Employee snooping is big business. Expect it to get bigger

I wrote previously about how snooping on employees is going to become the norm as managers scramble to deal with a workforce that is reluctant — or unable — to return to the workplace. Enabling this will be a host of tools available for companies to do this. It’ll be impossible for a lot of bosses to resist.

There’s already a whole market — worth $4 billion by 2023 according to this report — of employee surveillance tools. Some of them sound cute (Hubstaff, Time Doctor), some less so (VeriClock, ActivTrak, StaffCop and Work Examiner).

UntitledImage

The second question asked of you before you can access Time Doctor’s home page. 

They all feed off the fear of the Manager By-Line-of-Sight, like Workpuls:

Remote work has certainly made employees more independent from their superiors, if nothing else, then because they simply aren’t in the same physical location. That means you are never quite sure if the staff is watching funny videos or actually working.

While no one expects people to work for eight hours straight, it’s important to ensure that they are working on tasks that actually have high priority, and not just answer a few emails and go out for ice-cream and rollerblading for the rest of the day.

This perception is fed by a longstanding piece of ‘data’ which claims that workers actually only work 2 hours and 53 minutes in any work day. This study is regularly cited, though its source rarely, as proof positive we’re all lazy gits when it comes to home working. I’ve written a separate piece debunking this little gem.

So what do these tools do? Well, most monitor what software you’re using and what websites you’re logged into, for a start. The idea is to virtually handcuff you to work. For example, Time Doctor will

  • ask the user if they’re still working when they visit a social media site. “Whenever an employee accesses unproductive sites like these, the app automatically sends them a pop-up asking them if they’re still working. This little nudge is usually enough to get them off the social media site and back to work.”
  • Managers will have access to a ‘Poor Time Use’ report that details what sites an employee accessed and how long they spent there. Time Doctor can also take screenshots of employees’ screens at random intervals to ensure that they’re on productive sites.
  • Some, like Keeper, will monitor employees’ browsing history, ostensibly to check they’re not venturing onto the dark web.

Workpuls, meanwhile, boasts

Our all-seeing agent captures all employee actions. From app and website usage, to words typed in a program, right down to detecting which tasks are being worked on based on mouse clicks.

The more sinister aspect to this is that managers not only don’t trust their employees to work remotely, but they don’t trust them not to steal stuff. And we’re not talking paperclips. This is called Data Loss Prevention, or DLP, and is itself big business. One estimate has the market worth $1.21 billion in 2019, rising to $3.75 billion by 2025.

These tools include (this according to a deck from Teramind)

  • machine learning which scans an employee’s workflow, ‘fingerprinting’ documents and then tracking any changes and movement
  • ‘on the fly’ content discovery
  • clipboard monitoring — everything you copy and paste will be collected
  • advanced optical character recognition: think studying images and videos watched and uploaded by employees to check for steganographic data exfiltration (steganography is when data is hidden in a supposedly harmless message, often a picture.)

It’s not so much the eye-popping technology involved, as the realisation that everything that an employee does on a work computer (or a work-related computer) can be, and probably is, being monitored.

To be fair, companies like Teramind are focusing less on employee productivity and more on catching the bad apples. But these tools still sound to me overly intrusive. And in my next post I’ll show why.

How A Twitter Scrap, and Covid-19, Reveal a Disruption In Process

Disruption, by Tim Lewis 2009

When is innovation just another stab at the past, and when is it revolutionary? When it becomes a bit of a Twitter storm in a teacup, is possibly when.

Here’s an interesting case study in the offing: You might need to get your head around some unfamiliar terms, like bi-directional linking, breadcrumb navigation and transclusion. Or not.

My thoughts were nudged by a post at Amplenote, an online note-taking and note-sharing app that is worth a look. Like a lot of these players, they’ve been forced into offering features by the new kid on the block, namely Roam Research, which by taking the genre by the scruff of its neck turned itself into something that knowledge workers are getting excited about.

The post was written by Bill Harding, founder of Alloy, the company behind Amplenote. They’re old style, by internet terms and their own words, not relying on VC funding, freemium models etc. You can tell by the product that it’s neat, robust and reliable.

That’s mostly what people interested in this kind of tool are looking for. I’ve been a note taker and outliner since the early days, and I’ve tried pretty much everyone that’s out there. Folks know that I feel that despite some great stuff, computer software has let us down when it comes to making software that understands us, rather than the other way around. (Why Won’t Computers Do What We Want Them To?)

But it’s taken Covid-19 to make me realise this is changing. And apps like Amplenote — or ones more familiar to you, like Evernote, are getting caught up in it. Roam Research has given us a glimpse of what note-taking — the simple act of reading, hearing, thinking or seeing something, and storing that somewhere — is ripe for disruption, and he’s going for it. It’s early days, but lockdown may be the jolt that propels this genre into the mainstream, something no other note-taking app has managed to do. A day ago Conor White-Sullivan posted to Roam’s Reddit group that 10,000 new users signed up to the app over the weekend, causing upheaval for his servers and users and forcing him to suggest to those ‘super-concerned’ use a rival app “for a week or so”.

He must know that suggestion really isn’t an option for most of his disciples. Roam is attracting a lot of interest — and beyond the usual numbers of people who dabble in this kind of thing. Why? Well, I think there are number of reasons:

  • Roam works right out of the box. It’s all online, the (initial) interface is very simple, even prepopulating the page with blank, but dated entries, prompting you to just start writing.
  • It gets as complex as you want it to get. You could just use it as a journal, if you wanted, but that would be a waste. It goes deep, with features being added with little fanfare, including sliders, nodemaps, and stuff I haven’t gotten around to figuring out.
  • But the key to all the excitement, I believe, is a key formula, which I think is the basic currency of software success: you get more out of it than you put in. Put simply, this means, for example, that if you linked one page to another page, that second page would update itself so you can see that link. This is what they mean by bi-directional links, or backlinks. It might seem to be the most trivial and useless piece of data, but if you don’t know what pages are linking to the page you’re looking at, you simply won’t know what information you have that you’ve already decided is linked to this. Your effort in linking to that page is now automatically creating extra value without you having to do the extra work.
Bi-directional linking, in simple terms

If you’ve read this far you’ll probably get it. But if not, let me just go into more detail. Computers, and the software that run them, are useless tools if they don’t allow us to do more with the stuff we tell them than we are capable of. Enter numbers into a spreadsheet because you know the software can do a load of things with that data than you can. Let your Apple Watch collect data about your body because you know it’s going to do more with it that’s useful than you could with a paper and pen. But for the most part knowledge workers have not really had anything similar for textual data. Yes, AI can help to find patterns in large bundles of it, but the same applied to our knowledge — the stuff we decide is worth keeping from our readings, talks, viewing and thinking in a computer — has not been so useful. Mostly, it’s just about being able to retrieve stuff more easily, so we don’t need to remember it, or remember where we put it.

But this is 2020. And we’re still there?

And this is where we come back to Bill Harding. And his screed. His point is a fair one: that all this talk of bidirectional linking is deja vu for many of us, when in the post-dotcom bubble burst of the early 2000s Wikipedia’s surprising success prompting interest in the underlying technology (here’s a piece I wrote in 2004 (sic) for the Journal about the disruption Wikipedia caused).

In his blog post yesterday Bill writes:

To drink in the enthusiasm we’ve witnessed in some corners of Twitter, bidirectional linking will evolve what’s possible…for those who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of learning this enigmatic craft. As fate & capitalism would have it, an elite cadre has popped up to help enthusiasts learn how to benefit from bidirectional linking. By all accounts, those who successfully assimilate the ideas of these programs transform their lives for the better. It seems reasonable, and I believe these gentlemen are doing great work to which they are wholly devoted.

But how different are today’s opportunities than what came before? To technologists of a certain age, the groundswell for a better connected network of ideas hearkens back to the halcyon days of 2005, when wikis were The Next Big Thing. Back then, companies like Wetpaint raised $40m to help organize the world’s knowledge. “A lot of venture money is flowing into wiki products” said Techcrunch in 2006. Having ubiquitous, bidirectional linking with surrounding context info was creating transformative opportunities in companies where people knew how to build them.

But with a couple major exceptions, wikis fizzled out, never catching on for personal use. Having set up my share of wikis during the early 2000s, I can attest that it was “worse than WordPress”-level bad for Twiki and Mediawiki. Developers might struggle through it to better capture their personal ideas, but the benefits of bidirectional linking were largely relegated to business knowledge software.

These new startups reviving and refreshing the ideas from the wiki craze is a great outcome for productivity enthusiasts. Especially with the expert guidance of smart people like Tiago and Nat, there’s never been a better time to help the humble wiki live up to its nearly-forgotten first round of hype.

If you sniff a little snarkiness in the tone ‘elite cadre’, you might be right. After trying to lure Roam users away with an import tool and a pricing comparison, Amplenote’s twitter account said less than an hour before I wrote this, that it had been blocked by Roam’s:


It’s not really a battle of equals: Amplenote has 24 followers, Roam 16,000. And this is the thing. What we’re really seeing, I believe, is a new player come in and bring the necessary tweaks and rethink to an existing technology — in this case, personal databases — by taking the best bits from each, adding a few new ones, and stealing the show to create a following and a buzz. This is not to say Roam isn’t impressive: it is, and I have not found any other app to match it.

And that’s why Amplenote and others, Bear, TiddlyWiki, WorkFlowy, TheBrain, Dynalist etc, are all struggling to add similar features, thinking about adding them, or defending why they don’t have them. This is good, and classic Christensen disruption. It might not be Roam that ends up winning this, but they’ve shaken up the market.

But what market? Is there really one for this kind of thing? Back in the early 2000s I would have said yes, because the kinds of people interested in this kind of thing were the same kind of people who bothered to read a tech column in The Wall Street Journal. The internet was a means of connectivity, and its potential was seen in those terms — could I store my stuff in more than one place, was the common question. So it wasn’t surprising that, as Bill recounts, everyone thought that wikis (the ‘readwrite web’) were the way to go. But others saw it differently, and all the smart money ended up going to using the internet to create more passive experiences — user generated, yes, but simpler, shorter, and where possible multimedia. It was all about eyeballs, and so content as knowledge slipped into the background as Twitter (status), Facebook (sharing stuff) and Google (search) came to the fore.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily changed. But Covid-19 has helped crystallise something that was already happening, namely that smart people are exploring how to leverage their knowledge and knowledge of software to solve the unsolved problems of the past, or to reconsider tools that had been largely forgotten. Knowledge work was once an obscure term that is now on its way to describing pretty much all of us who are sat at a computer, and it’s this realisation that has made people like Conor, I imagine, realise there’s a market for tools that really address the problem of deriving more value from the cost of user input.

Bill’s error is a generational one: what was once ‘business knowledge’ is now something else entirely. Watch this video of Andy Matuschak, a software engineer who works at the Khan Academy, to see what this looks like (he’s using Bear, by the way, not Roam). It’s strangely captivating viewing, ASMR for the Knowledge Generation:

Andy Matuschak at work

The other mistake is to think of this as ‘productivity’. This is not about that. This is not just a better task manager. I believe we’ve moved on from that — or at least recognised its limits. Now the thinking is, as Tiago Forte, one of Bill’s ‘elite cadre’, has mentioned, about acquiring and processing knowledge in a way that our brain retains it. You can almost hear Andy’s brain whirring as he processes what he’s reading before he expresses it.

So where will all this go? I’m not sure. Roam is talking about charging $15 a month, which is why people like Bill still think they have a chance to grab some of this market. To me it’s a rising tide and I’m pleased to see there are boats paying attention. After 20 years of focus on either ‘Getting Things Done’ or on the cuteness/elegance of interface, we’re entering a much larger ocean, which has the potential to bring these cutters, sloops and yawls into the slipstream of the incumbent tankers. Whether they go under or catch the current is anyone’s guess. Evernote has, largely, failed to find a larger audience (for lots of reasons) but the timing might now be right, especially as knowledge workers find themselves with plenty of time, isolation, an internet connection, and an urge to learn.

Addendum: Conor points out in a tweeted response to this piece that he has “been working on this problem for the better part of a decade. Strong(ly) agree the changes in landscape are great for us, but we wandered the desert for years before this.”

The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

Moleskines Redux

Moleskin ® redux

Of course, I claim a lot of the credit for this decade-long trend Why Startups Love Moleskines: 

“The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.”

I have returned to Moleskines recently, partly because I realised I have a cupboard full of them, and partly because of exactly this problem: there’s no digital equivalent experience. 

  • easier to conceptualise on paper
  • you can doodle when the speaker is waffling; those doodles embellish, even turn it into Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes
  • you can whip it out in places where an electronic device would be weird, or rude, or impractical;
  • there’s a natural timeline to your thoughts
  • there’s something sensual about having a pen in your hands and holding a notebook
  • pen and moleskine focus your thoughts and attention
  • the cost of the book acts as a brake on mindless note taking (writing stuff down without really thinking why) 
  • no mindmap software has ever really improved the mindmapping experience. 
There’s probably more to it. But maybe the point is that this isn’t a fad. People have been using these in the geeky community for more than a decade, suggesting that they have established themselves as a viable tool. Being able to easily digitise them — for saving, or processing, as I did this morning with a chart I sketched out which my graphics colleague wanted to poach from — is a bonus, and saves us from the fear of losing our work. 

(Via.Newley Purnell)

Software as Silo

Software is a funny thing. How important is it?

Apple has just announced it’s giving most of its away for free — effectively costing it some $900 million in the short term. Samsung has just convened its first developer conference in the hope of persuading more people to write software for its devices. Microsoft, known for its Office and Windows software, has just bought a phone manufacturer — Nokia — and promises a new raft of its lacklustre Surface tablets. Google, known for the money it makes off its software, has promised more Glasses, and owns a cellphone maker, Motorola. Amazon, which sells stuff, also makes tablets and e-readers, and is rumoured to be getting into a phone.

What companies are increasingly recognising is that software is everything but not on its own. To succeed in this new world of ubiquitous devices, you need to own as much as possible of what is loosely referred to as the ecosystem. That means hardware, software, and the services that make both hardware and software come to life.
Think a phone where you can take videos, edit them into a short movie at literally the push of a button, and then share them with friends with another push. Or a tablet that lets you and control see your company’s inventory or fleet of trucks in real time.

But this isn’t easy. It requires expertise in very different areas — areas that until recently were regarded as best considered separate industries. Focus on what you’re good at, the mantra used to be. Now, it’s more like: you’ve got to be good at all these things, or you’ll die. Think HTC, which makes great devices but hasn’t succeeded in building the software and services that makes those devices stand out.

Some companies can be good at all three, but it’s a fast-moving game. Think BlackBerry, which was good at both hardware, software and services for a while, with its email service, its own operating system and its keyboard-bound devices. But the world moved on, and BlackBerry didn’t move quickly enough.

So now it looks like Apple is heading the pack. But it too, is vulnerable. The world has been captivated by the phones and tablets it creates, but some detect a sense the company, without Steve Jobs, quite understanding where to go next. It’s likely to be an Apple TV, which should be interesting.

Samsung is late to the game, dangerously so. It dominates the world of phones, but has been slow to build software and services to bridge those devices to its other products — computers, TVs, fridges, etc. Only this week has it really embraced developers and tried to make it easy for them to do this. Samsung’s future hinges in being able to rid itself of its dependence on Google’s Android operating system — either by building an operating system of its own, or a suite of apps that run on top of it that make a Samsung device so much more valuable than one from LG, Sony, HTC or Huawei.

Then there’s Microsoft. By making its operating system and much of its software free, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to its old rival. It’s not saying these products have no value: it’s saying that software is what makes hardware compelling, and so we’re effectively making the two one single product. For Microsoft, still largely a software player, that’s quite scary. No wonder the company is betting heavily on building its own hardware.

In some ways this is good for the consumer, in some ways not. On the one hand we’re already seeing the hardware basically controlling the software — automatically updating itself, optimizing itself for the user. On the other, the goal here is clear: bind the user to a single stack of hardware, software and services, increasingly isolated from each other. A Samsung phone may be a great device to control your TV with, layering little apps atop the screen, but don’t expect it to work with your LG smart TV. And don’t bother trying to use Apple’s AirDrop feature to send a file to your Samsung phone.

The bottom line is that these companies are being hugely innovative, moving the puck at impressive speed. But in their efforts to escape becoming commodities, they’re pushing us into silos. Nice silos, very nice silos, but silos that make me think more of the past than the future.

Sharing on Evernote

image

Despite some competition, Evernote still owns the space where we save stuff we might need for ourselves. But is it up to the task of our increasingly collaborative world? I’ve gotten a bit confused about what can and can’t be synced and shared and with whom so I asked them. This is what I think I learned: (some corrections made after checking with Evernote)

Syncing between devices

  • If you’re a free user, anything you add on any device can be viewed (and edited) on any other device.
  • If you’re a premium user then you’ll be able to download and store offline all notes to your Android or iPhone.

Sharing notes

Notes can be emailed to other users.

As of today it’s possible to share a note with anyone via the web app (desktop apps soon) via the share button:

image

which allows you to share via Facebook (and later Twitter etc) as well as via a link which can be pasted elsewhere. Others will not be able to edit this shared link, but any changes you make to the original note will update the shared page.

Sharing notebooks

(this is where I might be off the mark. Expect corrections)

  • Any notebook can be shared with any other user via any app.
  • One of you needs to be a premium user for others to be able to add to the notebook.
  • If you’re on the web app (just redesigned; very nice) and/or a Mac, any additions or edits any shared user makes will sync to the others’ devices. (Other platforms coming soon; the pre-release version of Windows includes this feature already.)
  • Any imported files or watched folders will also be synced between users if one of the users is premium.  (Free users are limited to to text, audio, images, and PDFs. If the contents of the shared notebook/watched folders are limited to those file types, then any user can share them. If the file types go beyond that, or if the sharer wants recipients to edit the content, then the individual that’s sharing the notebook must be Premium.)

Footnote

Three things I asked Evernote if they might work on:

  • Drag and drop doesn’t seem to work for copied text and images. Just copy some text from a page and drag it over into Evernote. It used to. Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • I feel Evernote has fallen behind on the ability to extract the relevant content from a web page and copy that, without all the extraneous stuff.  Readability and Thinkery.me do this very well (the latter, brilliantly; a Chrome plugin lets you merely right click a link for Thinkery to rush off and grab the salient text and save it.) Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • Revive the timeband. I loved that thing. Evernote answer: any 3rd party developers interested in doing it?  

The End of Boorish Intrusion

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

How to Not Sweat the Mobile Office

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I do a lot of work on the road, including setting up offices from scratch. What I’ve learnt—and the mistakes I’ve made—could fill a book, so maybe I’ll write one.

But here, for now, are some tips I’ve found useful about working on the road—especially if you’re on the road for any length of time, or setting up your stall in a new place, temporarily or permanently.

The first thing to do is to get a local SIM card asap. Roaming fees remain ruinous. More of that in a later column.

The other is to get a dongle. Nowadays, it’s really easy to get your laptop connected to something approaching a broadband Internet connection.

HSDPA is the prevailing technology for this—you don’t need to know what it stands for, because it’s already on the way out—via a SIM card inserted in a little thumb drive that slots into your USB port. More commonly known as a dongle.

Nowadays you can get these for very little, along with a prepaid account. You often have to buy the dongle, which might or might not be usable in a new country.

Either way, you’ve got connected.

If you’re setting up a whole new office then get your staff onto Google Apps.

This is a suit of online programs that is basically Microsoft Office–for free, and open to real time collaboration. (Recently Google souped it up a bit and added a tool for drawing.)

All you need is an Internet connection. (Google Apps can be used offline, but this is in the process of being changed, so it might not be working for a while.)

If you want to do it with a bit of style, install Google Apps on your own domain (cooldudes.com) so all your new staff have email addresses that end in that domain; they can also then share all their contacts etc.

The non-domain version is called Google Docs and works fine. If you’ve all got Gmail accounts then it makes sense to stick with that.

Google have done a good job with this suite, but it’s not perfect. Don’t expect all the bells and whistles you’d usually get for spreadsheets and documents. But it’s fine for most needs.

Make sure staff get into the habit of saving documents with useful, consistent names and putting them in shared folders that others can find. Maintain a policy of limited documents and constant weeding so things don’t get lost or forgotten.

Hardware-wise, get people netbooks. They should be more than enough and this allows them to take them home to work/play on there. (Ensure they’ve all got antivirus on them, and tell them you’ll punish them severely if they install rubbish on them.)

And then wow them by buying an external monitor—Samsung, Philips and others do relatively small screens for about $100.

That doubles the amount of screen they’ve got to play with and wins you grateful looks from staff who’ve either never had two screens before or have them but never expected such an enlightened boss.

A tip: check the weight of the screen, as they vary widely. Some are light enough to carry with you between assignments. If not, you can always get a small 7” Mimo Monitor which gives you that extra bit of desktop. Mimo tell me they’re coming out with a larger one this month or next.

Printers are not an easy problem to resolve, but you should be able to get a scanner, printer, fax and copy machine, all in one, for about $120. You can either thread USB cables around your office or splash out on a wireless router that has a USB slot in the back.

(Wireless routers let you connect all your computers together via WiFi.)

This should, in theory, allow you to connect said scanner/printer/fax/copier into your network meaning anyone can use it. Expect a bit of pain here.

Other things I would buy to make your new mini-office more productive: decent mouse pads—nothing worse, or less productive, than staff sliding their mice across overly reflective desktops or books.

If they’re taking their netbooks home, then buy them the mains cable that sits between the netbook’s power adapter and the wall. This means they don’t have to dive under the desk to remove the power cable, and instead can just unplug the adapter as it sits behind their netbook.

Cost of cable: about $1.

I also buy headsets for landlines. These are cheap and save your staff’s necks.

And a non-stapler clipper, which uses reusable clips, saves you pulling staples out of paper and makes every document look snazzy. Cost: $1.50.

Lastly, buy a label printer. They may be a bit pricey—well, the labels are—but they make everything look so much better, and give your office a professional shine that will make your staff work harder and not want to go home in the evening.

Good for them. Now I’m off to the hotel pool.

Radio Australia Topics, Feb 6 2009

What I talked about on the Radio Australia Breakfast Club today:

  • Everyone, it seems, is writing an iPhone app. Including a Singaporean 9-year old. Not surprising since half a billion apps have been downloaded since the app store went live six months ago. iPhone apps get security conscious: Bank Info lures the thief with juicy bank data but in fact transmits locational information to the owner. FoneJac will make your iPhone go off like a car alarm if someone picks it up.
  •  Google launches Latitude: Now you can see where your friends are, not where they say they are.
  • Pew Internet and American Life Project finds teens preferring SMS and instant messaging over email (d’oh) but also over social networks and virtual worlds. (Emily of textually.org points out that email was out from about 2004 in South Korea.)
  • A big step: Microsoft offers, not just a list of steps to fix a problem, but to do the steps for you, with its Fix It program. Good idea, or thin end of a dodgy wedge?

Directory of Distraction-free Writing Tools

(2009 June: added two no delete editors)

Editors

A working list of tools to reduce writers’ distraction. I’ve been using some of them for a while; I was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s latest post on the matter to collect what I could together. All are free unless otherwise stated. 

No backspace/delete editors

Typewriter “All you can do is type in one direction. You can’t delete, you can’t copy, you can’t paste. You can save and print. And you can switch between black text on white and green on black; full screen and window.” Freeware, all OS.

Momentum Writer Same idea, really. “Momentum Writer is the ultimate tool for distraction-free writing. Like a mechanical typewriter, users are prevented from editing previously written text. There are no specific formatting options, no scrolling, deleting, or revisions. Momentum Writer doesn’t even allow you to use the backspace key. Momentum Writer forces you to write, to move forward, to add new words. It halts the temptation to linger, revise, and correct. Momentum Writer is a typewriter for your PC.” Freeware, for Windows.

Multiplatform

JDarkroom (works on Windows, Macs and Linux, thanks. Tris): “simple full-screen text file editor with none of the usual bells and whistles that might distract you from the job in hand.”

Windows

TextEdit (there seems to be a Mac product of the same name. The Windows website is under reconstruction so I can’t grab a description, but downloads are available.)

NotePad ++ “a generic source code editor (it tries to be anyway) and Notepad replacement written in c++ with win32 API. The aim of Notepad++ is to offer a slim and efficient binary with a totally customizable GUI.”

EditPad “a general-purpose text editor, designed to be small and compact, yet offer all the functionality you expect from a basic text editor. EditPad Lite works with Windows NT4, 98, 2000, ME, XP and Vista.” Lite is free; Pro is $50

PSPad code editor

And some so-called ‘dark room apps’ which blank out the outside world:

WestEdit “a full screen, old-school text editor and typewriter. No fuss, no distractions – just you and your text.”

Dark Room: “full screen, distraction free, writing environment. Unlike standard word processors that focus on features, Dark Room is just about you and your text.”

Q10: “a simple but powerful text editor designed and built with writers in mind.”

Mac

TextMate: “TextMate brings Apple’s approach to operating systems into the world of text editors. By bridging UNIX underpinnings and GUI, TextMate cherry-picks the best of both worlds to the benefit of expert scripters and novice users alike.” ($54)

The Mac dark room is WriteRoom “a full-screen writing environment. Unlike the cluttered word processors you’re used to, WriteRoom is just about you and your text.” ($25)

GNOME etc

image

gedit

Distraction reducers

Write or Die: “web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.”