Foleo, Surface, Stumbling etc

There’s lots of news out there which I won’t bother you with because you’ll be reading it elsewhere. But here are some links in case:

  • Palm has a new mini laptop called the Foleo. I like the idea, but I fear it will go the way of the LifeDrive, which I also kinda liked.
  • Microsoft has launched a desktop (literally) device called the Surface. Which looks fun, and embraces the idea of moving beyond the keyboard not a moment too soon, but don’t expect to see it anywhere in your living room any time soon.
  • eBay buys StumbleUpon, a group bookmarking tool I’ve written a column about somewhere. I don’t use StumbleUpon that much but I love the idea of a community-powered browsing guide. Let’s hope eBay doesn’t mess it up like they seem to be doing with Skype.
  • Microsoft releases a new version of LiveWriter, their blogging tool. Scoble says Google is planning something similar. True?

Oh, and Google Reader now works offline. Here are my ten minut.es with it, and a how to guide at ten ste.ps. This is big news, because it’s the first step Google have made in making their tools available offline. I’ve found myself using their stuff more and more, so the idea of being able to use the Reader, Calendar, Docs and Gmail offline seems an exciting one. (We’re not there yet, but Google Reader is a start.)

This brings me to again plead with anyone offering an RSS feed of their stuff, to put the whole post in the feed. Offline browsing is not going to work if you can only read an extract.

The Shift to a Mobile Web

This more than anything else, probably, will push the shift from desktop browsing to mobile browsing. The more restrictions workers face on their office computers from blinkered employers, the more natural it will be to turn to their mobile:

A nationwide study by T-Mobile UK has revealed that over a quarter of the UK’s workforce, still deprived of web access, are now turning to the Internet on their mobile – as employers enforce blanket bans on net usage.

A few points worth making here:

  • It’s an umbilical thing: offices misunderstand the use of the Web, which is probably why they ban it. It’s no longer just about surfing for information, shopping or football scores (although it’s still that). It’s about staying connected. The Internet is no longer just a resource of information (and, cough, images) but of “checking in” with one’s network, whether it’s on FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, Skype, or wherever. Offices need to cope with this somehow, or they’ll lose the attention of their workers.
  • A different screen, a different app: the shift to the mobile web because of this negative pressure from the work place will create huge demand for mobile web apps that work quickly and efficiently. Indeed, it’s not the only pressure: Browsing is a quite different experience on the mobile phone. Browsers are already developing ways to reshape information to fit on a screen, but a smarter way would be to find new ways to deliver the information via the mobile phone (Widsets have made a start in this direction.)
  • Toilets: the unsung productivity hive Techdirt rightly points to the part of the survey which shows that 15% of users “resorted to hiding in the toilet just to get online.” Working from home, I do this with my laptop, frankly. But it’s not really about resorting to anything: it’s what the mobile world is. We used to read the newspaper on the john; why not a mobile phone?

History will find it weird, not that we connect to the Web on the john with a device once designed to make phone calls, but that for 15 years we had to do that via a big hunk of metal, plastic and wires sitting in the middle of what used to be a big open space called a desk.

Escape to Streetlevel

Everyscape1

Next up: cities you can drive through, and not from above, or fake worlds where everyone has big chests. Real cities, from all angles. It’s called EveryScape.

The company calls it “the world’s first interactive eye-level search that offers Web users a totally immersive world on the Internet.” A “virtual experience of all metropolitan, suburban and rural areas in which visitors can share their stories and opinions about real-life daily experiences against a photo-realistic backdrop ranging from streets and cities, communities, restaurants, schools, real estate and the like.” Yes, I’m not crazy about the lingo, but the idea is a cool one: Just try the preview of San Francisco’s Union Square.

Using a Flash-enabled browser you move through the terrain and ground level (in the middle of the street), and then can tilt your view through all angles. You can click on certain markers for more information, or enter certain buildings. You “window shop storefronts as well as tour the inside of those stores, see their offerings, and access published reviews and other information.” You can add content such as “relevant links, personal reviews, rankings” and things like “a “For Rent” sign and an apartment tour.”

Everyscape2

Putting the stuff together doesn’t sound as hard as you would expect. EveryScape’s HyperMedia Technology Platform means anyone with an SLR camera can take pictures and upload them; EveryScape hopes to tap “into local communities and users to assist in building out a visual library of content that will cover the entire world.” A sort of Google Earth at ground level.

Great idea, though of course you can imagine there’ll be a lot of commercial elements to all this. It’s hard to imagine ordinary Joes allowed to plaster streets with their virtual graffiti or anything else that gets in the way of advertising opportunities. The only other concern I have off the top of my head is that Google Earth made some of us wonder whether, after seeing every corner of the globe from a bird’s wing, we’d feel the same urge to travel. Now, after wandering the virtual streets of San Francisco, would we lose our wanderlust?

EveryScape plans to launch 10 U.S. metropolitan areas this year.

CAPTCHA Gets Useful

Captcha1

An excellent example of something that leverages a tool that already exists and makes it useful — CAPTCHA forms. AP writes from Pittsburgh:

Researchers estimate that about 60 million of those nonsensical jumbles are solved everyday around the world, taking an average of about 10 seconds each to decipher and type in.

Instead of wasting time typing in random letters and numbers, Carnegie Mellon researchers have come up with a way for people to type in snippets of books to put their time to good use, confirm they are not machines and help speed up the process of getting searchable texts online.

”Humanity is wasting 150,000 hours every day on these,” said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He helped develop the CAPTCHAs about seven years ago. ”Is there any way in which we can use this human time for something good for humanity, do 10 seconds of useful work for humanity?”

The project, reCAPTCHA, is using people’s deciphering to go through those books being digitized by the Internet Archive that can’t be converted using ordinary OCR, where the results come out like this:

Captcha2

Those words are sent to CAPTCHAs and then the results fed back into the scanning engine. Here’s the neat bit, though, as explained on the website:

But if a computer can’t read such a CAPTCHA, how does the system know the correct answer to the puzzle? Here’s how: Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one. The system then gives the new image to a number of other people to determine, with higher confidence, whether the original answer was correct.

Which I think is kind of neat: the only problems might occur if people know this and mess the system by getting one right and the other wrong. But how do they know which one?

Gmail Is Weird

An ordinary business email yielded the following contextual Google ads. Don’t click on the first one if you’ve just eaten and don’t click on the second on principle.

clipped from mail.google.com
Sponsored Links
 

Photos: That’s in my Gut?
This site guarantees to remove really gross stuff from your gut.
www.BlessedHerbs.com

 

Spy earpieces
Special equipment from Russia. All exams without preparation!
www.wintec.ru

What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About

Vodka

Empty vodka bottles used for selling petrol, Bali

Tools often serve purposes the designers didn’t necessarily intend — increasing their stickiness for users but in a way not clearly understood by the creator.

Take the System Tray in Windows for example (and in the bar, whatever it’s called, in Macs.) And this array currently sitting in my overburdened laptop:

Systray

These icons usually either notify the user if something happens, by changing color, animating itself or popping up some balloon message, or they will be quick launch icons: double click or right click to launch the program, or some function within it. Or they can be both. Or, sometimes neither, sitting there like lame ducks taking up screen real estate. (These ones should, like all lame ducks, be shot.)

Skype-tickBut the thing is that for users these icons actually sometimes do something else, acting as useful sources of more important information. I’ve noticed, for example, a lot of people — including myself — use the Skype icon (left) as the best, most visible way of telling whether their computer is connected.

First off, Skype is better and quicker at establishing a connection than most other connection-based programs with icons in the system tray. Secondly, the icon is a uncomplicated but appealing green, with tick in it — an obvious and intuitive signal to even the most untutored user. (It helps that the Skype icon is a dull gray when there’s no connection — once again, intuitive to most users.) When the Skype button turns green, users know they’re good to go.

Za-tray2Another good example of this is the Zone Alarm icon which alternates between the Zone Alarm logo and a gauge, red on the left and green on the right, to indicate traffic going in and out (see left). Another useful tool to see whether your computer is actually connected, and like the Skype icon, much more visible and obvious than the regular Windows connectivity icon — with the two computer screens flashing blue. I’ve gotten so used to having the Zone Alarm icon tell me what’s going on I have not been able to switch to other firewall programs, or Windows own, because they don’t have the same abundance of visual information to offer.

Za-logo3ZA-iconI’m not convinced that Zone Alarm’s new owners CheckPoint get this: They have dropped the disctinctive yellow and red ZA logo in the system tray for a bland and easily missable Z (left). The ZA icon  was an easy and prominent way to know your firewall was working and they’d be smart to resurrect it.

What does all this mean? Well, Skype have been smart to create a simple icon that not only does things like tell you your online status (available, away) but has also become a tool to help folk know whether they’re online or not — not always clear in this world of WiFi and 3G connectivity. In fact, for many users I’m guessing the green tick is more recognisable a Skype logo than the blue S Skype logo itself.

I don’t know whether Skype knows this, or whether the Zone Alarm guys realise their icon and gauge are much more useful to users as a data transfer measure than Windows’ own. But it’s a lesson to other software developers that the system tray icon could do a whole lot more than it presently does, with a bit of forethought. And if it can’t justify its existence, just sitting there saying, then maybe it shouldn’t be there?

Beyond that, we’d be smart to keep an eye out for how folk use our products, and to build on the opportunities that offers.

Another Way to Blog

I’m always trying to rethink what a blog is, and in particular what this blog is, and we’re now probably past the five year mark, so maybe it’s time to take stock. Here are five conclusions I’ve reached about how to Blog Thoughtfully:

  1. It’s no longer about feeding the beast. I’ve tried to post once a day, but I think the abundance of blogs nowadays makes a nonsense of that. People nowadays have so much to read they don’t want space filled up for the sake of it. (That’s what a newspaper is for.) Don’t be afraid to not post. No one unsubscribes from a feed because it’s silent for a few days; they unsubscribe because it’s too noisy.
  2. Comments are great, but so is silence. Loose Wire has never been about lots of comments (or, come to think of it, lots of readers) and sometimes I wonder whether I’d prefer lots of comments. Some blogs, the discussions in comments are better than the original post. But that’s not the only way to go. Some people aren’t just the commenting type, and that’s cool. The only readers aren’t the ones that comment; commenters aren’t the only people to write for.
  3. Forget link-love, link-bait and all that balarney. It’s great to be high on the rankings, and pointing to other people’s sites helps that, but ultimately it’s a disservice to the reader if those links aren’t incidental to the subject matter of the post. Respect the reader’s time and don’t post something if it’s just a back-scratching exercise.
  4. Blogs are people, but they shouldn’t be egos. I think blogs differ from publications in that they ooze the soul of the person(s) writing it and keeping it going, but that doesn’t mean letting the ego run free. So many posts I read nowadays on otherwise thoughtful blogs are all about what awards/coverage/junket the writer just experienced. Give me your brain, not your ego. Save that for your Twitter stream.
  5. Brevity is the friend of clarity. It doesn’t mean all posts should be short, but no writing has ever suffered from being edited down. If there’s a simpler and quicker way of saying what you want to say, say it. Which is probably a good place for me to stop.

And thanks, everyone, for reading anything I’ve written over the past five years. I have to say I really enjoyed it and don’t intend to stop. (And thanks to Dow Jones for not standing in my way when I asked permission back in 2002, or since.)

Cyberwar, Or Just a Taste?

Some interesting detail on the Estonian Cyberwar. This ain’t just any old attack. According to Jose Nazario, who works at ARBOR SERT, the attacks peaked a week ago, but aren’t over:

As for how long the attacks have lasted, quite a number of them last under an hour. However, when you think about how many attacks have occurred for some of the targets, this translates into a very long-lived attack. The longest attacks themselves were over 10 and a half hours long sustained, dealing a truly crushing blow to the endpoints.

There’s some older stuff here, from F-Secure, which shows that it’s not (just) a government initiative. And Dr Mils Hills, who works at the Civil Contingencies Secretariat of the UK’s Cabinet Office (a department of government responsible for supporting the prime minister and cabinet), feels that cyberwar may be too strong a term for something that he prefers to label ‘cyber anti-social behaviour’.

Indeed, what surprises him is that such a technologically advanced state — which uses electronic voting, ID cards and laptop-centric cabinet meetings — could so easily be hobbled by such a primitive form of attack, and what implications that holds:

What IS amazing is that a country so advanced in e-government and on-line commercial services has been so easily disrupted. What more sophisticated and painful things might also have already been done? What else does this indicate about e-security across (i) the accession countries to the EU; (ii) NATO and, of course, the EU itself?

Definitely true that this is probably just a little blip on the screen of what is possible, and what governments are capable of doing.

(Definition of Cyberwar from Wikipedia here.)

 

Russia Declares Cyberwar?

The Guardian reports on what some are suggesting may the first outbreak of official cyberwar between one country and another, after Russian hackers, official or not, have flooded Estonian websites with Denial of Service attacks (DDoS):

clipped from www.guardian.co.uk

Without naming Russia, the Nato official said: “I won’t point fingers. But these were not things done by a few individuals.

 

“This clearly bore the hallmarks of something concerted. The Estonians are not alone with this problem. It really is a serious issue for the alliance as a whole.”

Art, the Internet and the Rise of Symbiosis

Great piece from the NYT on the decline of mystery and the rise of symbiosis for artists, who find there’s a living of sorts to be made by engaging with fans online and allowing the community that emerges to choose the direction their musical careers take — even to the point of how much to charge for their creations. But it leaves some doubts:

clipped from www.nytimes.com

“I vacillate so much on this,” Tad Kubler told me one evening in March. “I’m like, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this intimacy with our fans. And I’m not sure you can have both.”