The Future: Findability

We only noticed three months later, but we passed something of a milestone last December. I’m hoping it might, finally, wake us up to the real power of the Web: findability.

According to Ericsson, a mobile network company, in December we exchanged more data over our mobile devices than we talked on them. In short, we now do more email, social networking, all that stuff, on our mobile phones and mobile-connected laptops than we do voice.

Quite a turning point.

But a turning point of what, exactly?

Well, the conventional wisdom is that we will use our cellphone (or a netbook with a cellphone connection) to do all the things we used to do, or still do, on our desktop tethered laptop or PC. According to a report by Sandvine, another network company, released this month, one in five of us mobile data subscribers are using Facebook and video sharing website YouTube accounts for at least a 10th of all traffic.

But the conclusions they draw from this are wrong.

The thinking is that we’re somehow interested only in doing things that we did at our desk, even when we’re in the open air. Or on the couch.

Well, OK, but it betrays a lack of imagination of what we’ll do when we’re really untethered.

When we have access to everything the Internet has to offer–and when the Internet has access to us. Then we’ll have findability. By that we mean we can find the answer to pretty much every question we ask, from where’s the nearest 24-hour pizza place to what’s the capital of Slovakia. Or who was in that movie with John Cusack about a hit man returning to his high school prom?

We know that we know all this, even if we don’t know it. Because we have all this at our fingertips, because we have the Internet. No longer do we care about hoarding information because we know the Internet’s hoarding it for us, and Google or someone, is there to help us find it in a microsecond.

That’s one bit of findability. But there’s another bit. Connect all this to other bits of information about ourselves, drawn from sensors and other chips inside the device: where we are, what time of day it is, what that building in front of us is, who we’re with, what language they’re speaking, our body temperature, whether we’re moving or stationary, whether we’re upright, sitting or laying flat, whether our eyes are closed, whether we used voice, touch, eyes, keys or gestures to pose whatever question was on our mind.

All that adds extra layers of information to findability, by giving context to our search for information. Only our imagination can tell us how all these bits and pieces of data can be useful to us, but if you’ve used a map on your smartphone you’ll already get a glimpse of its potential.

Last December, we passed into this new era. The era when the potential of the Internet to move beyond the desk and lap, and start to mesh with our lives so that it is all around us. Where we, where everything,  can be found.

links for 2008-09-21

The Uneven March of Progress Bars

Why are the progress percentage bars in programs so useless? This one in TrendMicro’s HouseCall has been telling me it’s 99% done for more than an hour:


This is by no means unusual. Software, whether it’s loading, installing, booting, scanning or whatever, doesn’t seem too hot on the old timing front. The jump from 0–99 is always impressively fast; then the last percentage takes forever. Sometimes the percentages and time remaining are disarmingly precise, but bear absolutely no relation to reality. You’ve got to feel sorry for people who plan their day around a progress bar.

OK, my question is this: Is this just bad software, is it just me, or is it really hard to compute how long software is going to take? If it’s the last, why bother? Why not just put a window up saying something like, “This is going to take a while. Go grab a coffee, go jogging, engage in some form of intercourse, and then check back in. Whatever you do, don’t watch this progress bar because it will lie, lie and lie again”?

Or is this some scam? Does the computer know the whole ‘99% done’ thing is rubbish, but was there a dastardly plan devised by the software company’s marketing department to convey an aura of efficiency, speed and precision by making the software seem really, really fast, at least in its initial phase? This, the thinking might go, gives off a very favourable first impression which is only mildly dented by the growing haze of soporific depression that overcomes you as the progress bar sticks at 99% for the rest of the workday?

Recharge Vouchers and Fantasies of Schoolmistresses

I’m doing a piece on speech recognition for the Journal, all the time wrestling with my own voice menu cellphone demons. One message from Hong Kong’s 3 network sends me apopleptic with rage while at the same time kind of turning me on, which tells you more about me than you probably want to know.

I use a prepaid card and I use recharge vouchers (a blessing, at least, that they don’t call them top-up cards, which for some reason I find a horrible expression, as if you’re not really paying ridiculous amounts of money to pay for SMS and voice calls).

Anyway, for some reason my Treo doesn’t like inputting the 16 digit number on each recharge voucher, so I get quite a few error messages, delivered by one, possibly two, female voices. The first part of the message, explaining I have not input the correct number, is schoolmistress-stern — you can almost hear the cane being flexed in the background — while the next, asking me to input the number again, addresses me as if I am a complete imbecile. Which, after hearing this message a few times, I kind of feel I am.

Here it is, in all its MP3 glory. I’m going to make it my ringtone.

Website Annotation Is Back?

Techdirt points to an effort by Slate’s Paul Boutin  to Make Website Annotation Cool Again. As Techdirt points out, this idea — where surfers can add their comments to websites so that others who use the same annotation software can view them, and add their own comments — is not new. (The semi-official term is Web Annotation.)

I went back through my old columns and saw that it was exactly five years ago that I wrote about ThirdVoice, which (according to c2) stopped offering its service, in part because of complaints, a year later.

Others were uTok, Instant Rendezvous and Gooey, all of which seem to no longer be operating.

Offer: Enfish Going Cheap, and Looking It Too

 I’m a tad worried about Enfish. Once the great white hope of computer indexing, I can’t help feeling they’re floundering. I just received an email — about five copies of it, to be precise — which seems to offer a version of Enfish’s Find product at a discount.
From what I can figure out in the email and on the website, Enfish Find can be bought for $44.95 – 10% off the full price. Fair enough, but why such an incomprehensible email, and why the typos? Enfish is still a good product, but it’s facing stiff competition from the more energetic X1 Technologies. Sloppy promotions aren’t going to help.

Software: Cut Out The Bull

 Here’s an interesting download for ya: software from a consulting firm that scours your company’s documents for ‘biz-buzz’ and suggests alternatives. It’s called Bullfighter (get it?) from Deloitte Consulting and it’s a plug-in that attaches itself to Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I read about it in a NYT/IHT column by Randall Rothenberg, who describes himself as director of intellectual capital at Booz Allen Hamilton, another consulting firm.
I’m downloading it now. But I have to take issue with Rothenberg, who suggests that biz buzz is a legitimate construct that helps companies, sorry enterprises, communicate better within and without. That may be true in the upper echelons, where language is just another political tool. But what about the poor saps on the factory floor, struggling to figure what is going on in the company they work for, or folk like me who have to wade through piles of badly-written, jargon-laden press releases every day to figure out what companies are trying to say? Language that is not simple simply obfuscates. Hey, I just made that up. I think I’ll run it past Bullfighter and see what he thinks of it.