Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Live Tiles are Good for Business!

The Developer Build conference was about the future.  The future is now.  Everything about what was presented was about making it easier.  Making it easier for developers to design, build and deliver better apps.  Making it easier for users to use Windows Phone and Windows Devices.  Some made it easier for both the developer and the user.  And, let's be honest here, anything that makes the Phone/Tablet/Desktop experience better for the user is ultimately going to help the developer.  More devices means more customers means better business.  I was recently asked "After build, where do you now think Microsoft is going and how will it affect the apps your build".  My response was that I don't think the direction Microsoft is going has changed at all.  I think the direction hasn't changed so much as the speed we are going in that direction has increased.  And I like the direction.

I can't cover all the new or updated items that will have relevance to me in the coming months in just one post so I thought I might pick one that really jumped out at me and run with it.  Live Tiles.

What's New with Live Tiles

(And why do I care)
Most have pretty much agreed that Live Tiles are pretty cool.  Some use them more than others but when implemented well they are great!  But, unbeknownst to me until Build, it turns out there can be improvements.  The improvements come in a couple of areas, one of which had little to do with the Live Tiles themselves but has created a new demand on Live Tiles that I didn't expect.  Each improvement has impact on the Developer and the User and both should take heed.  The developer more than anyone needs to know about these at the risk of losing out to apps better able to leverage that "in your face" positioning on the Start Screen.  In fact, all the improvements may overwhelm even this little post.

Easier Delivery

As a developer, when I had to write push notification code, there were subtle differences between Windows 8 and Windows Phone.  With the update to Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 that goes away.  From my Azure server I'll be able to send the exact same toast or tile notifications to both Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 using the same XML schema.  No more having to manage two different back end infrastructures.  Basically Windows Store apps use the Windows Notifications System (WNS) and, now, so does Windows Phone 8.1.  I know this helps reduce the amount of development and management I need to do.

Transparency

This one is sort of different.  While it isn't specifically about live tiles, it has had the effect of creating a demand for transparent live tiles.  After I downloaded Windows Phone 8.1 to my phone I wanted to try all the features out.  One of the new features is the start background feature.  It lets me set a background to my start page that shows through tiles that have a transparent component.  Previously those tiles with a transparent part to their image automatically adopted the phone's theme colour.  Now, one of the side effects that I found was I subconsciously started to favour transparent tiles so I could see the image underneath.  I started shuffling tiles that had forced colours (and therefore were not transparent) to the bottom of my start page and even off the bottom.  Developers should take advantage of this by making sure their tiles have at the very least the option to make them transparent.  You have a better chance of making the start page grade if you do.  I have already had some of my users requesting this feature.

Templates

Under Windows Phone 8 you had the wonder choice of three tile templates.  You had the Flip, Iconic and the Cycle templates.  All good but to do anything fancy you had to be really creative and talented with image manipulation.  What's more if you wanted tiles for Windows 8 the rules were different.  With Windows Phone 8.1 we now have 40 templates.  All the templates available to Windows Runtime are now available to Windows Phone.  Along with the change in templates, Microsoft made it easier to minimize data requirements for pushes with the ability to push out simple badge updates without having to send all the other data with it.  This means that you, the developer, can now have more control over your memory footprint.  With the enhanced Data Sense app and the ability for users to see where their data is going, this is going to be important.

Better Emulator

Under Windows Phone 7 or 8 if you wanted to test push notifications your best bet was to deploy to your phone, setup your infrastructure and then do some pushes.  This took a lot of time, time that could be better spent in other ways.  Now adding push functionality to your app is more flexible, easier, more engaging and most importantly, easier to test.  The emulator now supports emulated pushes.  You can now design your xml package right in the emulator and push it to the emulated phone to test how your app and the phone is handling your push in real time with no back end needed. 

The Big Gain

All of these new features and abilities provide opportunities for the developer to create more engaging apps that provide more value.  More value means you have more options for monetization which is good for business.  You can add in-app purchases for really useful live tile functionality.  You can price your app higher with the added useful functionality in your live tiles and, if designed right, you can encourage people to your app more often bringing in more ad driven revenue.