Testing iScribe: African Pixel’s first iPhone app

african-pixel-logoIn the Summer of 2009 I was approached by Wilfred Mworia, a talented programmer in Nairobi. Wilfred’s big idea was to open up a small company where his main goal was to create mobile phone applications for platforms like the iPhone and Android operating systems. This company is called African Pixel, and Wilfred is well on his way to becoming a mobile app developer of some note, regardless of the fact that he lives in Kenya.

His first application is iScribe (iTunes link), a simple tool for writing a journal on your phone. It’s the tool I’m using to write this post as it pushes to WordPress.

Scribe

iScribe was built to be simple. A way for you to write a journal entry quickly, and then add images, video or audio if you so choose. While I’ve been actively involved providing feedback to Wilfred on the app, I’ve had to constantly remind myself not to ask for more features.

iscribe-writing

“How does it work? Simply, type text, take photos or videos, press a button to record and play back audio recordings, save your stuff, press another button to share online or by email and voila!”

Besides the simple journaling and multimedia capabilities iScribe entries can be emailed or pushed to a blog. This is especially useful as few people write solely for themselves.

Here’s Wilfred giving a walk through of the application:

Go ahead and give this first iteration of iScribe a try. Send Wilfred your feedback on how it can be made better or if you find a bug.

My feedback
The pushing to a WordPress blog is where there are a few shortcomings. I did push most of this post from there, but the images didn’t work right, nor was I able to add links. There are some user experience items where the user needs feedback on when they pushed a button and if something is happening. These are mostly minor issues though, nothing which makes iScribe unusable.

African Pixel

This is one application, something that should make some residual income for Wilfred. I know he’s interested in building more applications that he can sell on the iPhone app store and the Android marketplace. That’s the idea anyway, and it’s encouraging to see that he’s doing it from here, realizing that the web/mobile world means that you can do this anywhere.

Wilfred is currently working on a second application, one that he started in August which has even more potential than iScribe. To keep up to date with Wilfred and African Pixels, follow him on Twitter, African Pixel on Facebook and the blog. Guys like Wilfred need seed capital to get going, to buy the time to create those first apps where they can begin seeing cash flow. If you’re interested in that, I know he’d like to talk to you.

My BBC Post on Blogging’s Evolution and Growth

I was asked to do a guest post for the BBC, as they’re doing a new full-production special titled “Digital Revolution“, which is set to focus on the first 20 years of the internet.

The producer asked me to write about the changing face of blogging. Answering the question on, “has blogging lost its feeling of freedom, untethered and raw that once defined it?”

My answer is simply: no. You can read why on the link below:

Voices on the rise: raw and unfiltered blogging still lives

An excerpt (read the full post to catch the arguments):

“So, in answering my question at the beginning, we see not a loss in the freedom and raw power of citizen-based communication, but a burgeoning growth in it that threatens to overwhelm us all. In fact, the wave is coming on so strong and big that the most important question we need to ask is not how to get more citizen blogs, updates and voices, but how to filter it so that it remains useful.”

My Favorite African Tech Blog Reads of the Week

This last week has seen a higher than average number of great technology blog pieces by a number of people. Here are my favorites.

Bankelele writes about Professor Calestous Juma with a review of a talk that he gave on how Africa can use technological innovation to stimulate economic recovery, spur economic growth and spread prosperity.

Aptivate gave us their Top 10 Rules for Designing Low-Bandwidth Websites. This is a goldmine, every web designer in Africa should print this out and hang it above their monitor.

Jon Gosier gave us a Comparison between On- and Off-network GSM Rates in Nigeria. Proving that, “with the exception of Etisalat, it’s quite clear that it’s cheaper to own four cell phones than one [in Nigeria].” (I hope this data makes its way to African Signals)

Ethan writes about Mike Best and his team’s work in post-conflict Liberia around digital storytelling.

South Africa’s popular mobile social networking application, Mxit, is now at 14 million users. “MXit users currently send approximately 35,000 messages per second during peak times and visit the system more than 20 million times per day.” Wow!

Bill does a review of Ndiyo, the thin-client computing solution for Africa. Specifically, on how Ndiyo “provides an alternative to traditional Western notions of how technologies should be deployed, used and paid for in developing countries”.

African Digerati: Adii Pienaar of Woothemes

African Digerati Interview: Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is the 7th in the African Digerati series of interviews. At only 24 he’s the youngest one on the list – he’s here because he represents the success that can be achieved as a young digital entrepreneur in Africa. Just under a year ago Woothemes splashed onto the stage as a new seller of WordPress (blogging tool) themes.

Rumor has it that this might be the most monetarily successful startup in the new media scene coming out of South Africa… That’s in less than one year. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact is that Woothemes is one of the top WordPress theme sites in the world, and it’s grown out of Africa with a lot of work, an eye for design and passion.

Woothemes just launched version 2 of itself, called WOO2. This interview is in response to that, and a chance to take a look at one of the visionaries behind it. After reading the interview, take a look at Adii’s blog. You’ll realize he’s light-hearted and doesn’t take himself to seriously, personality traits that I appreciate.

Woothemes version 2: woo2

When was the seed of Woothemes planted in your mind, and what was it’s genesis? What caused you to go from idea to actually building something, and how did you do that?
I don’t really know… Magnus, Mark & I had been collaborating a bit more loosely and the business was growing quite steadily. So I think it was just a natural progression to formalize the collaborations into a business and brand it as WooThemes. Luckily for us, we had a good following at that stage and the foundations were good all round to launch WooThemes.

What inspires you?
Would I be egotistical to say that I inspire myself? :) Honestly though, I’m inspired by a bunch of different things on a daily basis; and those things are random at best. The “being inspired” bit, along with willingness to act on said inspiration is a result of me absolutely loving a challenge and thus being completely driven to pursue those challenges.

Who are your biggest influences?
Online, I’ve got a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ryan Carson & Collis Ta’eed, who are at the top end of this new wave of entrepreneurs. Offline I’ve always appreciated Richard Branson’s way of going about business and marketing his ideas. And then closer to home… I’ve learned a helluva lot from both my business partners – Magnus & Mark – whilst I’d be lying if I said that my dad didn’t influence my business mind a lot – especially when I was younger.

Woo2 is a redesign of the Woothemes site and the community platform behind it. What are the big changes, and why do they matter?
Facing outwards, I think WOO2 signals our intent with regards to further growth and also improving the current experiences on WooThemes.

On a business level, I think WOO2 is more professional and we put a lot more strategic thinking into it. So again, it’s some kind of natural progression of how we’ve grown. WOO2 is the next step and the next part of the journey ahead.

Woothemes is expanding to other platforms beyond WordPress (Drupal, Expression Engine, etc.). What is your strategy here, and when will we start seeing these themes for different platforms?
The strategy is basically one that aims to diversify our offerings (and also our risk of having all our eggs in one basket), along with the growth aspects (new products = new markets = new users). And whilst I’m reluctant to commit to any schedule in this regard, we will start rolling out the Drupal themes in the next 2 / 3 weeks, and we’ve already started work on the EE & Magento stuff.

There’s always been the debate amongst the WordPress intelligensia about some theme providers not honoring the WordPress GPL licensing. iThemes, Brian Gardner and others have changed stances. I noticed you have as well. Is this where you wanted to go, or was it something that the greater community forced upon you? How will this help your business?

I can categorically say that this wasn’t something we did because we felt forced to do so. Way back in August 2008, I told Matt Mullenweg (at WordCamp SA) that going GPL was on the horizon for us and we’d do so when we felt comfortable doing so.

And as for how it will affect / help our business… I don’t know yet. We’ve only been GPL for a day, so I guess we’ll have to wait & see. :)

How big is Woothemes and how active is your community? Can you give any numbers?
This is tempting, but I’d rather not share these numbers… Maybe in the next couple of months, we’ll adopt a more open approach and share some of these numbers, but we’re not into boasting about supposed success.

I can however say that our support forum has racked up almost 45K posts, which means that the community is active. And our free themes (6 of them) have been downloaded about 35 000 times in the last month… :)

You’ve successfully created a web business out of South Africa that has impacted people around the world. You’re tapped into the web in a way that few others are. What’s next? What does the big picture look like from a the Rockstar perspective?
I’m taking over the world, one WordPress installation at a time.

LOL no… I’m very content with what I’m doing at the moment and very happy with the space & freedom that WooThemes has afforded me. I’m still young (24), so at this stage I’d like to think that I’m trying to revolutionize my own life, in terms of how I work and how I act outside of business hours. Beyond further growing WooThemes, that’s probably my main focus, because I want to do this now and not when I turn 30 / 40 and realize that I’ve work my life away.

And a shameless punt… I’m writing a book called Rockstar Business that basically airs my thoughts & experiences within this journey! :)

Finally, what are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in your own continent: Africa?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but Africa is generally a deep dark place for me (which I’m planning on rectifying with a proper journey into Africa – for holiday – later this year). So I’ve honestly not met many Africans who are bloggers.

BUT… In theory I think blogging gives everyone a voice; a voice they didn’t have before. And that’s true freedom & power for me, which we’ll ultimately see itself manifest when Africa becomes one of the strongest nations / economies in the world.

[Disclosure: I’m a customer of Woothemes, having purchased (full-price) one of their themes for the Maker Faire Africa website. I’m very happy with this too, everything is rock solid.]

David vs Goliath: WhiteAfrican in the 2009 Bloggies Awards!

[Warning: completely self-promotional blog post.]

What is WhiteAfrican doing in here?I was very surprised to see that this blog, WhiteAfrican, is a finalist in the 2009 “Best Computer and Technology Blog” category in the 2009 Bloggies. From what I can remember, this is the first time that an African blog has ever made it beyond the “Africa” category in the awards. This is only the 2nd year that there has been a standalone Africa category at all (it’s usually lumped in with the Middle East). I expected AfriGadget to make the cut, so I was really surprised to see WhiteAfrican there instead…

Quite frankly, this is a REALLY long shot, as the sites that I’m up against are some of the biggest tech blogs around – Gizmodo, Mashable and Lifehacker. I mean, really… talk about David vs Goliath. The cool thing is that I’ll be at SXSW this year in Austin for the award ceremony.

Side thought

Best African blog finalistsWe need more Africans to get involved with the nomination process as I know there are a ton of excellent blogs with diverse and pertinent content that aren’t represented here. African blog readers need to help get African blogs noticed in more than just the “Africa” category of the bloggies.

So, time to represent Africa, let’s see what we can do!

(Note: the Bloggies page scrolls sideways. I know, odd…)

Weapons of Choice



WhiteAfrican {2}, originally uploaded by Jon Shuler.

Thanks to everyone for 2008. What an amazing (and unexpected) year!

My “Weapons of Choice”:

  • Moleskin notebook
  • Zebra pen
  • Sanyo Xacti waterproof camera (dustproof for Africa!)
  • MacBook Pro (not pictured)
  • Nikon D50 (not pictured)

What are yours?

Why I Blog About Africa

[I don’t usually join in blog memes, but this one I just couldn’t resist… Théophile Kouamouo, a blogger based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), started the “Why I Blog About Africa” meme, which has crossed the Francophone and Anglophone Africa divide and I think holds a certain amount of power as I read others posts. See a good mini-aggregate post at Global Voices]

Roadside Bicycle Repair

Where others see a broken continent, I see Africans trying to fixing what is eminently fixable.

Cliche, Irony and Hope

I find great irony and humor in writing about Africa and technology. About the oddities and the entrepreneurs. About the vast differences between East and West. About the fact that we all generalize (like this post) and then say how it’s so different even within each country.

Where others see cliche, I do too – and value it’s strength. The sunsets, animals, people… it’s all cliche, but it’s also the Africa I know and love. Beyond the picture book material, I also appreciate the annoying inefficiencies that drive us all mad from time-to-time. It’s what makes Africa Africa.

Most of all I write about Africa because my other half (the West) doesn’t see our Africa. My goal is to pierce that veil and tell a story about the Africa they don’t see. To talk about the people that are changing things, and who very well might change the world. To help us all better understand how the use of technology is leading the way.

I also write about Africa because it gives me hope. In a crazy, hectic, selfish world I can still rely on the timelessness of Africa, and of people who invest in each other.

Tagged

Thanks to Kaushal for tagging me, read why he blogs about Africa. In time-honored meme tradition, I now tag the following 5:

Kari
Jeremy Weate
Rebekah Heacock
Mike Stopforth
Ethan Zuckerman

Microblogging, Location and Emergencies

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and have thought quite a bit about it in Africa. More, I’ve thought about what the ramifications of Twitter pulling out of the global market means, and then thought quite a bit about Jaiku, Laconica and Mxit and various other chat/microblogging applications. There is, without a doubt, a move towards short-form updating via mobile and web, and it needs to be federated.

There’s something missing in this new mobile + web microblogging movement, and I think it’s location.

Thoughts on location and microblogging...

Why Location Matters

Most of us use these services for updating, and being updated, by our friends and interesting people. That’s the main use, and it will remain so. The truth is, you and I don’t really care to hear what any random stranger is doing, even if they are nearby. However, we do care what is happening on a very hyper-local level in the case of emergency or “big event”.

It’s somewhat like the “pothole theory” that I talked about earlier: you wouldn’t normally care about the pothole on a steet, unless it’s yours. It helps explain why we care about certain things.

If you use Twitter and have an iPhone, you’ll probably be aware of Twinkle – it’s an application that enriches your Twitter experience. In Twinkle, you can set your location and then a certain radius from which to receive twitter updates, even if they’re from perfect strangers. I think that’s the beginning of what we’re talking about.

However, again… I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.

The “What if…”

What if we created a way that a greater federated system of microblogging applications could also use location as an alert point?

Of course, my current world is colored by Ushahidi, crisis and emergency news coverage. I think of the ability to anonymously send in reports to a system like Ushahidi running in any country, and those who are part of this greater, extended and federated network would be updated – even if that person was unknown and anonymous.

Federated Microblogging, SMS and Location

Here’s a use case:

John is a Twitter user in Accra, Ghana. Anne has setup a local Laconica server with 5000 users in the greater Accra area. Eddie is not part of any of these networks, just an average guy with a mobile phone. Ushahidi is running in Ghana.

Users from the Laconica group can setup an “alert” for a specific radius from their location using Ushahidi, linked to their Laconica account.

An earthquake happens and Twitter and the Laconica server are ablaze with dialogue about what is happening. Eddie (our normal guy), sends an alert into the Ushahidi number, along with hundreds of other Ghanians who are not part of Laconica or Twitter. Anne, and the other Laconica users are receiving alerts (web and mobile) from within their set alert radius automatically, from completely anonymous people. Alerts on where people are trapped, who is missing, who is found, where not to go, and where help is needed most.

John, our Twitter user is updating Twitter, but it has no little local implications due to not being able to be used in Ghana (except via web). Local mobile users aren’t receiving his updates, and he isn’t receiving theirs.

I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in this scenario, and it’s imperfect, but it serves as a good setting to discuss some of the shortcomings of the current situation and the possible growth areas for them. It also talks to even bigger ideas and the greater impact in Africa of a real social mobile network that can connect people using only mobile phones and do it as needed.

There are some interesting things to learn and apply from location-specific alternatives to global SMS gateways (like FrontlineSMS), and I wonder where tools such as InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat can be used here too.

More to come on “getting updates that matter” later, this is just some initial thinking on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Adgator: An African Blogger’s Ad Network

Justin Hartman and the guys at Afrigator are at it again. I’ve wondered for a very long time why no one had created an ad network for African bloggers, thinking that there surely must be someone out there who wanted to advertise on some African blogs.

adgator

Adgator is here to ask that same question, and prove it out. Make sure you read Justin’s post on the new platform.

Afrigator recently had a sizeable stake acquired by MIH Print Africa, a division of Naspers Limited. This gives them more money to work with, and more credibility. This also means that they have a sizable sales team at their disposal, which is one of the biggest issues when doing an ad network.

Before you run off to Adgator and sign up, here are a couple things you should know:

  • It’s a 50% revenue split with Adgator.
  • You get paid on a CPM basis, so you had better have a good deal of traffic to make money.

Questions

I had a couple questions for Justin regarding Adgator, and he was kind enough to reply with some answers. Here is our dialogue:

How do bloggers outside of South Africa get paid?

At this stage we’re only piloting the program in South Africa. We need to test the viability of the program in the country where Afrigator’s largest base lies and if we can make it work here then we’ll take what we’ve learned into other African countries. When we do, we’ll most likely setup our own bank accounts in those countries so that we can facilitate the payment process from within those regions. One of the core issues we’ve always struggled with in the Adgator idea is the payment one and we realise that paying people from SA simply won’t work.

Are you mainly focused on South Africa right now?

Yes – we’re only SA for now. I’m hoping to roll this out to Kenya and Nigeria by March 2009.

I know you have a sales team, how much of those sales are done outside of South Africa?

None at this stage and herein lies the problem. Because we have little resources in other African countries it makes Adgator even more difficult to implement outside of SA. However, through our efforts with Afrigator we are working on overcoming this issue and establishing ourselves in our larger African countries.

How many advertiser are already lined up?

This is without doubt the most difficult aspect of the job as advertisers need to be educated in this process. That said it looks like we’ve got between two and four advertisers depending on how the final negotiations go.

Maneno: A Blogging Platform Made for Africa

Maneno means “words” in Swahili. An apt name for a new blogging platform being created right now by Miquel Hudin Balsa. It’s all new. There is nothing in there that’s part of some pre-packaged system.

Maneno.org - blog platform for Africa

Do we need another blogging platform?

When I first heard about Maneno, the first question that came to my mind was… “what about WordPress.com and Blogger.com?” Don’t those serve the same purpose? Realizing that my knowledge in this might be lacking, I contacted Miquel to answer a few answers. Here is his response:

“We travel quite a bit and I found that anything hosted in the US gets slower and slower the further you get from the US, so I worked to create a CMS/blog platform that was very stripped down, yet fully functional. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress is a beautiful, fantastic system that I admire and also use, but when you’re on a satellite connection in Bukavu or very slow DSL in Sarajevo, it’s mighty slow to use, which is the same problem with GMail and other web based applications that were developed in North America and Europe. So, I realized that what I was doing for our personal blogs would translate very well in to a system that would meet a great many of the needs for a new blogging system for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

That makes sense. Any hosted web platform based in the US and Europe is going to have lag issues Africa. Every byte counts, so a system that has been custom built to work in this scenario can be useful.

Primary African Languages

Currently, the Maneno website interface is available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Kiswahili. Most of the translation work is being built on feedback from translators who work on multi-lingual sites and have problems with the interface – as most are built for just writing and not for translating.

“For the time being, since we are still in Beta, we want to incorporate about 3-4 more non-colonial languages in the next 2-3 months, perhaps Akan, Hausa, Lingala, or Zulu. For now, we’re trying to include languages that have a large amount of speakers. The system is quite open for translations, and we’re in fact looking for new volunteer translators.”

Maneno side-by-side translation UI

For translating individual articles, it’s a instantaneous system where if someone is reading an article, they just click on the dropdown next to it and go to a translation page that allows them to work on their version side by side with the old one.

Final thoughts

The site absolutely flies. It’s a lot faster than most other blogging platforms. I’m interested in hearing from others around the African continent on how fast the site loads for them.

Besides the standard text and images, Maneno allows you to add up to 10Mb audio files as a post. This is a great idea, and shows just how much they’re thinking about things differently, as many normal users of blogging platforms can’t figure out how to host podcasts or audio files to get them out in the public.

What Maneno is trying to build could be a really effective hosted blogging tool for Africa. Besides language and page-load speed, on their blog they state that they’re also thinking about using mobile phones as a way to blog.

The software is in it’s Beta stage, which means it’s time to try it out and see how well it actually works in the field. If you’d like to help in local dialect translations, make sure you visit the Maneno Languages page.