The Industry and the Ubooly

Monday, 2nd December 2013

Tradition dictates that I update the blog whenever I am job-hunting. And one question that invariably comes up when interviewing for developer roles is: 'what blogs do you follow?' (sometimes disguised as the more weaselly 'how do you keep up-to-date with the industry?').

I have always struggled with this question, as the answer could be anything between 'all of them', 'none of them', and 'mostly just Offbeat Bride'.
(The latter answer has, incidentally, led to a job offer… though that was under somewhat rarified circumstances, and I wouldn't recommend taking it out for a spin in the average corporate environment.)

I don't follow or subscribe to any blogs by developers who I don't know personally, because while I love Jeremy Keith as much as the next front-ender, I don't feel that industry blogs as a whole offer good returns for time and effort. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Repetition. Whenever there is a significant event in development, everyone is obliged to have an opinion, and there are frankly limits to how many opinions one can have about the <article> tag.
  2. Relevance. I firmly believe that the human brain retains only information that is at least faintly useful. Convincing it that achieving PNG transparency in IE7 is useful knowledge is an uphill struggle to begin with, but if one isn't actually doing anything with PNGs that week, chances are when the issue finally comes along, one will end up sitting there thinking 'somebody mentioned this… on a website with a purple background… or was it orange…?'.

Which is not to say that I don't spend half my time on Stack Overflow, or following the latest argument over whether supporting old browsers is a good idea*. And goodness knows I sleep better knowing that when I hit a snag, there are thousands of articles and discussions there for the googling.

(* Answer: Yes, unless you are very, very sure that neither your client nor any of their friends use an old browser. Because by god, if the company director has a cousin who uses IE8 in compatibility mode, you will be hearing about it.)

However, development isn't all about getting your <article>s and <section>s the right way around… even for those of us who will admit to clapping our little hands in glee when we find a really, really semantic bit of HTML.
There has to be a point to learning all these spangly new tags - especially when they come with spangly new browser compatibility issues - and for me, that point is the possibility of getting to do some of the things that would have qualified as 'crazy rainbow-unicorn fantasy' territory when we started coding.

Which brings me on to Kickstarter.

Having sponsored thirty-six Kickstarter projects (and counting!), it's fair to say that I am a bit of a fan. There are a whole number of reasons for this: I want to support good ideas; I enjoy seeing projects develop through the updates; and of course, I like getting shiny goodies through the post.

But amid the independent films and my eternal fascination wantith artisan peanut butter, the dedicated browser can find some of the most exciting web projects out there. And the one that really stands out for me is Ubooly.

Ubooly is a toy that is powered by a smartphone.
You download the app and insert the phone into the Ubooly (a small Furby-esque plush creature), and bingo: you have a little animal that can interact and play games.

From a technical point of view, this is genius:

Because it is powered by a smartphone, it benefits from tens of millions of pounds worth of research and development. The Ubooly has the power of the iPhone without the cost of building the hardware.
It allows users to constantly update the Ubooly by downloading new games and stories, which is exactly what an app does best.
In return, the parent company gets tons of data on how the toy is used, because everything is potentially trackable. This is Christmas come early for a UX designer.

From a user perspective, it also solves one of the biggest dilemmas in technology for children.
On the one hand, I passionately believe that children should be introduced to computers and the internet as soon as physically possible, because the web is going to be a major part of their world, and they need to learn how it works; in the same way that they need to learn how to cross the street without getting run over.
On the other hand, small children have a whole lifetime of sitting down in front of a screen to look forward to, and while they are still small, they should be running around having adventures with stuffed animals. Not because they'll become drooling zombies if they don't (those arguments don't do the tenacity of human imagination enough credit), but because you only get one shot at that sort of fun.
With Ubooly, the technology is part of that active, creative world. How cool is that?

I bought one, not just to support the project (which goodness knows did not need my thirty quid), but as a lasting reminder of what a web app can become with a bit of imagination and a lot of careful thought.

I mentioned earlier that I'd supported thirty-six projects. Here's a curious thing: not a single one of them was listed in the 'Technology' category.
I think this reflects the reality of the world we're in now. The most revolutionary uses of web technology aren't just in the hands of 'technical' people any more: the web is for everyone, the ideas can come from anywhere, and our job, as developers, is to engage with those ideas and make them a reality.

And when we get stuck on the syntax, there's always Stack Overflow.

The author and her Ubooly