Category Archives: Cool Sites & Apps

Why Instagram Worked: Limitations Are Freeing

There are many reasons why Instagram worked: timing, mobile centric, the ‘limitations’ (iOS only), the design and logo were/are retro, warm, and appealing.

But I think the primary reason Instagram worked were the filters. For the first time the masses like me, who’s only knowledge about photography is how to press the button, were able to see, without opening up some complicated program, what professional and creative effects could do to their photos.  And it was one click. When you snapped a photo with Instagram you could either post it as is, or there were a row of 9 or so “filters” at the bottom, “pre-sets” if you will, that you simply selected and it would automatically apply them. These filters were imitations of what the pros spend hours doing in Photoshop. And suddenly the masses had them at the click of the button. This is the same appeal that photo editing apps for the iPhone like Camera+, Best Camera, and Camera Awesome have: Simple, easy, and fun photo editing that is merely the click of a button to get a unique effect.

Limitations are Freeing

I was thinking about this as I’ve begun using Garageband for the iPad. It’s much more limiting than Logic Pro or even Garageband on OSX, but I’m being a lot more productive on it and having a lot more fun. The nature of mobile is intimacy and ease, which equals in a lot of cases increased productivity.

In Instagram’s case, it didn’t have as many filters or options as Camera+, but that limitation made it much more easy to use and much faster to use. To be fair, Camera+ wasn’t trying to be a Social Network, and the app was very successful in its own right simply selling on the App store. But in Camera+’s case and Camera Awesome, after you take a photo, the damn thing disappears! Then you have to go find the little thumb nail of it, re-open it, and then when you go choose the effects, and this is key, what you see are the pages of effects and not the photo. So then you have to apply the effect, wait while it generates, and then finally see if you like it. Whereas with Instagram the original photo is up on the screen at all times and the selections are at the bottom. You can breeze through sampling all the selections and see them immediately. It makes the whole process easy and fun. To be fair I love Camera+ and Camera Awesome and couldn’t recommend them more, but I’m just simply pointing out a couple frustrations with them, and why Instagram out paced them in use and adoption. (To be fair though, like I said, Camera+ wasn’t intending to build a Social Network.)

Being Mobile Centric and only Mobile centric: You can’t look at photographs on the website. The only thing you can do on the website is sign up for an account, is another limitation. Some would say, frustrating, but actually that limitation, in the minds of many, was rather intriguing. If you wanted to see an old photograph, you had to search like an easter egg hunt for the link on Twitter or wherever you posted it. While the developers probably didn’t intend it, they merely were trying to save resources for their primary target, that limitation as well as the limitation of being iPhone only, created a sort of caché in the mind, especially in those of the hipsters, a lot of whom happen to be the biggest influencers on Twitter.

To be fair timing was a key too. At the time, Twitter didn’t have it’s own photo sharing service, and the third party ones that existed just really looked awful and contrived. They were so ugly they conditioned you almost to not want to click on a photo link. So when Instagram launched with it’s beautiful design and hipster appeal, Twitter adopted it as its de-facto photo sharing service, and Instagram rode that wave to mass adoption.

How to Find the Best Device in Every Tech Category

In the market for a new Android phone and want to know which is the best? Or how about a new Wifi Router. This site, wirecutter.com is the perfect solution. It shows you the best product in every technology category. Great resource.

Why not just post this link in Twitter and or Facebook? Well I did, but one thing those services are is ephemeral, after some time goes by I can’t seem to find my posts or things I want to remember, which is another reason blogging, and especially having your own site is still very valuable. I think even quasi blogging services like Tumblr and Google+ still have this problem of ephemerality.

And dang it, blogging is just plain fun sometimes!

I’ll add this too my list of “Cool Sites and Apps.”

Useful Links and Sites

  • 13 Little Known Google Search Features

    Welcome to New Zealand. Pictory takes you through what feels like a personal guided tour. Photographer: Michelle Choy

  • NeatImage – A plug in for Aperture and Photoshop that allows you to shoot at higher ISO’s and then it gets rid of the unnecessary artifacts.
  • FilterStorm – An iPhone App. $3.99. Great, intuitive photo editor for your iPhone. For instance if you have great shots that are too dark, it can magically fix them.
  • TinyLetter.com – Ever wanted to start your own email newsletter? This service handles everything, even if you want to charge for it. Plus it’s cool and developed by a cool entrepreneur, Phi Kaplan. Oh, also it’s free.
  • Dog Might Provide Clues on How Language Is Acquired – NYTimes.com – I’m interested in languages and dogs.
  • GoogleArtProject – It’s like Google Street View for Museums. Ultra High Res Images. Makes you feel like your actually walking through these famous Museums.
  • Potterish – For all you Harry Potter freaks. This is the best site. It’s Brazilian. However is you use Chrome as your browser it’ll auto translate it for you, so you can still have fun.
  • Google Shopper iPhone App – This is super cool. Take photos or speak the name of items into the phone, and it automatically pulls up prices and reviews of products and all the stores both online and off where its available.
  • Forvo.com – It’s like a search engine for learning how to speak other languages. You type in a word in any language and it finds a recording of that word spoken by a native speaker. What’s more, it’s crowd sourced, so that you can become a contributor also.
  • Pictory – Photo “Stories” I really love this site. At first blush, it feels like a great way to take a “virtual” humanized photo tour of a place. For instance, the featured story on the site right now is of “New Zealand” and through the beautiful photos and little snippets of interesting stories about the place, you really get a good feel for the place. It’s better than any other “virtual” tour experience I’ve seen on the net. It’s fun and useful. That’s key.
    Photo Credit: Michelle Choy

    Internet Shopping: Etsy.com Continues to Flourish

    You just might if you sell your wares on Etsy.

    On the heels of a recent report that Etsy, the ecommerce site known for “arts & crafts” is set to do $50,000,000 in revenues this year from a base of 7 million customers and over $400 million in transactions, I felt it would be good to write about it. I’ve heard about Etsy for years, but always let it slide off my consciousness. The moniker “arts & crafts” has never had a positive connotation in my mind for whatever reason. But a business that is doing well financially usually is also a business that has a good product. So I decided to investigate further.

    • “The site itself does a really good job of blending content and e-commerce.” – Kathy Choi from “This Week in Startups” #107 (During the news section at the end of the show)
    • “Really Unique and Authentic Products that are often cheaper than non authentic, mass produced products.” – Jason Calacanis (same show)
    • “The site itself has the feel of shopping from a upscale department store, but it’s all hand-crafted.” – ditto, Jason
    • Kind of has a “Shabby-Chic” feel. So this might be the internet’s version of going “antiquing” kind of thing or a warm, old-fashioned street market, a chance to find unexpected things that may delight you. – (that’s mine, hehehehehe)

    Halloween costumes, linens, furniture, hats, clothing, dry-goods, are some of the main types of things you might find there. But go check the site out yourself. There’s lots of categories, and also if you happen to have a passion for a certain craft you can also sell your own wares there, making a business out of your passion. The business has a great reputation, and trust is the key ingredient in e-commerce.

    The Web Ain’t Dead. Blekko.com Has Come to Save It.

    This is  a VERY cool, and very paradigm shifting new site: Blekko.com. I caught this on John Battelle’s Searchblog tonight, got a beta invite, played with if for a few minutes, caught on quick and already found tons of new cool things that I wouldn’t have found before based on my interests and the ability to filter the searches to give me more accented, tailored, specific results.

    Example:

    My favorite musician, Josh Rouse. Now with a simple / “slash” I can search for Josh Rouse say only on blogs like so: Josh Rouse/blogs or only in forums like this: Josh Rouse/forums (Click those links to see the results of said searches. I also just Tweeted a link to those results. You get the picture, and that’s just scratching the surface.

    New interesting information which is valuable to me as a fan, as an aficionado of said artist, immediately begin popping up at the top, based on my filters.

    This is making me feel that giddy, ‘irrationally exuberant’ feeling I initially felt when I tried Google for the first time back in 2000. I felt I had the World at my fingertips back then.


    But some kind of sludge in search has slowly happened. Some have blamed it on SEO/SEMs gaming the system so much that the results have slowly deteriorated.

    I have no doubt that’s part of it, but shouldn’t Google have been innovating like mad to keep up with the onslaught of deterioration?

    I’ll be the first to say that I LOVE so many of Google’s additional services, Gmail, Docs, Voice, all their wonky, data, cloud stuff (not their social) and that to say they shouldn’t have extended their reach beyond search would be like saying Amazon shouldn’t have extended its own reach beyond books, but it does sort of seem like, especially in the last three years of the Social Media threat, that Google has not innovated enough on their main product. It’s kind of like Microsoft jealously chasing everyone else’s success so much, they dropped the ball on their Golden Goose. (They did rally and sell 200m copies of Windows7, but still, no one would deny the mindshare, at least in the U.S. lost to Apple.)

    I mean filtered searches seem like such a no brainer that you would have thought Google would have had them in right from the beginning. (Well actually they do, but no one can figure out how to use them, and usually the results come back blank for some reason as if the data base and or code running it act like you’ve done something wrong. It’s like when a car back fires, and you hear what you think is an explosion. Except this explosion is not a band, but a ‘whimper.’

    Remember the movie “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford? One of the best Movies ever. Remember that scene in the Hospital when he’s searching the database for records of people who’ve received prosthetic arms? His first search delivers hundreds, maybe thousands of results. Then he keeps narrowing the search by filters (I can’t remember what the exact filters were, dates other types of subsets) and finally gets down to a manageable number of results, and more importantly, results that have meaning.

    Granted it was a movie, but still, that was 1994! People understood even back then before the internet was mainstream, that one of the most valuable automations of computers was search, and that one of the most important features of search were filters.
    It’s mind blowing Google hasn’t at least already initiated these kind of easy filters for its flagship product. I assume they will soon and or buy Blekko.

    I’ve only used Blekko for a few minutes. I want to use it lots more in coming days, but it already has such polish, and it feels silky smooth and fast, the kind of silky smooth quickness I haven’t experienced since FriendFeed, which for the life of me I can’t figure out why no one can duplicate, not even Facebook itself, which purchased FriendFeed and has one of its founders as its new CTO, Brett Taylor.

    Remember how last week Wired published a story about how the Web was dead? Well I didn’t buy it. Thought it was link-baity gibberish for the most part, but it did have some valid points. Steve Jobs didn’t leave out flash because flash was dated. Steve Jobs left out flash to close off, to a large extent, the media distribution ability of the Open Web.
    More and more stuff is happening through apps and other such ‘silos’ which does tend to negate the open web.

    Well, although Boing Boing had a great rebuttal to the Wired piece, I do believe that if there is a sort of , how shall we say, ‘jaded’ feeling for the Web itself, I do believe a large part of the problem is this lessening of the ability to find the really interesting, cool, exciting stuff. It’s out there, but for some reason our discovery engines, the main one being Google, have somehow become clogged and stale.

    I think Blekko, for one, can be like Roto Rooter to this clogged drain. These filtered searches are going to re-invigorate the joy of discovering on the open web, and in turn re assert the open web’s, if not dominance, at least equal importance to “apps” in this ever evolving, every life changing, and ever standard-of-living-increasing thing we call the Communications Revolution.

    Google said their mission statement was to uncover the Worlds information, or something to that effect. Well they are doing a lot of other good things, but their eye, at least lately, has been off that ball at least in the long tail stuff, which are the hidden treasures. Maybe its time for a new leader. Maybe Blekko’s it.

    Oh, I’ve got 5 invites. Just email, tweet, or leave a comment, if you would like one.

    Update 9/2/10 From my incoming traffic I found this page that is loaded with good information about Blekko over the last few days. Links to 10-15 stories written about it in blogs and a ton of ‘real time’ reactions based on the hash tag #blekko. I wish I could just copy and paste everything from this page and post here, but I wouldn’t feel right. Here is the full URL:

    http://www.skrenta.com/2010/09/blekko_coverage_and_twitter_gl.html

    You know I was just thinking, I wonder if you could create a cool page like that in Paper.li or really just using Blekko.com itself using the “/” syntax.

    Yeah you can. Just check this out:  http://beta.blekko.com/ws/blekko+/twitter

    Oh here’s a Paper.li I just created for the hashtag #Blekko. Pretty cool, although not filled with as much content as I would have expected.

    Google Font Directory – Free Custom Fonts for You’re Webpage/Blog

    Many interesting things were announced today at Google’s annual I/O keynote and meeting. Google “Wave” is now open to the public with no invite necessary. That should attract more users and get some “network” effect going, making it a more useful service. Another little one, kind of under the radar, is the availability of some custom fonts, free and open source, that you can easily grab the code for with a few snippets and apply to your webpage/blog. This is useful for design purposes and to have a little fun being creative with your page. I grabbed one already and applied it my header “Stephen Pickering” up there. What’s nice is, besides the fact that they are royalty free and open sourced, that since Google is hosting them on their own servers, the fonts will render properly on any “Modern” browser. I just checked on Safari, Firefox, and Chrome, and my header rendered correctly. Not sure about IE, since I don’t have it. Before, if you applied custom fonts to your page, more than likely other browsers wouldn’t render it, as they only support a few of the main fonts that are commonly used. But the Google servers make sure the code is there for most of the browsers to render it. Didn’t work on my iPad, however. I still don’t understand or like the fact that the iPad uses a “mobile” browser. Very lame on Apple’s part. Flash notwithstanding, the screen real estate is large enough on a tablet, that one should expect a more robust browsing experience.

    http://code.google.com/webfonts