Tag Archives: desktop software

The Third Screen Talks to the Second

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Nokia has finally woken up to the potential of connecting its phones to a computer. I’ve written elsewhere about the PC Suite, but its latest version has made some great strides in allowing you to use the computer to manage and monitor your cellphone.

The vision is a simple, and yet elusive, one. We work on our computers when we’re stationary. And on our phone when we’re mobile. But as far as we’re concerned we’re still doing the same thing: working. We can synchronize our data between those two devices, but operating both in real time is more problematic: there are tools to allow us to access our computer data from a phone, but sending and receiving SMS messages, for example, is still considered a phone activity, not a computer one.

It’s a technical barrier, not a lifestyle one.

Nokia, the biggest cellphone manufacturer in the world, has been slow to wake up to this weak link, but they’ve now seemed to see it. We should be able to send and receive SMS messages just like we can send and receive email messsages. It shouldn’t make any difference to us how people communicate with us; the medium shouldn’t matter.

But anyone thumbing out SMS messages in the office when they’d rather be typing them knows it does.

The PC Suite, once just a way to synchronize data between phone and computer, has now started to move into this space. Now it’s not a suite, so much as a Communication Centre. It’s become the interface for your phone (or phones; Bluetooth lets you connect more than one device simultaneously) when you’re at your desk.

The real improvement, therefore, is in the way the desktop software (Windows only) works with messages and contacts on the phone. Previously it was clunky and slow; it felt like the computer was downloading all your messages and contacts each time you wanted to do something. It was often faster just to tap the message out on the phone.

Now it’s fast and easy to use. Your computer will also let you know when a new message arrived, something the old software didn’t. The software is also good-looking and remarkably rich in features. Indeed, I’d argue that you don’t really need Outlook for your contacts with this kind of software working so well. (And yes, it handles non-Western alphabets well too.)

Some weaknesses: there’s still no way to add a phone number to existing contacts—as opposed to creating a new one. And when I first ran the software it ate up nearly all my processing power, which wasn’t pretty (it’s since settled down.)

Intriguingly, there’s a Firefox extension for synchronising bookmarks between your computer and phone browsers.

This is the closest I’ve seen to making the phone an appendage to your computer, where it seamlessly integrates in terms of data and functionality. Some steps to go, but kudos to Nokia for pushing the envelope. Hopefully soon enough we won’t notice or care what medium—SMS, email, chat–we’re using, because it will all be one simple interface. That day just came closer.

It’s Not the “Death” of Microsoft, it’s the “Death” of Software

Paul Graham writes an interesting obituary of Microsoft, killed off, as he sees it, by applications that sit in your browser. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before every application we need can grabbed off the server.

This is the kind of established wisdom of Web 2.0 folks these days that prompts only howls of “old news”. In some senses it’s right. I don’t use an email client anymore, nor a news/RSS reader. I try to use a calendar app like Outlook as little as possible. I even use Google Docs sometimes. But we’re a long way from interesting, complex applications running in the browser.

The problem: Most web applications are broken, and if we were paying for them, or Microsoft were making them, we’d be howling. Google Docs’ word processor, for example, quickly breaks down on bigger documents (weird artefacts appear in the text, keyboard shortcuts stop doing what they’re supposed to.) Its spreadsheet program mangles spreadsheets. The functionality in both is extremely limited for anything more than the most basic tasks.

All this takes us to a weird place: We somehow demand less and less from our software, so that we can declare a sort of victory. I love a lot of Web 2.0 apps but I’m not going to kid myself: They do one simple thing well — handle my tasks, say — or they are good at collaboration. They also load more quickly than their offline equivalents. But this is because, overall, they do less. When we want our software to do less quicker, they’re good. Otherwise they’re a pale imitation of more powerful, exciting applications in which we do most of our work.

Like what? Well, what have I got running on my (Windows) desktop right now:

  • BlogJet — blog writing tool. Online equivalent: Blog service tool. Difference: BlogJet more powerful than its browser equivalent, no latency, lets me work offline. Can move it around the screen and outside the browser. Can use ordinary editing shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+K.
  • ExplorerPlus – file management tool. Lets me see what’s on my computer and move stuff around. Online equivalent: None? (ExplorerPlus now appears to be an orphan, sold by Novatix to SendPhotos Inc, but now no longer visible on their site.)
  • Text Monkey Pro – cleans up text. Online equivalent: Firefox plugin Copy Plain Text
  • ConnectedText – offline Wiki type organiser/outliner. Web app equivalent: TiddlyWiki. Jury still out on which is better
  • MyInfo – outliner. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any online outliner. There must be one.
  • PersonalBrain: thought organizer. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any.
  • Mindmanager: mindmapper. Online equivalents: bubbl.us, Mindmeister, Mindomo. Difference: Mindmanager much more powerful, works with more branches without losing effectiveness, integrates with other tools.
  • !Quick Screen Capture: screen capture tool. Online equivalent: Not known.
  • PaperPort: scanner and PDF database. Online equivalent: None.

Now it’s not as if I’m using these products because I think they’re all great. It’s just that no one has come along with anything better (Mac users: your cue to point me to great Mac equivalents). The past seven years, in fact have brought along nothing exciting in the offline apps world so it doesn’t surprise me that online applications, for all their simplicity, are getting the attention. (Don’t get me started on how weak and unimaginative PaperPort is. Mindmanager is still not as good as it could be; outliners are still doing very little more than their DOS forebears, and the lack of decent file managers is a crime.)

But all this just proves to me that there has been little real innovation in software in the sense of making programs do more. Web 2.0 has excited us because we lowered our expectations so much. Of course web apps will get better, and one day will deliver the functionality we currently get from desktop software. They may even do more than our desktop applications one day. But isn’t it a tad strange that we think this is all a huge leap forward?

Markets May Be Conversations, But Weird Ones

My conversations with some quite senior PR people are often somewhat bizarre: stilted, me trying not to sound like I’m the ghost in their machine, the castle-wall destroyer, them so defensive about their product and brand they could easily be replaced by robots. Cluetrain Manifesto should be required reading for these guys. Or at least Micropersuasion.

Recently, inspired by Kate Fox’s observations about the role of SMS in her book Watching the English and recalling Motorola’s sponsorship of research a few years back of Sadie Plant (PDF only) I approached a major handset manufacturer to see whether they had anything similar on how people used SMS and whether it differed from country to country.
No, that sort of thing would be kept secret.
– So there is research but I can’t see it?
– I’m not sure. But this kind of thing would be important marketing information. Commercially sensitive.
– (Audible sigh admitted by columnist).
I see. (Thinks: There goes their chance to seem like a company bigger than merely the next dollar.)

Actually I knew I was in trouble when I complained earlier to this PR person about their company’s desktop software, which I’d found almost impossible to install on three different computers. I found myself being talked to as if I were a small child (which I am, but I was upset at being found out) and told that “focus groups and users have actually found it very easy to install. Maybe you’re doing something wrong.” Yes, believing that the 104th version of your software was going to be easier to work with that all the previous versions, I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud. At least I don’t think I did.

Now I know we journalists have thin skin, but I’m not sure this is the best way to go about engaging in a meaningful dialog with someone who is about to review your product.

More Search Tools

Search seems to be this week’s Thang. eWeek reports that Groxis is about to launch a new version of its desktop software that can retrieve results from multiple search engines and instantly categorize them. Rather than returning a simple list of results, Grokker 2 groups them into various categories that are displayed in a visual map of icons, allowing users to drill down to find specific sites or content.

In Version 2, eWeek says, Grokker has its own intelligence engine that analyzes content in order to categorize it on the fly. It also pulls search results from significantly more sources of information. Don’t expect Grokker 2 to be cheap: Grokker 1 cost $100 for a single user license.