Tag Archives: smart phones

The Proud Legacy of the New Web

My weekly column for the Loose Wire Servce.

A few things I had to do this week brought me to the same conclusion: Companies that don’t get simplicity are struggling.

First off, I have been writing a paper on social media. What we used to call Web 2.0, basically. Now that everything we do is Web 2.0 it’s kind of silly to call it that. And nerdy. But next time you use Facebook, or Twitter, or any web service that uses a clean, simple interface—nothing ugly, no bullying error messages—then you can thank Web 2.0.

Every time you are pleasantly surprised when the service you use—for free—adds more cool features and doesn’t try to sting you for it, thank Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 made things simpler, more user-centric. Its principles were share, create, collaborate (against the old world’s hoard, consume, compete.)

If you want to read more on this, download the Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written by a cluster of visionaries. A great read and a sort of call to arms for the Web 2.0 generation.

We know this. Researching the paper reminded me of just how influential Web 2.0 has been. But everything else I’ve done this week has reminded me how few companies still don’t get it.

First off, I had to set up a mailing list. You know, sending out lots of emails to people. It’s fiddly if you want to do it right. Before, you’d download software and painstakingly fiddle with spreadsheets and stuff.

Now you can do it online. But not all online services are alike. I tried one, Constant Contact (which doesn’t, actually. sound that appealing a concept. Sounds like an STD or one those annoying kids who follow you around at school.)

ConstantContact was OK, I suppose. But it was fiddly. No way was this going to be fun. Then I tried something called MailChimp. The look and feel of the site was pure Web 2.0. Big buttons, nice colors, the sort of site that makes you want to get yourself a coffee and browse around.

Sure enough, the whole thing was not only a breeze, but a joy. Not perfect—they like their simian jokes, those guys at MailChimp–but so different it brought home how Web 2.0 isn’t a set of tools but a mindset. “How can we make this easier, and fun? And cheaper?”

That was the first experience. Then I had to set up an email account on Microsoft’s online corporate web service, called Outlook Web Access (known as OWA.) The acronym should have given that away. OWA, as “Oh er” or “whoa”. After five years of Gmail using this was like going back to typewriters. And not in a good way.

Clunky, ugly, lots of annoying “Are you sure you want to do this?” type messages.

It was hell. A real reminder of what email was before Google got hold of it. (And, sorry, Yahoo!, but you’re still stuck in the slow lane. I tried your web mail offering again but it wouldn’t let me send half the emails I wanted, instead accusing me of spamming. Sending six emails makes me a spammer? That makes you my ex web mail provider.)

It’s not that Gmail is wonderful. But it’s simple. And it adds features before you’ve had time to think them up yourself. It strives to get out of your way and let you get on with stuff. Very Web 2.0-ey.

Then I had to buy a video camera. It was then I realized that Web 2.0 wasn’t just about software.

I got one of those Flip video cameras three years ago. I loved it. Barely three buttons on the thing, and perfect. An antidote to complicated video cameras and smart phones that require a PhD to use. Web 2.0 on a stick.

So I went looking for a replacement. Flip has been so popular it’s a) been bought out, and b) has lots of competitors. Even Sony have one. Yes, the guys who brought you the Walkman now offer you something called the bloggie PM5, which is basically what the Sony design people think is a better Flip.

Only it’s not. It’s Sony’s view of the world, and it’s striking how anachronistic it looks.

At first blush it’s smart. The lens swivels so you can see yourself videoing yourself. Which is good. But that’s the only thing good about it.

It’s heavy. The buttons are too many in number and aren’t intuitive—I couldn’t even find the volume adjuster, and nor could the guy in the shop—and it has all the things that reminded me why I’d never buy anything from Sony again. A proprietary USB cable slot—so you can only use a Sony cable with it. Their own memory card, which means you can’t use your other memory cards like the increasingly popular SD one.

(Oh and it only records for 30 minutes at a time. Not that the manual tells you that.)

In other words, Sony talks about the bloggie-ness of their bloggie, where you can share all your stuff on Facebook and YouTube, but still doesn’t get the bigger picture: That the Flip was supposed to make all this stuff simple. Open, fun, collaborative, about the moment rather than the fiddling. And no more closed shop. No more trying to sucker you into buying more of their stuff.

I haven’t talked about Apple in all this because the jury’s out on them. They definitely make things easier to use, but they’re still proudly disdainful of everyone else—including, I suspect, their customers. Their products are a joy to use, but I think the Cluetrain passed their stop.

So Web 2.0 is a state of mind. It’s something we should demand of all our interactions with products, services, companies, officials. Simplicity. Put yourselves in the user’s shoes. Don’t put up road blocks. Make using your product, if not a joy, then at least not a pain.

Sony, Yahoo!, Microsoft, print that last paragraph out and make a banner out of it. I guarantee it’ll work wonders for you.

Tsunamis, Warnings and the SMS

Systems — especially warning systems — need to work perfectly, or not at all. Take Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system, which recently failed a trial because busy phone networks took hours to deliver vital SMS messages, while some some warnings sent by fax didn’t turn up at all, according to AFP. (More on the drill from DPA here.)

The report quotes Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre as saying that text messages sent by cell phones to emergency coordinators around the country took hours to arrive, while warnings sent by fax during the morning drill also failed to arrive. Said Pakdivat Vajirapanlop, the centre’s deputy operations chief: “The problem we faced was with communications. We have no idea whether our messages sent to local operations chiefs by fax and SMS arrived on time or not, and by midday some of them said they did not recieve the SMS. We need to know whether they have received our messages. What can they do if the messages don’t arrive on time? Then the warning is useless,” he said.

Indeed. SMS is not a reliable way to transmit messages, especially during a crisis. A warning system is as weak as its weakest link, and relying on SMS, or even fax, is not going to work. I’m just not sure what would work under such circumstances. The system needs to have an inbuilt check that a) ensures the message reaches its destination and b) the sender receives confirmation that the recipient has received and opened the message (what you might call passive acknowledgement. The recipient doesn’t need to actively acknowledge the message has been received, because that requires a further step. The message itself actually has an inbuilt acknowledgement mechanism.

SMS actually allows this confirmation, where the user can receive an SMS back informing him his message has been received by the sender. This system is not perfect of course, since nowadays SMS messages are filtered by increasingly sophisticated smartphones. So, for example, in the past an SMS’ arrival would intrude upon the recipient by a) making a noise and b) appearing on top of any other data or image on the phone’s screen, now smart phones can handle the SMS differently, from directing it to a specific folder to not appearing on the screen at all if another program is being used, or the phone is in silent mode, say. A great example of technology actually getting in the way of using the communication device as an alerting mechanism.

There are other ways, of course. One could use email trackers like MessageTag or DidTheyReadit which would alert the sender that the email has been sent. Although not popular with privacy advocates, this might be a way to inform a sender of a tsunami alert that a message has been read — even when, and perhaps where. Perhaps email trackers could be packaged and sold for this purpose?

On the other hand, how about picking up the phone and calling someone?

Staying Productive in Your Underwear

I’m researching a piece on how to cut back the amount of stuff you have to read, particularly RSS feeds. So I have spent the morning reading blogs related to the tools I’m writing about. In the process, of course, I find more than 20 new blogs that are interesting enough for me to add to the feed reader that I’m supposed to be in the process of thinning out. It’s the online equivalent of packing up all your stuff in newspaper ready to move and then sitting down and spending the whole day reading fascinating news items on scraps of year-old newspaper.

Anyway, I realise I should write more about working from home, something I’ve done (the working from home, not the writing about it) for more than five years now. Here’s a great bunch of tips from Kevin Yank, who’s based in Australia although, yes, he’s a Canadian:

He recommends maintaining your morning routine as if you’re going to the office, unplugging the TV, and, most interestingly, purging your work PC of distractions. His home PC, meanwhile, “constantly checks my personal email, downloads podcasts, fetches low-priority feeds from a plethora of distracting web sites, and is replete with cute little apps that generate eye candy and always seem to need upgrading when I should be doing something else.”

Great idea to have two computers if you can manage it. Although I’m divided on whether it’s possible to divide work and personal stuff these days. Doesn’t one feed off the other? I found myself yesterday arguing fiercely with a friend from a major U.S. bank who said she was not even able to access web-mail on her work computer. To me this is daft; limiting workers’ access to such things merely panders to lazy IT staff and undermines the chances workers will be well-informed, motivated and well-connected. Of course, as smart phones take over these kinds of connectivity roles — email, IM, VoIP, presence, RSS, blogging, photo taking and sharing — all these efforts will be worthless anyway. Then we’ll have to check our phones at the door. Or work from home.

Anyway, I like Kevin’s ideas. The more professional you make your environment, the better you will function. Now I’m off for a lie-down.

Smart Phones Have To Be Dumb

I’ve been giving a Treo 600 a run for its money in the past couple of months and I’m impressed. Yes, I know that there’s a new one out and I’m way behind the curve, but my theory is that these products need to be not just good, but super reliable if they are going to fulfill their main purpose: Be a phone.

The thing is this. It’s great being able to do all this stuff on a gadget not much bigger than a cellphone, from checking email, to downloading RSS feeds, to taking photos, to playing Boggle, to instant messaging, to having SMS dialogs appear as IM chat threads. Great, wonderful. But what happens if you need to make or take a call and the whole thing freezes up?

That’s what happened to me again this morning when I was trying to take a call from my friend Colin. For sure, it was just another one of those ‘whatcha doin’?’ type calls, but what if it had been an ailing relative desperately trying to get through? Or I needed to call 911 or its local equivalent?

For me, smart phones have to be, first and foremost, dumb phones. They have to work as a phone, all the time, before they do anything else. If they don’t do that with reliability, then folk are going to start thinking twice about having everything else packed into it. Indeed, there’s still a lot to be said to having a small cellphone that just does cellphone stuff, and then another gadget that does all this other stuff.

iPod, National Security Threat

Companies, governments, institutions: beware of the dude carrying an iPod.

Bernhard Warner, Reuters’ excellent European Internet Correspondent, points out that the high-capacity iPod is getting banned from a lot of places as high-tech security risk. The UK’s Ministry of Defence “has become the latest organisation to add the iPod to its list of high-tech security risks” and “no longer allow into most sections of its headquarters in the UK and abroad”.

This policy kicked in when the MoD “switched to the USB-friendly Microsoft XP operating system over the past year”. And it’s not just the chaps from the MoD: Bernhard also quotes a survey of 200 mid-sized and large UK companies by security software firm Reflex Magnetics that says 82 percent of respondents said they regard so-called mobile media devices like the iPod as a security threat.

And it’s not just stealing stuff: Bernhard says technology consultancy Gartner a week ago “advised companies to consider banning the devices because they can also unwittingly introduce computer viruses to a corporate network”.

This all makes sense, but if you’re going to ban the iPod, you’re going to have to ban USB keychains, USB pens, microdrives and other small forms of storage. What about PDAs? What about smart phones?