Perpetual Beta

Overview

Minecraft Title Screen

Minecraft Title Screen

The increased usage of the Internet and the recent proliferation of Web 2.0 applications have fundamentally changed the way we think about the software development and release cycle. In a world where Web services are becoming the new standard of delivering software solutions to the end-users, agility in the development process is absolutely crucial and daily operations are becoming increasingly a core competency. The well-know open source mantra, “release early and release often”, has been incorporated into this new model of product development to the point where users are treated almost as co-developers. One of the most important benefits of involving the end-users in the incremental product development process early on is that the company can get instant feedback on a particular new feature, harnessing the collective intelligence of their users in the form of polls, feature requests and user comments. The importance of this simply cannot be overestimated—while is it certainly true that one can make certain assumptions on what their users might want or find useful, the ultimate judge of the usefulness of a given feature is the collective opinion of the end-users. Clearly, a company employing such “release early, release often” practices would gain an enormous competitive advantage over their rivals who still follow the development practices of yesteryear, since this enables them to pinpoint the exact needs of their customers with great accuracy. Additionally, the perpetual beta development strategy leads to fewer bugs, shorter time-to-market feature delivery times and greater customer involvement with the product, which often leads to greater end-user satisfaction.

The “perpetual beta” pattern has permeated the whole software industry, including game development as well. Many MMORPGs of today (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games), such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online, employ the pattern to deliver incremental upgrades to the gameplay over time. Probably the best example of this is Minecraft—an independent video game originally created by a single Swedish developer, Markus Persson—which benefited enormously from the adoption of various Web 2.0 practices. Since the first alpha version release of Minecraft on 17 May 2009 (just after seven days of development time!), in true Web 2.0 spirit, the author has been regularly updating the game with new features based on user feedback. By the summer of 2011, the number of registered Minecraft players rose to over 10 million with 4 million copies of the game being sold, earning well over 50 million dollars in revenue—while the game being still in beta! Clearly, this level of success is extremely rare even in the professional games industry and can be attributed in large part to the adoption of Web 2.0 practices on Persson’s part during the development of the game.

Comparisons

“Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out, make sure to build a shelter before that happens” is the succinct official description of the game by its author. The most unique and compelling aspect of Minecraft is that it can be used as a creative tool of self-expression. Due to the absolute lack of plot or end goals that the player must achieve, there is absolutely no concept of “winning” the game. Players simply spend most of their time “mining” virtual materials called “blocks” (hence the name of the game), from which then they can build and craft various objects like houses, landscapes, fortresses, sculptures or even entire cities, bridges and roller coasters. In fact, the whole block-based building mechanism is very similar to the concept of Lego. The sales statistics show that, for quite a few people, Minecraft is the ultimate tool for unleashing amateur creativity in the digital age.

What makes the game truly outstanding is that since it’s initial release, Persson has made continuous updates and improvements to the game, ofter several times a month. When making such changes, he always listened closely to the feedback of his users—an act clearly inspired by the “Perpetual Beta” Web 2.0 pattern—which is one of the major reasons behind the game’s success. The updates have included interesting and fun features such as new discoverable items, new types of building blocks, an alternate “Hell” dimension, changes to the game’s behaviour and wolves that can be tamed to assist the player.

Persson makes no secret of his success at all, in fact, he publishes real-time sales statistics on the game’s homepage. As of 21 April, 2012, “Minecraft has 26,897,720 registered users, of which 5,632,320 (20.94%) have bought the game.”

Potential legal and ethical issues

Mojang, the company behind Minecraft claims no rights whatsoever in the creations of its users and does not even host the content. All screenshots and game videos belong solely to their creators, which is quite unique in the gaming industry. Since Minecraft provides no centralised servers or mechanism for sharing game screenshots, articles, videos and such, users are encouraged to share their work in community wikis, internet forums and YouTube or Vimeo. This removes Mojang from legal disputes around potential copyright infringements of in-game created content and also encourages users to share their creation and building upon each others work.

Future directions

The open-ended nature of the game has already inspired quite a few of its fans in totally unexpected ways: if you just take a look at the gigantic scientific calculator built by a 16-year-old kid recently that can “can multiply, divide, trigonometrize, figure roots, graph quadratic functions”, or at the site MinecraftEdu.com, a collaboration between United States educators and the games’ authors to create a modified version of the game to engage and educate students, it becomes evident that the game has virtually infinite potential in exploring the vast uncharted territories of human creativity of the massess in the digital era. Minecraft is a testament to what can be achieved if users are invited to take an active role in the development process of a software and it’s without doubt that many other companies will learn this important lesson from Mojang.

References

Perpetual beta
Minecraft – About the game
Minecraft Beta: December 20, 2010
Minecraft as Web 2.0: Amateur Creativity & Digital Games
Minecraft, “Open-Source Culture,” & Networked Game Development
Video: A Giant Scientific Graphing Calculator, Built Out of Minecraft Blocks By a 16-Year-Old
tvtropes – Perpetual Beta
Minecraft Goes Gold
Making Your Own Fun, One Brick At a Time
The Rise Of Minecraft [Infographic]
Bringing Minecraft to the Classroom

Software Above the Level of a Single Device

Overview

The Dropbox Logo

The Dropbox Logo

In the last couple of years, there has been a very interesting trend happening regarding Internet usage and Web browsing habits: users are increasingly shifting from traditional desktop-based computer usage into the brave new world of mobile-enabled computing, where information is an ubiquitous asset that is accessible from anywhere. Services such as Twitter and Pandora are already getting the majority of their traffic from mobile devices.  As of January 2012, 350 million of Facebook’s 800 million users are using mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the popular social networking service. But if that is not convincing enough, according to a 2011 study, 61% of mobile users won’t return to a site if they have trouble accessing it from their phone. In this climate, it is self-evident that catering for the desktop PC using crowd only is not sufficient anymore; in fact, that would be quite a disastrous move for any new web-oriented start-up company. Services must fully take the needs of mobile users into consideration, treat them as first-class citizens and tailor the applications to meet their specific needs—which is exactly what has been happening in the last two years or so. With mobile computing becoming so widespread, one can never make assumptions about the devices customers are going to access a particular service with, and this is exactly the driving force behind the trend of applications rising above the level of a single device. Numerous services have spawned to solve problems that belonged strictly to the desktop-only territory before, such as Dropbox, a Web-based file hosting service that uses networked storage to enable users to store and share files over the Internet. The service is available on a wide range of desktop (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) and mobile platforms (Android, iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 7, WebOs, Blackberry), thus being a prime example of the “software rising above the desktop-PC-only-world” concept.

Comparisons

Dropbox offers 2 GB of free online storage for all non-paid users, but storage quotas of 50 GB, 100 GB, 1 TB or more are also available for paying customers. An important point to note is that free and paid accounts sport exactly the same functionality and features, except for the amount of storage space offered. The Dropbox client—available for a wide range of operating systems and devices—makes the process of file sharing super simple: just by drag-and-dropping files into a designated folder, the files get uploaded to the user’s online storage and then get synced to any other of the user’s devices that are also Dropbox-enabled. There is also a possibility of uploading files manually by using a traditional web-browser or sending files to Dropbox via Gmail. All this extra functionality means that Dropbox is far more than just simple online storage: it’s great advantage service over other storage services is the transparent and painless content synchronisation mechanism across a heterogenous array of operating systems and devices, and it’s built-in revision history (also known as version control) on all uploaded files. For added security, it uses SSL (Secure Socket Layer) communication for all data transfers and stored the uploaded files in a AES-256 encrypted format.

Potential legal and ethical issues

In May 2011, there was a scandal about unclear language being used in the Dropbox terms of service which could imply that Dropbox may hold ownership to all uploaded customer data. As a result of this, Dropbox completely revised the data ownership section of their terms of service in July 2011. An even more serious concern was raised by online privacy researches Cristopher Soghoian in April 2011 about Dropbox’s dubious file deduplication practices. In short, deduplication means that, in order to save costly storage space, if two users backup exactly the same file, Dropbox will store a single copy of it. While Dropbox claimed that there were no security implications to this, security experts thought otherwise: deduplication is only possible if the service has access to the private keys used to encrypted user data, which makes the whole encryption mechanism rather pointless and trivial to circumvent. The bottom line is, if the company didn’t have access to the encryption keys, it would be technically impossible for them to detect duplicate files. By having access to the private keys, the service provider could be forced to hand out private data if for example faced by a court order. Alternatively, an intruder who gets access to the private keys (or even a malicious employee) could potentially have access to any user data stored on their backend infrastructure.

Future directions

Just in two short years, Dropbox have grown from a respectable 1 million people user base to a staggering 25 million users with over 200 millions of files being uploaded each day. The main appeal of the service (apart from being free) lies in it’s simplicity that enables even non-technical users to use it with relative ease. Dropbox is planning to capitalise on exactly that, broading their customer base from computers, tablets and smartphones to everyday appliances such as cameras, TVs and even cars that could benefit from an ubiquitous, synchronised online cloud storage. Truth to be told, there is already some quite stiff competition from Apple with their iCloud service, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive, SugarSync and the long-awaited launch of Google Drive—offering 5 GB storage space and in-place Google Docs editing capabilities—is on the horizon as well. Who will come out as the dominant player of such a fierce competition is quite unclear at the moment, but it is safe to assume that the customers will surely benefit from it.

References

Dropbox – Tour – Simplify your life
Wikipedia – Dropbox (service)
The Inside Story Of Tech’s Hottest Startup
Has Dropbox set the stage for a privacy revolution?
Re-examining Dropbox and its alternatives
How Dropbox sacrifices user privacy for cost savings
Dropbox Accused Of Misleading Customers On Security
Best Overall Startup Dropbox Looks To The Future
Dropbox grows 500% in just 15 months
The Future of Dropbox
Google Drive leaks suggest 5GB free storage, in-app document editing
Google “Close To” Launching Dropbox Competitor Called Google Drive
Google Drive detailed: 5 GB for free, launching next week for Mac, Windows, Android and iOS
Nearly 40% Of Facebook Users Are Mobile App Users

Rich User Experiences

Overview

The deviantART logo

The deviantART logo

Web applications, which can be thought of lightweight, ubiquitous alternatives of their traditional desktop counterparts, are on the rise on the modern World Wide Web. In the last couple of years, one could witness web applications approach the functionality and sophistication of their traditional desktop counterparts, in some cases even surpassing them. By taking advantage of state-of-the-art web technologies, such as HTML5, CSS3, DOM, Ajax and JavaScript, web applications (often abbreviated as webapps) offer a more engaging, rich user experience and increased productivity. Google has played a large part in popularising the concept of rich web applications with the introduction of Gmail in 2004 and Google Maps in 2005. Both applications make extensive use of client side scripting (JavaScript) and have a rich user experience “feel” to them—in fact, both behave and look like just like ordinary desktop software, with the important distinction that they can be used on any computer with an internet connection via a regular browser, no additional software installation is required whatsoever. Naturally, the tremendous success of these two applications have inspired legions of web developers to launch their own rich web based software. One such application is deviantART, an international online community targeted at visual artists. In its earliest days, deviantART was basically a static image gallery consisting of digital artworks. As it grew in size and popularity, the service has been enhanced with more and more dynamic and rich user experience type of features.

Comparisons

deviantART proudly touts itself as the “the largest online social network for artists and art enthusiasts with over 19 million registered members, attracting 45 million unique visitors per month.” It is quite similar in concept to flickr, with the peer review and community aspects being much more pronounced. It offers its members a relatively unrestricted environment where artists can share and discuss their works and collaborate in a friendly atmosphere. Artworks are organised in a hierarchical category structure, including photography, traditional art, digital art, applications skins and videos. Beside offering standard social network functionalities, such as following members and sending private messages, the site has a print service, a subscription program, private journals and user definable polls among many others.

On August 7, 2010 deviantART celebrated its 10th birthday by launching a browser-based drawing tool called Muro. Muro is the perfect example of putting cutting-edge HTML5 technology to good use: it uses the HTML Canvas element (originally introduced by Apple in 2004, now officially part of the HTML5 standard) for all its drawing operations. The novel drawing tool can, without any exaggeration, be considered a huge success—according to its author, a new completed artwork is submitted using Muro to deviantART’s servers in about every 5 seconds. If all unfinished drawings are taken into account as well, the number would be much higher. Being based on HTML5 technology, users are not limited to just drawing on a desktop computer with a mouse; Muro works flawlessly on an iPad or any other touchscreen device that supports HTML5.

Below is the final result the author of this article was able to come up with after a short 5 minute introduction to Muro:

My first Muro artwork

My first Muro artwork

And here is a screencast of Muro in action in somewhat more skilled hands:

Implications & Future Directions

While in its current form Muro is by no means a serious contender to industry heavy-weights like Adobe Photoshop, it is quite easy to see that rich web applications are here to stay for a long time to come. There is a very important paradigm shift going on currently as we’re transitioning from the classical desktop computing model to the rich web application approach, where both application and data are stored in the cloud, and the user’s computer (or hand-held device, for the matter) will only play the role of a clever “terminal”. While web applications have not reached the sophistication of desktop apps in every aspect yet, that day is coming nearer and and nearer and the interesting question is what will the computing landscape look like after that point? While we can’t say it now for sure, every sign shows that we won’t have too wait long for the answer.

References

Wikipedia – Rich Internet application
Wikipedia – Web application
Wikipedia – deviantArt
Wikipedia – Canvas element
deviantART – about deviantART
deviantART – A Web Site Review
Case Study: HTML5 in deviantArt muro
DeviantART Muro is an HTML5 Drawing App that Works on Your iPad