Silicon valley

IBM Researchers Using iPhone App Store as Test Bed


SAN JOSE – Apple’s 10 million iPhone users are now meaningful research subjects for IBM’s Almaden Research Center.

Scientists studying the mobile web are seeding Apple’s iPhone Applications Store with research projects in a bid to see how users in the real world take to them. The projects include an experimental text-input system and an application to sync multiple devices.

Almaden is so interested in the iPhone, it is making them available for free to all 100 of its computer scientists to help them understand how consumers use the device.

“The iPhone App Store gave us a chance to experiment in the wild,” says researcher Shumin Zhai, who has added the experimental text-input system WritingPad to the App Store as a free download. “Putting it on the iPhone App Store gave us a sense of the value of the technology.”

Computer scientists’ interest in the iPhone is not surprising. The device is quickly becoming the first mainstream mobile computing platform. The iPhone has already captured about 17 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, according to the NPD Group, and the App Store has become a quick and easy way for third-party developers to distribute their software. As of
August, more than 60 million iPhone apps had been downloaded, according to Apple.

IBM researchers at Almaden are thinking broadly about how to redesign the user experiences for common applications like e-mail and calendar for desktops, laptops and smartphones. And the iPhone with its touchscreen has set the standard for user interaction among smartphones and possibly, future computers.

Using the iPhone App Store to distribute research projects appears to be a novel way of studying experimental software, says Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies. Bajarin says it’s the first time he has heard of a major research lab using Apple’s distribution platform.

“The idea is innovative and conceptually has a lot of potential,” says Bajarin. “Researchers as well as software developers often come up with great ideas but don’t have ways to test them, especially from the standpoint of getting them to a lot of people,” says Bajarin. “So this could be invaluable.”

“The iPhone is one of the most interesting devices out there in recent years from a computing perspective,” says Jeff Pierce, a researcher at IBM Almaden focusing on the mobile web, “and the App
Store is one way to bring research ideas to a bigger group of users.”

Earlier this year, researcher Zhai added to the store a text input system called WritingPad that traces words on the keypad instead of inputting them letter-by-letter.

With WritingPad, words are “drawn” by tracing a continuous line from letter to letter on a keyboard. The system infers the word from the pattern drawn across the keyboard allowing users to increase their typing speed on a touchscreen significantly.

“In the first 24 hours of the program’s release on the App Store it bagged about 60 reviews from real users. Now more than 500 reviews have been written of it,” he says. “You can never have a total sense of user experience by doing lab studies.”

Zhai has been studying for years ways of improving human-computer interaction and his technology was first released in 2004 internally for IBM employees to test.

At that time it was targeted at Tablet PC users. But the device never achieved mass adoption and when the iPhone came along it seemed like a perfect vehicle to test out the technology, says Zhai.

Next from Alamden could be Pierce’s project known internally as the Personal
Information Environment. It’s a new way to synchronize and manage data across multiple devices. The application uses an instant messaging-like protocol to allow users to add different devices to an IM-like client and then share information and data across those devices.

Pierce who plans to present the research at a conference in
Monterey, California, later this month thinks an iPhone app could be the next step for his idea as it offers an alternate platform.

There are many different criteria and standards on what ideas from the research lab can eventually make an IBM release as a product,” says
Pierce. “But it could be easier to make it available to the larger public through the App Store.”

The App Store is also significant for another reason, says Bajarin.
Though IBM has alphaWorks, a website to offer access to emerging technologies from its stable. and other open source sites to make its projects available, the App Store offers a unique way to reach potential users.

“What Apple has delivered is a solid distribution channel and a targeted one,” says Bajarin. “That’s a major difference compared to just putting it on a website.”

It’s not all rosy for the researchers who have to deal with Apple’s whims and culture of secrecy. Apple’s recent non-disclosure agreement that muzzled developers and placed severe restrictions on what they could say led to IBM Almaden clamping down on its efforts to potentially bring more of its projects to the store as apps.

But with Apple lifting some of the NDA requirements, Pierce says he will restart work on developing an iPhone version of his project.

Pierce and his colleagues are no Apple loyalists. When the Google’s Android operating system based T-Mobile G1 phone becomes available next month, they may use it in their projects. But for now, the focus is firmly on the iPhone.

IBM Almaden’s experiment with the App Store eventually could have wider ramifications for the research community. Other organizations could follow IBM’s lead and bring some of their projects to the App
Store, says Bajarin.

“I think more research institutions will be open to it,” he says. “You have to see what IBM has done here as a test case.”

Photo: (shapeshift/Flickr)

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