Sunday, February 16, 2014

Was Flappy Bird inspired by Android game "Piou Piou vs Cactus" and where do developers go now?

There is a claim circulating that recent quirky App Store hit Flappy Bird was inspired by a previous game Piou Piou vs Cactus. Flappy Bird's creator Dong Nguyen has reportedly denied this. It's clear that there are some similarities (the big-lipped bird graphic and general game mechanics). On the other hand, there are some distinguishing elements (in Flappy Bird, the player flies between two pipes and must therefore exercise more control, compared to Piou Piou where the player apparently flies under or over a cactus and where they are only killed if they are pushed off the screen by the cacti ).

Give that his game predates Flappy Bird, the author of Piou Piou is understandably frustrated that Apple have refused to admit the game to the App Store on the grounds that it "leverages the top game 'Flappy Bird'". However, I think it can't be denied that releasing it to the App Store precisely now is an attempt to capitalise on Flappy Bird. My advice would probably be for him to take a practical stance, to go along with Apple and try submitting a further modified version (after all, we're not talking about a terribly complicated code base!).

This situation does highlight a point of frustration for developers generally, though. It's difficult to know specifically which elements of gameplay are what Apple see as being too similar. Is it the tap-to-jump dynamics? Is it the fact of having a sideways scroller with only static obstacles? Are bird characters with fat lips outlawed now? What independent game developers are surely taking away from this-- and the general element that many will want to build on-- is that there is a market for mobile games with extremely simple dynamics requiring a short attention span. And like it or not, Flappy Bird is a canonical example of that type of game.

Update: more reports of Apple refusing Flabby bird clones.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

iPad version of Microsoft Office "on the way"... allegedly...

We've been seeing reports about Microsoft allegedly on the cusp of releasing an iPad version of Office for so long that I'd almost forgotten that they haven't actually done so yet. Another report this week suggests that it is still on the cards, but not quite about to be released. Watch this space... but don't hold your breath and stay sitting down.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Preserving iPhone battery life: the practical and the ridiculous

An issue that seems to be here to stay for the foreseeable future is the atrociously poor battery life of modern smartphones and hence, the plethora of solutions that we come up with to mitigate the situation. This ZDNet article has various suggestions, from the sensible to the sublimely ridiculous.

It is definitely worth taming connectivity features such as bluetooth (you may not have thought of AirDrop) and reducing unnecessary background services (you may not have explored the screen allowing you to tune which apps are allowed to perform background downloads).

On the other hand, blocking your telephone's ability to receive phone calls in order to preserve battery life reminds me of the Fawlty Towers sketch in which the deaf Mrs Richards keeps her hearing aid turned off for the same reason...

If you find yourself tinkering too much with settings in an effort to scrape a few extra per cent out of your battery life, it's probably time to treat your iPhone to a secondary portable battery, and if you're on the road all day, making sure you plan your coffee breaks around caf├ęs that have charging stations :)

How we still suffer the consequences of security-less protocols

This example of a denial of service attack using open NTP servers is a prime example of the consequences that we still suffer as a result of Internet protocols that were designed "in more naive times" without security from the ground up.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Some eye-openers for independent developers

In this episode of the Mobile App Chat podcast, Freemium economics expert Eric Seufert reveals some eye-watering statistics for independent developers. In his opinion, a paid-acquisiton campaign is pointless with a budget of $50K, while many outfits with freemium apps at the top of the charts are spending in the order of $500K/day on acquisition. Yes, you heard that right: per day! It's a good job that cases such as Flappy Bird exist to give us some glimmer of hope!

Steve Wozniak on patents

In this clip from last week's Apps World conference, Steve Wozniak expresses his views on technology patents, explaining how he encountered patent-related issues in the early days of Apple. In his opinion, it is difficult to determine "which parties are to blame" for patent wars and he sympathises with the issues that the patent system causes for small developers. I'm sure his sentiment that "sometimes it boggles my mind that it can even be patentable" will be shared by many programmers in particular...!

DRM and copyright law

Cory Doctorow has an interesting article on the Guardian Technology Blog this week exploring some of the issues with Digital Rights Management (DRM). He highlights the issue of what I see as "mission creep". Various countries, including US and Europe generally, have laws on what is generally termed "non-circumvention", making it illegal to reverse engineer and tamper with a protection system designed to uphold a copyright-holder's rights. But in practice, this law is apparently being applied to the protection of "rights" that it is not clear the copyright holder actually held in the first place. In other words, inventors of DRM systems can effectively make up laws as they go along.

On this point, it is worth remembering that the broader issue of "what rights we actually want copyright holders to have in the digital era" predates current DRM systems and laws such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Before the millenium, developers were already battling with issues around the legality of reverse engineering under different circumstances.

He also raises the issue that a stifling of public information on the security of DRM systems can lead to less security for end users (he cites the infamous case of Sony installing malware on users' machines which, because of how it modified the filing system, in turn made it easier for other viruses to proliferate undetected). Unfortunately, this appears to be another case of the law being misused: in principle, exceptions should be allowed to the "non-circumvention" law for the purposes of security research. Clearly, this provision isn't filtering down to the security community in practice...

Monday, February 10, 2014

A reminder that cryptography researchers are not immune from cryberattacks

A hacking incident involving Belgian cryptographer Jean-Jacques Quisquater has been widely reported in various media. Some details of the methodology behind the hack have been revealed and are a reminder that even those highly tuned into the world of security technology are (a) not immune to social engineering attacks; and (b) still subject to the limitations of standard technology such as commercial antivirus products to a large extent.

I'm personally skeptical about the opinion that a university researcher really represents a "juicy target" (as The Register puts it) for such attacks: academic research isn't generally terribly secret and anything "juicy" to an academic is precisely what they are looking to publish as widely as possible in conference presentations, working papers and journals.

However, I do like Bruce Schneier's comment that "stranger things have happened" and this is a timely reminder that nobody is immune to attack and that we should not let our antivirus software lull us into a false sense of security.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Flappy Bird: Opinions from indie developers

My current high score at Flappy Bird
The Flappy Bird game has caused quite a stir over the past couple of weeks among developers and commentators. As what is programmatically pretty much the simplest game that you could possibly write while still legitimately calling it a "game" and having a chance of it being accepted on the App Store in the first place, there has been much speculation (pure accident, good marketing or more devious tactics...?) as to how this "bedroom production" by a lone Vietnamese programmer managed to reach the number 1 spot in the App Store. To add to the rumour mill, it is now left to speculation as to why the app, reportedly earning $50K per day in advertising revenue, was suddenly pulled from the App Store by the developer. (Publicity stunt for his next game? Legal issues with Nintendo due to the alleged similarity between the game's graphics and graphics from early Mario games?)

In this clip from the Apps World conference in San Francisco last week, various indie developers give their reactions and reflect on what can be learnt from the sudden and surprising success of Flappy Bird.

P.S. If the game was making $50K/day from advertising, then my solution to "not being able to handle it" would probably be to take a flight to the beach and leave my phone off the hook for a couple of weeks rather than pulling the game from the App Store... :)