Words with Friends is Mobile Gaming Perfection

Saturday night. Relaxing at a friend’s house. Dinner is over, and we are all sitting around the dining table. The room is strangely quiet. Everyone at the table has a look of intense concentration, and the only sounds are the occasional shrills and pings produced by our various laptops and smartphones.

No, this isn’t a strange vision of a scary post-social-skills future. It was just last week – on the Saturday we all finally discovered the phenomenon that is Words With Friends.

Words With Friends is an online word game from Zynga, available for iOS, Android and Facebook. It’s basically Scrabble, albeit with the bonus squares slightly rearranged. It’s been around a while, but seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity.

For anyone who has lived in a cave since 1938 when Scrabble was invented, the game takes place on a 15 x 15 square board. Each player is given seven letters, which they must place on the board to create a word. Each letter is allocated a certain number of points – a single point for “easy” letters such as “A” and “E,” and up to 10 points for the tricky ones like “Z” and “Q.”

Words With Friends on Facebook
Words With Friends on Facebook

Extra points are given if words are played over special squares such as “double word score” or “triple letter score.” Players take it in turns to lay words on the board until the entire pool of letters is used up, and the player with the highest score wins the game.

Words With Friends is exactly the same…but online. Players invite friends, usually via Facebook, and can play multiple games at the same time. Within an hour of discovering the game, we found that many of our friends were already playing, and each of us soon had five or six games on the go at once.

There are no time limits. For those that only log on occasionally, a game of Words With Friends can be something akin to postal chess, with only a few moves happening each day. For people who spend their lives glued to their iPhones and Facebook pages, playing Words With Friends can be both an enjoyable quick-fire challenge and something akin to a fun full-time job!

The beauty of Words With Friends is that it really is the perfect mobile game. The iPod and Android apps can consume long train journeys with ease, but also provide perfect gaming fodder for two-minute waits in supermarket queues.

Words with Friends App
Words with Friends App

The game is supported by advertising. In the case of the Facebook game, this involves looking at an ad for 5 seconds in between moves – this can quickly become tiresome. On the iOS app, the ads appear but can be skipped instantly. For those that want to play a lot (probably anyone with a few Facebook friends willing to get involved) the ads can be disabled for a small fee with the purchase of the full game.

Most people playing in our group have paid the money – which goes to prove that this freemium payment model works for compelling games. Who can begrudge a few dollars for something that provides hours of enjoyment at home, on the train, and even queuing at the airport.

The best thing of all about Words With Friends is that it isn’t simply mindless entertainment. If something’s going to keep you glued to your iPhone screen, isn’t it best that it’s something that focuses the mind and increases the vocabulary?

This point seems to be the key to the game’s popularity. All it really consists of is Scrabble, turn based online gaming (that must have been pretty easy to put together), and a bit of brain training. Yet somehow it ends up being far more than the sum of its parts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I somehow need to get more than forty points with four As, two Hs and a Q.

Create better online videos with the YouTube Creator Playbook

There are two ways you can use YouTube to gain fame and fortune:

  1. Create a viral video that gets viewed by millions of people.
  2. Create a YouTube channel that drives traffic to your brand over time.

Viral videos rely a lot on quirkiness and luck. Despite that randomness, there are some best practices that will help your video. The more methodical approach to building a popular YouTube channel requires a mastery of a wide range of online video best practices. The YouTube Creator Playbook is a guide to those best practices broken into Programming and Producing, Publishing and Optimization, and Community and Social Media.

For example, these are some of the best practices:

  • Tent Pole Programming: Schedule online videos in connection with cultural events to create more interest in your channel.
  • The First 15 Seconds:How to hook your viewers by making the beginnings more compelling.
  • Thumbnail Optimization:Create thumbnail images that act as mini-movie posters for your online video.
  • Social Media: Using social media to find audiences for your YouTube channel.

This is a very practical guide. Each best practice is introduced by a summary page that gives an estimate of how much time is required, description of what metrics are affected, estimate of how much the task will impact metrics and at what stage of production it will be used. The information helps content creators decide what is important for them to do.

The how-to part is rich in detail and ideas on how to implement each best practice.

The Playbook is a must read for anyone – beginner or pro – who wants to create and sustain an audience for online video. It can be browsed quickly for ideas and is strong on detail that explains how to implement practices. YouTube promises to keep updating the Playbook for more tips as they learn what works. There isn’t a subscribe option but keep an eye on the YouTube Creators blog.

Again, the Playbook is a must read. The advice is collected and presented in a very useful way.

Rupert Murdoch joins Twitter, the world laughs

I never thought I’d live to see the day Rupert Murdoch joined Twitter. But it’s happened. And it’s wildly entertaining watching the most-famous n00b in the world try to get his head around the micro-blogging social network. Long may it continue.

Rupe Is No Dupe

If a celebrity or famous face isn’t on Twitter then there will be an account either claiming to be them or openly spoofing them on the site. That’s just the way it is. So when a new Twitter account claiming to be owned by the real Rupert Murdoch appeared on the site, few people actually bought into it.

That was until the account was verified and then promoted by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, at which point the number of followers began multiplying at a rate of knots. At the time of writing @rupertmurdoch has just over 100,000 followers, but I suspect that number will keep climbing.

Why The Interest?

Why should we care that Murdoch is on Twitter? Because this is a man who controls a huge portion of the world’s media, and he can, unfortunately, help elect presidents and prime ministers. Hearing his unedited views on what is happening as they come fluttering into his head is fascinating.

There is also the fact that Murdoch is not a fan of the Internet. He hates what it has done to print newspapers, and struggles to see why people should be able to read news openly and freely when he could previously charge for it.

Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff summed up Murdoch’s views on the Internet in a 2009 Vanity Fair article, suggesting, “For him it’s a place for porn, thievery, and hackers.” Which it is, I guess, but it’s a lot more besides. Something it has taken Murdoch an age to latch on to.

Along For The Ride

It has already been fun following Rupert Murdoch on Twitter. We have had opinionated tweets such as, “Steve Jobs biog interesting but unfair. Family must hate,” and “Obama decision on terrorist detention very courageous – and dead right!” Which, whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment, is interesting to hear.

Proving the guy has lost none of his powers of classless promotion we have had tweets saying, “I LOVE the film ‘we bought a zoo’, a great family movie. Very proud of fox team who made this great film,” and “Got to watch Foxnews at 5 EST. Liberal Bob Beckel and team great replacement for Beck and much more fun.”

But by far the most fun to this point has been watching an old media dinosaur trying to get to grips with this new-fangled technology we call social networking. He has deleted a joke tweet – “Maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country”. Murdoch has also randomly tweeted to a couple of random people, except he seems to have forgotten to include a message after their names.

Entertainment At Its Best

Twitter is awash with famous people, most of whom tweet nothing but garbage and plugs for their various moneymaking ventures. But I’d rather see Rupert Murdoch tweeting than I would Kevin Smith or Ashton Kutcher. It’s certainly more entertaining than reading any of Murdoch’s newspapers or watching any of his television channels.

Image Credit: Joe Wolf
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

BrandMyMail mashes your email and social networks together

There are two types of email you can send: Text or HTML. Text is just the words. No colors. No photos. No layouts. HTML is basically a web page sent through email servers.

For most of us, it really doesn’t matter when we send email. We just type, and the resulting HTML-formatted email is a mash-up of our words and whatever template comes with the email client.

Now BrandMyMail will mash-up your Gmail account with your social media accounts. It also lets you create a nice template using drag-and-drop elements. The available design elements are basic, but the trade-off is ease of use. The selection of social networks you can inject into your emails is impressive – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Picasa, Flickr, YouTube, Quora, Blogger, WordPress, RSS, etc.

Every email you send can have a banner, stylish signature with social media links and the latest tweets you sent. It can also include Facebook updates, photos or anything you shared on your favorite social networks.

It is important to evaluate the content you’re including in your emails though, because you want to make sure your social network activity is appropriate for anyone who receives your email. This can be a valuable tool for anyone who is disciplined in maintaining a professional, online reputation, especially if you curate a lot of content.

I also think the design makes for a great email newsletter – especially if you link brand accounts to the email. The samples look better than what I could design in MailChimp. I would love to run my BrandMyMail-designed email through MailChimp or Constant Contact.

The implementation is a little more complicated than the design, but most of us can make it happen without an IT consultant. It also works from iOS devices and Android phones.

If you’re a solopreneur who wants professional looking emails that expose people to your carefully curated social media feeds, try BrandMyMail.

“Batch” is the ultimate mobile photo sharing app for iPhone

In the smart phone era, everyone is an amateur photographer. Equipped with high-def capabilities and nearly bottomless storage, we produce a lot of photos on a daily basis which we’ve opted to share individually on Twitter or in bulk on Facebook. The problem is that sharing full albums with friends requires a bit of effort — downloading to your desktop, uploading to Facebook — why can’t we do it on the go?

Batch is an iPhone app that allows you to easily share large numbers of photos with your friends without needing to make a stop at your computer. Sharing photos from your phone isn’t exactly a game-changer, but Batch is one of the first to offer a way to share many pictures with just a few taps.

Credit: iTunes App Store

The beauty of Batch is its simplicity. A focused design lets you snap pictures, tag friends, and share your albums without any fuss. Friends can leave comments or simply ‘Like’ what they see. Batch allows you to post a link to your albums on Facebook and Twitter for friends to view anywhere. Photos dominate the screen and you can easily flip through pages of your own pictures or albums posted to your feed by friends. Privacy settings are a cinch, letting you make some albums private or share with just a few friends at a time.

The downside? Batch requires a Facebook account for login. But come on, you already have one of those…

Batch keeps your photos safe and your friends updated. If you take a lot of pictures with your iPhone, batch is an absolute must. Photo-sharing apps seem to be the big thing right now, with Instagram and Path making big gains each month, but Batch is the first to perfect the idea of sharing full albums on the go.

Take a boatload of photos, share them with Batch.

Why Ashton Kutcher, aka “aplusk”, hates Twitter

I can’t say I’ve ever been a particular fan of Ashton Kutcher. But his erroneous, ill-informed tweet and subsequent throwing of toys out of his Twitter-branded pram has me thinking he’s an absolute idiot.

In a nutshell: Kutcher claims to have heard about the firing of Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno in passing without hearing the full facts. He tweeted in defense of Paterno, talking up his career, after assuming the 84-year-old had been dismissed for being too old and no longer getting results. He then heard the full story, deleted his tweet, and apologized for the simple error of judgment.

That should have been the end of it, but Kutcher decided this one thing was enough to force him to give up Twitter altogether. And he explained his decision in a rambling blog post full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. He’s too busy making crap TV shows to worry about trivial matters such as these, I guess.

Paterno, Schmaterno

As a Brit, the Paterno story had not entered my field of vision until, strangely enough, Kutcher had his say. Now I actually know the back story and why people were so incensed at Kutcher’s supposed lack of empathy for the alleged victims of the crimes surrounding Paterno’s dismissal. I’m still not particularly interested because football is, as we all know, a stupid sport. But still.

I have already ranted about the way celebrities are increasingly using Twitter purely for self-promotion, leaving behind the connection and personal involvement with fans that the platform once represented. And this amplifies that issue even more so. Because of the fallout of one mistake, Kutcher has decided to dismiss the whole idea of Twitter and hand over tweeting duties to a team of publicists. Way to connect to the fans.

Twitter Is Bad, Mmkay

It’s as though Kutcher has flipped a switch. Last week he was a Twitter advocate and investor who would talk up the power of the platform at every available opportunity. Now, he doesn’t want anything to do with Twitter and thinks it has somehow been ruined by becoming mainstream. Or perhaps because there are too many ordinary folk reading his boring updates.

His assertion that “clearly the platform has become too big to be managed by a single individual” is ludicrous. He’s acting as though tweeting is some kind of job when actually it’s just writing short, snappy updates from your phone. The fact that all Kutcher’s tweets will now be channeled through an editing process to make sure he doesn’t make another faux pas shows just how disconnected to his fans and out-of-touch the man has become.

Kutcher has now added another reason to the increasingly long list of reasons to dislike him. And Twitter has lost someone who, up to now, has been one of its biggest cheerleaders. I suspect the number of people following Kutcher will start to drop off sharply very soon, and all because of a tweet that most people wouldn’t have heard about or taken any notice of had he just apologized and moved on. Another example of the Streisand Effect in action.

Image Credit: Xioubin Low
Image Credit: Robert Scoble

Google+ Pages for Businesses — the Good and Bad

Google just announced that Google+ Pages for Businesses are here, finally allowing a flood of brands and celebrities to create yet another social network outlet for interacting with customers and fans. At a glance, Google+Pages is shockingly simple and seems to offer almost no difference from the standard profile all users get upon joining, but there are a few details that are bound to make things interesting (for better or worse).

The Good

Unsurprisingly, the strength of Google+ Pages lies in Circles. Businesses can designate VIPs, team members, repeat customers, and even other people/Pages that they choose to follow. Better yet, with the Circles architecture, businesses can communicate with specific subgroups of its customer base without making it publicly visible.

Google+ Pages definitely has the upper hand on Twitter by offering the same Picasa-driven album support regular users get. Google+ Pages even trumps Facebook with easily switching between Page profiles as an administrator. And who can forget Hangouts? One of Google+’s initial draws was the ability for real-time video chat with friends. Google brought the same functionality to Pages, which is an obvious advantage that Google holds over both Facebook and Twitter. Mobile Hangouts are not yet available for Pages.

Perhaps the strongest feature of Google+ Pages as of now is what Google calls Direct Connect. With Direct Connect, Google+ users can simply enter “+BusinessName” into the Google search engine, and if a Page exists for that business or celebrity, it will automatically be added to the users’ Circles. Businesses with a Google+ Page will almost certainly enjoy priority indexing in classic search for users to access their Page.

Easily switch between your personal and business profiles

The Bad

Being in its infant stages, Google+ Pages holds the obvious downside that there is currently no way of promoting a Page within the social network. While Pages offers tools for promoting a Google+ Page from an outside website, like badges and +1 buttons, paid advertising is still unavailable.

Another key difference between Google+ Pages and Facebook is that Pages have no way of customizing non-post content. Many companies on Facebook have created customized landing pages that would be impossible to replicate within Google+. However, Google+ has released an expanding platform API, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time until Google+ Pages gets some added content flexibility.

One important issue that needs to be addressed with Google+ Pages is that there is no verification process, and just about anybody could create a profile for any business. Nab your profile before somebody else does!

A final small but annoying problem is that currently Google+ Pages only supports a single administrator per Page. If somebody finds a way to get around this, please let me know!

Limited content options for Business

Other Considerations

The big question for businesses is how Google intends to let them easily advertise to the growing crowd of 50+ million users that Google+ has accrued in its first few months. At the moment, the ease and demographic specificity of Facebook Ads is unmatched, so it will be interesting to see how Google displays ads within Google+ and streamlines its Google Adwords platform for use in its own social network.

Google+ is now a part of Google Apps, so it’s clear that Google is making a serious effort to promote Google+ as a business tool in addition to a typical social network. Google+ Pages has some ground to cover, but with promises of features being rolled out in typical Google fashion, Facebook and Twitter will have to admit there is another social player in town for businesses.

Oink Has Arrived — Let the Social Ranking Experiment Begin

After Kevin Rose’s exit from Digg, he quickly formed a team with the goal of creating apps that would challenge the conventional social/mobile experience. He called his venture Milk, and less than a year later Oink is being unleashed among the masses.

Oink is a social ranking app for the iPhone and web that encourages users to “rank the adventure” by rating things they encounter at places they visit. For example, you may love the pizza at your local hangout, and Oink makes it simple to snap a photo and express your opinion for that particular location. Over time, opinions accumulate and items become ranked based on users’ opinion of “love,” “like,” “ho-hum,” or “dislike.”

Is Oink a competitor of any big name social networks already out there? It’s hard to say for now. Oink’s core functionality resembles that of Foursquare, and in fact may be more useful by providing not only location, but a user-ranked list of recommended items. Similarly, Oink may provide interesting competition for review sites like Yelp by providing simplified customer opinions en masse.

Currently Oink is in alpha, but it is clear that the Milk team spent a great deal of time carefully architecting the app to perform under heavy loads (no broken axles so far…).  At a glance, the app is another beautiful design by Milk co-founder Daniel Burka, who also developed the Digg identity. The experience is light and fun, and surprisingly engaging. You can quickly navigate different tags and locations to see what’s good and bad about a familiar spot.

You can pick up the Oink app for the iPhone soon — it was recently submitted to the iTunes App Store — but Milk hasn’t announced whether there will be an Android release, which will probably depend on the success of Oink’s debut. First impressions appear positive, and the tech community will be following Oink closely as it begins to implement promised features (like tag search).

So far, so good. I may end up using Oink a lot… but do I really have to call it Oinking? *dislike*

Items available at a location are ranked by users.

Diaspora Seeks Donations, PayPal Freezes Account

 

UPDATE: After some prodding and community outcry, PayPal released Diaspora’s account.

Remember Diaspora? The group of NYU students that asked for $15,000 on Kickstarter.com to create a decentralized alternative to Facebook, and made headlines when they garnered a shocking $200,000 instead? Yeah, they’re still around, and to my surprise, they have some pretty cool stuff to show for their time and your donations. But now the funding has dried up and Diaspora is passing the hat again.

Recently the Diaspora team sent out an email to reinforce that they are neither vaporware nor a Nigerian prince, and reminded us that we can use their current implementation by downloading the source code or joining a pod to give Diaspora a feel. They also wrote to say that they need money — after all, Diaspora is a non-commercial organization with plenty of overhead to cover including hosting, coding, and $4 burritos. No problem, I’d be happy to contribute to an open-source alternative to Facebook, so I’ll just make a donation to their PayPal account — oh, wait…

PayPal is at it again. Just a few days after Diaspora’s request for donations, the money started rolling in, and just as suddenly, PayPal pulled the plug without saying why. Is this a fatal blow to Diaspora? No, probably not, but certainly a pain for a group of kids that would rather not call mom and dad to help with rent. I think the better question is “should groups ever use PayPal for donations?” With PayPal’s history of arbitrary and unexplained account freezes, even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it may not be a safe bet to trust PayPal with your charity funds.

PayPal situation aside, I’m interested in where Diaspora is going. There’s something interesting about the group of young people working on this project…a sort of benevolent energy that you just don’t see in a lot of  tech organizations. Heck, they even went so far as to show the public how they spent their initial funding. I’m split — I like the fresh-looking app they’ve created, but I’m not sure it will ever take off. Maybe it would work for intra-company communication or project coordination… but is it a realistic contender for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+?

Minimalistic design of Diaspora.

Keep a sharp eye on these guys, I think they’re going to turn Diaspora into something neat, even if it isn’t the Facebook killer everyone hoped. If you’d like to contribute to their cause, leave your loose change here.

Real-Time Search and Improved Hashtags Now Supported in Google+

Vic Gundotra, the mind behind much of Google+, made a rare video appearance recently to show off two new features that will keep Facebook on its toes and probably elicit a disgusted groan from Twitter. Real-time search and improved support for hashtags will help Google+ contend with the established utility of Twitter by allowing users to see trending topics, as well one-up Facebook by supporting hashtags (a very popular requested feature).

Gundotra has donned a pretty snazzy purple v-neck for this informative video. Yeah, emphasis should be on these new features, but it really is a nice sweater.

I think the impact this will have on people’s use of Google+ is being understated here. Currently, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, but a majority of my time isn’t spent looking through my stream, it’s checking out the trending topics or searching news tidbits referenced in my friends’ tweets. Twitter’s search feature is arguably it’s strongest feature as it gives you truly up-to-the-second news as it breaks. Suddenly, search king Google has a feature that performs the same task better, and I can only imagine that it will cause people to spend more time on the site.

Google+ has been making steady strides in user base with 50+ million profiles at the time of this writing. While a long way off from Facebook’s nearly 1 billion users, Google+ is giving Facebook a reason to worry by integrating its keen search prowess with an already decent social network. If Google+ can find a way to conveniently display trending topics, I may have found a solid replacement for Digg, Twitter, and even Google’s own Google News. The beauty is that the search grows more powerful as more users join.

I’m pretty excited by the possibilities here — Facebook has already shamelessly taken features (subscriptions?) from Google+ to maintain its advantage, so it can only be a matter of time before they introduce something similar…and in the case of Facebook, a real-time search tool would be incredibly powerful. Sooner or later Facebook will figure out search, and man, Google better watch its back when that happens.

Real-time search hasn’t been integrated into the Google+ apps (Android or iOS), but it can’t be too far away. Great stuff, Google, keep it coming.

Facebook, the ball’s in your court. Twitter, I’m not sure you’re in the same game anymore.