1. The new iPad might not be very impressive on paper. But who cares?

    Posted March 8, 2012 in mobile, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Yesterday Apple revealed the new iPad. You can read all about it elsewhere or go right to the source if you want to buy one.

    As usual the announcement was preceded by feverish speculation. Would the new device come with iOS 6? Was it going to allow users to ‘touch’ pixels (or tixels) through advanced haptic feedback technology? And what about Siri?

    The answer to all these questions turned out to be “no”, but some new features did make it in. First and foremost was the Retina display, which doubles the screen resolution. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this – talk about display resolution never really captivates ‘normal’ people – but it does matter.

    The other enhancements possibly fall into the “so what” category. Take the support for 4G and LTE connections. If you’re in the UK you might well ask, support for what? These are new standards for mobile networks that are becoming common in north America, but they’re still some way off here. So that enhancement isn’t really relevant to British users.

    And then there’s the new quad-core processor. The less said about that the better. It’s not that it isn’t important – it’s just that it really doesn’t excite consumers. Remember in the early 2000s when Windows devotees would mock the lower clock speeds of PowerPC CPUs, believing this proved the inferiority of Apple machines? You probably don’t: it turned out that no-one cared. Apple refused to join a CPU arms race and it turns out that they were right.

    So this leaves Apple with a new product announcement that is evolutionary rather than evolutionary. No freaky futuristic stuff, no “one more thing”. But does it matter?

    I don’t think it matters at all really. The iPad dominates the tablet market and there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that’s going to change that. When Windows 8 launches it’ll be in a battle against Android for second place, but that could end up being a pretty small prize to fight for. There’s a more tangible threat to the iPad from the Kindle Fire but Amazon has work to do if it’s going to convince people that these products belong in the same device category. Apple’s dominance of the tablet market is ensured for the foreseeable future.

    Given all this, throwing new features at the dominant product in an attempt to revolutionise it would be a bad move. When you’re behind, the “hail mary pass” – a single recklessly ambitious scheme to stave off disaster – is a good strategy. But when you’re ahead that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s what Microsoft did with Vista, and it ended up spending millions giving the world a product it didn’t need. Apple isn’t going to be “doing a Vista” with the iPad any time soon.


  2. QR codes have many flaws, but at least one estate agent thinks they’re here to stay

    Posted September 18, 2011 in mobile, user centred design  |  1 Comment so far

    There’s been a bit of discussion lately about QR Codes, those blocky visual tags that try to make the real world machine-readable.

    They’ve been with us for a while and, unlike NFC, most of us have had phones capable of using them for some time. But have you used QR codes more than once or twice in your life?

    I certainly haven’t. Maybe in five years nostalgic 20-somethings will ask each other, “hey do you remember QR codes?”, and they will, but in the same way as my generation remembers laser discs or Global Hypercolour T-shirts: we knew they existed, but never really made them a part of our lives. There are too many points of failure:

    Points of failure when using QR codes

    Points of failure when using QR codes

    Anyway, not everyone agrees with me about QR codes. Recently I came across this sign in an estate agent’s window on Upper Street, Islington:

    "You'll be seeing a lot more of these around"

    "You'll be seeing more and more of these around" - sign in an Islington estate agent's window

    Maybe they’re right, but I’m still not convinced.

    It’s not that the fundamental idea is bad. Building bridges between the physical and virtual worlds makes sense, and hyperlinks or metadata embedded in real-world objects is an obvious way of doing that. But for the idea to succeed the execution has to be far more elegant than this.


  3. Caroline Blankoff’s meditation on GChat

    Posted January 7, 2011 in ephemera, webapps  |  No Comments so far

    I enjoyed reading this meditation on the subject of Google’s GChat by Caroline Bankoff, posted over at Thought Catalog. The piece is titled “45 Things I Think About When I Think About GChat” and it should resonate with anyone who’s spent time talking on that tool.

    “Thing” Number 10 is:

    It would be basically impossible to have anonymous cybersex on GChat. There is Group Chat, but there are no GChat rooms and, even if there were, they would lack the dim light of AOL’s “Romance” chat rooms. The best you could do with GChat is some kind of key party, with everyone going off the record with someone else’s contact.

    If we’re to believe Rule 34, some people must have done this at one point…


  4. Syncing Apple iCal with Google Calendar

    Posted January 4, 2011 in software  |  1 Comment so far

    While Outlook on Windows has the ability to publish a calendar to the web, this feature isn’t present in Apple’s iCal application. This means that two-way synchronisation between Google Calendar and Apple iCal is more or less impossible. Yes, you can subscribe to your Google Calendar and see its events in iCal, but you can’t have iCal events moved to Google Calendar automatically. This means that you can’t get, for example, event notifications on your mobile device unless you manually copy events over.

    Apple probably don’t mind this state of affairs because they’d like you to pay for MobileMe to access this sort of syncing functionality. But you might have lots of reasons for wanting to continue using your Google Calendar. If so, your only option might be Spanning Sync.

    The bad news is that Spanning Sync is also a paid-for tool. It costs US $65 for a one-off license, or $25 for a one-year subscription. This is cheaper than MobileMe, which is $99. But the main benefit of Spanning Sync is that it works well and keeps your Mac interoperable.

    Once you’ve installed it the process is extremely straightforward. It asks for your Google login details then finds iCal calendars on your Mac. Once you’ve paired up local and remote calendars, the software runs the first Sync and then sits in the menu bar quietly syncing away.

    It works well enough, but it’s annoying that third party software is needed to achieve this – let alone software that you have to pay for. So if you know of a better way to sync Apple iCal with Google Calendar, I’m really keen to hear about it!


  5. I can’t work out why Google Chrome use grew so much in early 2009

    Posted December 9, 2010 in software  |  5 Comments so far

    A few days ago Google announced its new operating system, the Chrome OS – here’s a link to the official announcement.

    One thing that caught my eye was this graph showing the growth of the Chrome browser since its launch in 2008:

    Chrome usage since September 2008

    See the dip that comes only a few weeks in? I was part of that, because I abandoned Chrome around then too. If my experience is anything to go by, that dip was largely caused by people going back to Firefox because they missed the add-ons.

    You’ll also notice an even more dramatic upsurge that comes in the first quarter of 2009. What made so many people start using Chrome back then?

    It wasn’t support for extensions – they didn’t launch properly until January 2010. It might have been the Chrome TV ad, but that wasn’t aired until May 2009. So what could it have been? This is going to be annoying me all day…


  6. Why you should use Evernote

    Posted September 22, 2010 in software, webapps  |  No Comments so far

    Evernote is a free service that allows you store text, images, audio files and (if you’re a premium subscriber like me) any other type of document on the web.

    Evernote logo

    OK, so that sounds useful, but hardly unique. There are lots of tools that do the the same sort of thing: SugarSync and DropBox are two that come to mind. The difference with Evernote is that it’s optimised for a particular purpose, online note-taking. And when I say optimised, I mean optimised.

    For note-taking to work it has to be as immediate and accessible as a notebook and pen in your pocket. And for the online aspect to work, it has to take advantage of the medium. Evernote succeeds on both these points, and here’s how.

    Accessibility

    Evernote have produced desktop applications for Windows and Mac OS X. There’s a fully featured web client. Mobile apps exist for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm’s Web OS and even ,Windows Mobile. You can add notes via the automated Twitter account, @myEN. There are various browser extensions and third party apps. So there’s no shortage of ways to get hold of, and add to, your notes.

    Immediacy

    The various Evernote apps are all designed to help you get information into Evernote quickly, including images and audio as well as text notes. On mobiles, you can use Evernote to launch the camera and take a photo – that photo, once tagged, will be added to your notes, and will then be accessible from anywhere. Here’s the Android app’s start screen:

    Evernote Android app

    On the desktop apps, there’s an option to have Evernote take control of the Print Screen key. Pressing it will bring up some crosshairs, which you then use to select an area of the screen to send straight to Evernote. Right-clicking a file gives you a “send to Evernote” option. And anything you add can be tagged, making it easy to retrieve in future.

    Sharing

    It’s one thing to be able to add lots of notes and have them available on almost any network-enabled device you own. But one advantage of having those notes online is the ability to share them.

    Evernote allows you to create additional notebooks, which can then be shared with the world or with specified individuals. If you want someone else to see a note, just move it to one of your shared notebooks, and others can see it.

    There’s a WordPress extension called Everpress that will automatically post items from a shared notebook to your blog, but I haven’t tried that yet.

    Searching

    This is the best bit, and the feature that really got my attention when I first found it.

    One day, when I was still quite new to Evernote, I was testing its search feature. I searched for a word that I knew wasn’t stored in plain text (I didn’t have many notes then). Evernote said “1 result returned”, so I thought the search system must have a bug. Then I looked at the result, and it was a photo I’d taken of a whiteboard. The word I’d searched for was written on the board, and Evernote had highlighted it in yellow.

    Evernote search

    Searching for the word 'confirm' - the highlighting is from Evernote

    Up until then I didn’t know Evernote had that feature, and it was a bit of an “encountering the future” moment. Whenever I tell people about this they have an “encountering the future” moment too.

    I’ve since found out that Evernote scans any images you upload and uses OCR to extract text from them. That text then becomes searchable, which is extremely useful, and is becoming more so over time.

    So yeah, I think you should try Evernote. If, like me, you collect & create a lot of information which you then need to get hold of further down the line, you might come to find it indispensable.


  7. Comparing documents in Word 2007

    Posted July 7, 2010 in software  |  No Comments so far

    Do you need to quickly find the differences between two large Word documents? Have you edited a large document only to realise you didn’t have Track Changes turned on?

    The “Compare” feature in Word 2007 will find the differences between two documents and display them using the Track Changes view. Here’s how to use it…

    Firstly, click the Compare button under Review. Then select the first of the two options.

    You’ll then see something like this:

    Click on the little folder icons next to the dropdown menus, then choose both the original document and the one you changed. It doesn’t matter which order you do it in.

    When you have selected both your documents, the box titled “Label changes with” will become editable. If you type your initials here, changes will be attributed to you.

    Then click OK and everything will change dramatically. You’ll see a panel on the left hand of the screen summarising the changes, and two panels on the right showing both the documents you selected:

    But the exciting stuff should be in the big middle panel, which is titled “Compared document”. There, you should see precisely what would have happened if you’d been using Track Changes all along!

    Stuff you added should be in red text and stuff you deleted should be crossed out. If you hold your mouse over any of the red text you should see a note about the change too.

    Using the “X” buttons in the top-right of each panel, close all of the panels except “Compared document”. You will now simply be viewing the “track changes” document, so you can just save it and send it over. And that should be it! Just remember to turn on Track Changes if you have any more editing to do.


  8. Bookmarks versus Favorites

    Posted June 25, 2010 in software, web  |  No Comments so far

    Back when Microsoft was winning the browser wars and all but a committed few were using Internet Explorer, the word “Bookmarks” was at risk of becoming a forgotten Netscape-ism. IE’s equivalent, “Favorites”, seemed set to become the generic label for saved URLs.

    Netscape and IE

    IE versus Netscape

    Today, Microsoft is losing the browser wars again with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera eroding its market share. And interestingly enough, they all use “bookmarks” rather than “favorites”. Why is that?

    On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with “favorites”. Of course, it was slightly annoying that Microsoft didn’t use the then current “bookmark” convention, possibly in the interests of creating a proprietary user experience. But so what? “Favorites” did the job.

    Internet Explorer eventually annihilated Netscape, picking up over 90% of the browser market. With that level of penetration it’s surprising that “favorites” didn’t become the generic term for stored links.

    It’s not because Microsoft claimed legal ownership of the word. And it’s not because people find it confusing either. Maybe the revival of “bookmark” is actually more to do with linguistics.

    Languages allow us to assign different states to objects as our relationships with them change. And in real life, objects change state all the time. A person becomes your friend, or a piece of music becomes one of your favourites. Usually these states are reached gradually: you do nothing specific to the person or the music, your affection just grows over time.

    But when these states are replicated in computer systems, that gradation is no longer possible. Changes in state must be made by single, deliberate actions on the part of the user. This means that the changes in state become binary – and language has to accommodate this.

    These binary state changes introduce a particular challenge for the language used in computer interfaces. In real life you might stop liking a piece of music, but you wouldn’t have to do anything about it. But in a system where you had “liked” that music by clicking a button, another button is needed for you to reverse that action, and that button needs a meaningful label. This is why we end up with words like “unlike” or the OUP’s word of the year for 2009, “unfriend”.

    So for “favorite” to have supplanted “bookmark” as a genericism, it would have had to go through this process, becoming not only a noun but a verb for a binary change in state. We should have felt as comfortable saying “favorite my site” as “here are my favorites”. And in fact this doesn’t work too badly:

    Bookmark or favorite my site!

    But what doesn’t work is when you try to use the verb “favorite” in its past tense – try saying “I favorited your site” and you’ll see what I mean. And the same goes for the continuous aspect. “Favoriting” is a dogs dinner of a word.

    “Bookmark” doesn’t have that problem – just compare saying “I bookmarked it” to “I favourited it”. Phonologically, “bookmark” is better equipped to work as both noun and verb than “favorite”.

    So maybe the failure of “favorite” over time has less to do with design strategy or the browser wars, and more to do with its basic phonological awkwardness. Who knows? At least it’s something to think about while lazily favoriting websites on a sunny Friday afternoon.


  9. The long countdown to Android 2.1

    Posted June 19, 2010 in mobile  |  4 Comments so far

    For the last eight years, my mobile phone usage has followed a simple, predictable routine. Every year in June or July, I get tired of my current phone and pester Orange into giving me a new one.

    This is triggered by two things. First, I’ll be bored with the old phone. By now it’ll seem annoying, clunky and over-familiar, even though a year ago it looked really exciting and futuristic a year ago.

    Second, a new crop of phones will typically be catching my eye. These new phones and the life-transforming features they offer will seem – you guessed it – really exciting and futuristic.

    This routine saw me move from one Windows Mobile phone to the next – I’d been a WinMo user since 2003’s  Motorola MPx200 proto-smartphone. But last year I took a more dramatic step, abandoning Windows Mobile in favour of my first Android device: the HTC Hero.

    Out with the old, in with the newFast forward to today, and my HTC Hero is approaching its first birthday. As expected, I’m getting the urge to upgrade. But I’m trying to fight that urge. And helping me fight it has been the promise of Android 2.1.

    In the modern world of smartphones, and especially Android, the idea is that you don’t have to upgrade your hardware to get a better experience. Occasionally, a new release of your OS or firmware will come out which pretty much gives you a new device.

    I like that idea, because although I switch phones often it’s because of features rather than simple “gear-lust”. My main motivation behind each switch has been to ‘get more internet’ on my phone. This is why I was happy to put up with unsexy Windows Mobile devices for so long.

    Orange SPV C600 - it's no iPhone

    So when HTC announced that Android 2.1 would be released for the HTC Hero, I was pretty happy. My phone would get better and I wouldn’t have to pester Orange.

    I was even happier when HTC announced that the update would be released in February. I didn’t mind when this was subsequently changed to March. When it slipped to April, I was philosophical: better late than ever, and in the old days stuff like this didn’t happen at all.

    But other HTC Hero owners were far less patient. Lots of anger and annoyance erupted each time the release date slipped, and many pledged never to buy an HTC product – or even an Android phone – again. I thought this was all a bit over the top (after all, a HTC Hero running Android 1.5 isn’t exactly a hunk of junk). Then the April release date slipped, and this time it was worse: it slipped back to June! So I removed my blue UN peacekeeper helmet, took up a pitchfork, and joined the baying mob of enraged HTC Hero owners.

    When June finally came round, I started checking the HTC and Orange websites frequently in the hope of seeing a freshly posted upgrade before anyone else. I became gradually more hostile towards my phone. And then disaster struck – the Yammer application, which had become essential for keeping in touch with my office, stopped working in Android 1.5!

    At that point I stopped simply wanting Android 2.1 and started needing it. Since then I’ve been searching Google and checking websites every single day for the upgrade. In fact I’ve become something of an expert in the workings of the Android 2.1 rumour mill, which has been churning away like mad for the last couple of weeks.

    So now we’re in the second half of June and the signs are encouraging – at least Android 2.1 has now appeared in America and east Asia. But in Europe there’s still nothing. Some people have triggered an update by shifting the phone’s calendar several months into the future. Sadly enough, I tried this, but it failed.

    The HTC Hero is now in “endgame” as far as I’m concerned. If the Android 2.1 upgrade hits before June 30th, its tenure will be extended. But my yearly urge to switch is hard to suppress. If Android 2.1 doesn’t turn up, that Hero is headed for ebay and I’ll be in the market for yet another exciting and futuristic new device.

    EDIT: Shortly after posting the above my impatience got the better of me, so I took Tristan’s advice and installed an unsupported Android 2.1 ROM. Android 1.5 is already a distant memory. In case you’re interested, I installed VillainROM 10.3 and these instructions came in very handy.


  10. Microsoft’s design strategy: open formats, proprietary interface?

    Posted June 1, 2010 in software, strategy  |  1 Comment so far

    This might not be a very advisable disclosure to make, but I’ll make it anyway: I actually like Microsoft Office 2007.

    Liking Office 2007 is not really the done thing – lots of people in my line of work turn their noses up at Microsoft in general and Office in particular. And I’m no different. Last year I spent about six months attempting to move away from Windows to use Linux instead, but ended up returning to Windows. Why? Because, for me, OpenOffice was simply no match for Office 2007.

    The thing with OpenOffice is that it looks and feels a lot like Office 2003. If I was a heavy Office 2003 user, OpenOffice might have worked out because its user interface (UI) is fundamentally similar. But Office 2007 has a radically different UI, with none of the old “File / Edit / View” menu groupings.

    Office UI screenshots

    Office 2007 replaced the conventional menu structure with the "Office Ribbon"

    Lots of people were confused by the Office 2007 UI when it launched, myself included. Today, however, I see it as a big improvement. The new interface makes features more discoverable and more immediately accessible, and I get far more out of the software today than I ever did before.

    But why did Microsoft carry out this redesign, which must have been costly? After all, they had a monopoly in the office software market so could get away with being a bit conservative. And people don’t like it when familiar things change – just look at the protests that erupt whenever Facebook changes its layout – so the redesign must have looked pretty risky too. How did the Office 2007 team convince Microsoft to fund a design project that was risky, expensive and potentially pointless?

    Microsoft, like all companies, would like us to think that it does these things out of altruism, to make our jobs easier and lives happier. But that’s not how things work in the corporate world. Instead, I think there might be a slightly more crafty and devious strategy at work here.

    Imagine you’re Microsoft. Your monopolistic behaviour during the browser wars of the 1990s cost you over $2 billion and led to you being forced to promote your competitors. The last thing you need is for something similar to happen to your Office package, your most lucrative product line after Windows.

    Being proactive, you wonder what line of attack the courts would take if they came for Office, and it hits you – proprietary file formats. Documents created in Microsoft Office can’t be opened by other packages because the files aren’t compatible, which inhibits competition and annoys the hell out of the open source community. So you decide to phase them out. You’ll set your file formats free, and will even start supporting open source file formats. This way you’re far less likely to be accused of monopolistic behaviour.

    But there’s a problem here. What if, by trying to look less like a monopoly, people move to OpenOffice and you actually become less like a monopoly? After all, proprietary file formats do encourage lots of people to stick with Office. What you need is a way to become less vulnerable to government lawsuits while retaining your product’s “stickiness”. And then it hits you – make the file formats open but, at the same time, make the user experience proprietary.

    When an Office 2007 user switches to OpenOffice, they’ll be able to open their existing documents easily. But using the interface will feel like stepping back in time, to the period of Office 2003. Ultimately, the user will go back to Office 2007 not because they’re locked in by proprietary file types, but because they’ve learnt and absorbed a proprietary interface. And no-one’s going to launch an antitrust lawsuit simply because Microsoft made some design changes.

    This line of thinking about why Microsoft changed the Office UI so radically may seem slightly paranoid, but there is such a thing as design strategy and companies like Microsoft certainly take it seriously (most of the time). It wouldn’t surprise me, and I wouldn’t see it as controversial, if this “proprietary UX” strategy helped convince Microsoft to invest so much in a risky design overhaul. Given that Office 2007 caused me to abandon Linux and move back to Windows, the strategy – whether it’s real or not – would seem to be working.

    EDIT: unlike me, lots of people really hate the Office 2007 interface. If you’re one of them, you might be interested in this freeware add-in that introduces an old school Office 2003-style menu system into Office 2007