Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Start The New Year

New Year's Eve is upon us and with it comes renewal. After years and years of social media on the Internet, we all have accounts on many spaces, and I am getting the vibe that getting rid of that cruft is part of renewal too. People are telling me about "friends" they want to chuck off their facebook page for only contributing white noise, blogs they want to close, accounts and services they want out of their lives.

Especially the diarists seem to be quitting. Not the people with blogs about a specific subject that have created a following over time, but the ones chronicling their lives, the regular family newsletters, that often live in extensive blog networks like LiveJournal. Turns out Facebook with its short blips and easy upload of multi-media content is filling the gap just fine, and less censorship due to Harry Potter fanfic or sales to shady Russian outfits. It's just easier to commit a short update to a one-line text box than to face the large entry field crying for a multi-line piece of writing most blogs use.

I myself have the rule that for every new account I must close an old one, and coming up is last.fm. After years of connecting it with almost every way I listen to music (iTunes, Spotify, my iPods) and thus having built up years of recommendations and a taste profile on that site, it still doesn't give me any useful recommendations except a bucket load of "similar artists" to the last 5 I listened to. Except I do not select my music primarily on artist, because 80% of everything is garbage, including the catalog of most groups, conceived as they were as album fillers to go with the two hit singles. So telling me I need to explore 80% based on liking 20% just doesn't work. And why just focus on similar artists since every modern product is a combination of artist, composer, producer, and remixer? I vastly prefer Pandora that tries to recommend by finding similar songs, not artists or groups. Alas you can't get that in the UK.

So with last.fm simply not giving me use, it has to go. I need the mental space for whatever will replace facebook. Because since every Web property lives and dies, we can be sure something will.

You closing out anything?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Convergence Diverging: A Micro Trend

Nokia N95 8GBNokia 95. Image via Wikipedia
I have now heard it often enough I am considering it a trend, albeit a minor one: technologists, mobilists, smartphone carrying aficionados who proudly showed off and used their devices for making and publishing media, playing music, browsing the web, and now using a ton of applications, saying they just want a small cheap no-frills phone. The biggest Apple fan I know at work -- seriously, every morning when gets at his desk he unpacks about £2700 of Apple gear -- recently asked me where in the UK to get a phone that was so simple it didn't even have a color screen but made fabulous calls. Or these people want to go back to a generation behind the current smartphones, or stay there if they still have the old device. Especially the Nokia N95 has staying power.

The camera and the phone were really the first to merge, and they did pretty good, albeit with very low expectations of what the pictures would be like. The music player was not the most popular merge for quite some time, until the iPhone with its large touchscreen somehow made it happen. And then the apps revolution came and every manufacturer jumps into the market with a slab, usually as big as possible, sometimes with a qwerty slide-out keyboard, to get that mini-computer feel.

Just one problem with it: as more got added, the phone part got really, well, crappy. Dialing becomes an exercise of pressing fingers on unforgiving glass if you can even find the dialer amidst all the icons, the ear speaker hole is nowhere to be found because the bezel has to be small, I can't find the microphone on most of them, taking a call requires slipping and sliding over the screen while already juggling pulling the device out of a pocket or purse, hanging up is not satisfying -- especially since the batteries happily too often end the call for us by having talk times measured in too few hours and stand-by times measured in a single day, instead of the days and weeks we were used to. Making a call is just not a nice experience any more on these slabs, and us tech adopters have now had these smartphones with us long enough we are tired of mishandling calls at work for the sake of being able to pass time launching birds at pigs living in terribly dysfunctional architecture.
Nope, I am using a dedicated point-and-shoot Leica as a camera now, after years of shoot-and-upload camphone experiments of which the resulkts just always seemed so drab once they were on the web. And others are, as said, decoupling their phones from their application pads, or music players from their phones. Because in the end, some of us really need to make good calls, not just texts and leave voicemail.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The iPad Is Killing IE6 YAY!

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBaseOver on the Mini-Microsoft blog, a blog that looks at Microsoft from a critical insider's perspective, a lively debate sprung up about the position of the iPad in business computing. All signs point to the iPad tablet having achieved a wholly unique position in the mass-market computer experience: a computing device that is not seen as a computer and doesn't have all the baggage associated with computers. Consequently, the mass-market is flocking to it, feeling supremely comfortable using it. The comment discussion wondered whether the iPad has or is making inroads in the enterprise or not. Is the iPad just a home toy? Can it be used for serious business? And how will it change business if it does make inroads?

There's an anonymous comment there about this subject, brought to my attention by Genius Mike, that I would like to highlight:
Ex-Microsoft now drone in Corporate America here.

My team is doing mobile computing planning for our mid-sized org. The users from GM levels to line worker levels are saying things like:

1. We want ipad because labor's very competitive in this town and if we give them a tool to use that they won't like they'll just go to another company. It's not the 80's or early 90's any longer.

2. We want snazzy visuals on the screens. (Uh oh, now we need design geeks on staff in addition to database coders.)

3. We want the app to be pick-list driven as much as possible, scroll through the options the way you scroll on an ipod Touch. Using the keyboard or writing anything is last resort for many users toward the very top (dashboards, summary views, zoom in for detail) or very bottom (the guy in the warehouse pressing a button to send an email to a distributor that an item is in stock) of the org chart. It's the middle managers who want and need full laptops with keyboards.

4. We want fast graphics because it annoys our users to wait. They're used to ipod and iphone graphics speeds now, and won't accept less. See point 1 as to why we care about pleasing our users.

5. We don't want something that takes 5 minutes to boot. They think of iphones and ipods as computers, and know that the ipad is pretty much on from the word go, and see anything less as also-ran technology.

And maybe most interesting:

6. Why are we still term serving into old client/server apps when we're using them remotely? If our supplier isn't keeping up with the times (translation: supplying a web version with all functionality of the fat client version, so that RDP is no longer required), maybe we need to evaluate alternatives.

The ipad UI seems to be yanking managers who didn't care about ancient business app UI's designed around Win95, into the 21st century. Suddenly nasty old VB Access form type UI's, with non-intuitive click sequence behavior in places due to poor programming by low-level drones or toolkit bugs, that are found all over corporate America are being seen as a problem, at least at our organization.

And what they're saying is that a modern UI is a feature, and that if their supplier can't meet their UI bar, it's time to at least look at other suppliers to see if they can.

This could put pressure on vertical market MS partners to consider UI rewrites, and perhaps the rewrite would have the goal of targeting multiple web devices rather than just Windows fat clients.
My first reaction was "Yay! Death of SAP!" -- and if you have ever had to use SAP inside of a large enterprise you'd agree with me -- but I am hearing SAP is actually making tools to access their back-ends through web-pages as well. I bet those pages will still emulate the usability flows from hell SAP is so famous for, so all we get out of this is now being able to have the famous SAP rage be delivered by iPad as well. (I guess allowing corporate users to use SAP systems on iPads might be huge liability, because in contrast to a desktop computer, the bar to flinging an iPad across the room in utter frustration that you are wasting your life away voluntarily becoming hostage to people who are forcing you to use this mess, really is way lower.)

But seriously, iPads gaining this kind of enterprise traction could be great news for remote-desktop companies like Citrix who would let users access the Windows fat clients on iPads, but Citrix should be warned that there is a time-limit on this method, as the users mentioned above will want eventually to use these fat clients, whether dashboards for the upper echelons or ordering and manufacturing control systems for the shop-floor, with pages and applications that work natively on the iPad. One brilliant thing about using a Citrix remote viewer, though, is that no information is stored on the iPad, so losing the iPad isn't half the nightmare losing a laptop is.

But there is a wonderful implication to these business applications being re-engineered. Yes, the Win95 VisualBasic apps being tossed is already long overdue, but the first wave of web-based systems needs to be tossed too. Desperately. These web systems were made during the heyday of Microsoft owning the web, at home and at work, and the developers of these early web systems were often seduced into using Microsoft-only web technologies like ActiveX. These were tied to Internet Explorer 6, and this led to IE6 being mandatory on corporate desktops, and staying that way. Even as the Internet moved on and realized that IE6 was incredibly buggy in how it showed the web and so badly coded it was terribly insecure and allowed all kinds of viruses and trojans to be delivered to the user's computer, it had to remain on many corporate desktop because whole internal infrastructures were built on it.

Not anymore. If the iPad is so compelling the directors want to use it for business, and systems made for it are so reliable or error-proof it makes sense to invest in them to deploy on the workfloor, all these old internal systems will be fazed out, slowly, but surely. And finally I can stop wondering on projects whether I should test on IE6 for that one group of users stuck inside an enormous company still chugging away on IE6...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

No, Series 40 Actually Really Is The Future

So many other things I wanted to post, but I just wanted to react to John Gruber's article on What Is Next For Nokia, now that they have a new pure-software CEO. In it, Mr Gruber outlines why Nokia's current phone operating systems will not do, and what the alternatives are.

He forgot one OS, though. One that works really well and Nokia has been engineering for a long time: Series 40, the bread & butter "low end" Nokia phone environment, that has amazing stand-by and talk time and uses its resources conservatively.

But wait, weren't we talking about smartphones here? Yes we were, but you can innovate simple systems up to be very powerful, and Nokia does keep innovating Series 40. Yes it started as a two-softkeys-and-a-rocker shell for black & white phones, but it just keeps going and going. You can make applications for it using J2ME and sell them with the Ovi store. It has a fine browser for simple sites, that can be expanded and made better. Nokia has shown all kinds of features that talk to the hardware can be added to it, like FM radio. And recently, Nokia pushed it even further: it added a touch screen and called it Touch & Type.

And it just works. And is ridiculously cheap compared to an iPhone.

Notice something about this beauty? It has fewer keys than a standard mobile "dumbphone". Touch & Type manages to actually simplify a standard mobile phone by adding the most natural gesture of bypassing softkeys and rockers and just hitting the screen. And word from my sources at Nokia World is that of all the new devices, this one was just simply pleasant. This is a smartphone for people who are comfortable with phones, whose love is for phones, not computers, and will recoil from Android screaming about what kind of geekery this shit is.

Nokia can innovate from the bottom up. Smartphones are about taking computers and smashing them into a handheld form factor as best we can, but Nokia's strength is making phones. Nokia started losing its way when it though it had to make "pocket multi-media computers", but it has the promise to come back using its core strength and make amazing phones that end up smarter and nicer and simpler and and cheaper and having longer staying power and thus a larger global footprint than anything else.

In my last post I wrote about that using somewhat dismissive language of retreat, but after looking at Nokia's options and at what Series 40 can do, I am actually thinking it could be a triumph of re-focusing.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Don't Pay Attention, I Am Just Venting About Nokia Smartphones

If you believe the analysis of the market share growth numbers, Nokia and RIM -- they make the BlackBerry devices -- are growing globally in smartphones, and Apple is flat. Yet all your friends either carry or want an iPhone, so what gives? Well, if you are wondering too and are reading this, what gives is that you are either in a specific minority of technology adepts, or in the US, and, knowing my readership, you are probably both. And you like iPhones so you have them and you read about them and it seems everyone has an iPhone, so how can anyone say Apple's marketshare of smartphones is not growing, if not downright flat? Did nobody see the lines in front of the store? (And can we say the iPhone is a luxury item when half the custodial staff in the office building I now work in seems to have them?) Well, all predictions are that Q3 2010 will be the best iPhone sales Apple will have ever seen, but that a huge amount went to previous iPhone users and not so many to new customers, globally.

And as far as Nokia's share goes, there is one fundamental business things that Nokia is very good at and has always been very good at: making sure that all the pieces and steps to make phones arrive at the right factory at the right time, and the end product ends up in the store at the right time, with never too little or too much inventory at any step. That's called 'logistics' and if you are really good at these kinds of predictions and fulfillment, you end up being able to make your products cheaper than your competitors while still being able to charge the same, or charge less and still make a good profit. Nokia does logistics well, so they can make a profit on value phones. Nokia also has a big portfolio of smartphones that are not all super duper high end range, the C and E series and other models. They run the Symbian smartphone operating system, but on cheap processors and with not that much memory.

The result is that Nokia has a whole set of mid-range "value" phones that they sell to countries and populations where expensive premium iPhones do not do well. So yes, people stand in line in Indonesia for a Nokia smartphone, a messaging phone, of a type that in the US only a teen would buy, if it was offered in the US at all. That's where their market growth is coming from: pushing 'advanced' models and capabilities down the hierarchy of consumers.

But however much its market share is still bigger or growing compared to Apple's in some views of the data, Nokia is not seen as a market leader. Their flagship smartphones have been getting mediocre to disastrous reviews for a while now, with some having been simply released way too early with flaws that the market simply will not stand for since Apple raised the bar with their first iPhone. Nokia Fanboy wisdom is that if you want to know what features Apple will release now, just look at what features Nokia flagships had 3 years ago -- but reality is that these are advanced features the market mostly ignores until Apple releases them, because Apple packages these features in such a way that users can find them where they expect them and not 3 menus deep, and in a way that makes them work.

Apple is just minor competition. Samsung wants Nokia's title of the premiere phone maker, and Samsung is willing to spend to get it, adopt any outside technology that will help, invent any advancement they need. And when it comes to cheap smartphones, nothing will beat Chinese manufacturers slapping together equipment with Google's free Android operating system on them. Google's Android is just bulldozing ahead on all sales fronts, because Android is both cheap for manufacturers to build devices with and does have what consumers want and Nokia and BlackBerry are lagging on: touchscreen devices, and a flourishing marketplace for cheap apps that is quick and easy to use. BlackBerry does have its wonderful messaging integration, but it doesn't get widely perceived as a fun media and apps machine (yet), and Nokia's smartphone system, Symbian, well, its services to integrate with the rest of the Internet are just a mess, its app store needs continuous upgrades to become acceptable, and the whole package of fun and media and discovery and ease of use is just not there right now. Their cheerleader bloggers are leaving, numbers keep coming out their consumers are considering other phones like Android or BlackBerry.

So what is next, what can Nokia do to take their lead back, to count again in innovation? Nokia has a new flagship device, the N8, they are readying to ship real soon. The device that has to erase the memory of how bad the N97 ended up being for many people and how clunky the 5800 was to use. I have held it, I have played with it and I can say the hardware is gorgeous. Now that every smartphone is some kind of dark slab with more black or some metallic plastic on the back, Nokia went for a textured all-metal enclosure, anodised in bright fun colors, that feels solid, with buttons that look and feel robust and real. The result is something unlike anything on the market: a device that feels like a serious machine yet manages to also be sleek and fresh. It has a soul. I wanted to lick my orange N8, expecting it to taste like ice-cold orange Fanta.

Nokia N8 from the side
Nokia N8 in blue. Image credit to Ben Smith from The Really Mobile Project and Rafe Blandford.

Nokia N8 from the side
Nokia N8 software. Image credit to Ben Smith from The Really Mobile Project and Rafe Blandford.
All I can say about the software, though, is what has already been seen in videos: yes it is fast and zippy, yes it is technically very accomplished underneath, and boy yes, it is just clunky looking. Symbian^3 is still stuck with too much black and grey, too many mental artifacts to keep track of (home screens, home buttons, widgets of all shapes and sizes creating jumpy lay-outs, application choosers with scroll bars that just recede into more black) and the whole thing just doesn't delight or surprise. Not the biggest surprise since Nokia spun Symbian off into its own Open Source consortium, and Open Source has no track record of truly beautiful and curated graphical user interfaces, depending as it must on the good-will of volunteers. I have been unable to confirm the Symbian Foundation has user testing labs, or commissions any user testing of its products, or can demand the manufacturers do it.

But we all know that what comes out of the box itself on the device is only half the story. The other half is how it relates to the Internet for maps and music and storage and getting applications. Well, for the services side, there is a portfolio of them, branded under the name Ovi. Half of the music store, "Ovi Comes With Music", is a non-starter for many: to this day, after years of being on the market, it still will not work with Apple Macintosh computers, nor browsers besides Internet Explorer, thus creating a ghetto. The tracks are also still heavily encumbered with Digital Rights Management while all other music stores have dropped that, which means tracks bought or rented from Nokia can not be transferred to other devices and you are basically locked to only your phone to listen to them or to a specific PC you can only change every 3 months. Yet what consumers want is to listen to their music everywhere and make it feel like they own their collection. Ovi Maps has its loyal fans but I personally find harder to work with on my device than Google Maps, Ovi Contacts currently confuses me, and the whole Ovi proposition is disjointed on the web from the art direction to the capabilities -- you'd think a service with a contacts manager and a mapping application would allow you to quickly see where your contacts live on a map. No such luck. And no real new services or integration now for years. Ovi has stagnated.

So, a flagship device with no good Internet services behind it, while Google and Apple integrate with your life on your computer and the web. What about applications? The new hot?

They are actually still hard to make for Nokia Symbian devices. Nokia is working hard to make it easier, transitioning to new toolkits, but word among developers is that even with the new tools you have to install this and install that and tune this package and that thingy, and when you actually have it all working, the development environment still does not compare to the tight experiences Google and Apple offer to develop on their devices. As said, Nokia is moving away from its traditional, impenetrable, awful Symbian C++ tools that take between 3 to 18 months to get fully proficient in, to a toolset called Qt and more standard C++. The idea was that if you wrote to Qt your application would work on Symbian phones and the new smartphone system Nokia co-built with Intel, MeeGo, but Qt is now being delivered with a different interface set for either Symbian or MeeGo so you will have to rewrite chunks of your app anyway, exactly what we were told would be avoided. Still, yes, there it is, Nokia has announced they are dropping Symbian for their flagship phones and going with this new MeeGo stuff.

Nokia is not just a smartphone maker. They are a phone maker with a vast portfolio of low and mid end mobile phones as well, phones that run on their Series 40 software platform that so many people know and love. The line-up will be Series 40 for low and mid-range, Symbian for messaging phones, MeeGo for the high end. Because of that logistics thing Series 40 phones are selling worldwide really well. So well they keep the company very much in the black, in markets other phone makers cannot touch because of their costs. But Series 40 are not attention-catching phones in future innovation, they do not put Nokia on the map of high-end innovators. You can't lead without owning smartphones because what is a smartphone now will be a featurephone (mid range) in 18 months and low end 18 months after that. Series 40, however, really works well, conserves battery, does well with little memory, and does get new features as phones get better.

The smartphone division has a new leader and he has promised to kick ass. He has got his work cut out for him. He will have to yell at every part of Ovi to get their frickin' act together and become an integrated system of services instead of the current demoralizing collection of silos (semi-secret: each Ovi service you see is made by its own team, and the teams are not in the same country. Try getting a coherent offering out of that). The bigger hurdle is that he will have to be willing to become very unpopular when he kills the bonuses for a lot of groups in the company when he holds back phones for simply not being ready or not being at a high enough standard. He doesn't have to just get out better phones, no, he will have to change the mentality of the company that makes them. Let's see him indeed ride rough over Nokia's Finnish consensus culture that so far has allowed smartphones that are at 80% of desirability to come out, something that used to work before Apple set the standard that a smartphone had to be 100% delightful -- a grade Apple sometimes doesn't even make. Let's see him give some real direction and alignment and make all those scatter-shot pieces one convincing whole. And then lets see him doing it with MeeGo.

So, are our hopes now on MeeGo? Only if Intel is breathing new ideas into it, and Intel is seriously hiring for it. You see, whether there is or isn't some stunning smartphone environment software inside Nokia waiting to come out is irrelevant: that innovative and beautiful software will have to pass the hurdle of the same mid-level managers that so far for the last three years have approved the N97 and 5800 and all the sameness blackness of Symbian^3, so why expect they will suddenly allow a huge change now -- assuming they even have it in their labs -- instead of more of the same? From the last 4 years I'd say the innovation in MeeGo will only happen if the Intel side of the cooperation comes up with it, because Nokia certainly hasn't shown it owns excellence in that process. Maybe Anssi can get new managers to let new designs flourish, and the pipeline of innovation will be great and mobile MeeGo will integrate seamlessly with online Ovi, and the whole experience will raise the bar above the coherent targeted experiences Apple and Google will come out with from their current advantage. Yeah.

Or more likely, after a few more years of bleeding innovation and bleeding fans Nokia will declare victory by saying that their mid-range Series 40 phones are now so smart and so good with their J2ME apps and their music players that Nokia does not need a separate smartphone division anymore, and pull out of that market altogether. They will coast some on an internal mythology of "making good solid tools the world actually uses while the other companies makes flashy nonsense phones" and say how that aligns with their no-nonsense Nordic roots, while completely losing their lead. The will become the Bic ballpens maker of the mobile phone world selling buckets and buckets of them in the developing world and in the cheap end of the portfolios of operators, while Mont Blanc fountain pens Apple gets all the headlines and aspiration.

Or not. The figures of Nokia's bleeding leadership will be put in front of the world next week when their quarterlies and outlooks come out, and hopefully their shareholders or board of directors will not want to sign up to being a commodity maker with a flat share price. Hopefully they will demand an end to the culture that allowed Nokia to be unable to produce good software in both their smartphones and their webservices, starting at the top that hasn't been able to pull mobile and online and ease and beauty together, that hasn't demanded it from the divsions they lead. Exciting times ahead for the Big Blue N then. But talking about Nokia turning this around is like talking about making the industrial changes to stop Global Climate Change: you know it can be done, many think it must be done, and yet it doesn't seem to really take off.

Me? After years of having had and used one of the first Symbian phones in the US when I tested for Nokia, of importing my own Symbian phones when I lived in the US after I had left Nokia, after having put my whole family on Nokia phones, am considering a cute Sony Ericsson Android phone. It is not lickably fresh-looking, though. I am kind of regretting that. The N8 really is something else.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Real Use Of Apple's Facetime

The Ad:

Genius Mike on The Reality:
Electronic jackoff is going to be huge. Let's all agree on that.
Unrecordable, no cellphone minutes used
Out-of-band payments could make dial-a-slut reality
"Insert $10 into my e-account and i'll answer your call!"
Get facetime integrated into a PC and WIZZOW
Banks and banks of bitches fingering themselves Just 4 U
All spun off of a server

Which makes me wonder why this hasn't happened for Skype yet then. They do videocalling pretty good as well. Is it the mobile aspect?

Also, why is the girl in the ad looking down? The camera is above the screen, right?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Social Part May Be Outdated Soon

Image representing Friendster as depicted in C...Image via CrunchBase

It is, or will be pretty soon, arguable that Facebook has peaked. Yet many phones designed in the last two years have Facebook as a central part of their strategy. Sure they include Twitter functionality as well, and maybe other sites as well, but Facebook is always at the top of the list. But as we see, the popularity of sites changes. Friendster peaked, Orkut peaked, so many were hot and peaked and then all their users moved on.

It takes a year or more to design a good phone interface, and in that time the hot site your phone is trying to be a conduit for could be out of favor. There goes your fashionable phone -- unless you commit to a design that allows multiple conduits and either letting 3d parties develop these conduits for the new hot sites or having an in-house team that keeps building them.

Meanwhile, it took a number of tries to configure my wireless access point in my reception to share the networking it receives from my office wirless LAN over its single ethernet jack so I could connect my television. Yes, my new television wants to be on the Internet, not something I would thought I would ever say 10 years ago. It took me an hour to find out between all the manufacturers how this should be properly done. How do people without degrees in Computer Science do this? Still, I can now display my flickr stream as a slideshow.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

HTML5 Will Save Us Again

Genius Mike: Antivirus Firm Warns of New Mac OS X Spyware Application
no click
point to be made: how much malware was enabled on the Win side simply because of the gaping functionality holes in Windows?

FJ!!: and security holes

Genius Mike: how many times in your life have you had to reach for an unzipper, un-rarrer, media player, or more?

FJ!!: UNIX is really gonna be tested now

Genius Mike: my understanding is that unix has already been sodomized and left for dead
Windows has made massive strides
And OS X needs the most work of them all.

FJ!!: UNIX is on your desktop right now
at least the security model

Genius Mike: ja

FJ!!: and that will be tested

Genius Mike: the services will be tested, and the user-gateway (passwords, windows annoyer or whatever it's called)

FJ!! : well, yes that coding will
but UNIX has been working for a while on not letting memory and pointer errors escalate

Genius Mike: yes, and so has Windows
Windows 7 is nearing state-of-the-art

FJ!!: kernel wise?

Genius Mike: yes, and library scrambling
and address scrambling
and stack protection
and so forth.

FJ!!: scrambling seems like such a kludge

Genius Mike: The man who said flashless, javascriptless IE8 on Win7 was the most secure browsing platform wasn't lying
Every barrier helps.

FJ!!: wonder how the NSA plays bejeweled then

Genius Mike: HTML5! the savior of the universe!
How'd you cure your herpes? HTML5!
Who colored the moon taupe? HTML5!
HTML5 is a box of tinctures sold out of a gypsy wagon

FJ!!: I think it made Steve Guttenberg a star too

Genius Mike: :]

FJ!!: I am so posting this on TST

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trusting Privacy

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase

Company starts service. People like the service. People use the privacy and filtering part of the service. Company wakes up to huge hosting and bandwidth bills. People get caught up in the service and post their multi-faceted lives with different privacy levels and filters to the service. Company realizes their real asset is all their data, and wants to mine it. Company changes Terms Of Privacy. Nobody notices until they do notice it.

And suddenly people are very very scared when they realize their lives and reputations are in the hands of, well, no longer four plucky guys in a garage who want to do The Right Thing, but god knows who where with what capital, who want a return and have a lot of bills to pay and are sitting on your very marketable private life.

I am not talking about Facebook here. I am talking about LiveJournal, a social blogging system that had privacy and filtering groups baked in. Compared toFacebook, LiveJournal is an intensely geeky service that makes it difficult to put up media, but hey, us geeky and computer-literate people live for this and went and did it. And after many a sale and tribulation, we now all have to deal with the fact that the content we have been making, our gossips, our rants, our career-ending descriptions of practical jokes on our bosses, safely hidden behind privacy walls since the millenium turned, are on systems owned now by a bunch of people in Russia nobody really knows.

Facebook is still in the same hands, but has indeed the same problem of very high bills, and the fact that the current revenue models are not quite paying the bills, or not enough according to the people with capital. And now an even larger group of people -- 1/3 of Canada has a Facebook profile if the numbers are to be believed, and that is just one country -- is suddenly confronted with that their private lives may, or have, become over-public, way beyond intended.

Some concerns are overblown like the cooperation with Yelp and news-sites; Facebook is not giving your Facebook data to Yelp to make your social Yelp page, the Yelp page is instead asking Facebook to fill certain blocks of it in. But, even though it is Facebook putting your social data inside the Yelp page, it says Yelp.com in the top bar of your browser so it looks like Yelp knows everything you did on Facebook, which was not the idea. This is simply a breakdown of the mental model users have of how a web page is built up. However, Facebook is also leaking your data through your friends' lousy privacy settings left and right, and is starting to have a spam and rogue applications problem, and is making it really opaque how to manage who sees what of what you make. Right now LiveJournal's intricate privacy groups are actually easier to track, and that is saying something. Facebook is having real problems.

Fundamentally, the problem is that your stuff is on other people's machines. I have said it before: that's a problem if you want to keep it private. There really isn't that much of a penalty for a company to break their Terms Of Service where they say they will keep your stuff private for you and then mine or publicize it anyway -- especially since those TOS always say they can choose to change unilaterally, and you never read them before you clicked OK anyway. Not for Facebook, not for the company backing up your text messages, not for the picture hosting site you use.

So, run from Facebook? Personally, I actually can't. The tech leaders who are being reported having done so are indeed at the level that they get reported about. Me, I do not get reported about, so without a Facebook profile, employers start wondering if I really do do social media, and since Facebook isn't passé, how effective I could be in crafting electronic strategies that include the site if I am not on it. I do lock that profile down, though, to only show what I would want an employer looking for me to see. As in, no actual content, just the cursory information.

And what about the privacy concerns? Well, done is done. We have to assume Facebook may not pull back from the brink. But it is still a fun service to stay available to your friends and see your pics and their pics and read what they are doing now. Just don't put something on there you really do not want anyone to know. Vacation pics, sure. Vacation pics of you puking, no. Treat it as a supermarket community billboard; yes it has notes that leak privacy like you have a plant for sale and like to listen to 60s Soul Records and who wants to trade? But those are no big deal. You can still follow your favorite artists and post about your BBQ. Just realize that telling the world your boss is an asshole is just not to be done over status updates anymore, unless it is a temp job and you will be gone at some point.

The Internet is generally terrible at keeping secrets. Always has been. Always will be. Especially secrets that can be found by combining little pieces together, because the Internet is really good at that. Take the pieces of your life that are not public and put them somewhere else, if you must put them on the Internet at all, with no links like names or aliases pointing back to your public you.

And as time goes by, and people actually do not do this because only geeks really understand the danger, and we all become more and more used to people making everything public, we will all gain. We will all realize people have multiple facets to their lives, and we will get used to all knowing too much about each other. And like people packed in London public transport during rush-hour, we will develop the ability to just not look and not acknowledge each other, as necessary to stay sane and work together.

And that's great. Because keeping track of whom you said what to really is too much work.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Evening With The Mobile Web vs Mobile App Debate

Image representing Flirtomatic  as depicted in...Image via CrunchBase

One of big question these days for people with a great mobile idea is how to distribute your content or service: a purpose-made application? A nicely scaling website? A website built to look like an application on the right phones? This is actually an expensive question to get wrong now so many want to deliver content to the pockets of so many. Competition is fierce, time-to-market is an issue, visibility is an issue, and meanwhile Apple may simply not let you play.

Arguments all around. It is easier to discover apps than mobile services, as application stores catalog and rate applications while the mobile web does not. It is easier to RE-discover apps that to rediscover mobile websites, because apps get stored on home screens and bookmarking is still apain. However, with 50.000 apps in one store and home screens filling up, both these advantages are about to be lost for apps, so what gets left? Mobile web pages allow creators to not have to go through approval processes, be able to push out innovative updates instantly as fast as they can upload a website, and to hit many different phones at a fraction of the investment costs to make apps for every phone.

There are many more reasons and trade-offs to think about, like how well can a web-app integrate with the phone, and does it need to, and what devices to target for development. By now I usually find this debate very boring because the answer really depends on a long list of questions only the service-creator can answer, with the added complication of what Venture Capital Funds will or will not invest in, what they consider hot this quarter. The only good debates about it these days are the ones that clarify the current questions, and add the right questions to ask, not the ones that try to force an answer or ideology. Having real experience on both fronts help.

Which is why I so enjoyed spending time last Monday evening at the Mobile Design UK event. One of the speakers was Jason Fields who described how his blog, app.itize.us, a curated collection of beautiful and great iPhone apps, came to be, took off, and now holds lessons of what makes a great app -- but also informs just how many of these efforts are made by one or two people and no more. The other was Fjord Design and Flirtomatic's Mark Curtis, who has real experience pushing out a mobile service that makes great revenue by offering virtual gifting, profile adornment, and paid search results in a flirting context. Flirtomatic tried to be a JAVA app, and failed because of phone capabilities, hit it big as a mobile website, tried to make an iPhone app, and found that they still hit their business goals better as a pure mobile web play.

The reality is that making an iPhone or Android application means your service will end up working on far fewer devices than a single well-coded gracefully-failing mobile web site will. Yet many developers flock to making iPhone apps even if their service could just as well have been done as a site. Why? Mark mentioned how he found one of the big reasons to go with an application, the ease of getting paid, was not an issue for him: Flirtomatic was doing just fine getting proper mobile billing to work for them, so could this criterium be discarded? Yet, yet... earlier Jason had mentioned all these '1 or 2 people in the home office' efforts at making apps. So I got to ask Mark, what about them? How many people did Flirtomatic need to get carrier billing to work, and is it reproducible by me and my best friend working in our spare time?

The answer was yes in Europe, because there are wholesalers -- who will take a cut -- to manage billing for your premium service through all the mobile carriers, Europe-wide. But outside, like the US...? No, you have to negotiate with every carrier, one by one, and that isn't just the big 4, but also carriers like Cricket and Alltell. This requires resources.

And I guess that is really the overriding reason why so many hopefuls have joined the app goldrush. If all there was was the mobile web, motivated teams would have made that work. But most of all, we want a shot at that pot of gold, as in getting paid, and Apple has made that work near-flawlessly for consumers and developers. The mobile web, well, nobody was really in charge, and so you have to deal with a shaky system of premium SMSes, wholesalers to depend on, and headaches where they are not... and the small teams simply can't.

I guess my guiding questions for app vs web in mobile these days is: is your service worth paying for, and if so, just how small a team are you?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Give Em What They Need

Bloomberg terminalImage via Wikipedia

Jered Floyd pointed me to the UX Magazine article where Dominique Leca writes about The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover. This Makeover was commissioned by Portfolio and asked 3 design firms to make over the Bloomberg news terminal. The Bloomberg Terminal is an information service used by financial and other analysts, that consists of hardware and software as a package to deliver near real-time information for people who make very quick decisions based on the market. And has a very distinctive and hideous interface

The highest-profile firm to submit a design was IDEO, who took 3 weeks of study and drew on years of experience in the financial realm. 3 weeks is nothing, by the way, for an overhaul of a known and important service like this, especially when commissioned on a magazine's article budget, or having to be billed internally as a promotional project. In 3 weeks you get a couple of service designers and visual artists to look at the original for a few days until they go "Uh-huh, oh yeah, I kinda get it", generate some wild brainstorms, sit down with the local senior partner to pick two to expand on, and then select one of the two up for final presentation. I've done cycles like this myself inside large design agencies. You do not get a final product. You do not even get anything that will be recognizable after contact with actual reality.1

The UX Mag article goes on to leave the impression that Bloomberg explicitly rejected this make-over because on an Old Boys Tree-house Club-house mentality: they prefer the ugly tough-to-master software because it keeps newbies and the uncommitted out. Of course, Bloomberg did not ask Portfolio to redesign their terminal, and there was thus preciously little for them to accept or reject. Some of the comments already state that UX Magazine is getting the narrative wrong, and it is not about keeping newbies out and feeling big, but also that the current terminal has a high utility that the redesigns simply do not recognize.

Having Tweeted this article indicating I was buying the magazine's narrative, I got a response from someone with a past as an insider in a company that had similar news stream products. I am not quoting this person directly, because what I was sent was off-the-cuff and needs a little restructuring.
  1. A lot of the displays include 100ms real-time updates that subconsciously inform the trader as to what's going on. Color and Motion are not only important to the experience, they ARE the experience. Going to some calligraphy on papyrus experience breaks their understanding of the data, and this understanding goes back decades.

  2. The Terminal and its ilk are optimized for no surprises ever. It's not stubbornness that keeps things from changing, it's an overwhelming desire to have the exact same thing in front of you in the morning.

  3. We had a product called [...] that had that exact same white portal look and users hated it beyond belief. It says "I'm a fluffy web portal", not "I'm a business tool".
Literally trillions of dollars ride on this UX experience.
Point 3 is close to what the magazine says, Point 2 is something all us ovehaulers have to deal with, especially in combination with the last line about the trillions, but Point 1 is, to me, the most important one here. The redesigns obliterated the utility.

Yes, the Bloomberg Terminal is ugly, but if read the feedback correctly, the display gives you glance-reading flash-understanding in return. It's very Tufte in that sense: the display shows quantitative information in a way that lets you absorb it all very fast, by quickly intepreting patterns, as the comments on the magazine I linked to indicate. Making a display that has this feature likely could be done in a more visually pleasing way, but IDEO's mock up, especially the point of more and more identical black-on-white panels being added to the side, is not it.

As Craigslist shows 'Pretty' is a 'nice to have'. 'Utility' is the 'must have'. The Bloomberg Terminal has the 'must have'. Understand what that is before moving into the 'nice to have's.

1 What you do get, however, is a direction and conversation piece to galvanize you and your client into making the time and resources available to do the service overhaul properly and right, as you now can show that there is a promise for something better at the other side, and that your agency can deliver it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dear Spotify

Image representing Spotify as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

If you are going to make me log in anyway, and your server knows I am logged in, it would be nice if I could control the Spotify radio I have running on my media PC with the Spotify client I may have running on my phone, or on my other laptop, or even on iPads. That way, I don't need to get out of bed to switch the music off. Or try to run VNC on my iPhone, which is a really funny experience.

Friday, March 12, 2010

User Experience: The Sociological Component

Genius Mike just mentioned to me that "fleeting interesting: you can sign up for 3G directly on the ipad. it's metered, alerts you when you're running low, lets you PAYG after you use up your quota, and lets you cancel without any human involvement."

In other words, Apple has removed the biggest pain point from the mobile / cellular experience for the customer: dealing with the operator.

Apple has also thus removed what is seemingly the worst pain point for the operator: having to deal with the customer. What, too harsh? I would think that if we weren't a problem to the operators, they wouldn't treat us like they do.

On a more serious note, I know that many Pay As You Go (PAYG) carriers show you your balance after every transaction, including browsing (using a technology called SSID, which is best described as 'SMS Lite'). This means that you do see how your data usage makes your allowance go down. I know of no subscription or monthly plan that does something similar and actually warns you when you are reaching your limit or cap on data usage; the usual thing for operators to do is to silently switch the consumer to a more expensive per-byte plan. This warning on the iPad may be the first real-time instant feedback a mobile device gives you that you are running out of data on your monthly plan.

Since operators really want to get rid of unlimited data plans, and this is a consumer-friendlier way of managing data allocation than silently charging the subscriber a mint for data overages, expect this to trickle down to all smartphones. All you need to do as an operator is have a really simple data plan with easily allotted blocks, and software on the phone that knows about them and can shop for more.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More Questions Than Answers Over Series 7

Too many question right now about Windows Mobile Series 7 for me to have an opinion. The Home Screen looks really interesting, very good creative direction to create a sense of unity of information, especially compared to the mess of widgets we usually see on other customizable Home Screens. Still, the rest of the shell seems to rely on a lot of scrolling of a small window over a large landscape of User Interface actions, perhaps even too large. Some people are very good at geographical wayfinding, at remembering where something out of view is in a spatial relationship to what is in view, some are not, and this Zunerrific interface really depends on it.

But my real questions are: is this really a totally new kernel? One without years of testing in the field in other phones or microwave ovens or Mars rovers? Will any phone based on this be able to take a call without resetting, something Microsoft has traditionally never gotten rock-solid right? What is the 3d party programming API and SDK here; considering Microsoft claims to have thrown everything in Windows Mobile away, is it not .NET?

Will any manufacturer beyond HTC and unknown Chinese shops commit to it, considering no software customizations are allowed, and the hardware is specified? Will any operator, under these circumstances? Basically, is this software so compelling Microsoft can pull an Apple, dictating to operators what the experience will be, while not even supplying the hardware themselves? That would be interesting.

Everyone seems to be so impressed by the demo hardware it is almost like Microsoft borrowed Jobs' Reality Distortion Field and the questions around it seem muted. But as hard as making a beautiful experience is on a device, that is not the hardest part of making a wonderful product. The hardest part is making the beautiful experience work, and keeping it beautiful once it has to go out into the world of people who want to play with and change it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

We Do Actual UX Work For A Reason, You Know

Image showing both a fluorescent and an incand...Image via Wikipedia

So, why do we in the UX business interview users, distill their experiences to make user archetypes (personas) and stories about what they'd like to do with the system (scenarios) so that we can write good flows of screens (journeys)? We do this so that we have some assurance that our system will actually fulfill real people's needs.

Let me give an example of where a major web store did not do the research. Seems Amazon UK now has a store for lighting, to buy lightbulbs and all. Why would anyone want to do that when there's a supermarket or hardware store or small grocer on every corner here? Might it be that users will turn to web mail-order for lighting products not sold in shops?

What are these product then? Supermarkets carry energy efficient bulbs, but mostly only the cheapest ones available, which give an awful green hue to skin. I know people, including me, want better choices; I once changed the whole character of a bathroom from scary clinical to lovely just by replacing the fluorescent tube bulb the builder had used, which was, of course, the cheapest and coldest hue available, to a warmer hued one. Cost almost nothing. Impact was instant and big.

So what do I want to know when I mail order a light bulb? What kind of light it gives. There are actual standards for that, that allow consumers to make an informed choice, they are Color Temperature (is the white light warmer or colder) and the Color Rendering Index (how do colors illuminated by that light look compared to sunlight). While the indices are still subject to debate and change by lighting afficionados, light bulb manufacturers know these values for every bulb; these are very specific characteristics that they try to get just right so they have lighting for every environment and occasion available to designers. Lighting manufacturers produce stacks of brochures to warn and educate users about the variety of hues of lamps.

Now I am trying to find an energy saving light bulb of a specific size to fit a specific lamp that I would like to have not throw some ugly green-tinged light. And Amazon UK will happily try to sell me one, with prices ranging from £1.50 up to £50 (the latter is for LED bulbs that will last 20 years). Try to sell me one, that is, without telling me with plain, known, manufacturer-calibrated numbers, what kind of light it gives off. It's like trying to sell me clothes without even telling me the size or color. Sure, when you get the shirt you ordered home sometimes the green is sage to you and not verdigris like the page said, and XL is quite the variable these days, but at least those basic descriptions of an item were on the page. The CT and CRI values for bulbs are actually far better measured than clothing manufacturers name their colors.

It's bad enough I can't filter by fitting type, or indeed filter by these color values. But not even telling me at all, and leaving this up to the sellers to put in the text description, most of which, of course, call everything 'warm white'? Somebody here did not consider what users would want to use their actual site for.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


And what can I add to discussions of the Apple iPad? I thought not much, but after discussing the product with Genius Mike, I am now very confused about discussions I have not been seeing. It is difficult to bet against Apple because they have won so hugely in the past -- and who wants to be the one quoted when the next iPod turns out not to be lame? -- but do remember that Apple also released the G4 Cube to very tepid sales, and some strange iPod accessory boombox you probably can't even remember right now.

So what am I not seeing? How about this: a look back at the überpad Apple released before. It's software was a magical experience of integration, of simplicity, of looking over the user's shoulder to read a scrawl like "Lunch with Bob tomorrow" and have it ask if you want to enter that into your calendar, and which Bob did you mean, and set all the smart defaults for this meeting, something mail readers and smartphones still can't do, even though we desperately need it to manage all the snippets and appointments and alarms that come into our lives. Now that is real magic, magic that keeps being delightful and surprising, not just the magic veneer from having a good credit card system behind the scenes in place for your app store. That is old hat by now, what we call 'hygiene', the basic functionality you have to have to not turn users off.

The line of Newton MessagePads actually was a user experience complete with thought out gestures and almost no modes, very focused on not being 'computing' but being a simple scribble block sketch pad that magically Just Did The Right Thing. And it bombed painfully because it was just a pain to enter any data that the pad could do this right thing on. Considering there was no ubiquitous wireless connectivity at the time, the data did all have to come from the user's writing or typing. It couldn't even handle syncing with the desktop very well. Although the last one in the product line could have an external keyboard added, I even bought one.

How is this relevant? Much as this new iPad will get its data over wireless networks from other computers in nice formats computers easily understand, the part where the user adds their bit is actually, well, really uncomfortable. The iPhone and iPod Touch are mediocre typing experiences with their lack of tactile feedback and tiny keys, but at least the size keeps people from thinking they need to be able touch type with it, and writing a book or even a letter is still considered a remarkable feat. Yet using that soft keyboard seems exactly what Steve Jobs expects us to do on the iPad because right now it is, well, bigger. Not more tactile feedback, not having a more giving surface, just bigger.

How? It's back is curved, does it even lay flat? Nobody mentions. When I am on the sofa, do I have to put it on my lap and hunch over it? On my airplane table tray, where again my screen is not at a a good angle for viewing? I suspect that since I actually do not touch-type (22 years of computing and I can't touch-type, for reals) I may have an easier time since I hunt and peck. But considering the big reveal about the reveal was a productivity suite with word processor, somewhere there's a question, that Apple has tried to deal with before, ending in disaster and cancellation of all the Newtons, that seems to be answered by Apple with "Just type on a pane of glass, it'll work out."

(Meanwhile, since bluetooth keyboards are possible, what will really happen is that we will see 3d party cases with an extra battery and a keyboard to slip a the iPad into.
It will allow the iPad to be a laptop when you need it, and a tablet when you don't. See here an example of the IdeaPad U1 Lenovo showed at CES a month ago and plans to release this summer.)

Other questions: when will I be able to listen to my Internet radio and do my word processing on my awkward keyboard? Well, 'they' say this capability, multi-tasking of apps, is coming in the next revision of the OS underlying all of Apple's Touch products, but a week ago I was being told it would be there for the pad itself. It is not. And what I learned studying interaction was that on small screens users like being focused on one thing, on not having many interruptions; one of the hardest things designing smartphone UIs is how to let the user know an SMS came in while they are doing something else without being disruptive. But on a big screen? Users love lots of little things happening, to be able to pick and choose what to focus on now, and, especially when they are young, to have multiple data streams to follow in their peripheral vision while they work. One app at a time on a big screen -- and how boring this big screen is in an age when we smartphone come with insane resolutions and laptops engineered to be super cheap can be switched to show text reflectively and smooth like it was printed on paper -- is just going to disappoint. A communications machine this is not. Unless this multi-tasking revision gets slipped in before the iPad goes on sale.

No, seriously, does this thing lie flat? I keep wondering. And wondering what there is here that an Android-based pad couldn't deliver as well, and probably cheaper, in 3 months of engineering, with multi-tasking having been built in and thought out since day one of Android's release. Heavy lock in with services like book and magazine and newspaper publishers, I guess. Apple will try to lock those up for their device only. Still, this thing looks like a boombox to me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

App Stores Are Not A Blessing

App StoreImage via Wikipedia

Everything is getting an app store. Not just one for every phone manufacturer, but now there's one for digital pens, and bluetooth headsets. Televisions and Blu-ray discs players are updating their own firmware over the Internet, and glorified clock-radios are made to download new capabilities.

We are going to a situation where every piece of electronics can be customized post-sale. Which is going to have two unfortunate consequences:

  1. Devices are going to be even unfriendlier to use, because the out-of-box experience will be given short thrift with the idea of 'the user will fix it'. In a rush to be first and cheapest, product developers often do not spend a lot of time testing and thinking and testing and thinking about how to make the easiest product with the best default settings. Now that product managers will be able to say "the user will fix it with an after-market download developers will make, so ship it now", the design cycle will be even more under pressure, and it will show in clunky products that require mandatory downloads -- and cash -- to be enjoyable. No being delighted from the moment you unpack it. Already, I have been told, users have to wait an extra half hour in between hooking up their Sony PS3 and getting to play because of firmware updates needing to be downloaded and installed. This will get worse.

  2. The future is going to be even buggier. Making a product modifiable means creating programming interfaces and machines that can execute programs. A closed system is bounded, it can theoretically be exhaustively tested for all circumstances and button-presses. An open system has no such predictability, really, and is mostly debugged through years of feedback from users and developers running programs trying the combinations of programming calls in all kind of different and unexpected ways.

My Discrete Mathematics lecturer in college used to say there was a Law Of Conservation of Misery: the short-cut trick you used to cleverly shorten the steps in one part of a proof only meant you had to spend more time and sweat on other parts, always. I think this Law also goes for buggyness in systems: yes, some manufacturers are working harder to really entice consumers with well thought-out experiences, but the rest of our electronics will be designed to shoot themselves in the foot even more, and take our time and sanity down with them as collateral damage.