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Watching the Apple Watch

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment
Go on, admit it. You want to at least play with them for a while.

All these can be yours, for a (to be determined) price.

I’ve been an Apple user long enough that the company’s regular keynote events are a recognisable form of entertainment. Unusually, I didn’t watch this week’s well-publicised event until the day after it happened. (Possibly a good thing given the problems that the live streaming coverage faced.) By that time I’d already read enough of the media reaction to know exactly what I’d be seeing. Spoilers aren’t really the point with an event like this.

The first part of the event, to be fair, had already been well spoiled by leaks. Enough prototype parts and schematics had trickled out from Apple’s supply chain that only a few details remained to be filled in about the new iPhones. The 6 and 6 Plus looked much as expected and neatly relegated last year’s 5s and 5c to the minor places in Apple’s product lineup. A one-year-old free (on contract) iPhone is a better trick than a two-year-old free offering, but the 6 and 6 Plus are now the stars. The former seems the better bet, though the 6 Plus has its own appeal if you can handle its unwieldy dimensions—in its case, battery life and an improved screen are bigger draws than the optical image stabilisation of its slightly protruding camera.

Next up after the phones was something only hinted at in pre-show leaks: Apple Pay. A solution to the hassle of everyday credit card payments, it positions Apple well in the race to made commercial life more convenient. It’s the biggest leveraging to date of Apple’s credit-card enabled iTunes customers, bringing together a lot of pieces (iBeacon, Passbook) that Apple has been putting into place for some time now. However, given that it’s only usable with NFC-enabled devices (both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as this article’s titular device) and is only to be deployed in the U.S. for the moment, its reach will initially be limited. Over the long term though, it could well be the most important announcement of the entire show.

Last up was the fabled “One More Thing,” returning to a very warm welcome from the crowd. This was, of course, the Apple Watch, likewise rumoured in the media but barely even glimpsed in advance of the show itself. It seems that Apple’s secrecy can still hold when they really need it to.

A handful of smartwatches have already hit the market. I owned one briefly, in the form of the Pebble, but most of them are now running Google’s Android in one form or another, and yet more are on the way. If the Apple Watch is going to be a success, Apple’s going to have to repeat a trick it’s already pulled with the iPod, iPhone and iPad: to enter an existing but nascent market and turn it upside down. So has it done so?

Well no, not yet, if only for the reason that the Apple Watch won’t be released until early next year and many important facts about it remain uncertain, but at least one watch industry watcher has been impressed by the unveiling, not just its implications for the smartwatch industry but for watches in general.

Whereas its competitors seem to have focused primarily on providing an adjunct to their Android phones, Apple is coming from the other direction. The Apple Watch is tethered to the iPhone (or possibly the iPad too?) true, but it’s as much a fashion accessory as it is a computing accessory. The fact that Apple paid attention to what people might actually want to put on their wrist can be seen in the simplest fact about the Apple Watch: it comes in two sizes, small and large. Just like non-smart watches do.

Physically, it’s arguably more attractive than any of the other smartwatches already out there. More importantly to potential buyers, it’s massively customisable, more so than any other Apple product before it. Between size, colour and strap type, as long as you fancy having an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’ll be able to make it look exactly the way you want it to. Moreover, Apple has gone to great lengths to design its straps so that you can fit and adjust them yourself, rather than heading to a jeweller to have it done for you, as is the case with several of the Android smartwatches.

As for the software, it certainly looks the part, with Apple once again tailoring an operating system to suit the device. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, but given that any touching finger would obscure a significant portion of the screen, it also has a “digital crown,” refashioning the traditional watch crown into a multifunction control wheel with an integrated home button. Another button devoted to bringing up a “favourite contacts” screen is a reminder that the Apple Watch, above all else, is meant to leverage the power of its linked iOS device, faster and with greater ease than ever, and preferably without needing to take it out of your pocket or bag.

As for whether I plan to get one or not, that depends. Depends on the battery life of the final device and the price of the various options. Depends on whether or not the eventual software manages to live up to the promises of the keynote speech. For, whatever else it may be good at, Apple is very good at selling its devices as objects of desire. I’ll be looking out for reasons not to break open the piggy bank come early 2015. It’s up to Apple to match its own hype.

Until then, I have iOS 8 (coming next week) and OS X Yosemite (coming a little later) to refresh my own devices, making them seem like new again. There’s a new U2 album as well, offered as an awkward freebie at the end of the keynote, but that can’t really compete as an attraction. After all, what we get for free, we never really appreciate as we should.

Hitman GO and the Pit of F2P

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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On my way to make a killing…

I’ve been looking for a new smartphone game recently. It’s a fraught process these days. The goal is to secure a source of entertainment. The dilemma you face is this: do you go free or do you pay? I’ve done both, and I’ve returned from the wilderness of the App Store with dusty wisdom.

Free-to-play (F2P), or freemium (ugh), games have flooded App Stores in recent years. After all, with so much competition, it’s all about about ensuring that as many people as possible sample your wares. Free entry means that there’s no barrier, so the potential audience is everyone who has a device capable of playing your game. With such a large audience, only a small percentage have to make “in-app purchases” for a game to be profitable.

The problem is that F2P games are a balancing act. On the bright side, they can offer you plenty of enjoyment at no cost, with the option of throwing in some cash for more of the same, or faster progression. On the dark side, the reminders to spend money can be relentless, multiplayer games can fall into “pay-to-win” scenarios, and progression can become a terrible grind for those unwilling to fork over their money.

My first attempts at finding a new game headed in the direction of golf games. (Blame Rory McIlroy’s recent success for that.) I’ve an old copy of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012, but it’s creaky and buggy now. EA’s King of the Golf Course seemed like a sensible replacement, and its core mechanic was beautifully smooth, but the game structure of a linear set of challenges devolved into a slow grind after a couple of days. Com2uS USA Inc.’s Golf Star was even worse: old-fashioned mechanics stuffed into an overly ornate game that never missed a chance to encourage you to spend money. Both were highly rated on the App Store. Both are no longer on my phone.

It doesn’t have to be this way for F2P games. NimbleBit’s NimbleQuest is an addictive arcade game that is fun to play even as you’re grinding, and their Pocket Trains trades a little immediate fun for a lot more strategy. Plain Vanilla Corp.’s QuizUp is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the iPhone for trivia geeks. Gameloft’s Rival Knights devolved into excessive grinding by the end but was fun until then. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 took a F2P approach to a superlatively fun paid game and only suffered because it made the game more complex, a different kind of entry barrier.

The fact is though, I’ve found that the best results are to be had when you’re willing to pay for a game that isn’t going to nag you or slow your progress. You’re rarely going to be paying more than the price of a pint or two for an iPhone or iPad game, and for that price, ten or more hours of entertainment is a small price to pay.

Paid games seem particularly suited to more story-based titles, games with a finite span. Capybara Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is an absorbing adventure, beautifully presented. Bossa Studios Thomas Was Alone is a similarly absorbing recreation of an atmospheric online puzzle game. Lastly, usTwo’s Monument Valley is a perspective-based puzzle game, perfectly suited to touch screens. I paid for all three and don’t regret it, even if Monument Valley is a little light on content.

There’s plenty of space for both models in the App Store economy. F2P games when you want to sample, browse and check things out. Paid games when you know what you want. Well, I tried out the browsing side of things, but if was paying that got me what I wanted.

Square Enix’s Hitman GO, (pictured above) is a genuinely strange mobile adaptation of a first-person assassinate-em-up. Rather than try to recreate the shooting segments of the game that inspired it, the mobile version focuses on the tactical thought behind it, locking the player into a turn-based board game as they make their way through a multitude of levels, setting numerous targets along the way.

The board-game aesthetic is beautifully realised and feels only a little cramped on a phone screen. The rules of the game are rigid enough to allow the player to plan, and the occasionally mutually exclusive achievements encourage replay. There are a massive number of levels too, with the option of paying for more if you want to. (The line between F2P and paid is blurry in places.) At some point in the future, I may exhaust its appeal, but by then I’ll have long since got my money’s worth.

Comparing Distractions

January 9, 2014 1 comment
Yes, my image editing kung-fu is not strong.

Only one will walk away…

Over the Christmas period, I went in search of distractions. Specifically, of new apps that would entertain me while wasting my time. (I’m trying to give up on apps that promise entertainment but actually just waste time in various elaborate ways.) The result of this search was two promising free apps, Clumsy Ninja and QuizUp. As usual, I’m a little late to the party in both cases, but they’re an interesting study in contrasts anyway.

Clumsy Ninja (Natural Motion, iOS, Free) is the latest in a long line of virtual pets, stretching all the way back to Tamagotchis. In this case, your task is to take a clumsy ninja (hence the title) and train him up until he’s capable of rescuing his friend from a mysterious villain. The story is a thin veneer at best, but really it’s all about playing with your ninja using various toys. He has plenty of character, and though he’s not as reactive as some virtual pets, the sense of progression will keep you coming back to play with new toys as your ninja visibly improves.

QuizUp (Plain Vanilla, iOS, Free) is a very different beast. Rather than you and a virtual pet, it’s you versus the rest of the world. Melding Wikipedia, table quizzes, TV quiz shows and social networks, it challenges you to compete against anyone, anywhere on the topics of your choice. It’s a genius move—most people have at least one topic that they’d consider themselves to be an expert on, and QuizUp offers rewards for that expertise: rising through global and national leaderboards, crushing your friends and showing off. And if that’s appealing to the general public, it’s going to be even more appealing to true quiz freaks (like yours truly).

As free apps, both Clumsy Ninja and QuizUp rely on in-app purchases for funding. More specifically, both of them thrive on human impatience. Ninja allows you to buy crystals (part of its by-now standard two-tier currency system) that allow the purchase of in-app goods, such as costumes, or quicker repairs to training equipment. However, you can earn a small amount of crystals through the game itself, and the sense of progression is balanced so that you never feel things are going punishingly slow.

QuizUp’s in-app purchases are a little trickier: you buy experience boosts to double, triple or quadruple your experience gains from every quiz you take part in for an hour. It’s therefore possible to shoot up the ranks a lot quicker than non-paying competitors, but it won’t be cheap. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much you pay: head-to-head, it’s all about knowing the answers to the questions. In fact, those who don’t pay might have an advantage there: there are a finite, albeit plentiful, number of questions on each topic, and by the time you’ve reached the upper ranks in any topic you’ll likely have memorised many of them.

Both games obey the important rule for phone apps of keeping play times short and sweet. Each individual QuizUp bout lasts a maximum of just over a minute, so you can fit plenty into a bus trip, and even one or two into waiting for the kettle to boil. Similarly, with Clumsy Ninja, you may have a few tasks to complete and 4-5 training items to use, but a few minutes will see you through all of them, and built-in “repair times” mean there’s no need to play more than once every couple of hours.

It’s not hard to see why both of these apps are as successful as they are. Clumsy Ninja is polished, sweet-natured and rewarding, and it’s gentle with its in-app purchase prompts. It’s the first time I’ve played around with a Virtual Pet app, and while I’m not in love with the concept, I’m enjoying it enough to stick around for now.

That said, QuizUp is by far my favourite of the two apps, and that’s not just because I love quizzes. Its use of social networks to provide a competitive environment and supply it with a bank of questions is inspired, and there are a multitude of clever touches. Games against random strangers are played in real-time, but you can challenge your Facebook or Twitter friends to asynchronous duels, with the app reporting the results once you’re both finished.

It’s not quite perfect, but the few problems it has will likely be resolved with time. As mentioned, expert players have probably memorised most of the questions in their favoured topics, making duels with them more a matter of memory and speed of reaction (you get bonus points based on how quick you answer a question) than knowledge. However, the app’s web site permits users to submit questions (which can be queried in-game, adding a Wikipedia-like quality control element to proceedings), potentially solving that issue over the long term. The other issue is probably just a niggle for me: the app’s presentation of its gathered data. There’s no clear way to see your head-to-head record against a friend, and the app itself conflates categories (science, history, etc.) with their constituent topics (Chemistry, Ancient Rome, etc.) in presenting user statistics. A little more thought applied to this area could really sharpen QuizUp up.

Ultimately, though, it’s the application of the social that sets QuizUp apart. In Clumsy Ninja, training your ninja up only matters to you and your pet. In QuizUp, you can become the best in your country or even the world at a given topic, if you’re willing to put the time in.* And that’s just far more of a draw. Maybe a future version of Clumsy Ninja will offer duels or obstacle course races between users’ ninjas, but for now, it’s QuizUp by a length.

* If you think you have what it takes to compete against a former 15-to-1 episode winner, you can find me as “Cerandor” on the app. 🙂

The New Baseline

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment
All the colours of the candy rainbow.

Lickable shiny. Just … keep your tongue away from mine, okay?

The announcement this week of Apple’s new range of iPhones has generated some new and some standard complaints from pundits. For the new top-of-the-line iPhone 5s, the complaint is that it’s not all that different from the previous model. For the new midrange 5c, it’s that it isn’t a cheap iPhone. Oh, and the colourful plastic shells look tacky.

To deal briefly with the 5s: yes, it’s a speedbump. Everyone saw that one coming. However, initial reports suggest that it’s a substantial speed bump, and there are new and useful features in the form of an improved camera, an intriguing standalone motion detection chip and the much-discussed fingerprint sensor. Perhaps most importantly, it shifts the iPhone towards 64-bit computing, providing some decent futureproofing.

I’m not going to comment on the looks of the 5c until I have one in hand, other than to note that those who have handled them seem to have come away impressed. The issue of whether the 5c is too expensive to work for Apple as a “cheap” iPhone is the more interesting question, and it’s one where most critics (including the perennially misled markets) seem to have missed the point.

For all the talk of a “cheap” iPhone prior to the arrival of the 5c, Apple doesn’t do cheap, certainly not since the second coming of Steve Jobs. Its products tend to fit between “premium” and “affordable luxury”, depending on how you view those scales. In that sense, the 5c has been positioned as a “midrange” iPhone, fitting just beneath the new 5s.

Except that doesn’t tell the entire story either. Up until now, Apple had only one model of iPhone: the new iPhone. (It also sold last year’s new iPhone, and the previous year’s new iPhone too.) Selling older iPhones alongside the new model allowed Apple to leverage investments in manufacturing and economies of scale, but those old iPhones always felt a little second-hand.

With the release of the 5s, Apple has doubled the breadth of its new-iPhone product line in a stroke, giving consumers a choice much more appealing than one between the “new shiny” and the “old shiny that you can actually afford.” Relatively expensive the 5c may be, but to balance that it’s still a fully capable smartphone, in a brand new form factor that offers a splash of colour never seen on iPhones before.

Yes, an old-new iPhone still remains on the product list, in the form of the 4s, but I’m not sure that’ll last even a year. With two lines of iPhones above it, both using the iPhone 5 form factor and manufacturing lines, Apple is going to be shifting as quickly as it can to focus solely on these products. Improved manufacturing techniques and greater output lead to economies of scale and enhanced margins for Apple—or lower prices.

Because that’s really the thing with the 5s. Once the 4s goes, it becomes the new baseline for the iPhone line, and while it will never be “cheap”, I can see Apple cutting its price by €100 or so in about six months, making it even more price-competitive with Android smartphones.

After that, Apple suddenly has two product lines to work with—the “top-end iPhone” for those who want the latest and best iOS device, and the “iPhone for everybody” who wants an iPhone device but doesn’t want to break the bank for the latest and greatest.

What the 5c means is that the latter group no longer has to see themselves as buying last year’s cast-offs. The 5c isn’t about what it is now, as much as it might sell on its release. It’s about what it’s going to be a year from now. Because Apple always plays the long game, and it’s just shifted the iPhone baseline.

It’s About Time for Zombies

August 22, 2013 Leave a comment

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Part of the Pirate World in PvZ2

Plants Vs Zombies 2, Popcap, iOS, Free

No game on my iPhone engaged me as long or as deeply as the original Plants Vs Zombies. A tower-defence game blessed with an abundance of humour, impressive cartoon visuals and a catchy score (including the best end credits song since Portal), it also had the benefit of a developer that continued to enhance and upgrade the game for several years after it came out, with new game modes and other add-ons.

Well, the sequel has finally landed, in the form of Plants Vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time, a punning, double-meaning subtitle that reassures fans of the original that the same twisted brains are still in charge. The big change this time around is that PvZ2 is free-to-play. The game itself comes without charge, but players can decided to pay more for extras within the game itself.

Free-to-play is rightly viewed with some suspicion. It’s a new business model for the games industry, and earlier efforts to make it work have resulted in crippled games that frustrate players. Luckily, PvZ2 takes another tack: the game offers an abundance of content, all of which can be accessed for free, but players can spend some coin to make their passage through the game easier or to buy some new plants to improve the variety of the experience.

As far as gameplay goes, the winning formula hasn’t been altered: the player places plants on the left of the screen and zombies attack from the right in waves of increasing intensity. There are some new elements thrown in, such as new plants and new zombies, but if anything the variety is a little bit down compared to the state the first game reached with all its expansions in place.

Tweaks have been added to the gameplay in the form of new special powers. Plant food supercharges plants temporarily and coins can be spent to activate special powers that will squish, electrocute or fling zombies offscreen. For an old-school player, these powers can seem a little like cheating, but the game is balanced so that while plant food is often necessary, the special powers rarely are. However, the in-battle currencies of plant food and coins do add complexity to a game laden with currencies (the familiar sun for buying new plants, stars for completing new levels and keys to unlock new routes).

These routes are the big change in the presentation of the game world. The first game took place in a back yard, by day and night, with a pool and without, and occasionally afflicted by fog. The player progressed from level to level, in a linear fashion. In PvZ2, the game is split into three worlds (Ancient Egypt, Pirates and Wild West, with an upcoming Far Future world having been announced). Each one is completed by following a linear path, but keys gained during battles allow the player to unlock side paths and gain extra plants and abilities thereby.

It’s a slightly more graphically intense game than the old one (only iPhone 4 and above need apply), and the graphics designed for retina displays take a little adjusting to, but everything is in order gameplay-wise. It’s as addictive as the old game—I’ve already completed the first world and made my way through part of the second, at a time when I really shouldn’t be playing games (or writing reviews of them).

The one niggle I’d point out? Although the side routes in each game world do offer different challenges akin to the mini-games of the first game, there’s no way to tell which one is which from the isometric world map. It’s a bit of an odd design decision, and one that I suspect will be fixed in further updates. If nothing else, Popcap’s reputation breeds confidence in the fact that this will be a well-supported game for a long time to come.

Recommending this game is a no-brainer (ahem). For no money at all, you get the same great gameplay of the original PvZ, and you can happily play through it without spending a penny. My only worry is that a lot of people will do just that, and that PvZ2 won’t be the financial success it deserves to be. Because, honestly, we could all do with more games like this.

(A quick reminder to clarify: the Android version of PvZ2 isn’t out yet, but it isn’t likely to differ too much from the above.)

Beauty, not Brains?

August 22, 2013 3 comments

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Hairy arm: model’s own.

Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android

As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.

To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).

My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.

For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.

The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.

In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.

At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run

There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).

The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.

The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.

For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.

A Game of Words

July 16, 2013 Leave a comment

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Early days on the French language tree.

Duolingo (iOS and Android, Free)

My several years of iPhone experience have seen me fall prey to a number of apps. Addiction to horticultural zombie escapades, miniaturised high-rise management and Indiana Jones-style sprinting have all proved fun, but I wouldn’t have called them beneficial. Well, now I may have found an app that is both addictive and good for me.

Duolingo is a language-learning app, based on the web site of the same name. The concept behind the service is a simple one: crowdsourcing humanity’s efforts to learn new languages by getting them to translate web content. Because the learners are providing a service, the learning experience is free.

Of course, having a free service doesn’t mean much if the experience is no good. Luckily, Duolingo’s app doesn’t fall down on that score. It sports a clean, colourful design that’s both welcoming and easy to understand. Each language is presented as a tree of connected lessons that users progress through at their preferred pace, from basic comprehension to complex concepts.

Lessons consist of 20 exercises, each taking no more than a few seconds to complete, with four or more lessons grouped into themed nodes (food, animals, adjectives, etc.) on the learning tree. As a barely competent reader of French, the early lessons in that language were a useful refresher for me, but if I’d wanted to jump ahead, each node offers the chance to “test out” and complete the whole thing in one short lesson.

Gamification elements are put to good use here: users get three hearts per lesson, so they can make three errors before a fourth requires them to start over. Completing a lesson earns a users points and builds their in-app vocabulary, and the number of consecutive days they’ve been playing is recorded. The intelligence behind the app seems well tuned thus far, and will point out certain errors, like misplaced accents, but not penalise users for them.

One of the big problems with learning a language (and maintaining that knowledge) is the issue of practice. Duolingo covers this too. First by offering users the chance to strengthen the skills they’ve already earned and second by providing a leaderboard so they can compare their acheivements with their friends. I can’t speak to the success of the latter as yet, but it’s another example of game mechanics intruding beneficially into the non-game world.

The Duolingo app is comprehensive in its treatment of the five languages it covers (French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) and demonstrates a wealth of thoughtful touches in its design. One feature I’d love to see is a searchable vocabulary of words in each language, but as a relatively new app, there’s bound to be more to come from this initiative.