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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:May 28th, 2013

GitHub & Contributing in an Open Community

GitHub LogoI’m not sure how, but the first thing I ever saw of GitHub was their mascot, Octocat. Now it’s a face I, and many other developers, see quite regularly.

At its core, GitHub is a place where people share code & collaborate with others. It is currently the largest code host in the world. I personally have the Smart Web App Banner project I’ve written about on there, and contribute to ThinkUp among other projects.

GitHub also functions as a version control system, issue tracker, and discussion platform. I won’t go into too much detail, but these features are amazingly powerful on their own. Some projects have chosen to be private to protect their work & assets while enjoying these features.

Meanwhile, you will find countless projects that are 100% publicly visible (every line of code, every image, etc.), open to outside contributions, and allow people to fork their work to be customized in a way that someone else will be responsible for managing that version of that project (read more about forking here). Code merging can be done if the work done to a fork (big or small) is worth adding back to the main project.

If you’re a programmer, you should definitely browse & search through some of the great work on GitHub (some of these great tools come directly from Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Then you know that project you’re using is open to being improved by you whenever you happen to find a bug or want a new feature to be added. That freedom is valuable to have.

Kurt Zenisek
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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:April 17th, 2013

Free Icon Font with Font Awesome

Free Icon Font

Font Awesome is a great free icon font. It isn’t new (even TurboTax uses it), but it’s definitely worth sharing for those who have yet to check it out. It comes packed with a ton of icons, and it seems to have most use-cases covered as it’s open to contribution & is in active development (version 3.1 is on its way).

It looks great on retina & other high-resolution displays since it uses scalable vector graphics, and it’s easy to integrate & use (it was created for Twitter’s Bootstrap, but it can be used on any site).

Check out Font Awesome. It’s free for commercial use.

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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:September 27th, 2012

The Missing Smart WEB App Banner for iOS (New jQuery Plugin)

Apple Smart App Banners

A glimpse of Smart App Banners in the Apple Developer Library.

Apple’s latest iPhone & iPad update, iOS 6, introduced a feature called Smart App Banners. This isn’t a headlining feature. It’s something that only applies to app developers as a means to inform people of their app when visiting their website. What makes it different/important is that it does so in a way that’s helpful, restrained and consistent.

Smart App Banners are great… until you want to do the same for a web-based app. Apple forces you to provide an iTunes Store App ID in order to use their App Banner, and that’s something web apps don’t have. This was a gap waiting to be filled, so I stepped in to take it on.

Introducing Smart *Web* App Banners!

iPhone: Add Website to Home Screen

Adding this website to an iPhone’s home screen.

Smart Web App Banner is a jQuery plugin that can be quickly and easily added to any web app to inform visitors of the fact that they can save the web app to their iPhone or iPad’s home screen just like any other app.

I’ve used countless jQuery plugins & dabbled in creating my own before now, but this is the first time I feel confident enough to release this as something that others can use on their own sites. You can see it in action on this site if you’re using an iPhone or iPad with Safari (note: Chrome for iOS can’t add items to the home screen so it isn’t shown), but the example page has it shown at all times with a live theme switcher.

This app banner is freely available for anybody to use seeing that the idea of the original is to provide a consistent look & feel across all websites. This is something we feel everyone should be able to enjoy implementing, customizing and using. A new version (1.1) has already been released since it’s initial reveal (which coincided with the release of iOS 6) adding a new feature that allows you to customize the icon’s label. This, and other features/options, can be found on the official Smart Web App Banner plugin page.

I definitely welcome any feedback you might have & please let me know if you come across any hang-ups… both of which can be done using the support section of the plugin’s page.

Kurt Zenisek
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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:February 28th, 2012

The Ever-Improving Google Maps

We’re all familiar with online maps at this point. Some might have started with MapQuest while others were first introduced with Google Maps, Bing/Live/MSN Maps, or Yahoo Maps. For being something that was as simple as a fold-out that fit in the glove compartment of a car, the maps that the we all have access to today have come quite a long way. The maps that are available now are more accurate, have much greater detail & information, are quicker & nicer to use, accomodate for traffic & different methods of transportation, and are (of course) kept up-to-date. Let’s see how the evolution of these tools has affected web design as well as everyday people.

This entire campus was added via Google Map Maker.

This entire campus was added via Google Map Maker. Image Credit: Ars Technica

Fundamental: Speed & Accuracy

It first started with trying to figure out who could get you the information you want the quickest & was the most accurate. We’ve all heard GPS horror stories of the map software telling people to do something crazy like make a u-turn on the interstate or simply takes them to the wrong location. Google Maps & OpenStreetMap have turned to crowd-sourcing to help enrich their maps with finer details (e.g. full-fledged college campus maps) in addition to staying up-to-date at a faster pace. Google has facilitated this by setting up a businesses verification process so businesses can manage their own listings, and Google has also launched Google Map Maker for making peer-reviewed map edits.

Behind the Scenes: Website Integration

Google Maps gained traction early on for its easy-to-embed maps that were still fully interactive rather than being static images (e.g. the visitor can get directions to the business & look around the map without leaving the site). They further catered to web developers by launching an API so developers can integrate a wide a array of map data/tools/capabilities into their website/web app. A developer API isn’t the most user-friendly tool available so they’ve since reached out to non-developers by launching My Maps so people can create & manage their own customized maps using an easy-to-use interface, and these can still be embedded like a regular Google Map.

Important to Everyone: The User Experience

Google has also been evolving the technology powering their maps to make the user experience better. One of their largest improvements somewhat early on was the introduction of 3d models of buildings, landmarks, and terrain with the Google Earth application. The most recent improvement they’ve made utilizes HTML5′s WebGL technology to help merge the advancements made with the Google Earth application with the Google Maps website. They’ve been rolling out invitations to try out WebGL-enabled maps to people using HTML5-capable web browsers recently (a popup is shown in the sidebar to opt-in & shows a tour of what’s new). The WebGL tech allows for them to utilize complex graphics natively within a web browser (avoiding the need for plugins/downloads and doing so without introducing sluggishness/stuttering). Take a look at what’s new in Google Maps by utilizing WebGL:

I highly recommend enabling MapsGL if you’re given the choice as it’s a groundbreaking improvement technologically as well as being a more seamless & more enjoyable way to use maps in your web browser. WebGL is still a new web standard, but people can look forward to seeing more of this in the websites they frequent as HTML5-capable browser adoption increases. Needless to say, we’re investigating WebGL as something to be added to our website development toolset.

If you’re curious, Does my Browser Support WebGL? will tell you if your current web browser is WebGL capable or not, and upgrading to a web browser that has it is as simple as downloading the latest version of Chrome, Firefox, Safari (currently needs to be enabled via the Developer menu), or Opera (Internet Explorer hasn’t added WebGL support yet).

Kurt Zenisek
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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:September 6th, 2011

HTML5 and Online Games

Cross-browser & cross-platform online gamesIf you’re reading this, then it’s safe to say that you’ve probably played a browser-based game before. It might have been while waiting for a download to finish, during a break, or even is something that you like to come back to fairly regularly. The sheer ubiquity and pleasant simplicity of these games have allowed the online game market to grow immensely over the years. Tie-ins with the Facebook community (ie. Farmville & Mafia Wars) have generated quite a lot of hype fairly recently with some of them reportedly reaching somewhere around 60 million users each month.

Good ideas tend to spread to other mediums so we’re now seeing some of these games being ported to mobile devices. Games like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and Bejeweled have found their way to the iPhone and other mobile devices even though their predecessors were simple Flash-based games that gained popularity with people who played the game in their web browser.

Biolab Disaster

Here's a teaser of the Biolab Disaster game with an encouraging quote from the Guardian.

With the introduction of HTML5 comes another viable platform for creating these games. Parallels to the great flixel Flash-game library are being released that solely use HTML5 and other functionality built into every modern web browser. One that caught my interest is the Impact game engine. It comes with a library of common game-related functions, a level editor, and various other tools so that making a game in HTML5 doesn’t have to be done from scratch each time. You can check out the first game created using the Impact engine, Biolab Disaster. Impact is a commercial product that sells for $99 so I’m definitely curious to see if this catches on, and if it allows for further development.

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Games have been a part of the advertising repertoire for some time now. Companies like Nikelodeon, Adult Swim, PETA, and countless others offer web-based games while companies like Burger King and Doritos have even made the leap over to game consoles (XBox 360 owners should probably check out Doritos Crash Course. It’s free and yet tastefully Doritos-branded… sorry about that awful pun). The big companies aside, these HTML5 game libraries empower the web designers of the world (with knowledge of JavaScript & a good idea) to create games, and I can’t help but be excited about that.

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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:December 22nd, 2010

Google’s New Web-based Operating System

Google ChromeGoogle® gave us an update to what they’ve been up to regarding Chrome OS (announced in July of last year) and they seem to be ready to get serious about the potential of their new operating system. Until now, most updates concerning Chrome OS were highly technical and lacked any details describing what Chrome OS is actually going to be once it’s ready to be used by the public. As part of the announcement, Google launched a website dedicated to Chrome OS that includes videos detailing the primary features and a way to sign up for a chance to test the first set of Chrome-powered notebooks.

Operating System… like Windows & Mac?

Yes and no. It’s an operating system that’s based on the open-source Linux OS, but it’s very different from Windows, Mac and the other variations of Linux. The goal is to make the best operating system that’s built entirely around using the Web, because most people find themselves owning a computer yet only use it for accessing the Internet. Chrome OS’s inherent simplicity lends itself to strive to be as fast, mobile and secure as possible rather than trying to add and support new features that some people might end up using. They’ve been focusing on getting the core of the OS right first, and this leaves Google in a situation where they can now claim that their notebooks start up in just 10 seconds (even though the notebook itself is lower power for the sake of a better battery life).

I want to access my favorite websites & discover those I might like with ease

Enter Chrome Web Store. Google launched their Chrome-centric store as part of the announcement. Chrome Web Store has a decent selection of web apps for its launch and users of the Chrome Web browser will notice that this also offers extensions and themes.

iTunes® users will instantly be familiar with how the store is structured. The “apps” that are available to be installed from the store aren’t much more than bookmarks (considering they’re still sites you access with a Web browser), but they do have some enhanced functionality and added benefits.

  • Installed web apps are able to be “pinned” so they take up less space in the tab bar and are easier to access (great for music).
  • They can also be opened full screen by default (great for limiting distractions and for rich media sites).
  • They also offer a different way to manage your saved websites (allowing bookmarks to be a set of links that you simply want to revisit sometime later whereas installed Web apps are sites that you commonly use or rely on).
  • Web designers are free to make their websites act more like applications without having it seem out of place (sites can offer an app that looks and acts in a much different way than their website even though it’s accessing the same content).
Chrome Web Apps

This is what I'm greeted with when I open my Chrome browser

Do I need to buy a Chrome OS device to use it?

What a marvelous thing that open-source software is. Chrome OS is free to be installed on any device it can run on and it costs nothing to upgrade to the latest version (which isn’t too exciting considering upgrades to Web browsers, which is almost all of what ChromeOS is, have always been free). There might be particular hiccups that one could come across when using Chrome OS on a device not intended to run it, though. For example, Google will be bundling cellular data connectivity along with WiFi in every device in an effort to make it so that they always have an Internet connection. Check out Engadget’s in-depth preview of the Google Chrome notebook if you’re still skeptical that Google will actually be releasing this.

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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:December 3rd, 2010

Blurring the Lines Between the Web and Your Browser

Internet Explorer 9 Site Pinning

Internet Explorer 9's new "site pinning" feature

Web browsers are becoming more of an extension of the computer/device’s capabilities than simply being a portal to access and share content with people, and this is allowing the landscape of website design to change along with it. People can now use an online photo service like Flickr® to upload, edit, manage, share, print and pretty much do anything outside of professional photo editing without even needing photo management software. The most extreme example of this idea is that something like Google’s Chrome OS® can actually be reasonable for Google to work on and for people to use.

Google made a great (under 4 minute) video that explains what Chrome OS is, but essentially it’s an operating system (replacing Windows/Mac OS X/iOS) that doesn’t include anything that isn’t necessary to access and use the Internet to it’s fullest. Doing so allows for greater speed optimizations and interface simplicity for those that only use their computers and devices to access the Internet and/or do things that could easily be accomplished using online services (i.e. manage photos via Flickr, play music via Pandora®, work on office documents via Google Docs, etc.). These things wouldn’t exist if the websites that people use today were to still use the precedents set by websites from years ago.

How are things going to change?

One of the things that’s being worked on and discussed is the natural extension of websites into the web browser’s interface and even into the operating system itself. The problem these efforts are trying to resolve is the non-standardized way that websites present interactivity and limiting the level of restrictions that websites have that’s ultimately limiting people from accessing the content that they’re interested in via their preferred avenue.

The beta for Internet Explorer 9 introduced a new feature called “site pinning.” Site pinning allows websites to provide a quicker way to access their site to those using Windows 7 by adding snippets of info and quick links to the Windows taskbar. A menu is shown where the program’s preview thumbnail is usually shown. This can range from an email provider showing the subject lines of the three most recent emails to a simple list of links that point to various sections of the site.

There’s plenty of room for discussion in this area in an effort to help determine the best course of action that considers impacts on usability, security, etc. One of the worst things that could be done is have something approved that turns out to be ill-fated, and any websites that spent time developing for that feature end up having their effort be a waste of time or possibly even have their site break. This deliberate and fully thought out advancement of web standards is what leaves features like natural extension of the browser’s interface to be merely proof-of-concept until agreed upon.

W3C Menu Tag Working Draft

W3C Working Draft of the menu tag

HTML5 has a working draft of a feature that would allow websites to add a toolbar to the browser’s top bar only while viewing that specific site. This means sites like Google Docs could have a full screen view that attaches a toolbar that includes items that mimic those that can be seen in Microsoft Word. Doing so would mean that the look and feel will automatically fit the computer/device that’s being used instead of the look and feel that Google created themselves. It also provides greater control for the user (i.e. they could set various preferences for these toolbars that would then be applied to every site they visit automatically rather than having to do so on a per-site basis, resulting in a more unified and custom-tailored interface). This feature isn’t implemented in any web browsers yet due to the potential malicious activity where sites might try to trick users into thinking they’re doing something that’s being advised by their browser software (such as updating to a new version of Flash) and not the website that they’re currently viewing (such as installing malware).

The most common question

Why focus on building applications within a web browser when they can be built like traditional programs that are generally restriction-free and run directly from the operating system?

I’m going to have to keep my response to this quite brief as this article has grown to be much larger than I had originally anticipated. This is a valid point that the developer needs to put into consideration. Some of the more prevalent advantages of building an application online is the fact that rolling out upgrades reaches the entire user-base at once without any required intervention on their part, the inherent communicative aspect of it is well established and practically real-time, and any remaining disadvantages are being targeted in an effort to make them on par with other development environments. Running directly from the operating system will always have it’s advantages (i.e. performance), but the ever changing trade-offs are leaving web development as a valid option for many programmers, designers, and intellectual property owners. I do intend on dedicating a future article to this question so I can go more in depth while addressing this topic.

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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:November 12th, 2010

Adobe Previews Their HTML5 Software

Adobe® HTML5 software previewAdobe® is one of the few companies that provides great software tools to professionals spanning multiple career fields. They’re definitely being watched under a microscope lately as details emerge regarding the future of Flash now that it’s no longer the only technology capable of providing rich, interactive, online content. Flash has established a prolific user-base, but these latest developments have both users and developers questioning if they should be learning and building Flash-based software instead of the emerging open standard.

There’s no denying that Apple has given them quite a headache by not supporting Flash on their iPhones®, iPods® and iPads®. Apple® has valid reasoning that the battery life suffers immensely while users browse sites that contain Flash content (something that people have become used to being able to do without having to worry about battery life consumption). It also leaves the door open for security issues and crashing (for example, Apple just released version 10.6.5 of their computer operating system where 134 CVE IDs are included as fixes to vulnerabilities; 55 of those are for Flash Player alone).

Last month, Apple reported that they have sold over 120,000,000 iOS devices to date, and most of the functionality of those devices is derived from the fact that they have access to the Internet. Everyone was left wondering how Adobe would respond to Apple standing their ground. Many people forget that Adobe is actually in business as a communication company first and a company of their products second. This means that they change their product line-up to suit the most appropriate communication technologies rather than getting into a legal war to try and force us into keeping Flash alive against the will of other businesses and many of their customers. This isn’t the first time I wrote about Adobe embracing HTML5 either. Kudos to Adobe for how they’re handling this situation.

Previous versions of Flash Professional (the tool used by web designers to create Flash apps/animations) used to be able to export out to Java, but the demand for Java has declined over the years so it was removed. The rise in demand for the new open HTML5 standard has Adobe coming up with ways to utilize it. A recent blog article by an Adobe employee gives a video preview of this new tool that converts projects made with Flash into HTML5 and also provides some great insight into some of Adobe’s problems and philosophies. People that learned Flash are not left in the dust simply because the industry moved on, but rather empowered to use what they know best to create things using the latest standards and Web service technologies.

There’s potential limitations to exporting from a program built with the intention of using a different technology, so Adobe has recently posted a video preview of their new program that’s built from the ground up with the intention of using HTML5 as the primary technology. Watching the video reveals that it’s very reminiscent of Flash Professional, but with subtle changes based on the various things that they’ve learned over the years (changing the interface of a well established application is much more of a headache than implementing the new/improved interface as a whole in a new program).

Adobe has been presented with the problem of their customers having to decide: whether or not to use Flash due to it not being able to run on over 120 million (otherwise very capable) Internet-enabled devices; whether or not to use the HTML5 standard to create something just as good as what is capable through Flash; or whether they can create both (if the client is willing to pay for the two versions). Their philosophy that “Adobe lives or dies by its ability to help customers solve real problems” seems to hold true with their latest announcements. When these tools are  released, clients will be able to get what they want and the developers will be able to use the latest tools for the job to create it so that it’s viewable by as many people as possible.

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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:August 26th, 2010

Web Designers Increasingly Tailoring the User Experience Alongside the Surge of New Technology Devices

Device Screen Sizes

Photo Credit: IGN.com

There has been a surge of new devices coming out with a wide variety of form factors and intended functionality. There was the boom of the netbook form factor and GPS/in-car systems, followed by the iPhone® and other touchscreen mobile devices. Now companies are looking into providing more options for the touchscreen tablet-sized device and the HDTV screens that people already own (with the help of GoogleTV®, AppleTV®, and Boxee®). These all are accompanying desktop computers, laptops and modern game consoles in the fact that they are all capable of being (if not already) Internet-enabled.

When people realize that the device that they’re using is Internet-enabled, they don’t want to have arbitrary limitations on what they can access considering that all of these devices have the screens and input methods that are necessary to access and navigate around a website or Web application that they can use on their computer. They’re all using the one-and-only Internet (or at least that’s how we’d like to keep it), so they should (in theory) be able to access the same content.

Many devices follow this rule of thumb by giving users access to a Web browser of some kind and this trend is becoming more prevalent among device manufacturers. This leaves website designers with a new issue since most of the websites on the Internet were designed for computers with screen sizes ranging from around 13 to 24 inches with a mouse and keyboard. For example, needing to zoom and pan across a website that was designed for a desktop computer while using a mobile device is not the optimal experience.

It’s possible to take the same content on the site, detect the screen size of the device being used and display it in a way that best fits the device. The screen size detection is near instantaneous so it really comes down to the developers dedicating their time toward designing the new way that the content is displayed on the varying screen sizes. They can use a standard set of “Mobile,” “Computer” and “Projector/TV” options to limit the number of designs that need to be created (they might also choose to include a “Tablet” design). This still remains within the standardized capabilities of a website so the user is still simply accessing it via their Web browser of choice without needing to download an application or plug-in. (Although the developers might choose to offer an app simply due to the fact that it’s easier to access an application than to memorize and type in the URL on most devices.)

jQuery Mobile's Testing Lab

jQuery Mobile’s Testing Lab

There’s a bunch of user interface libraries that developers can implement on their websites that help speed up the process of designing, as well as standardize an expected look and interactivity between websites that were developed by people who hold no relation (other than the fact that they used the same user interface library). Here’s a few that have sparked some interest in the developer community:

I would have included Cappuccino on that list, but 280 North (developers of Cappuccino) was recently acquired by Motorola so that they can continue their efforts for Motorola devices and software.

Still, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened—Palm was also recently acquired by HP® and their efforts with WebOS (Web Operating System) will live on in HP’s future offerings. HP has already confirmed that their touchscreen tablet device coming “early in 2011” will be using WebOS instead of Windows 7 Tablet®. Apple® and Google (numerous hardware manufacturers are using Google’s software) already have a strong standing in this area and it’s reassuring to see that Motorola and HP are also making their commitment. The end result is being able to provide a centralized, yet completely open and free of corporate interests, access-point with content that’s custom-tailored to best fit the device that you are using.

It is important that we fight for this, because we don’t want our efforts of forming a centralized communication network to become overrun by large corporations that then will be able to influence what is sent over the network.

Kurt Zenisek
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Kurt Zenisek Kurt Zenisek wrote:August 5th, 2010

What Makes Apple's Mobile Ad Platform Different?

Apple iAdThe iPhoneTM 4 has been out for over a month now. At that time, there was also a software update for older iPhones and iPodTM touches that added many features that were new on the iPhone 4. Part of the software update was the ability for app developers to display ads served up by Apple’sTMiAd” platform. With the popularity of free applications that people download on a whim comes the desire for developers to monetize them to pay for their initial development costs and support further development.

The advertising model has now been brought into free apps, and it’s like a traditional Website that is mostly, if not entirely, supported by advertising. Apple’s iAd platform isn’t the first to offer developers the opportunity to include ads in their apps, but they do it a little differently.

The traditional electronic ad is either text, an image or a brief animation that, when clicked, will take you directly to the advertiser’s Website. iAd recognizes that most mobile devices either don’t support Flash or have a limited mobile edition of Flash so the common animated Flash ad isn’t possible. People often quote the statistic provided by Adobe that 96% of Web browsers have Flash installed, but that figure is actually representative of the percentage of Web browsers that are capable of running Flash and have it installed. That means it’s excluding millions of devices that have a Web browser that can’t run Flash, even if the device owner wanted to (this includes Apple’s mobile devices among many others).

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iAd instead focuses on the fact that 100% of all Web browsers have HTML support. Plus, all of the devices that iAd will be shown on also have CSS and JavaScript support for animation and interactivity. This method allows advertisers to show the full ad experience via CSS and JavaScript on all devices by default and shows the static version of the ad if they set JavaScript to be disabled. Using Flash will instead be shown as a blank block and will require the Flash plugin to show anything at all or requires the developer to also build the HTML version. This begs the question of, “Why not build the HTML version in the first place?” Ads haven’t been using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript until now due to the fact that CSS and JavaScript-based animations were introduced recently so Flash was the only option available to advertising / Website designers.

Apple iAd Toy Story

Click to view full size. Created by blog.monty.de

iAd’s extended ad view does include some new functionality that other ad services don’t offer. The ads expand within the current application when they’re tapped on instead of opening a Website in your Web browser. The ads are self-contained so that everything the advertiser wants to be shown can be included within the interactive ad, and can be closed at any time using a close button that is located in the same place for every ad. The expanded ad also has the ability to:

  • Allow the user to submit a form (register for a giveaway / sign up to a newsletter)
  • Download or purchase something from the App Store (purchase the full product / download a companion app)
  • Save media to the device (wallpapers / videos)
  • Access the camera (scan a barcode in a store / take a picture of yourself using the product)
  • Integrate into other web services (social media / the product’s website)
  • and more…

There’s the potential for a malicious advertiser to exploit some of these features or be a security risk but Apple is requiring each ad to be inspected and approved before being displayed. When iAd was announced, Apple brought up that finding a way to keep the advertising interactive while maintaining an emotional tone was very important to making this form of advertising engaging and effective. This is just another option that’s available to advertisers and developers alike and seems like a promising idea if used properly.

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