Sunday, 23 December 2012

A funny festive story

I need to capture this story from Julia. Funnier in the first person, so apologies, J, if I don't capture your voice.

I was driving through town and hit traffic near the psychiatric hospital. As I glanced over the fence, I saw that there was a stage set up, with lights etc. and thought "how festive". As I looked closer, I saw some people were on the stage and in front of it, all dancing. Some were bopping merrily, one guy was doing a full 6:30 wuk up, ass in the air, hands on the ground. All seemed really into the music and enjoying themselves. "It's great to see them getting into Christmas," I thought, "I wonder what they're listening to." So I wound down the window to listen. No music. They were all just bopping away to the music in their heads!

There's something very endearing about this story: it's both uplifting and sad. A bit like Christmas!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Cloud and web immigrants

I am still occasionally amazed how, 16 years after the internet became mainstream, big technology companies, household names, cannot seem to get it right.

First in the dock: Microsoft.
I've just moved my client to Office365, from hosted Exchange and Sharepoint. Sharepoint Live, Sharepoint in the Cloud.  How easy could it be?  You have a widely used browser-based collaboration tool, with all the usual web content management tools and trickery. A web tool, and you're making it web-native.  You just need to 'cloud' it.  All the usability, without all the server admin hassles. A win-win, surely.
But, no.  It's a servER, not a servICE.  So to put it on the cloud would involve, well, rewriting big chunks of it. And rather than do that heavy lifting, we'll just mutter on about 'cloud' and shove it up there with some key features stubbed out. Not hidden, mind: stubbed. You can select them, but the computer says no. Despite being a tool that allows people to make collaborative web sites, it is not a web native, but a web immigrant, with a poor grasp of what it is to be truly web-based. It means, for instance, that if something doesn't work, don't show it. Web services are constantly live, so when you fix it later you can just make it available. People don't need to see your under construction bits. They can be there for you, but easily hidden from users. Web native companies know this and use it often (eg. For A/B testing).

Case 2: Office Web Apps.  They are the office apps (Word, Excel etc.) but in your web browser.  That must mean any web browser, right?  I mean they wouldn't be very 'webby' if they didn't work in any web browser. The browser wars stopped in 2004, didn't they? Alas, no.  Web apps only really work properly in Microsoft's Internet Explorer - particularly OneNote, which is probably the least complicated app of the suite.  So if you own a mac, tough.  Same goes for the Microsoft Partnership website, actually: if you try using that (arguably critical to their business) website, you'd better not be using a mac or (ptooey!) one of the other browsers.
You cannot call yourself a web company unless you are browser (and, ideally, platform) independent.
Microsoft has to lose the parochial software dominance mindset if it is to truly transform to a web native. Sure, you used to be dominant, now stop trying to lock people into your platforms and focus on being better than the rest.

Second in the dock: Apple.
I recently downloaded the new iTunes. The old one worked perfectly fine, but evidently was not as good at selling their content, so now it's less about a tool to manage your media, and more a shopfront for urging you to buy content.
What's more, you can't sync your phone with iTunes and iCloud. It's either/or. So all those playlists and albums you had synced. If you switch to iTunes Match you'll have to sync them all over again, over your wifi and Internet connection, which in my case is 2Mb and took about 4 hours. At the end of that I still can't easily tell what synced and what didn't because the little cloud icon next to each song is gone.
So, Apple, you've done it again. For a while there you had us all thinking it was about us, but now it's coming back round to all being about you. Maps: I've blogged about it already. iCloud and iTunes Match: these are designed to lock us into your devices, not beat the competition on an open playing field through simply being better for users. It's now worse for users, and you're relying on their tolerance (or laziness) rather than their preference. That approach has an expiry date.
The web is all about connectivity and freedom of choice. You might be able to captivate, but don't try to capture. It's a short-term win, and if you're about the long term then you have to compete every day, like the rest of us: being better by enabling choice, not by restricting it. The companies who get that are web natives, and successful immigrants.
As any immigrant will tell you (speaking as one), block your assumptions and learn to think like a local; only then will you be able to fully exploit both your old and new lives.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Laptops poised to be the new tablets

Apparently the days of laptops are numbered, if consumer purchasing habits are to be believed. Or rather if you're looking for a story, or flogging a tablet, you can mis-represent facts to show that the days of laptops are numbered. Tablets are out-selling laptops... and PCs combined, probably.

Because they are awesome new technology?  Because they unleash heretofore unprecedented productivity and/or entertainment?  Or because everyone already has a laptop/PC and thinks this touchscreen stuff seems pretty nifty?  It works on your smartphone, right? So why not a bigger screen for browsing/reading while watching TV on the sofa, or in bed at home?

The sole benefit of tablets is convenient media consumption.  They are not about productivity, unless you mean text email (even attachments are a bit arduous on a tablet).  Yes, you can do productive things on them, but ask yourself: more productively than on your laptop?  Equivalent, maybe, but not more, unless you're a finger-painter.

So why are tablets more convenient? No boot time is clearly a factor, but the overwhelming factor is touch. You don't need to position yourself to use it. You just tap it on, tap here, swipe there and there's the info you need: the appointment, the photo, the book you read. No keyboard to squint at, no mouse to grapple.

But only one app at a time. Sure, you can switch apps, but that's not really multi-tasking, that's switch-tasking. Try IM chatting while watching a movie, or comparing 2 spreadsheets side-by-side. Never mind watching a YouTube vid while your app compiles - who would use a tablet to compile an app? Well... Why not? Are we agreeing that serious work cannot be done on a tablet?

So why would laptops' days be numbered?

The magic of tablets is touch. Not iOS or Android, or apps. Put a touchscreen on a slim, light, endless battery laptop. Perhaps with a detachable keyboard for balance. Ensure it has a proper multi-tasking OS, with the convenience of touch. And tablets will start to look again like the toys they are.

Apple made a comeback. Who's to say Microsoft are not as capable? With Kinect and Surface they have some great potential. They just need to avoid their perennial temptation to over-engineer. Consumer technology is not about what you put in, it's about what you leave out.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Windows 8: pretty interface, not very usable

It seems to me that Microsoft have always struggled with user interfaces. Compared to Apple's elegance, they've always looked clunky and functional at best: too much clutter, too many buttons and ways of doing the same thing.  You sometimes want to yell at them: simplify! I don't need 8 ways to do this, just one for each peripheral (a mouse click and a keyboard shortcut, usually).

I had great expectations of Windows 8, with its tiled interface. Such an elegant solution to the growing plethora of screen sizes and input devices: tiles can be tapped or clicked; tiles can be active (slidey photos) or passive (an icon); tiles can fit different displays, just as floor tiles can fit any shaped floor. Neat.  And Windows 8 tiles do look pretty, with their little sparkly updates and their bold, primary colour icons.

But I can't find anything. I'm supposed to move the mouse to this corner for this, and that corner for that, but how am I supposed to know that? There's nothing on the screen to indicate how I work it. When I first tried it Windows 8 it was in a virtual machine - in its own window.  Whenever I went to the edge of the screen to pull up a menu (which I googled to find out about), my main OS (Max OSX) would shift screens, because that's what I had configured the hot corners to do in OSX.  Note the phrasing there: I had configured.  OSX allows you to configure the hot corners to do what you like, rather than making them an integral, yet invisible part of the main navigation. 

As ever with Microsoft, some great ideas but poorly executed. Stop trying to be clever and trying to be all things to all people.  Now, how do I reconfigure these hot corners....?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Stand-up comedy memes

I was listening to Marc Maron interview John Oliver on his WTF podcast last night (highly recommended, BTW: Maron's interviews of comedians old and new are Parkinson-esque in their openness and insights), and they were talking about the fact that John Oliver is famous, but not well known as a 'named' celebrity.

It got me wondering about what makes comedians famous. Usually their fame is spread by recommendation, rather than direct advertising, at least until they are famous. So my question is: is it better to have a really good joke that people can share with their friends (and hopefully still attribute it to you), or to have a joke that only you can tell (because of the voice or the visual style)? The former has more memetic power but risks losing the attribution, whereas the latter won't spread as well, at least in principle.

Yet, both benefit from the modern media: YouTube spreads the unique gag, while the originator of the joke meme can be traced through the Internet. So, clearly, the ideal is both: a joke that is easy to re-tell, yet best served from source. The best combinations I've seen have been well-crafted jokes with some serendipitous interruption that has stamped the telling of the joke as unique: a heckle, a technical fault etc.

None readily spring to mind, but I bet there is (or should be) a website out there that collects such jokes. As I think of them or find them, I'll add them to the comments.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Apple v Google

Do you remember when Apple was the cheeky upstart to the Microsoft hegemony? I remember marveling at the amazing 'lickable' OSX, with its great simplicity and elegance belying the powerhouse unix BSD underpinnings. It truly was the best of both worlds, against the ubiquitous, bloated, preening, self-important Windows.

How the worm turns. And, in the true spirit of Apple, it's the little things.

My Android phone seamlessly synced my contacts, calendars, email and social networks across 4 accounts.  The calendars were colour-coded, the contacts were consolidated and rarely was there a duplicate anywhere.  Then my Android broke and work gave me an iPhone.  Beautiful screen, nice to hold (if a tad heavy), and nice solid, predictable performance, where the Android could be sticky (due to it's more laissez-faire approach to allowing apps to run the background).  But it totally trashed my contacts and calendars.  Woefully. Tragically. Hilariously. Reminiscent of some of the old Microsoft error message foolishness.

I managed to clean up my calendars. But my contacts... I dont really know where to start, as I don't have a single source of reference.  I thought I could sync my gmail accounts to the mac, and then get the mac to sync to icloud, and therefore the iphone.  So I did the gmail accounts - fine. iSync got a bit confused, with odd duplicates, but nothing major.  Then I went to add iCloud and got the following screen:-


WHY NOT?  Because you're in a sulk with Google, because they know how to do something better than you?

Apple do great devices, but once again a competitor is making that irrelevant: last time it was all about software, with Microsoft pushing Apple's macs into a niche, and this time it's all about the web, with Google pushing Apple into a (albeit much larger and content-laden) niche.  When will these companies realise that the web is infinite, and that trying to lock people into your corner of it is short-term? And yes, that means devices too, if your devices won't play nicely with other devices in the market. Sony learned that at their peril with memorysticks and minidiscs.

The solution, unsurprisingly, came from Google.  Just register your Gmail account as an Exchange account on the device, and let Google's servers do the rest.  It's the web, you see: walls can't keep it in.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Dope, donuts and salmon in the desert

Three odd things inspired this little blog post.

Last night, at the petrol station, I was walking to my truck when I got the usual Bajan heckle of a white fella: "Taxi?". The first thing that struck me as odd was that the guy was leaning out of a donut van, not a taxi. There it was on the side, in big letters, with a doughnut for the 'O'. I smiled and said "got a truck, thanks."

Then, as I was reversing the truck and edging past the donut van on the forecourt, the same guy leant out of the van and give me the universal symbol for 'do you want to buy some weed?'. You know, finger and thumb pinched together in front of pursed lips, as though drawing on a spliff. I smiled again and waved him away as I drove past.

It only struck me on the way home what an excellent business model that would be (if it wasn't illegal): selling weed from a doughnut van! Create the appetite, then satisfy it, as your customers get the munchies.

So that's two (doughnut van as taxi and/or weed dispenser), the third was the film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Quite a good film, albeit a bit twee, as these UK films often are. But, again, the premise of setting up a salmon stream in the Yemen struck me as a good, and somewhat bonkers, idea. Maybe I'm just looking for inspiration...