Sunday, October 23, 2011

Siri Will Need To Do More

Apple releases Siri for their latest iPhone, which lets you order your phone around better than any previous voice recognitions system by having an amazing understanding of context. Of course, mobile phones are utter context machines, knowing so much about where you are, who you are, and how you will pay for it, but Siri has an inkling of also knowing about your intent, the context of what you want to do, from one command to the next.

(Incidentally, I'd really like an AIer to write a comparison of Siri, formerly a DARPA project to create a voice personal assistance by creating understanding of the world, and Cyc, a god knows what it is now project to give computer programs smarts by creating understanding of the world.)

Right now the reports from the field are that, when Siri has a connection and can properly use big computers on the Internet to decode your voice, users feel like they have a whole new relationship to their iPhones, feeling empowered and in control in a whole new way, dictating messages and asking questions like they have been using computers this way all their lives. One field report actually casually used the word "hate" to describe working with the phone without Siri. But Siri is constrained, it will only work with the basic functions of an iPhone: make a call, set reminders, write a text, look things up. And we ask our phones to do so much more these days.
Nokia N9 Press Shot

Just check Helen Keegan's writings on The Trouble With Apps to see how all the things we can do with our smartphones is breaking using them down. Or another example: I remember seeing this first press shot of the Nokia N9 and thinking, in rapid succession:

  1. My, that's gorgeous.
  2. How the hell am I going to get what I want done with all those little icons?
Basically, we can't find how out to do what we want to do, and this is getting a worse problem on every smartphone. The apps revolution is now at the point where the current model is broken with too much choice: which app does exactly what we want instead of the other 7 that kind of do it, where do I get it, how do I find it back, how does it work?

(As an aside: this is now true for almost every area of connected computing: from eBay to Amazon, it has become impossible to find what we really want, instead of just an approximation of features, unless brands or word of mouth or professional mediators help us. News requires aggregator sites of a political slant like blogs and newspapers to manage, who then get aggregated in meta-publications. Netflix spends tons of resources trying to make a better recommendation engine which ends up being tweaks on two other recommendation algorithms combined. We need better ways to let the systems know what we want and like so they can find it for us, even things we did not consider.)

Will Siri help iPhone users? It would require opening apps on an intention level, making apps be able to declare to the phone "I can do this" like "I can play Words With Friends", "I can edit a document", "I can can make a restaurant reservation", which actually requires a lot of careful thought from an app maker and can become a nuclear war between apps when they try to game the system by declaring they can do something they can only do half way. There are some really awfully unethical app makers out there. But it pretty much has to be somehow done, Siri is too much of an advantage to limit it.

So now that all technology is evolving to emulate the expectations set by Star Trek, a couple of predictions:

  • We need Comm Badges so we do not even need to take Siri out of our pocket to make a hands-free call. I am thinking something in the current iPod Nano form factor you just touch and hold and give a Siri command, which it then forwards over Bluetooth. People in public places are about to become a whole lot more irritating.
  • If Apple makes a TV, it will have a webcam built in, and we will be able to tell our iPhones to move the faceTime video call from our iPhones to "On screen". The deeper the voice you say it with, the faster it happens, and suddenly grandma can see the whole family who were watching something, while their show is properly paused.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Facebook Killed Loyalty To Itself As Side-Effect Of Its Succesful Design

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBaseSo I am looking at Google+ surprisingly fast adoption rate, 25 Million or so users in the first month, which, by the way, is more people than a mid-size European country. Out of nothing. Try to picture 25 million people and you get an idea why you keep being put in circles by people you have never ever heard of.

Of course, many of these users are early adopters so they also must have been on facebook, or are on facebook; looking at my own circles I would say there is a tremendous overlap. But I am not seeing intense angsty posts about abandoning platforms and what to use, posts I am used to seeing in blogging communities when people felt or feel they needed to switch platforms. Somehow I am not seeing a deep seated attachment to facebook, no sense of partisanship or loyalty, just people comparing merits and deciding to maintain a presence on both sites or walking away from facebook or googlepoz. Contrasting this with the heartbreak I used to see on LiveJournal when people announced they would now use Dreamwidth, or Wordpress or Blogger, I was struck by the thought that facebook's main strength is also why people have an easy time to leave it: facebook teaches you not to care about what you put on facebook.

Facebook is very strong in getting people to create content and share it because its User Interface communicates to people that content should be and is fun, simple, and nothing to worry about. The entry box is small to make you stick to short quips, a lot of the content is auto-generated from the things you do, formatting is completely out of your hands and standardized so there is no sense of pride to be had there either—it's really not the computer equivalent of scrapbooking.

Then the facebook page tells you your content has no lasting value: it just simply scrolls off the page, and there is no facility to get a historical overview of yourself. Every blogging system allows you to read your content like a book, able to pick times and events and reminisce, read back, remember, and feel you have created an archive of you. Facebook allows no such thing: you can barely go back to what you did last week, never mind take a look at how things were two years ago. Remember when you broke your leg? Your announcement of your child? When you flipped the engagement menu switch? You'd better remember it yourself, because facebook will barely, if at all, let you find it back. Even the photos, the content facebook archives for you, is put into albums that are actually not easy to manage if they get too big. Facebook basically tells you not to be too deep or thoughtful, not to get attached to what you write, and that what you upload will not be kept all that well.

Facebook is fun and simple because your content doesn't need to be sweated over and considered and thought about as if it was meant to last, but that also makes it really easy to walk away from and abandon it once the other thing to like about facebook, your friends, have migrated too. And there's another thing: the facebook friends are a double-edged sword as well. Light facebook users don't have that many friends to care about and complain they get too many status notifications as it is since they are not invested in facebook anyway, while heavy facebook users, in my opinion, have a really ambiguous relationship towards their list of facebook friends: too many hangers on and I-met-you-once people have been accumulated, it's too hard to manage who sees what of what you post, and the more social you are, the more trouble it becomes to keep up. I am seeing a lot of entries about people needing to do culls. Having to spend time to manage friends is only a turn-off, and the alternative is to post less so as to not say too much to people you barely know. Therefore it can be actually very liberating to walk away and start over, better, especially in a new place populated by hardcore early-adopters like you, that makes it simple to assign people to groups, even if the assignment system is flawed on some level as I discussed in my previous post.

I was reminded today that I once said that every social network is basically a party, and all parties end. Nobody wants a non-stop party. Facebook stayed a party, a hey hi how are you doing look at the flyer for the party next week no way she said that let me tell you another story kind of place, and never evolved into something else. It's unknown if the Circle system will let Googlepoz become something else than a wanna-be-facebook party, but I would recommend to Google, since it has the short-form content system down, now work on making Google+ a great archive as well to create that loyalty to your own content.

Meanwhile, facebook is said to be, again, 'in lockdown', which is a self-imposed period of intense coding to create new functionality. Which means the features will not be properly user-researched and -tested, but will just be what a bunch of now slightly older twenty-somethings think will keep their website relevant while not being able to predict how heavy users of social media, of which very many are one, two, all the way up to four or five decades older than these engineers, actually really want. You know, the same process that gave us version after version of fucked up privacy controls, and the huge game changer that was facebook Places, which, oh wait, was not a game changer because nobody uses it, and was designed so badly I managed to create an abortion clinic inside my place of work and check a friend into it publicly—a feat I would now link to if facebook had made it all easy to find things back.

I am not holding my breath, but I am easily amused.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Google+ and Circles, A First Critique Along Google's Own Research on Social

Shouting to people at large with a bullhorn is actually not what we in the User Experience community call a Humane experience; an experience that follows established comfortable human values. It is loud and intrusive and most people do not know how to actually make telling everyone everything be interesting or engaging or reflect well on them. Yet this is the main model our current social media has, and this model is why charismatic smart people end up working social media so well while most others get stuck in minutiae or end up taking all feedback as positive and thus become Internet trolls or drama magnets.

For me, the definitive text on the difference between how we as humans are comfortable structuring our social lives and what current social media imposes on us is explained in this slide set by Paul Adams about "The Real Social Network".

The gist basically is that:
      We have multiple social spheres in our lives, and we keep them separate.

      Within those spheres we have a few people that are close to us. We share information about our other spheres more with them.

The result is that we end up having multiple identities.

Meanwhile, our current social media tools say that we either must say everything publicly, and really have only one identifier that is 'us'. Twitter keeps it simple with one access level: you are open or hidden except to your subscribers. Facebook allows pretty fine grained control over who can see what you share, but makes it opaque to fine tune and hard to use the filters. LinkedIn says they know best what about your career should be accessible to whom. Pretty much all dating sites say everything is for everyone except maybe the pictures of your genitals or face that you can unlock for the people you like. Because there is very little access control or it is hidden, legion are thus the stories of sharing the wrong things with the world.

Google has just unveiled not only a lovely visual re-design, but their social layer on all their properties, Google+ (which one of my gay male friends immediately christened 'googlepoz' since it looks so much like the term 'HIV+' that in those circles gets abbreviated verbally to 'poz', and now I feel like I just explained a joke). Google+ tries to take the slideset above to heart and make a social newsfeed that respects the spheres of influence. Google calls those 'Circles' and they are basically groups of people. Google+ also exposes these circles right as you create status updates and posts and post media, thus making sending the right update to the right people a primary feature. No longer will your school pupils see your pictures of your male stripper nights -- or at least you can prevent this pretty easy if you assign your followers to the right groups well.

However, Googlepoz does ignore the second dimension from the slideset: even within your spheres you are closer to some people than others. If you just order your friends and followers into groups that go along the spheres of your life, you are still treating everyone inside those equally. It's like shouting at just your school instead of the world. Google+ default Circles does suggest that you should order your Circles by how close they are to you -- Family, Friends, Acquaintances -- but that still makes all Friends the same. You could split up your Circles, and make, for example, a Circle for Work and for Work Friends and for Close Work Friends, but this gets really difficult to keep track of after a while.

The third dimension Google+ ignores is that you actually have different identities to different people down to names and avatars. You can set which Circles can see which parts of your profile, but if you really have a public persona (I am a politician / captain of industry / social worker) that you like to keep separate from a more select group (I am in poly-amorous relationships / a needle-sharing counselor / a nudist) you really have to go the old route of having multiple accounts.

Still, in social media the User Interface is everything: people in general will not hunt deep for options, what is surfaced and visible is what will gets used. If you have a very sophisticated system of access controls, but bury it one layer deep, you might as well not have it. The masses, and we talk about social websites we are indeed talking massive amounts of people, simply have no time for options and deep controls. With Circles so front and center in this experience, Google has taken a compelling step to making a social media work more like humans do.

I still would like a couple of changes, though:
  • It needs a re-design to use less space. My Circles are filling up fast with a mixture of my Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Usenet (!) and everything else contacts, so the news stream and comments is getting big. Right now it simply is not using the page economically.

  • I should be able to designate which Circles are more important to me, and their updates should be more prominent. Perhaps by default an update should only show it's first 140 characters -- that has proven to work really well -- and in a dark gray font color. If it is an update from someone in a Circle I deem important, the update should show more of itself, and perhaps in a font color closer to black to be more prominent.

  • There is a problem with Circles being two-way: by putting someone in a Circle you are both allowing them access as well as subscribing to their news. LiveJournal has years of showing this is not an optimal model: just because someone asked to read something non-public of yours doesn't mean you want to see their updates. Still, splitting those things up in 'followers' and 'who you follow' like Dreamwidth does is a pain.

  • I would like to see Google allowing websites to use the Places and Circles as ways to enable whole separate social media networks complete with branding and colors and controls, sort of like Ning but more sophisitcated, allowing users and network creators control over how much of their new social network spills back into the general Googlepoz experience. Basically, let us use your networks to make our clubhouses of varying degrees of exclusivity.

Other than that, this effort pushes the features of social media further. Let's see how it plays out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You Know, Backing Up Texts In The iCloud Still Is A Horrible Idea

Go through your Inbox on your mobile phone. The one where all your texts are stored. Yes, go ahead, seriously, look at what is stored there. Now picture someone going through it, seeing your work texts, your mishandled manhandled and deftly handled friendships, relationships, work and personal. Imagine them being read by a journalist, a spook in an agency. Oh, you think, they wouldn't care? Fine, imagine your colleague reading them all, gripped by curiosity, or your spouse who typed in the password because surely there wouldn't be anything there but a hint of what you wanted for your birthday, your eldest child bored at home, your manager doing a little background check of course, your professional enemy, your lover, or your lover who didn't know about the lover and the wife.

And every file you made. Every picture you ever too with your phone, even those bored-on-the-couch-alone ones, if you didn't immedaitely delete them. Our personal devices are, well, enormously personal, we play with them idly, we experiment, we compose and send absentmindedly or in the heat in the moment, we keep and discard -- except we do not discard that well. Seriously, go through your phone, your camera, your inbox. See what is in there.

Over here in Britain, a tabloid called News of The World either spoofed Caller ID or tried easy passwords or the default system password to get to the voice mail of celebrities and politcal figures. The exact extent of the scandal is not known; NotW has never really come clean and the official investigation for some reason or another never seems to really get to the bottom of anything, but it seems to be reaching so far that if your voice mails were not accessed you have cause to fire your publicist for not getting you on the D-list.

But that's celebrities. That's not you. Or is it? If it was so extraordinarily easy, it shouldn't be so hard to get to your voice mails too, Caller ID is actually not that hard to spoof and you probably never actually set a password. But voice mails are actually not that interesting, after all, those are things other people leave on your phone, not things you make. How could anyone get to all your data?

Well, if you have an iPhone, Apple will store it for you. Check this page where it describes its new product, iCloud. It will back up your apps, your books, your documents, and oh yeah, pretty much your camera roll and Inbox on your iPhone, so it can be restored in case of accident. Apple has not disclosed anything about what level of encryption will be used on their servers, whether you can opt out of having certain forms of data backed up or whether it is all or nothing, how long this data will be stored, and under what jurisdiction your personal data on your phone and iPad and laptop will be located, and what it would take for law enforcement from which country to be given access to it. And remember, US companies have different track records about standing up to searches: Google strenuously defends its data until it gets a legal request that has the full strength of the law, and the telecom operators basically allowed the NSA to wiretap their networks with full co-operation even though that was blatantly against the law until Congress retro-actively gave them immunity once it all got found out. What side will Apple fall on? I do not know but if I was the NSA I would love to have a back door into that repository of everyone's personal information, especially if Apple's US servers is where all iPhone data from everywhere resides..

No, seriously, look around you. Think of all your friends with iPhones. How many do you know? What kind of jobs do they have, what kinds of friends and apps, what do they text about? Their data is going to be offloaded to the cloud. Google is already doing that with Android, although I am unsure whether the Inbox currently is being stored too, but if it isn't, it will, and all other smartphone ecosystems will feel compelled to follow suit and start storing everything, each with their own terms and conditions and locations and security practices. I have written about this before when Skydeck came along, but this issue of your most private conversations stored forever in the cloud just got a lot bigger.

Who knew Sony didn't know how to store passwords? They have had breach after breach after breach of their networked systems, and it turns out on many, if not all of them, they were storing user passwords, and other data like addresses and credit card numbers, unencrypted, ready to be copied and distributed and examined by everyone. I am sure if three months ago you had asked how they stored their data they would have answered it was stored so securely they couldn't tell you how. Turns out it was basically stored as clear as possible. Same with the Gawker network. In fact, those two breaches allowed for a little cross-site analysis, and it turns out that two thirds of the people who had an account on both systems re-used their passwords. Which means they probably re-used it on many, many more every systems, if not every. Someone should try to use those shared login and password credentials to see if they also give access to Apple accounts.

Because that is how the data from your iPhone, or Android phone, or other smartphones soon, ends up accessed once it is 'safely' being stored on the Internet. No matter how it is stored and encrypted on those servers in the data centers, all it will take is the account ID, which is usually an email address, and the password. And because we all have so many places to log in, we re-use passwords, so often the system is basically broken. We write passwords down on notes our colleagues can see when the walk by, we share them over the phone when we need help from a friend to check something, we type them into websites for a prize that could be being run by god knows who, or as shown, hacked by other people. Apple could have perfect secrecy, but you re-use your Apple password on one other site that gets hacked and suddenly everyone can get to the data from your phone stored on the server.

The Apple ID used to just allow access to someone's purchase history, a stored credit card to buy a song or two with, transaction easily reversed if done maliciously. Information breeches cannot be reversed, and the moment iCloud starts backing up that phone, that Apple ID is access to your personal life. Very personal life. Credit cards can be cancelled, transactions reversed, but your boss wanting to fire you entering your password you use for the department web-server into Apple's webservers to see your texts, hackers running the haul from one database breach through iCloud's servers to distribute all the stored photos on Usenet, no, that cannot be cancelled, not be undone. And there are some mean people out there who love to expose private lives for the lulz.

The Danger Hiptop phones in the US also stored everything in the cloud before it was called that, and some celebrities had their hacked. Not such a big deal, unless you were that humiliated celebrity or actually hadn't asked your publicist to make that happen for a little more publicity, but we already know this is how stuff happens. Now this is being switched on by a company that owns the phone for a lot of interesting people. A single breach of your data by someone who finds your password is bad for you, but a huge breach a la Sony would be disastrous for Apple, and finding out in a few years Apple gave access to all their data to a security agency would be at the same time almost unimaginable and actually, well, have a precedent in the telecoms world. So all I can say is what Genius Mike already said about this

Quote me on this: Apple has cut themselves a length of rope sufficient to kill a trillion-$ company. A total iCloud compromise ends them.less than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Monday, May 02, 2011

Revisiting 300 DPI

In 2008, I wrote about how 300 dpi and higher displays would enable new forms of reporting data by approaching the fidelity of ink on paper -- well, inkjet ink sprayed badly on paper. I even made a test paper design of medical data in some older and newer formats.

Well, we did get our mass-market handheld device of even more than 300 dpi, the iPhone and iPod Touch 4G. So I thought it was time to revisit the question. I used the same PDF file and displayed it on my iPod Touch to see how it felt, and compared it to my computer screen.

As I wrote before, the biggest advantage is being able to simple hold the device closer to the eye than is comfortable with a big laptop or desktop. But besides that, the graphs are comfortable to read. I'd want to tweak them graphically a bit more to make the data more prominent than the grids it is in, but what I am getting is that it becomes easier than ever to create overviews of larger volumes of data than has been usual on computer screens, while still allowing drilling down or showing in different formats, which paper does not.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Save What?

From my twitter feed:

2011 and Android Honeycomb is using a FLOPPY DISK as an icon. Like anyone knows what they are. (thx @jpnw)less than a minute ago via Tweetie for Mac

The image? An action bar that appears at the top of Honeycomb, the latest version of Android for tablets:

No, seriously, first of all this mobile device seems to still have the concept of saving -- a concept that continues to trip up so many people in the course of using their computers -- and then visualizes it with the stylized version of an object that nobody uses anymore.

This is just simply embarrassing. These devices are hugely successful with large segments of the population that traditionally do not spend a lot of money on technology exactly because they are very much not like classic computers, and do not have classic computer concepts and constructs that require a lot of learning and thought. (What is memory? What is a hard disk? What is the difference? Why do we even have to care?) These concepts need to stay away, and certainly not be brought back with icons from yesteryear.

Google is sending a clear message: our tablets are still for computer geeksafficionados. We will not do the hard work of competing with the simplicity of Apple's iPad.

This was brought to my attention by Genius Mike, who pointed out all other kinds of constructs that seemed overly complicated or just wasteful, but I am leaving it at this. This floppy tells me all I need to know about the internal process of making Honeycomb.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

HP Slams It Out Of The Park

For my current gig at Vodafone, at one point I had 5 or so smartphones on my desk: an iPhone, an HTC running Android, a Nokia N8 with Symbian, a Vodafone H1 (for reals), and a Palm Pre with WebOS. Of all devices I tested, the most beautiful experience software-wise was the Palm with WebOS. Every pixel was crafted to create this really smooth and lush experience. The standard system felt as visually polished and smooth as the best-in-class iPad apps. Pity the hardware felt so cheap.

I was researching synchronization and back-up from a mobile experience perspective, especially contacts, and what I saw was that synchronizing and importing contacts and calendar entries from the cloud to the device, maybe even including contacts from social networks, seemed really difficult. All systems would double contacts, poison them with categorized or outdated information during the round-trip to the web, and sometimes completely get lost when including contacts from social networks like Facebook or Twitter, and leaving the user in the dark what came from where, and how to fix an issue.

Except for one address book. The Synergy system on the PalmPre. It used very simple cues to show you a contact came from multiple locations, and made it simple to undo a merger or delete broken information. It understood not every Twitter contact was as important as the entries in your original phonebook with full information. It was beautiful to look at and use. But Palm couldn't make the phone a hit, running it on a slow processor, doing terrible advertising for it, and not being able to get it cheaply enough in carrier's hands to sell at a good price point.

Palm got bought by HP, and HP saw a lot of potential. First results of the collaboration are being shown off today, and they are delicious. A mini smartphone with a keyboard that gives you all this beauty with portability. An updated Palm Pre with serious horsepower and global cell technologies. And a beautiful tablet that actually integrates with your phone creating a connected ecology: if you get a text message on your phone while working on your pad, you can read and answer it right on the big screen. When you pull up a web page on the big screen, you can transfer it for viewing on your small phone by just tapping the phone to the pad. First they got synchronization right, now they get connection right too.

Qualcomm is providing the chipset and promising long battery life, and the system is handling gaming and complex websites just fine. HP is launching with music and magazine content providers, including an Amazon Kindle client ready to go to buy and read books from their store.

I want one now.