM Pro:
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iPad Usability Study Reveals What We Do and Don’t Like In Apps

iPad users aren’t stingy with their devices, according to a new usability report by the Nielsen Norman Group focusing on Apple’s tablet. In fact, iPad owners who lived with one or more individuals reported that they shared their iPads freely, unlike the iPhone. The report also illuminated many things we like and don’t like about the apps we use on our iPads.

For example, the study found that users aren’t crazy about using their iPad devices to deal with complicated forms that require lots of user input, especially if those forms are found in non-optimized websites, rather than housed in an app. Users would skip registrations processes rather than deal with inputting information in many cases. The solution to such a problem would be to make forms simpler, requiring less information, and reduce the need for repeat entry of information (so apps that offer to remember login details are better, for example).

iPad users also aren’t as able to decipher non-obvious control systems as some developers might think. In cases where it wasn’t made clear what tapping an item that wasn’t obviously a button (i.e., a logo) would do, users often missed the functionality. Examples cited in the report include the logo in the top left of The Daily app, which returns users to the app’s home screen. USA Today  originally used a similar mechanism, but changed their logo to include a “Sections” label to tell users that it was in fact designed to be tapped and tied to a function.

Likewise, gestures in apps can sometimes cause trouble when there are no visual cues to provide information about how they work. Don’t think that placing an instructional video or graphic at the beginning of the app will solve the problem, either. Many users don’t read instructions, though visual instructions that are incredibly obvious, like those used by Bing for iPad, tested well with those participating in the study, since users couldn’t avoid grasping their meaning even when they quickly dismissed them. Nielsen Norman Group advises developers that they’re much better off including visual markers throughout, indicating that swipes and other gestures can be used. For example, magazine apps like Wired include arrows that show the direction a user should swipe to unveil more content.

Another alternative is to provide explicit tips in the form of dialog boxes, like Adobe Photoshop Express does. The iPad Photoshop app uses gestures to control effects like “soft focus,” and pops up notifications to alert users of what to do. Tips can be hidden at any time, so they won’t become annoying.

What users find very annoying according to the report are splash or loading screens. No matter how clever, or how easy on the eye, splash screens and animations become annoying very quickly. Startup sounds, in particular, are singled out as especially bad, because of the potential they have for unpleasantly surprising people who open apps in surroundings where noise might not be appreciated.

Also, almost universally, apps will benefit from having back buttons on nearly every page, and should aim for a simple homepage-like table of contents over more complicated navigation schemes. Users prefer a home base from which to operate without having to hunt through carousels or wade through long columns of thumbnails, and they always want the option to go one step back from their current position, because of accidental taps or to refer back to something they just saw.

As mentioned above, iPads tend to be communal devices, at least within the household. But the report also highlighted some other interesting points regarding how we use the Apple tablet. Generally, we use it for gaming, checking email and communicating via social networking, watching videos/movies and reading news. We also tend to shop, but the participants in the study generally preferred shopping on their desktops, and some even perceived iPad shopping to be more risky from a security perspective. iPads also tend to be carried around by many users, or at least taken along for the ride when long waits or trips are expected.

Now that the iPad is more than a year old, it’s interesting to see how people are using it, and what is and isn’t working when it comes to app usability design. No doubt there’s still plenty of innovation left in iPad app interface design, but this report illustrates that some things never go out of style when it comes to user experience.

How does your experience with the iPad either agree or disagree with the findings described above?

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iPhone 4S Arriving This Fall With More Carriers?

Apple’s next iPhone will be called the 4S, and won’t offer much beyond minor cosmetic changes, better front and back cameras, an A5 dual-core processor and HSPA+ support, according to Jefferies & Co. analyst Peter Misek (via Forbes ). The information comes from industry checks performed by the investment banking firm.

Apple is also likely to announce Sprint, T-Mobile and China Mobile as new carrier partners, according to Misek’s research note. T-Mobile expansion is already expected if the AT&T / T-Mobile merger goes through. The addition of Sprint would mean Apple’s reach would extend to all major U.S. carriers, and China Mobile signing on would mean that the iPhone would become available to over 600 million potential subscribers.

While analyst expectations are not always the most dependable source of information, this report is in keeping with what we’ve been hearing about Apple’s next iPhone revision. Rumors abound that we won’t see any new hardware introduced at WWDC this June, and fall has been widely cited as the most likely candidate for an iPhone update. The iPhone “4s” name has also surfaced before, back in April when it was used to describe a prototype handset being circulated by Apple among developers with an A5 chip for use in creating next-gen games. Supplier checks also often reveal clues about future Apple products, since the third-party supply chain isn’t as easily guarded as Apple itself.

Misek also claims that LTE chipsets from Qualcomm aren’t yet ready for mass production of the next iPhone, so we won’t see LTE support in the next hardware revision.

Take this report with a grain of salt, but if Apple decides to repeat what it did with the iPhone 3G and 3GS with the iPhone 4 and its successor, this does match with what I’d expect to see from a hardware update. What do you think about this latest next-gen iPhone rumor?

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Square Goes Mainstream With Apple Store Availability

The Square credit card reader for iOS devices is now available online at the Apple Store, and will soon be available at brick-and-mortar Apple retail locations. The Square dongle is required to use Square’s mobile payment app, which allows individuals and small businesses to quickly and easily receive credit card payments on the go. Official Apple Store availability is a significant step in the ongoing rise of Square’s success.

Founded by Jack Dorsey (who also co-founded Twitter), Square began offering its hardware credit card reader, which plugs into the iPhone or iPad’s 3.5mm headphone jack, in May of 2010. It briefly stopped shipping the device between June and August of last year while it addressed a security vulnerability, and then continued shipping out free readers to any who signed up for the service and requested one. Square charges nothing for the hardware, or for the service, but it does take a 2.75 percent cut of each credit card transaction processed using its software.

Although the Square reader is available direct at no charge from Square, it will be selling for $9.95 in Apple Store. But Square is also including $10 credit in transactions with the version sold through Apple retail channels, so the price actually evens out. Square’s business model isn’t about selling hardware, after all, but about netting that 2.75 percent fee on every transactions for the life of the card reader. Securing Apple Store availability, even at a loss when it comes to hardware costs, will only ensure that it extends its reach well beyond its current audience and into the mainstream buying public.

Square isn’t the first mobile payment option to be made available direct from Apple. Intuit and Mophie partnered to bring the GoPayment app and Marketplace reader accessory to Apple Stores in August. Intuit’s solution requires a monthly fee, which features a tiered payment plan that offers two options depending on the volume of your monthly business. Square’s decision to stay away from plans and instead use a simple, clear, no-nonsense fee structure has made it appealing to small business and independent contractors alike.

Mobile payments has become a heated battlefront lately, as more users begin to look for quick and easy ways to pay for things on the go. Square recently crossed the $1,000,000 in transactions processed per day threshold, a remarkable achievement for such a relative newcomer to the payment processing industry. The service also recently came under fire from competitor VeriFone, which released a public statement and demo software reportedly exposing a key security weakness with the Square processing method. Many argued that the weakness was not really anything specific to Square’s method, and in fact represented a general danger when dealing with any credit card payments.

The mobile payment industry is already competitive, but growing consumer comfort and familiarity with connected mobile devices and the looming potential of NFC are poised to make it even more so. That Square has managed to secure a coveted spot in Apple retail is a strong sign that it’s about to gain significant ground in the ongoing battle.

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In-App Subscriptions Could Go Way Beyond Periodicals

Apple today introduced in-app subscriptions in the iOS App Store, and while the announcement seems aimed at publishers of periodicals like magazines and digital newspapers, there’s little reason to expect subscriptions to be limited to those apps alone.

By expanding the availability of in-app purchasing to more application types, Apple could usher in new revenue models for apps offering online gaming, tiered customer support, in-app currency, premium content and software-as-a-service (SaaS).

An easy example of how this might work would be a pay-to-play MMO along the lines of World of Warcraft, which would charge users a monthly subscription fee. A developer could make their game strictly limited to subscribers after a trial period (like The Daily is now), or provide ongoing access to additional premium content for those who hold a recurring subscription, and basic, free access to all other users.

Apps could also offer tiered customer support on a subscription basis. For example, Shane Ketterman, editor of TCGeeks, suggested to me that app developers might offer a $4.99/month subscription package that would guarantee lifetime upgrades and 24-hour customer support. Such packages are commonplace with desktop software, after all. Obviously, this would only appeal to a limited subset of iOS users, but it could be popular among enterprise customers.

Devs could even choose to wall-off special sections of their apps behind subscription-based pay wall or provide varying levels of access to SaaS customers, as Ken Seto pointed out on Twitter. The just-launched ZenDesk web-based customer support iPad app, for instance, could offer differing levels of access and feature sets depending on a user’s subscription level, just like it does on the web.

Apple’s press release detailing the in-app subscription model was key to use “publishers” throughout when referring to the parties who would be implementing the feature, and even specified that it would be “available to all publishers of content-based apps on the App Store, including magazines, newspapers, video, music, etc.” While it’s unclear whether that means uses like those mentioned above will fly (the “etc.” leaves a lot of wiggle room), it’s obvious Apple intends this model to be used by music and video-based apps, too. Subscription-based music services like Spotify (and now Last.fm) will then possibly have to comply, which could be bad news for their revenue share, but good news for user convenience and adoption. Netflix and Hulu, too, might have to begin offering an in-app subscription option, although it isn’t clear whether Apple’s use of the term “publisher” in this context includes large-scale distributors like the companies I’ve just mentioned.

Small producers like Majek Studios, on the other hand, which produces an ongoing web series specifically for the iOS platform, seem like exactly the type of content providers Apple is referring to. The availability of in-app subscriptions could be a huge boon to independent producers like Majek, since it provides a dependable, recurring revenue stream for ongoing film and video projects.

In-app subscriptions open up a realm of new possibilities for iOS revenue models, but Apple is clearly keen to keep tight control over which of those possibilities it allows to see the light of day. Here’s hoping they open it up to a variety of different implementations, because I think it could user in a new level of platform maturity for Apple’s smartphone operating system.

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Apple Officially Launches App Store Subscriptions

Apple finally released official details regarding App Store subscriptions Tuesday, and it’s the same system that launched alongside News Corp.’s “The Daily” on Feb. 2. Under this system, subscriptions in the App Store must be sold using the existing in-app purchasing system found in iOS. Publishers now must offer subscriptions for purchase within their apps if they intend to have a subscription option at all, cutting Apple in on their revenue and possibly threatening the external store model employed by Amazon and others.

Publishers choose a weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, bi-yearly or yearly subscription period, and customers can then decide how long they wish to subscribe for, and are charged the appropriate amount depending on their choice. Subscriptions are managed through their personal iTunes account page, and customers are free to cancel any auto-renewals at any time. As expected, Apple takes a 30-percent cut of any subscriptions purchased through the App Store.

Apple is quick to point out that publishers can still offer subscriptions outside of their apps, too — so long as they also offer the in-app subscription method:

Publishers who use Apple’s subscription service in their app can also leverage other methods for acquiring digital subscribers outside of the app. For example, publishers can sell digital subscriptions on their web sites, or can choose to provide free access to existing subscribers. Since Apple is not involved in these transactions, there is no revenue sharing or exchange of customer information with Apple. Publishers must provide their own authentication process inside the app for subscribers that have signed up outside of the app. However, Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app. In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.

Apple seems to have relented regarding the ability for publishers to provide free access to existing subscribers, something the company was originally reported to have opposed. That Apple is preventing publishers from including in-app links to subscription or store websites may result in even more bad blood between them, however. It almost ensures most customers will just use in-app purchases to subscribe, since the cost to them is the same and it’s far more convenient. The wording of the release makes it seem as though apps such as Amazon’s Kindle could also eventually be affected, though a new recent update to that app was approved overnight and the link to the Kindle Store website remains in place.

Publishers will also get names, email addresses and zip codes of subscribers (although customers will be able to opt out). That’s a bit of a compromise, since Apple had originally been reluctant to provide any data at all to publishers, according to reports. Under the new system, publishers can even seek additional information about customers, providing they make clear that it’s a choice, and that that data will fall under the publisher’s privacy policy, not Apple’s.

This press release definitely strikes a more starkly informative tone than the short, jubilant ones Apple is generally known to release. The company’s outlining of very specific details regarding the new in-app purchasing mechanism suggests that it wants to tread very carefully, with publishers and end users alike. What do you think? Is this fair, or is Apple asking too much from its publishing partners?

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How In-App iOS Subscriptions Will Work

Apple today introduced in-app subscriptions alongside newspaper app The Daily, and though during the app’s press conference, Apple VP of Internet Services Eddy Cue said an announcement regarding details would be forthcoming, little else about how subscriptions would work was discussed. Luckily, Apple’s own updated terms of service (via Macworld) for the iTunes Store shed some light on what to expect.

Under a new “Paid Subscriptions” model, developers will soon be able to offer renewable subscription pricing plans through the iTunes Store via in-app purchasing. Subscriptions will work as follows:

  • Subscriptions can cover different lengths of time, like a weekly or monthly period
  • Subscription charges can be set to auto-renew
  • Auto-renewal will not remove funds from your account any more than 24 hours before your renewal period is up
  • If a publisher raises the price of subscription, your auto-renewal will be instantly disabled
  • Subscriptions are charged immediately upon sign-up, even if you’re in the middle of a free trial
  • Subscriptions can be managed from one central location in your iTunes account (much like they’re handled on the Kindle store)
  • Publishers can ask for permission to collect your name, email address and zip code information, and iTunes will pass that data along to them to use for marketing purposes

It was originally a point of contention between publishers and Apple that the Mac-maker wouldn’t pass on access to customer information, but it appears as though Apple decided to make a concession to make the payment scheme more appealing. Maybe that’s what the company traded in exchange for reserving the right to block free access to print subscribers.

Though some are speculating that Apple also relaxed its stance regarding the traditional 70/30 revenue split shared between developers and itself for app sales and in-app purchases for The Daily, Murdoch is on the record as saying that Apple is indeed getting a third of the $0.99 weekly subscription price, at least for the first year. Whether or not other publishers will accept that deal, or can match or beat paper subscription prices while still giving Apple it’s cut remains to be seen.

If publishers do agree to Apple’s terms and prices go down, magazines on the iPad just got a whole lot more appealing. What do you think? Will the availability of subscriptions affect your decision to buy iPad news and magazine applications?

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Screencast: How to Create iPhone Ringtones for Free

One of the best things about the iPhone is how easily you can set your own custom ringtones. Creating those ringtones from music from your own library is incredibly easy, too, and doesn’t require any paid third-party software. All you need is Garage Band and iTunes. Check out the screencast below to see how you can make your own ringtones from virtually any song in under five minutes.

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First Impression of Mac App Store: Try it, It’s Good.

The Mac App Store is here, and is now up and running on all three of my Snow Leopard-sporting machines. As you might expect, the experience is very much like what you get from the iOS App Store. But the Mac version has its differences, too.

First, let’s talk about the similarities. The Mac App Store looks a lot like the iOS version, especially the one you find on the iPad. Like the iOS App Store, the Mac store requires you to have and sign-in with an active Apple ID. You’ll need this to purchase and download free apps from the store, though your account doesn’t have to be associated with a credit card if you want to just download free apps or use iTunes gift cards. Promotional codes appear to also work, if you can get your hands on some.

Purchasing apps works much the same as on an iOS device, too. You click the item’s price and it will ask you for your Apple ID credentials, or begin downloading immediately if you’ve recently provided them, triggering an animation of the app’s icon jumping to your dock. Every app you download from the App Store will appear in the dock by default, though it actually resides in your Applications folder. There’s no way to turn this off, since the App Store lacks a preferences menu, but you can always just drag icons out of the dock after the fact. The app’s icon will show a loading bar as it downloads and installs, and will appear as normal once the operation is complete and you’re free to use it.

The fact that there is so little you can customize or change about the Mac App Store is indicative of the direction Apple seems to want to go with software. As with iOS, the goal is probably to provide a surface-level simplicity that reduces potentially confusing menu items to the absolute minimum.  Many third-party apps that launched with the App Store seem to share this design philosophy, too.

Since the Mac App Store lacks its own dedicated preference menu, I initially thought users couldn’t limit access to it in the way they could the iTunes and iOS App Stores. Not so, since Mac App Store restrictions can be set using Parental Controls, found in OS X’s System Preferences, as shown in the screenshot below.

One of the best carry-overs from the iOS version of the App Store is the ability to install software on multiple machines. Software purchases on my iMac can easily be installed on my MacBook Pro or Mac mini just by “purchasing” it again on each of those machines with the same Apple ID. Alternatively, you can hit the “Purchased” icon at the top of the App Store interface to check what you’ve bought, and an install option will appear if you don’t yet have it on the machine you’re using. Unfortunately, you can’t transfer purchases from your iOS device to your Mac, so if you bought Angry Birds on your iPhone and your iPad, you still have to buy it again for OS X.

Note that only apps you purchased through the Mac App Store have this ability. While the App Store will recognize that you have iWork or iLife apps installed from before, for instance, trying to purchase these on other computers will actually result in a charge to your account, not just a free re-download.

One big difference many iOS users will notice is in pricing. Mac App Store prices tend to vary much more than those for iPhone and iPad apps, and tend not to reside around the $0.99 mark. Around $20 to $30 seems to be fairly common, and some software climbs as high as $80 or even $150. For now, at least, the introduction of the iOS model of software distribution hasn’t led to a similar pricing model.

I’ve yet to experience updating an app, since everything I’ve purchased so far is already up-to-date, but I suspect it won’t differ all that much from updating apps on the iPhone or iPad. And while it’s early days yet, I think the Mac App Store will be a success for Apple, considering I’ve already bought around three times more OS X software than I have during the past three months combined. How about you?

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