Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ovi Must Get It Right. So Far it Hasn't.

Nokia Ovi logo.Image via Wikipedia

Disclosure: I say this as someone who actually wanted to work there, had an awkward experience finding out he was rejected, and still would want to work there.

The Ovi application store for Nokia phones will only work if Nokia is ready to do what it has always avoided: make really hard choices for usability.

Nokia has always been a little lazy in that regard. Nokia shoots for 'excellent' user experiences, but bows for 'market realities' like how much money to spend vs projected win, the consensus organization, and realizing that most people will procure a handset based mostly on what is the cheapest anyway, so they can get huge numbers with a 'really good' user experience. My latest case for this is the 5800: a reworking of their good old S60 operating system to be a touch-screen phone, slammed out the door with that reworking being, well, incomplete. It's just not the gliding, zooming, smoothing, finger-swiping exprience the iPhone is. At one point I actually had to switch to some stylus thingie to scroll a scrollbar. The creative department tried to deal with that by making the stylus look like a plectrum so as to make it a 'feature' in this whole 'music phone' experience. Oh god, who do you think you are you kidding?

Gets worse when your product for them actually doesn't make money. When I worked for them, all departments that made PC software that was not sold -- the Nokia Music application of the time, the NMIT that I worked on -- simply did not get enough resources to be world class. In 2002 Nokia was bundling a PC music application with their phones of which the team did not have the budget to create CDDB connections, so the user still had to enter their own album data after ripping. Yeah, sure. That'll make your music phones a joy to use.

Committed as Nokia claims to be to usability -- and they do, they so do score better in that regard than 90% of all gadget makers out there -- usability is not king at Nokia. Margins are. There is no maniac at the top making sure nothing goes out that isn't a joy to use. Good enough is good enough to launch.

Disney spent a fortune creating a password system that spans all the Go properties. Apple has a password and billing system that goes from seamlessly buying a song to downloading developer documentation without bothering users with what the computer already knows. Ovi was launched years ago with two or three different login/password systems that weren't synchronized: the N-Gage passwords, the music passwords, and whatever other password might come up for Widsets and Mosh and whatever else now is being rolled into it. Who taints their future brand, been played up for years now, by sending out such a clunky version 1? What was it telling me as a customer? Little kingdoms fighting again? Nobody cared enough to see me as one human?

Now Nokia says Ovi will truly this time be their destination for downloadable software for phones, gaming, music downloads. Their app store, their iTunes. Well, their app store used to be the 'Download!' application that worked with premium SMSes that always got sent twice to me in the UK, or required entering credit card data in the US. Now this will go into Ovi, and launch in 9 regions, including the US, with a "seamless experience" (their words) but they have just lost carrier billing in the US. This means that in the USA, downloading an app will not automatically be charged to your phone bill, something that would enable every 15 year old to download to their hearts content or as far as their Pay-As-You-Go balance allows, whichever limit gets hit first. This is something that is getting rolled out on app stores in the UK, and it works really well for the user. It would have been a great advantage in the USA. And not having to futz around and wait for premium texts or having to enter a credit card every time on a 12-button keypad is key here; being able to download a new iPhone app with just a couple of touches here and there is what makes that platform so compelling that people do actually download software and think of their phones as extendable devices to a degree of penetration and mindshare the N-Series never reached, even though the N-Series has always been just as capable.

I love hearing Ovi was at least trying to get it. That makes me really happy. Nokia is a great company and has lots of volume; if they finally get their software services together they can be a true powerhouse that grows the mobile ecosystem into wild new spaces. But only if they can get away from their current track record of releasing what is "good enough" instead of not stopping and aligning all corners, cubies, managers, goals, software factories, incentives, and decisions inside the company until the results of the project are truly wonderful.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

BT 3.0

Bluetooth 3.0 is out. Well, the specification is. It is a strange puppy: while discovery and pairing is unchanged (i.e. 'miserable'), the specification says there is a High Power mode which the 3.0 devices will negotiate to switch to if they suddenly have a huge file to exchange. And it is actually WiFi. Yes, BT 3.0 specifies that BT 3.0-compliant devices can do a transparent 802.11 ad-hoc network briefly to exchange something. They did need some protocol for that now that files are getting larger and larger, and WiFi is well known.

I am hoping that pretty soon some manufacturer will make an SD card for cameras that includes this new standard much like the EyeFi SD card includes WiFi. EyeFi SD cards seem like normal memory cards for your camera, but have a WiFi radio built in so that the moment you walk into a WiFi network or your own network at home, your pictures get uploaded without you having to haul out a cable and connect your camera to anything. You do have to install special software on your home computer, though. I'd love the same kind of SD card with a BT 3.0 stack on it, so I can use my smartphone to browse my camera wherever I am and upload the pics I want after editing them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How I Explained Twitter To My Family

"It's like signing up to someone's public SMS stream. You get it delivered on the web or to your own phone"

Of course, my family is European. They 'get' texting. They then didn't ask "So what is that for?" like they do for Hyves or Facebook and then discuss whether to let their children on. No, they understand an SMS stream, the irreverence that follows, what exactly the potential for conversation is.

Oddly enough, I think I also need a metaphor when explaining Twitter to a certain category of technology worker, one that is totally into computers but still can have Luddite tendencies. People who crunch Fortran in their sleep but get disgusted by phones that might do something else than just take calls (although they are amenable to feature creep as I have written before...). They post to Slashdot a lot, but they don't understand what Twitter could ever have as a value. I think I'll try explaining it as "Asynchronous IRC". Maybe that will instantly convey its strange conversational ways.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

See You Get Care

Over at info.rmatics, Jonathan Abbett discusses the NYT article (warning, have BugMeNot ready) on a study about how adding a picture of a patient to a file makes the radiologists interpreting the files far away from the patient feel more empathy and write more detailed reports.

Jonathan then discusses how, when he was part of a team designing a Personal Health Record system, he considered having a picture of the person included, making the record a bit more human-oriented along profiles on social networks like Orkut and Facebook. He wonders whether this should indeed be part of the record to create better health care.

My answer to that would be: before you do that you really need more study. It could actually make things worse.

It's actually not a no-brainer, from the above study. The study used pictures of the people taken while they were sick. As such, they didn't just create more empathy, but they also became part of the diagnostic dossier: if the radiologists saw symptoms in the pictures, they would describe those too. This is very different from including the facebook profile picture, taken at another, perhaps happier time.

Sickness is actually a great equalizer. When we are in pain, when we are being examined in radiology wards, we all look the same: like crap, and usually surrounded by clinical gowns and tables and walls and objects. Our profile pictures do the exact opposite: trying to show our individuality, our vigor, our 'best' side, the interesting place we were, the cool clothes we wear, or how we are counter-cultural that week and never got around to changing that, or felt moody, or were going through a heavy metal phase, etc. The problem for me there is that this then becomes a place for the diagnosing remote clinician to hang their personal or cultural biases and have them creep into the health care process. Oh yeah, they have them. Don't tell me they don't. And when you then send these files halfway across the world to be interpreted in places where radiologists are cheaper? Off-shoring is happening in that area, yes.

Examples. I have fat friends, who dread going to the doctor, because no matter what they show up with (hangnails, glaucoma, broken arm, being bitten by a zombie) they know that at some point during the consult their medical problem will end up being all about how they are fat. Being fat is not something that will be 'fixed' during the consult (oh god if only), and they know they are fat already, trust me, and they still would like some health care while they are there, so they often end up wondering, would they get taken more seriously if they weren't fat? 'You have ten minutes to see me and we are talking about how I am fat, again?' I think these people should switch doctors but good luck finding a clued-in one in your network. Some of my female friends tell me the same about how all their health care problems get reduced to being about their female bits. And my fat female friends? Don't get them started.

The other side of that are the validated sociological studies that attractive (tall, lean, symmetrical faces and bodies) people get better, well, basically, everything. Hired faster, faster promotions, higher bonuses, more friends, quicker service, more freebies. Same for people with fairer skins in comparison with people with darker skins. Appearance becomes a detractor from actual capabilities, distorting the whole picture.

Health records don't currently have this element in them. Sure, the examining clinician and staff, the attending, the specialist, they get to see the faces, the bodies, some of the trappings of life that the patient walks in with. And these frontliners are also closer, presumably, to the culture and assumptions of the patient, although this is less and less true in hospitals in large metropolitan cities. But still, there is a higher chance of a shared culture, shared understanding of what tokens like hairstyles or life decisions mean, when the clinician and the patient are in the same place. They see, but they also understand.

Now put glimpses of those trappings in the file that goes out, sometimes far away, for interpretation. Where the clinical words 'morbidly obese' becomes instantiated as a very full-figured face, where the facial tattoos and piercings may get interpreted as something else than having had a career at Starbucks for too long, where a popped collar on a polo-shirt... you get the idea. It is far easier for humans to project narratives on pictures than on clinical notes in black & white, and you know what, we simply do not know if that is going to show up in the quality of the diagnosis.

We know that it does from the study, in a specific case of pictures that depict sick people, and when they are new. Do the interpretations of radiological data stay as detailed and long after two years of including pictures of everyone? Unknown. Will the interpretations stay as detailed if they are pictures taken of healthy times? Unknown. Will now everyone have to think hard about what picture to include, promulgating dreaded Internet Disease Profile Pictures? Well, people will anyway. Will 'prettier' pics get better or worse interpretations? Even health care? Unknown.

And quite frankly, this is not an area to experiment. Costs of getting it wrong are too high, and the costs will show up too far into the future to easily fix, nebulously, even if they are actually there. The current photo-less health record evolved over the last 200 years, and while it is far from perfect, the fact that during this evolution including a Polaroid instant shot just didn't become standard when it certainly would have been cheap enough to do so, should tell us something. As I said, 'More study is definitely be required' would be my recommendation.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Request

Is there some kind of graphic already available I can print out and cut out and laminate, about the size of the credit card so it fits well with them in my wallet, that conveys the sentiment I CAN HEAR THE SOUND LEAKING FROM YOUR EARBUDS FROM HERE ? Something I could pull out and hold up in front of someone to communicate something they may be completely unaware of, and might even be mortified to find out if they were good human beings? Something pretty neutral, maybe even friendly, that I could carry around?

There must be. I wonder what the reactions will be.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Watch It

The famous 2-Way Wrist RadioImage via Wikipedia

Let's talk about phone watches for a minute. Yes, you read that right, the dream of having Dick Tracy's wrist accessory just won't die. After the stunning successes of the wrist watch calculator1, the wrist watch camera, the wrist watch TV2, and the wrist watch music player, some manufacturers are now trying for the wrist watch phone -- and by extension a combo of some or all aforementioned functions.

And I am not talking about Bluetooth-connected wrist watches that pair up with your mobile phone and display the latest SMS or number of an incoming call, like Prada (also by LG) and Sony Ericsson made. No, manufacturers are actually trying to slam full-fledged multi-function mobile phones into a wrist-watch.

All I can say for now is: It's Not Going Well. Let's start with a product demo video that is Exhibit A this week for How Not To Demo Your Product As A CEO At A Prestigious Industry Event. Hint: know your damn product. You may want to shut this video off after the first thirty seconds, but I am going to ask you to stay through the end when a secondary 'detaching' concept is demoed.

Neutrano's Nutec WristFone demo. It's not just the watch that is clunky.

It is actually possible to do this concept without looking like you crossed a Palm IIIc with all of 1986; here's LG's attempt.

LG shows off its watch phone concept. No fiddly stylus here.

The LG phone comes with a BT headset, which is the right thing to do. The most important point I want to make to the people designing these -- and yes, I already know manufacturers will try again and again -- is: take it from someone who let important calls go to voice mail rather than be seen sidetalking in public, your consumers do not want to be seen holding their wrists to their ear. Yes, those few inches between a hand and a wrist make an enormous difference; not only is holding a wrist to the ear very uncomfortable, it also looks stupid. And taking the watch, strap and all, and holding that your ear? No.

The problem with accessories is that they make things more complicated. That BT headset that LG supplies will be forgotten, or not charged well enough, or will need to be kept in the ear, all hurdles for different people. The idea of a quick-release object to be taken off the strap makes more sense, but there's still the implementation of plastic and fiddling there in that device...

The real problem is that these manufacturers are trying too hard to stay with in a known concept format. Meanwhile, the last ten years have proven that their target markets are happy to adorn themselves with all kinds of newfangled techno baubles as long as it makes them look cool. LG comes closest there, but hey, let's look at how an actual watch maker does it when they really want to show off new technology in just plain old watches:

Seiko Epson Electronic Ink watches, ladies' (2008), and men's (2006)

Don't like how they display time? That's no problem, since their whole faces are one continuous strip of electronic paper like the Kindle, one press changes their look, and these displays are only getting better.

Now that's plenty of space to put a user interface on, either with nice adorning buttons on the side to select regions, or a touch layer that now is big enough to actually allow some comfort when selecting. Hope voice-recognitions really is up to requiring a lot less physical interaction when composing a text. And ditch the camera, seriously, and the music player. There is no way that these wrist devices will provide more combined utility than having those functions separately, so don't try to put an iPhone on my wrist. Strip the phone down to a Nokia 1100: voice, text, um that's it. Integrate a detachable headset, pre-paired and kept charged by the phone, into the wristband so it is always with the phone, ready to quickly pick up when the call comes. And yeah, stick to the E-Ink, at least until the flexible displays allow for something that wraps around the wrist that much and thus doesn't require a flat surface limiting the available space, and uses that little energy. You may not want to read War and Peace one flashing line at a time, but a 140 character Twitter update? Sure. Especially if it looks that chic. I bet the battery might even hold a charge for a full day. Or just the night out on which you would wear this.

Oh, and once this happens, make the watch-chain version. My wrists really sweat too much for watches, I always end up hooking them around a beltloop anyway.

1Oh man, I wanted one of those so bad when I was 11, and I really didn't have anything to add.
2Wanted that even more, and this in a country that had no daytime TV except on Wednesdays.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Commodities Won

Man, I thought it was an April Fool's Joke that SGI would sell itself to RackspaceRackable Systems. Apparently not.

You'd think the HQ building was worth more.

I don't know what lesson there is here, except never bet with expensive custom hardware against an army of cheap Chinese boxes with an Open Source Operating System sponsored in time by an army of rabid coders and money by IBM.

I still wish this was an April Fools prank.