Facebook Launches Standalone Groups App by Gavin Lau


700 million people use Facebook Groups every month, but it’s a second-class experience on mobile, slow and buried in the social network’s main app. So today Facebook is releasing a standalone Groups app with powerful notification controls and a Groups discovery section. You won’t be forced to use it as the Groups feature will remain in the Facebook app, and you won’t be fast-switched to it either.

The Groups app for iOS and Android could be a massive help to admins trying to keep their communities from devolving into chaos, and speed up the consumption experience for everyone from families and friend cliques to study groups and support networks. It’s bright, quick, and could unlock more private sharing outside of the News Feed.


“No one is really doing this out there. We think what we offer is unique”, says the Groups app’s project manager Shirley Sun.

Despite Yahoo and Google fiercely competing to dominate group email lists, there’s a surprising lack of people and rich content-focused social feed groups services, and Facebook is happy to capitalize. Getting more people to organize their personal lives and projects with Groups could also stoke interest in the enterprise “Facebook At Work” product the company is currently piloting. Facebook could end up competing with Slack or Yammer, and this is a stepping stone.

Giving Groups The Spotlight

Mark Zuckerberg actually telegraphed the launch of the standalone Groups app a year when I interviewed him on-stage at an internal Mobile Dev Day at Facebook headquarters. He explained “if you have something like Groups, it’s always going to be kind of second-class in the main Facebook app, or even messaging for that matter. In order to make these things really be able to reach their full potential, I do think over time we’re going to have to create more specific experiences.”


Facebook had seen the need for a first-class mobile chat experience way back in 2011 with the launch of Messenger, but many other popular features were left to languish in the hidden menu of the main app.

groups-ios-add-to-homescreenGroups has been a Facebook feature all the way since the beginning. Back in the 2005 era, they served more as bumper stickers for your profile that organizational communities. College kids would join the “Unidentified Party Injuries” group to trumpet how “cool” they were for getting bruises while drunk.

But in 2010, Facebook relaunched Groups in its modern incarnation as a way to share to a specific set of people, away from the News Feed. Yet despite some face-lifts, the feature hasn’t gotten much love, especially on mobile since.

In January 2014, Facebook revealed its Creative Labs initiative designed to build single-purpose mobile apps and experiment with new functionality starting with Paper, and stylized standalone home for News Feed.

Then in February, Facebook began work on the Groups app. Sun tells me the Facebook Groups’ team’s idea for a standalone app “has always been on our mind”, and the urge just got stronger as more and more users shifted to mobile. The social network now has over 456 million mobile-only users. It was time for Groups to shine.

Using The Groups App

Groups IconsPhilosophically, the standalone app doesn’t change what Groups is about. It just makes it cleaner, quicker to access, and more mobile-friendly.

Once you sign-in with Facebook, all your existing Groups will be laid visually in two-wide grid as little circles displaying their titles, cover photos, and notification badges. They’re ordered by how often you use each Group, so ones with new notifications may be below the fold, which could be a bit tricky if you don’t see the pushes new posts or replies trigger.

Tap into any, and you’ll find a sleek Group feed with a sharp white background, rather than the main app’s gray canvas. A special notifications setting lets you mute one or all your Groups for an hour or until the next morning if you need some peace.

It’s also super easy to create a group. Choose what it’s about such a family, class, or teammates, give it a title, select its public/closed/secret visibility setting, and add some friends. If you choose family or close friends as the type, Facebook intelligently defaults your group to be secret. You can also add a home screen shortcut to your favorite groups for even faster access.


One new feature for mobile is the Groups Discovery section, which will help you find ones to join based on your friends, ones active nearby, or communities related to your interests.

groups-ios-feedTo stoke growth, Facebook will slowly begin showing a promo for the app atop the mobile Groups of the feature’s most active users and admins.

There’s no plan for monetization right now, as Facebook is making plenty of money from the News Feed. It’s beat the street its last nine quarters. Down the line, though, Facebook could generate revenue from a frequent Groups use case: commerce.

The African island nation of Mauritius has over one quarter of its population, 250,000 people, in a single Group that acts like a Craigslist classifieds. The company is already working on a Buy button to let you make purchases without leaving Facebook thanks to a credit card on file. That could potentially be expanded to allow peer-to-peer selling.

Sun concludes that Facebook doesn’t need every Groups user on this new app. “This app is a complementary, optional experience, designed for people who are already power users.” She’ll be satisfied if frequent Groups users get even deeper in the feature, and Groups themselves become more lively and active.

A Space For Micro-Sharing

Groups CategoriesNot everything is fit for the News Feed. Groups works great for purpose-driven communication around projects. But there’s a whole realm of intimate sharing that Groups could host. Facebook tried for years to get people to micro-share to specific friend lists, but the controls can be confusing and there’s always a chance you’ll mis-share to everyone.

Zuckerberg’s law states that people share twice as much every year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily do it on Facebook. Lots of people are sharing to small sets of friends via apps like Snapchat. If Groups is a hit, it could encourage rapid-fire, off-the-cuff sharing between close Groups of friends, creating a third-space to spend time in between the broadcast feed and private messaging.

That could never happen if Groups stayed locked in the nav menu dungeon.


Flipboard’s New App Gets Personal By Making Topics... by Gavin Lau


Flipboard has been working hard over the last few years to build an app that makes reading stories on mobile and tablet devices as engaging as flipping through a magazine. With the latest version of its app, users will be able to find and discover content that is relevant to their interests, through the introduction of topics they can follow. Already, Flipboard has done a good job of getting — and keeping — readers’ attention. It now has more than 100 million readers who have downloaded the app, and is adding 250,000 more each day. Those readers are flipping about 8 billion pages per month, and that number continues to grow. But the new app is aimed at keeping those users engaged through personalization.

When you first open up Flipboard 3.0, the app guides you through the process of picking a series of topics you will receive updates on. It asks “What are you interested in?” and provides a wide range of suggestions that vary from high-level content based around categories like “Technology” down to more granular topics such as “iPad apps.”

Once you’ve chosen several topics of interest, the app opens up to unveil a front page that features stories from multiple sources you can flip through. Stories are tagged by content provider as well as by topic, allowing users to drill down and see more content related to each. You can also choose to follow stories by source or by topic, which would provide even more content served up to users.

At launch, Flipboard will have more than 30,000 different topics to choose from, so there’s something for everyone. And the ability to easily add topics over time could keep casual Flipboard users keep coming back for more as the app becomes more personalized and relevant to them.

Users can click through to see which topics, people, and accounts they follow and drill down on stories shared there. Or they can search for particular topics. And even if readers are following hundreds of topics, the app will work to showcase the most relevant or interesting topics on any given day, according to Flipboard co-founder and CEO Mike McCue.

But it’s not all going to be algorithmically programmed. In addition to its topics, the app is also adding a “Daily Edition” of content that has been selected by Flipboard editors. It will be released every day at 7:00 am and will feature all the biggest news from the previous day, as well as a daily photo and “parting GIF” for readers.


Moving Beyond Reader Curation

For Flipboard, the move to a topic-following model is a departure from its previous personalization efforts. Last year, the company released a big app update that enabled users to create and subscribe to virtual magazines based on their own interests. By doing so, they could curate stories from multiple different sources and present it in a unified fashion. Readers, meanwhile, benefitted by being able to subscribe to magazines created by other like-minded users to discover content they might not have seen otherwise.

Magazines have been incredibly popular on Flipboard: The company says there have been more than 10 million of them created and curated by readers since launch. They can range from having just a few followers to hundreds and thousands of followers — and the top magazines have generated tens of millions of page flips from readers.

That feature also added a new potential revenue stream by enabling brands and retailers to create shoppable magazines and catalogs of products for sale. That’s on top of advertising CPMs that are closer to print publications than digital properties.

That said, Flipboard’s magazine model wasn’t perfect. After all, it relies on readers to keep updating their magazines over time in order to keep providing fresh content to others. Furthermore, each magazine reflects the interests of the creator or creators and may not be exactly what a reader is looking for.


Zite Acquisition Bears Fruit

The update is designed to improve upon the current experience with a more personalized feed, which users create by following different topics of interest to them. That ensures readers will be kept up to date on the news that’s important to them, without having to rely on another reader to curate a magazine for them.

McCue says the new version blends people-powered curation with algorithmic curation. For that, the app builds on its magazine creation tools and adds features from a couple of acquisitions Flipboard made over the last few years.

The first was its Cover Stories feature, which came about with help from technology it acquired as part of its purchase of Ellerdale several years ago. That gave Flipboard the ability to structure and display content more like a magazine.

It’s the more recent acquisition of Zite which helps to power the app’s new topic-centric following model, however. Zite was acquired from CNN earlier this year, and ever since the combined engineering teams have been working on ways to make Flipboard more personalized and more engaging.

It’s Zite’s technology that is being used to identify and categorize the topics that users can subscribe to. It can do that without its readers building magazines, which opens up a whole lot of new topics and content for readers to discover.

But that’s the whole point. Finding more relevant content is key to Flipboard’s business model, after all.

The more readers flip and the more engaged they are in its magazine-like experience, the more ads they see. The more ads they see, the more money Flipboard makes. And considering that Flipboard has raised more than $160 million since being founded, it’ll need a lot of flips to justify that funding. The good news is, whatever it’s done so far seems to be working.




Cloth Is Where Instagram And Your Closet Collide by Gavin Lau


Fashion and social networking belong together, but so far no one has found the perfect balance between user-generated content and a focus on edgy fashion. That’s where Cloth comes in.

It’s a new app, launched today, that lets users share their favorite outfits in an Instagram-like feed, letting them get feedback from friends (with likes and chat) and saving their favorite outfits to remember later.

Cloth has been in beta for two years now, and today launches into public availability on the App Store. It was founded by Seth Porges, who has been a longtime journalist for organizations like Maxim magazine, Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg News and Men’s Health.

With Cloth, however, Porges shifts to a more entrepreneurial focus, looking to help people record their own best looks and share them with others.

“The goal has always been to make getting dressed easier and more fun,” said Porges. “We wanted to make an app that enhances how people are already using their phones and fashion together, without forcing them into unnatural actions that they aren’t already doing.”

Cloth not only allows you to build out a closet through photos, shared in a stream, but it also allows you to tag them so that others can search for inspiration based on specific guidelines. Plus, Cloth includes weather notifications to help you get dressed each day.

The company has raised a small undisclosed amount from a group of unnamed angel investors thus far.



Feels Like Driving In The Future by Gavin Lau

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 1.58.48 am We're based in the Mission District of San Francisco. Navdy was founded by entrepreneur Doug Simpson and serial inventor Karl Guttag, and is supported by a highly accomplished veteran team. In 2013 Navdy went through the acclaimed Highway 1 Incubator program and continues to work closely with Highway 1’s parent, PCH International, whose world class supply chain and manufacturing capabilities are used by companies such as Apple, Beats, and Google.

Google: Material Design by Gavin Lau


We challenged ourselves to create a visual language for our users that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science. This is material design. This spec is a living document that will be updated as we continue to develop the tenets and specifics of material design.


Create a visual language that synthesizes classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.

Develop a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across platforms and device sizes. Mobile precepts are fundamental, but touch, voice, mouse, and keyboard are all first-class input methods.


Material is the metaphor

A material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion. The material is grounded in tactile reality, inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic.

Surfaces and edges of the material provide visual cues that are grounded in reality. The use of familiar tactile attributes helps users quickly understand affordances. Yet the flexibility of the material creates new affordances that supercede those in the physical world, without breaking the rules of physics.

The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts.

Bold, graphic, intentional

The foundational elements of print-based design—typography, grids, space, scale, color, and use of imagery—guide visual treatments. These elements do far more than please the eye; they create hierarchy, meaning, and focus. Deliberate color choices, edge-to-edge imagery, large-scale typography, and intentional white space create a bold and graphic interface that immerses the user in the experience.

An emphasis on user actions makes core functionality immediately apparent and provides waypoints for the user.

Motion provides meaning

Motion respects and reinforces the user as the prime mover. Primary user actions are inflection points that initiate motion, transforming the whole design.

All action takes place in a single environment. Objects are presented to the user without breaking the continuity of experience even as they transform and reorganize.

Motion is meaningful and appropriate, serving to focus attention and maintain continuity. Feedback is subtle yet clear. Transitions are efficient yet coherent.......



Google Unveils New Cross Platform Design Language “Material Design” by Gavin Lau


Google announced a new universal design language, called Material Design, as part of the forthcoming “L” release of Google’s Android mobile operating system. The design is meant to offer a more consistent, universal look-and-feel across mobile, tablets, desktop and “beyond,” the company explains.

“We imagined… what if pixels didn’t just have color, but also depth? What if there was a material that could change its texture? This lead us to something we call ‘material design,” says Matias Durate, Director of Android operating system User Experience at Google, during the keynote this morning.

Some of the key features of the new design include an updated version of the system font, Roboto, as well as bold and dramatic colors and highly polished animations.

Durate also quickly walked through the changes in the new framework, which it’s also releasing publicly today at The idea is to put this framework in the hands of developers who build on Google’s platforms, so all apps have a consistent look, similar to how Apple has its own design guidelines for Mac and iOS developers.

The company is also introducing new redesigned versions of Google’s flagship apps using this new language, including Gmail and Calendar, for both Android and the web. You may recall reading about these changes recently, when some blogsgot a hold of leaked versions of screenshots showing Gmail’s redesign, featuring a cleaner and simpler interface.

On Android, the new look is called “Material,” and it supports a variety of new animation capabilities, has built-in realtime UI shadows, and “hero” elements that can be passed from screen-to-screen.


The open-sourced framework Polymer, which highlighted during the last Google I/O, was also mentioned as being a way for developers to create building blocks which work with this new design language. Polymer offers a prototyping tool that lets you build responsive websites using predefined, customizable building blocks, and was recently discussed as being a part of Google’s forthcoming design changes we covered here when it was known as its internal codename “Quantum Paper.”


On the Google Design website, the company references its goals for Material Design as follows:

  • Create a visual language that synthesizes classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.
  • Develop a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across platforms and device sizes. Mobile precepts are fundamental, but touch, voice, mouse, and keyboard are all first-class input methods.

Google describes the new design as being “inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic.”

The design uses familiar tactile means of interacting with its many parts, with visual cues that are grounded in reality, Google says. Its elements also recall print-based design typography, with “deliberate color choices, edge-to-edge imagery, large-scale typography, and intentional white space create a bold and graphic interface that immerses the user in the experience.”

Motion is another key element of the design, but is meant to be. “Motion is meaningful and appropriate, serving to focus attention and maintain continuity,” Google adds.

More broadly speaking, the design refresh is about making the experience of using Google’s products and services, including Android, more enjoyable for end users. Apple is well-known for having stricter design guidelines for its developer partners, and that has helped shaped how consumers perceive Apple — that is, as being a design-focused company.

Now Google is stepping up to show that it’s ready to compete on design, as well.

The move comes at a time when Apple is also moving into areas Google dominates – like cloud services. That has worried Google, sources say, since it seemed like Apple was getting better at infrastructure than Google was getting at design. Material Design is Google’s effort to change that.


Pinterest Plans “Choose Your Own Adventure” Product by Gavin Lau


A more personalized way to pin may be on the way as Pinterest has announced a big press event in San Francisco on April 24th with the teaser image above. We’ve confirmed with the company that this will be a product announcement and CEO Ben Silbermann will speak. So what will Pinterest unveil? The startup has written that this year it’s focused on helping people discover pins related to their interests. In January it launched a preview of a new personalized homepage that learns from what people have browsed and pinned in the past. This “Explore Interests” page then presents pins related to their tastes, and uses a mosaic of different-sized tiles to highlight certain items instead of Pinterest’s iconically uniform mason grid.

A full launch of Explore Interests would match the “choose your own adventure” theme. It would also mesh with what Pinterest head of engineering Jon Jenkins told me last year was on the roadmap for 2014. At the time, he said “Pinterest isn’t fundamentally about connecting people to other people. It’s about connecting people to interests…We try to identify interests through collaborative filtering, associative rule mining, natural language processing to provide discovery. I can pin five shirts I like and Pinterest derives my interest in fashion.”



A personalized home page could use all these signals to provide a relevancy-filtered feed, much like Facebook does. That could make Pinterest a more relaxing place to visit and browse. Instead of having to hunt through topic-specific boards or know what you’re looking for with search, Pinterest will bring what you like straight to your digital doorstep. That could make it more addictive for hardcore users and more accessible to rookies. As the majority of Pinterest’s traffic now comes from mobile, I’d expect this personalization to show up on the small screen too, not just the desktop.

We’ll also be on the lookout to see if Pinterest announces any more plans on the monetization front. Pinterest raised a jaw-dropping $225 million at a $3.8 billion valuation in October, and everyone wants to know how it will make good on that investment. After months of testing, Pinterest plans to formally launch its “Promoted Pins” ads this quarter,according to the Wall Street Journal. These ads look like organic posts from users, but brands pay to make them appear in search results and category pages related to specific topics.AdAge says Pinterest is looking to charge a pricey $30 to $40 per thousand impressions (CPM), and has been asking for $1 million to $2 million commitments from advertisers.


In my opinion, this kind of keyword-based advertising could be a very lucrative for Pinterest, because its visitors often come with a great deal of purchase intent. Promoted Pins won’t be scattershot demand generation, which has historically been Facebook’s wheelhouse. Instead, these will be demand-fulfillment ads, similar to Google’s bread and butter of search keyword ads.

And they could rake in cash for Pinterest by helping people make big purchase decisions. Dream vacations, ideal homes, children’s nurseries — there are the expensive things people pin. People know they want to vacation on St. John, buy a crib, or rent a lake house, but don’t know exactly where to spend their money. A beautified Pinterest ad could make the difference between which resort you visit, what home you lease, or where you shop for all your baby gear. With big cart sizes, e-commerce advertisers could quickly earn a return on their investment. eMarketer now gauges Pinterest at 40 million monthly users in the U.S., an audience big enough to drive serious ad revenue.

We’ll be there at Pinterest headquarters for the event on April 24 at 6pm PDT, and you can expect live updates from TechCrunch. Until now, Pinterest has acted almost like a clearinghouse for subscribing to magazines about your specific interests. But soon, it could employ big data so rather than having to subscribe to what you like, that content (and related ads) will come find you.


Photo-Sharing App Frontback Comes To Android by Gavin Lau


Frontback just released the Android version of its popular photo-sharing app. Previously, the app was only available on iOS. But even with just the iPhone app, the app was downloaded one million times over the past eight months. With the new Android release, the company can certainly expect many new users. Frontback started as a photo-taking app to capture fleeting moments. A Frontback post is a digital collage of what’s in front of you, and your face as it happens.

I’ve been playing with the Android app for the last few weeks, and it’s everything you would expect. It looks and acts exactly like the iOS app, but on Android.

At the same time, it was re-skinned to look more like an Android app. Buttons and menus follow the general Android guidelines. This way, Frontback makes you think it has always been an Android app.

There is one additional feature compared to the iOS app — offline mode. You can now take a Frontback without connectivity and send it. The app will keep the photo and push it to Frontback’s server the next time you’re online. This feature will come in the next iOS update.

“In our case, due to full screen images, memory’s issues are indeed amplified, especially considering that Frontback provides on top of that a camera functionality,” Frontback lead Android developer Giovanni Vatieri wrote in an email. “The biggest challenge for the camera part is to reach the highest photo quality possible considering the different devices’ capabilities and the memory available at the moment the user access the camera.”

Moreover, Frontback’s user interface is very different from other photo-sharing apps. When you open the app, you just see two square-ish photos on top of each other (a Frontback post), filling up the entire screen of your phone. Yet, some Android phones have different aspect ratios, screen resolutions and more. The company had to work around these constraints.

The company also worked a lot on the iOS app before releasing the Android app. When your app is available on multiple platforms, you have to develop every single feature multiple times to reach feature parity. That’s why the company wanted to improve the iPhone app before releasing the Android app.

Co-founder and CEO Frédéric della Faille also shared some numbers. While the app recently reached one million downloads, its user base has doubled in the past two months. Compared to January 2014, the number of uploaded photos has tripled. In other words, active users are becoming more active, or the ratio between active users and total users is increasing.

These are not hard numbers, so it’s hard to claim for sure that the company is doing well. But there is one thing for sure, the Android app is a much-needed addition in order to boost the company’s growth.

Frontback Meetup



Android and iOS users spend 32%... by Gavin Lau


Android and iOS users in the US spend an average of 2 hours and 42 minutes every day using apps on smartphones and tablets (up just four minutes compared to last year). Of that, 86 percent (or 2 hours and 19 minutes) is spent inside apps, while the remaining 14 percent (or 22 minutes, down 6 percentage points compared to last year) is spent on the mobile Web using a browser. These latest figures come from mobile firm Flurry, which provides analytics and ad tools that developers integrate into their apps. The company collected data between January 2014 and March 2014 and concluded that “apps, which were considered a mere fad a few years ago, are completely dominating mobile” while the browser “has become a single application swimming in a sea of apps.”

Here are the results in graph form:

Just like last year, games took first place with 32 percent of time spent. Social and messaging applications increased their share from 24 percent to 28 percent, entertainment and utility applications maintained their positions at 8 percent each, while productivity apps saw their share double from 2 percent to 4 percent.

It’s worth underlining that Facebook’s share dipped a bit from 18 percent to 17 percent. Nevertheless, Facebook still has the lion’s share of time spent in the US, and was able to maintain its position with the help of Instagram. Flurry argues that position will become even more cemented, if not increased, once the acquisition of WhatsApp closes.

This year, Flurry broke out YouTube separately, which shows us it owns a whopping 50 percent of the entertainment category. We’ll be watching closely to see if it manages to grow its 4 percent share of time spent.

“It is still too early to predict the trajectory apps will take in 2014,” Flurry admits. “But one thing is clear – apps have won and the mobile browser is taking a back seat.” Unless this trend reverses, we can expect many more acquisitions from tech companies the size of Facebook and Google.



The history of flat design by Gavin Lau


It seems as though any time you hear about Web design these days, you can’t help but come across the term “flat design.” While the flat Web design trend has been emerging in recent years, it seemed to have exploded in popularity thanks to large companies and organizations changing their design aesthetic to that of flat design. But where did flat design come from? And why are we seeing it on the Web? As with anything in design, knowing where a style or technique came from and the history behind it can help you make more educated decisions when it comes to the use of the design aesthetic.

Let’s walk through what flat design is, its influences from previous design periods, and how flat design became so popular today.

What exactly is “flat design?”

For those of you who haven’t heard of the term, “flat design” is mainly the term given to the style of design in which elements lose any type of stylistic characters that make them appear as though they lift off the page.

In laymen’s terms, this means removing stylistic characters such as drop shadows, gradients, textures, and any other type of design that is meant to make the element feel three-dimensional.

Designers today have seem to gravitate toward flat design because it feels crisp and modern, and allows them to focus on what is the most important: the content and the message.

By removing design styles that can easily date their design (or that could quickly cause their design to become outdated), they are “future-proofing” their designs so that they become relevant for longer periods of time. Not to mention, flat design seems to make things more efficient and cuts out the “fluff.”

It isn’t quite fair to have a discussion of what flat design is without discussing the opposite of flat design. The term often given for the opposite of flat design is“rich design,” which is best described as adding design ornaments such as bevels, reflections, drop shadows, and gradients. These things are often used to make elements feel more tactile and usable to users who are navigating the website or using an application.

It is important to note that rich design isn’t Skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is the act of making things resemble their physical counterparts to deliberately make them look familiar.

Where did flat design come from originally?

Most anything we see on the Web or digital world today has origins from its print and art ancestries. While it is difficult to determine the exact start of flat design today or where its origins started, there are a few periods of design and art in which flat design takes inspiration from.

Swiss Style of Design

swiss cover 520x325 The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat

The Swiss style (sometimes called the International Typographic Style) of design is the main period of design that come to mind and deserves attention for any discussion on the history of flat design. The Swiss design style was the dominant design style throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s from which it originated in Switzerland.

Swiss design mainly focused on the use of grids, sans-serif typography, and clean hierarchy of content and layout. During the 40’s and 50’s, Swiss design often included a combination of a very large photograph with simple and minimal typography.

With typography being a major element in Swiss design, the beloved Helvetica typeface was also created in Switzerland in 1957, and was heavily used on just about everything during the time.

Just like how flat Web design today was around for a while before Microsoft and Apple made it popular, the Swiss style of design can be traced as far back as the 1920’s in Germany, but it was the Swiss who made it explode in popularity and earned the namesake (for the Art History buffs, the Bauhaus school in Germanyfocused on architecture and typography, and the typography has similarities to Swiss design but where practicing this design style before the Swiss took claim).

Minimalist Design

18yk3cer2ztlsjpg 520x292 The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat

Another heavy influence of today’s flat Web design can be found in the history of Minimalism. The term “minimalism” is sometimes used interchangeably with today’s flat design, but minimalism was popular way before the Web was even a thought. Minimalism has its history in architecture, visual art, and design.

Minimalism has an extensive history and covers various mediums, but where flat design takes its influence from is mainly the design and visual art expressions of minimalism. Minimalism is well known for the act of removing everything in a piece, leaving just the necessary and needed elements. Geometric shapes, few elements, bright colors, and clean lines dominate most minimalism style design.

Probably one of the most popular art pieces from the Minimalism period is Yves Klein’s The Blue Epoch (seen below).

blue epoch The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat

It’s safe to say that a mixture of Swiss Design and Minimalism heavily influenced what we see today in the digital world and have named “flat design.”

Emergence of flat design in the digital world

History repeats itself, and the same holds true with the current flat design trend. As we seen above, flat design can be traced back all the way to the 1920’s and have influenced our current adaptation of flat design.

While many designers have worked their way to flat design when creating websites and other design pieces, it is safe to say that the likes of Microsoft and Apple made flat design pretty popular over the last several years.

Microsoft and Metro Design

0654.Metro style UI 010DA84C 520x292 The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat

Microsoft’s dabbing in flat design started before the current “Metro” design aesthetic was dubbed Metro. In trying to compete with Apple’s extremely popular iPod, Microsoft released the Zune media player in late 2006.

With Zune came a unique design style that focused on large, lower-case menu typography and background imagery (imagery was displayed based on the song or content loaded). The Zune desktop software that came paired with the Zune also followed the same design style, creating a fully integrated experience.

The design of the Zune operating system on Zune devices was drastically different than most of Microsoft’s other software availabilities at the time (namely Windows). When Microsoft released Windows Phone 7 in October 2010, it took what the company learned from the design of Zune and applied it plus more to the look and feel of the Windows Phone 7: large, bright, grid-like shapes, simple sans-serif typography and flat icons dominated the style on the Windows Phone 7.

This design would soon be called “Metro” design by its creator, Microsoft.

The design became so popular that Microsoft kept with the Metro design style and introduced it in its Windows 8 operating system, keeping with a strict grid of blocks of content, sharp edges, bright colors, sans-serif typography, and background images. This same design style is still used by Microsoft in nearly all of its software and devices such as the Xbox 360 and its current website (though the Metro name has technically been discontinued).

Apple Shakes Skeuomorphism

ios 6 ios 7  520x500 The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat

While Microsoft was working on its flat design style, Apple had something else up its sleeve. Apple started hinting at moving away from its use of Skeuomorphism, and then completely abandoned the perfected Skeuomorphism in favor of a more flat design with the release of iOS 7 in the summer of 2013.

Since Apple has a pretty strong following with a rather large group of early adaptors of new devices and technology, the design of iOS 7 seemed to have made flat design even more popular than it was before practically overnight.

Apple’s design aesthetic often heavily influences design of websites and apps because most designers feel that the design is appealing and modern. Thus, when Apple switched to a more flat design style, Skeuomorphism seemed to become almost instantly outdated and sites and apps that used the design style quickly found that they needed a redesign.

This is most evident in the different apps that have been updated to work well with iOS 7 — they all follow the flat design aesthetic that users of iOS 7 have become accustomed to throughout the OS.

Responsive Design

It is important to note too one of the reasons flat design has become so popular in recent years as well is the development of responsive design. As more devices are connecting to the Web, with various screen sizes and browser constraints, designers are finding that their tried-and-true design styles that relied heavily on textures, drop shadows, and fixed imagery don’t translate as well when you have to shrink those designs into smaller and smaller viewports.

Flat design allows for Web design to become more efficient. Without extra design elements in the way, websites can load much faster and are easier to resize and form around the content it holds.

This also goes hand in hand with our screens becoming more high-def and the need to display crisper imagery. It is much easier to display crisp boxes and typography than it is to make several different images to accommodate all the various devices and features out there.

The future of flat design

While no one has a crystal ball, it is safe to say that flat design will eventually run its course and will be replaced with something even more new and exciting, just like various other design styles did before it (take Skeuomorphism for example).

There are obvious flaws to flat design in the digital world (such as removing the visual clues that is needed to determine if something is clickable or not), but as designers experiment, test, and learn, flat design will evolve and eventually a new style will emerge that will leave flat design in its dust.

One clue that we may have to what the future holds for flat design (or even after) is the current design work of Google (mainly in their mobile apps). While Google’s applications are showing signs of flat design, it does not seem to be removing elements such as drop shadows; it also still uses gradients in subtle ways. The company seems to be taking the best of flat and rich designs and integrating both in a way that just works. Maybe Google have figured out something we haven’t?

While flat design seems new and exciting, and is a fastly growing trend, it isn’t nothing new in the course of design history. With influences from Swiss design and Minimalism, flat design is just a reincarnation of its print ancestry in our digital lives.



Fitness Tracking Comes To Your Ankle by Gavin Lau

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Fitness Tracking on Your Ankle Flyfit isn't all that different from other pedometer-based fitness trackers –– except you put it on your ankle instead of your wrist.

That's useful for swimmers and cyclists, who didn't get any joy out of the Fitbit, Nike Fuel Band or Jawbone Up. But Flyfit can measure pedal and leg stroke movements.

Flyfit, a Kickstarter project, has been in development since 2012. Like most fitness trackers, it will still record other aspects of your daily activity — your steps, your sleep cycle. It will also connect with your phone via Bluetooth, allowing the device to track pace, speed and your GPS position, all in real time.

The device includes a waterproof, USB-chargeable battery and five different band colors. The battery can last a week in low-power mode. The app, still in development, will be available for both iOS and Android.



Mobile payments are finally everywhere you want to be... by Gavin Lau

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NFC was supposed to be the future.

My next phone was going to include the technology, which would let me pay at any cash register by waving my phone instead of swiping my credit card. NFC would also let me touch phones with a friend to share a picture, tap my phone to a speaker to play music, and even unlock my phone with a ring or clip. NFC would someday even replace bar codes,according to Osama Bedier, the one-time head of Google Wallet and unofficial torchbearer of the NFC movement. Google’s contactless payments system was bound to take over the world. Until Google gave up on it.

Carriers blocked the company from deploying Wallet on phones, and retailers outside Mountain View didn’t feel much urgency to upgrade their cash registers with NFC capability. Eventually, Google transformed Wallet into a straightforward PayPal competitor. The best hopes for NFC payment adoption in the US lie with several programs created by carriers (Isis) and credit card companies (MasterCard MasterPass), which only work with a few banks and at select retailers. An NFC payments solution — in the US, at least — is effectively stuck in a stalemate. But a new startup called Loop thinks it has the answer: a wireless payments technology that does what NFC promised to do, all without forcing carriers or retailers to change anything.

Loop comes in two flavors, for now: a $39 key fob and a $99 Mophie-esque ChargeCase. Both devices hold virtual versions of your credit and debit cards, and work at over 90 percent of the country’s credit card machines without retailers having to change anything, according to Loop. The Fob and ChargeCase work only with the iPhone, for now, but they will be compatible with Android in April. In 2015, Loop expects its technology to be built into a variety of phones from its OEM partners.

It’s the NFC dream all over again, except this time it might actually come true.

Magnetic attraction

Loop co-founder George Wallner founded Hypercom in the late ‘70s. You probably haven’t heard of it, but Hypercom built the technology behind many of the credit card readers still used in grocery stores, coffee shops, and other retailers today. After making his millions and eventually selling to Verifone, the biggest player in the space, Wallner retired to his yacht. "I was not paying much attention to the payments industry," he says, at least until about a year and a half ago. A friend mentioned that NFC was being pushed as a new medium to transmit credit card information.


"I was surprised that NFC, which is a good technology, was being used in such a simple way," Wallner says. "The best way to do it is to work with the equipment [retailers] have today — not just something in between." Wallner, an engineer by trade, prototyped a new technology that would transmit magnetic-stripe credit card data, but do it wirelessly. It would effectively have the same impact and feature set as NFC payments, but would work at over 90 percent of credit card machines in the US. Wallner was about to come out of retirement.

He founded Loop with Will Graylin, an entrepreneur whosold a mobile payments company of his own to Verifone, and Damien Balsan, the former head of NFC business development at Nokia. Loop’s first products are the Loop Fob and the Loop ChargeCase. The Fob is essentially a Square-esque credit card reader, and the ChargeCase is a battery pack / case combination with small credit card reader dongle. The Fob connects to your phone via headphone jack, while the ChargeCase connects via Bluetooth. Both devices interface with the PIN-protectedLoopWallet app, which lets you scan in your cards; Loop stores your card data in an encrypted form on your phone, and inside a secure element on the Fob and ChargeCase.

You’ll need to be within a few inches of the actual reader head inside a credit card terminal for it to work, but Loop’s range is good enough that you don’t need to hit it on the nose. From there, pressing a button on the side transmits the magnetic signal for your most recently used card just as if you’d swiped it. If you’re using the ChargeCase, you can tap a card’s icon inside the LoopWallet app to transmit its signal. I tried both the Fob and ChargeCase at coffee shops, taxis, restaurants, and grocery stores, and every time, cashiers were skeptical and wanted to call their manager. Only when I was persistent ("Look, just press the button, trust me") would they do so. And to their surprise, Loop almost always worked on the first try.


The point of sale

I’m happy with Loop’s reliability, but less so with its initial product designs. The Loop Fob is a bit chunky, and only holds one card at a time. (Coin solved this problem with an onboard screen and card-switching button, but it remains to be seen how well it actually works in practice.) I ended up carrying around both the Fob and my wallet just in case, which defeats the purpose of the Fob. Perhaps if it were much smaller, like a Mobil Speedpass, I’d bring it with me everywhere.


The Loop ChargeCase is a more logical form factor that provides both backup power and payment capabilities. The ChargeCase is essentially a cheaper-feeling Mophie: it can be activated either with a quick button press on its side, or using the Loop Wallet app. Inside the app, you can flip through all the cards you’ve scanned in, then tap one to transmit its magnetic signal to a credit card reader. Tapping on my phone to pay for something feels truly futuristic, like the Google Wallet promotional videos of yore. This was the promise of Google Wallet, but it’s Loop that delivers. And Loop says it’s already working on a new version of the ChargeCase with a removable Loop card you can hand to waiters and bartenders.

Loop worked at most credit card machines I tried aside from subway-ticketing machines, gas pumps, and ATMs that require you to fully stick in a card for a scan to take place. Loop has hacked its own way to working at these kinds of terminals — it involves sticking another card into the reader slot, and then pressing a Loop device against it — but it’s not worth the trouble. Loop also didn’t work at Duane Reade, a popular chain of drugstores in New York, but Loop says this is only because Duane Reade hasn’t upgraded the software in its credit card readers. At Walgreen’s and Staples, the credit card readers accepted debit card transmissions via Loop, but not credit card transmissions. They require a software upgrade too, it seems. But despite the hiccups, Loop worked in far more places than any mobile payments app or hardware I’ve ever tried. The company solved a big piece of the payments puzzle — but in doing so, revealed another enormous obstacle blocking the path of any mobile payments startup.


In your pocket

Loop’s biggest problem is that it’s a waste of time. It feels magical to use, but isn’t worth the additional 10 or 15 seconds it takes to explain to each and every cashier. At a bar or restaurant, handing over my phone or Fob while yelling instructions over the chatter of other patrons was both awkward and impractical. And even if a friendly cashier doesn’t ask any questions before trying out Loop, they almost always ask questions afterwards. I felt like I was not only wasting my time, but the time of the people in line behind me, like the main character in that one VISA commercial.

Hardware ubiquity, as it turns out, is only half of NFC’s problem. The other half is that it requires cashiers to trust you aren’t trying to hack them by touching your gadget to their credit card reader. Even if Loop works at every register, it doesn’t compute for every cashier. Acceptance may come in time as more cashiers learn about Loop, but I have a feeling that true ubiquity would only come from corporate executives formally deploying new systems asStarbucks and Whole Foods have done with Square readers. Or perhaps even from Isis.


Loop and others say they add value by offering retailers digital rewards and custom payment app experiences, but these perks are separate pieces of the payments puzzle that should come once mobile wallets are ubiquitous. Loop also offers the ability to take pictures of your ID and loyalty cards for storage inside the Loop Wallet app, but until I start sprouting gray hairs, no bouncer is going to accept a photo of a photo ID. So I’m stuck with two or three cards in my wallet, which is really no less convenient than carrying five or six cards.

Wallner does say that Loop’s hardware is more secure than a credit card since it can’t be skimmed, providing one more reason to use it. I haven’t been able to personally verify the truthfulness of this statement, but in a world where credit card companies are liable for all fraudulent purchases, Loop’s security isn’t a killer feature.



HTML5 Vs. Native debate obscures the real challenges of mobility by Gavin Lau


The vitriol spews on a daily basis. HTML5 or native apps? Each side is well armed with arguments and data to prove their points. This fight, destined to go on for a long while, masks some of the real problems that enterprises are facing when it comes to mobile applications. Do you have the right backend architecture for a mobile world? The right business analytics? Enterprises, brands and developers need to put their houses well in order before even beginning to answer what type of code an app will be built in.

Blackphone: A Pro-Privacy Android-Based Smartphone by Gavin Lau

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As the reality of the extent and invasiveness of the security services’ dragnet surveillance programs hits home, the pro-privacy movement has been cranking up its own ideas to counter spy-tech with pro-privacy tech. The Lavabit founder’s recent Kickstarter for a secure end-to-end open source encrypted email project called Dark Mail is one example. Today, here’s another: meet Blackphone, a smartphone that’s been designed to enable secure, encrypted communications, private browsing and secure file-sharing.

The project is a joint venture between Silent Circle — which shuttered its own encrypted email service last summer in order to preemptively avoid having to comply with government requests to provide data — and Spanish smartphone startup Geeksphone, which has previously made more standard Android handsets, and more recently has been building phone hardware for Mozilla’s open web standards HTML5-based Firefox OS.

Square launches thinner credit card reader with better swiping accuracy by Gavin Lau

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Square is today shrinking down its iconic credit card reader with a new design that's thinner and more accurate than the original. After teasing a pending announcement yesterday, Square has made the latest revision of its hugely popular card reader official. The new design is 45 percent thinner than the original, essentially matching the thickness of an iPhone 5S. Square says that it's also enhanced swiping accuracy on the new model — which required replacing a number of existing components with custom-designed parts...

The War For Your Wrist by Gavin Lau


The past decade has seen the consumer electronics war grow more furious and more personal: your living room is a battlefield, as are your desks and your pockets. Now, more than a year-and-a-half since the Pebble (née Allerta) team saw its e-Paper smartwatch concept shatter a $100,000 Kickstarter funding goal, gadget purveyors of all stripes are vying for a spot on your wrist.

Meet The First Flexible Smartphone by Gavin Lau


The moment you’ve all been waiting for it here — possibly. LG Electronics has rolled out what it says is the first mobile device that can be bent out of shape or pressed flat onto a desk. It’s a neat party trick, but LG along with that other flexi-phone frontrunner Samsung, will be carefully watching how consumers take these devices up before spending more to make them bend any further. 

How much does it cost to build the world’s hottest startups? by Gavin Lau


Could $100,000 and the right developer skills make you an overnight billionaire? How much does it really take to build a product like Twitter or Instagram? With mobile development agencies and product incubators on the rise and more corporate “labs” spinning out each day, there’s no shortage of talent to help you build the next great Web or mobile app.