Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fry talks Fones

Thanks to TUAW, I found Stephen Fry's blog today.  Despite claiming to be somewhere in deepest (flattest?) Norfolk, far from the realms of Edge let alone 3G and Wifi, he's posted a great (and long) Blessay (his word) on smartphones. He's also writing a weekly technology column for the Guardian.

Who'd have thought I had something in common with Stephen Fry, apart from a rapier wit and a penchant for writing ridiculously long (and infrequent) blog posts I mean. To give that context - and to stop your mind leaping to far wilder (and imaginary) similarities or penchants - he says, amongst many things, for instance

"I've never met a smartphone that I haven't bought"

On Palm's Foleo "If it’s got a chip in it, and a keyboard, and WiFi and a screen and I haven’t sent off for one, then by God you’d better believe it’s in trouble"

On Palm's threaded text "Add to this the inestimable pleasure and benefit of SMS threading (it simply STAGGERS me that no one until now, with the arrival of the iPhone, aside from Palm, offers this, to my mind, essential feature, something that’s been available on the Treo since the get-go)"

On WinMob devices the syncing software, an almost useless PC app called ActiveSync, allows no control over the syncing process and therefore gets any power user into trouble with duplicates, the bane of our lives.

All the big guns want an iPhone killer. Even I, mad for all things Apple as I am, want an iPhone killer. I want smart digital devices to be as good as mankind’s ingenuity can make them. I want us eternally to strive to improve and surprise. Bring on the iPhone killers. Bring them on.

It's a long post from Fry but worth the end to end read.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Apple & Microsoft, Microsoft & Apple

image Over 10 years ago, Microsoft plunked down $150 million to buy a stake in Apple.  The share price back then (January 1997) was about $3.50. Today Apple is trading at $185. That's around $7.9 billion in today's money. Over the same period Microsoft stock is up about 50% (including it's near 10% rise today).  I imagine Microsoft ditched that stock long ago - there was even talk at one time that they might have shorted Apple on the day that they bought it to hedge any risk. Folks have even been saying recently that if, instead of buying a 5gb iPod on the day it came out, you'd bought the same value of Apple stock, you'd have over $10,000 today (looking at the graph, even if you'd bought in 2001 when the iPod came out, you'd still be sitting on 18 times your money at least!).  Apple's certainly on a tear - it's now worth more than IBM and more than Intel.

Today, the day that Leopard comes out, I finally upgraded my workaday Windows laptop to Vista - I'd been running Vista under bootcamp on a MacBook for a while but it wasn't getting much exercise.  I started the upgrade with trepidation - the rumours about it being a difficult install are rife.  They weren't kidding.  The first install trashed my PC and left me no option but to reformat and install from scratch (the approach everyone who'd already done it had recommended in fact).  This worked smoothly.  Restores from backup went fine.  Only one driver crapped out on me.  All of my software works.  And my PC appears rock solid stable and fast - which is better than it was the day before. 

I'll be installing Leopard on the Macs in the house over the weekend I imagine.

Moment of Conversion

Ok, so yes, I'm an "early adopter."  I'm definitely on the left hand side of the chasm when it comes to all things technology.  It's always been fun to try something new and shiny whether it was my first encounter with the Apple II (1978), a CD player (1985 - when Dire Straits released Brothers in Arms), the Apple Mac (1989, especially with Wingz, the first graphical spreadsheet I'd seen, possibly the first spreadsheet as I had no idea what Visi-Calc was at the time), going online (1994, with a 28.8 modem, via Compuserve), my first digital camera (1995,  Casio QV-10), an MP3 player (1998, Rio PMP300),  DVD (on the US release of Saving Private Ryan in late 1999),  WAP (1999, Nokia 7210), the iPhone (2007) or any of the numerous other gadgets I've bought, used for a while and, often inevitably, rejected.  Some of them do, of course, stay the course - there's a "moment of conversion" when you get what the gadget does and that's it for keeps - the iPod is a brilliant recent example (owner since 2001).   In the end, some get replaced by the next version of the same thing - the Sony Ericsson P800 was replaced by the P900 and then the P910 for instance; the iPod 5gb, by the 10gb, the 20gb, the mini, the Nano v1, the Nano v2 and so on.

image When I first saw Sonos advertised, the moment of conversion was instant.  Its premise is simple - any music you have, anywhere in the house.  You can have the same track in every room, all perfectly synchronised, with the volume low (avoiding the usual problem of a one-room stereo where the volume has to be up high to be heard throughout the house, but is deafening in the same room as the stereo); or you can have different tracks in every room, just as you want.  You can use your own speakers or ones that you buy with Sonos.  Music streams from your PC, your Mac or, as in my case, from a network attached storage device.  So I became, as it were, an early adopter of Sonos - it's been installed around 3 years now.  As an aside, talking of "install", the set-up process is absolutely the simplest I've ever seen for any potentially complicated gadget.

Now as a proven early adopter, there are some things I just don't get.  MyFace.bo and their ilk for instance - I have pages here and there but I just don't get it, too crazy, too random, too hard to find anyone. Perhaps I'm 15 (some would say 20) years too old for a personal page that does anything more than say "hello world". I also don't get - sharp intake of breath from many - blu-ray or HD-DVD.  Sure it's fine for Planet Earth and the Blue Planet or anything by David Attenborough but, so far, it doesn't tempt me - it will do one day, probably when multi-disc-playing devices are available (funny that HD-DVD plays old DVDs by default but Sony, as is their way, went with proprietary non-backwards compatible). I also don't get the Wii.  Hysterical fun the first time, with a bunch of friends - but then so is Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade or Guitar Hero.  But longevity? Not for me. Not even worth a second play yet; unlike Sony's PS3 which isn't actually worth a first play.  So it's not every gadget that gets me hooked.  One final thing that I hadn't got at all was "all you can eat" music subscriptions.  Until now.

With the latest release of Sonos software (like the iPhone, the nice people there issue pretty regular updates that, so far, always have new features - sometimes they let me try them out before the mainstream release which is also nice), comes bundled a 31 day trial of Napster's all you can eat service.  What this means is that any music you have, anywhere in the house moves to any music you want, anywhere in the house.  I won't pretend that it has everything - most online music services are pretty short on classical music as one example.  But it appears to have an awful lot that I want to listen to.  It also has features like "artist mix" where you select an artist you like and it auto-plays, all from Sonos, music that you might like based on that choice.  It's not perfect - I found it playing a little Mary Poppins alongside Beethoven the other day - but it's always worth being introduced to new music (although perhaps not MP again for a while).

For £9.95 a month once the trial expires, I can keep hold of this service and perhaps never buy another CD again.  Or, perhaps, never have to worry about having a backup of the music that I am listening to for when my nice, shiny, 3rd iteration of NAS goes bang.    There is, though, a drawback.  Napster doesn't let you copy the music to an iPod, although you can copy it to just about any other MP3 player that exists. The other drawback is that I don't actually own anything at the end.  No different from leasing a car.  Just trade it in for a newer model when you're bored with it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lijit Widgets

I've had a search widget on the right of this site for a month or so now.   It's provided by Lijit who I read about on Brad Feld's website who I came across after I met Charlie Feld, his uncle, and a senior guy at EDS. And so the world turns.

I love this widget.  Every week they send me a mail with the stats of who is searching for what, what they clicked on, how they got to the site (if they used another search engine - and some 300 people a week get to this site from google).  There are loads of numbers in the mail - of course they could all be made up, but they look good and they're better than any other numbers I have, which is always important.

Here's an extract from the last 25 searches (which would have been Sunday):

And the top eight searches that brought people to my site (last week)

  1. dlva (15 times)
  2. www.dubai.gov.ae (5 times)
  3. www.dubai.gov (4 times)
  4. francois xavier diet coke man (2 times)
  5. mindshare public sector (2 times)
  6. carly goose (2 times)
  7. Generally Regarded as Safe dyes- list (2 times)
  8. importance of egovernment (2 times)

In the train of the directionless.gov goat, I often wonder (a) what people are really searching for and (b) how they got to me.   And then I find out why

  • (1) DLVA is a typo in a post from January 2003.  It's the number one instance of that particular typo it seems (nice to be first in google for something). Of course, google does suggest that you might really want "DVLA", but either 15 people are as confused as I was that time back in 2003 or the same person is very confused
  • (2) And (3) I'm also the top answer for dubai.gov.ae - this search has been used a few dozen times in the last month (I can see that now I have lijit - in fact, I could see it before in the site stats, but they weren't mailed to me in this simple format).  I really should write some more about Dubai's e-government in case it's a real person looking.
  • (4) A topic on which I'd hardly expect to be deemed an expert by google - I have the 6th ranked site even though my post is nothing to do with what's being looked for
  • (5) 4th ranked topic and probably a bit relevant to what was being asked
  • (6) Carly goose, again 4th ranked, although I was talking about Carly Fiorina and wild goose chases.   No better than the top ranked article which is about Mother Goose and, separately (I hope), Carly Simon
  • (7) A post titled "Generally Regarded As Safe" with no mention of "dyes" that I can find
  • (8) 1st ranked.  Who'd have thunk? If you want to know how important egovernment is, come to this site.  Delighted I am. Sure it won't last also.

Great to have good data.  The challenge of course, is to do something about it so that people have a shot at finding what they might need, when the search is relevant.  But also shows how bizarre the search algorithms can be at determining "importance".

A guy standing next to me by the office lifts today started to tell me about how complex "lift algorithms" are - and how specialised and highly paid a career it is.  I've often pondered whether there are such things as lift algorithms given how long I spend waiting for lifts; apparently there are.  There may be a lucrative career awaiting for failed search engine algorithm workers.  Or vice versa.  Or even for me.

Titling the Untitled- Redux

A while ago I wrote about my experience booking a flight with British Airways, specifically the bit where it says "who are you?" and, evidently far more importantly, "what is your title?"  I've pasted in a couple of shots of the drop down menu presented.  I don't think anyone believed me when I posted about it last time.  So here they are, a little hard to read  ... a section of A to B and G to H including "Her Highness", "Air Marshall" (of which, one imagines, there are only 1 or 2 - how nice to build a website that is so personalised), "Bishop", "Graaf" and, of course "High Chief"

image image

Monday, October 22, 2007

Lost Lessons Learned

Seen on a whiteboard in a vendor's conference room, under the bold headline of "Lessons Learned",  two lonely bullets:
  • Lessons learned in the past had not been applied
  • Expectations were set too high

'Twas ever thus

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The 3G Myth

Whilst writing my triptych "the only iPhone review you'll ever need" last week I spent a fair while looking for data that showed actual usage of 3G services in the UK.  I tried various searches in Google and Windows Live (a search engine that has come on leaps and bounds recently and that I really quite like), but most of them returned links to the contents pages of reports published by various doubtless august research bodies, all of whom wanted thousands of dollars to get at the actual data.  All I was looking for were two numbers - how many people have 3G phones and what percentage of revenue from those phones is made up of 3G usage.  I didn't get either of those numbers or anything close to them.  Sometimes the Internet is absolutely the last place you're ever going to find a piece of data that you need unless you work out exactly the string of words that someone else has used or you know a specific site where you can find the data based on recommendation, stumbling across it or paid subscription.

Friday's Evening Standard may have come partially to my rescue(and who said the dead tree industry didn't have a place any longer?).  There's a little graph in the top left corner of a page titled "Mobile is the new battleground in internet gold rush". It shows the following figures for percentage of actual and forecast ownership of 3G handsets by region (the figures are approximate - the scale isn't very detailed):

  Now 2010
USA 30% (or maybe 12%) 70%
Western Europe 30% (or maybe 12%) 70%
China <5% 25%

I was a little confused I have to say.  The graph clearly shows 2007 figures at around 30% but in the text it says "even today, little more than 12% of mobiles in Western Europe are 3G".  So it's one or the other.  Or maybe some other equally made up number.

The focus of the article is really about advertising on mobile phones and, sadly, I don't mean stickers attached to the 'phones promoting products but the misplaced idea that I want (I'm sure someone will use the word "need") banner ads or, god forbid, proximity ads popping up on my phone.

So after spending all those billions on licences, perhaps the mobile phone operators are a little sore that Apple has forced at least one of them back to 2.5G (or even 2.75G if the right upgrades are in place) technology, that is, EDGE.

Wikepedia, ever proving its value as a place to at least get real numbers (although source data/links are not always available) says

"By June 2007 the 200 millionth 3G subscriber had been connected. Out of 3 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide this is only 6.7%. In the countries where 3G was launched first - Japan and South Korea over half of all subscribers use 3G. In Europe the leading country is Italy with a third of its subscribers migrated to 3G. Other leading countries by 3G migration include UK, Austria and Singapore at the 20% migration level. A confusing statistic is counting CDMA 2000 1x RTT customers as if they were 3G customers. If using this oft-disputed definition, then the total 3G subscriber base would be 475 million at June 2007 and 15.8% of all subscribers worldwide"

By that reference, I guess UK penetration is likely nearer 12% than 30%. And this version of the iPhone isn't going to help increase that.  Keep focused on SMS you operator folks, at a few hundred quid a megabyte, that's where you're going to make the cash for a while longer.

I was just sorting out some files today and found some old notes that I'd written on a tablet PC - probably the Compaq one that had a detachable keyboard - and printed out for "safekeeping" (I had terrible problems with that PC - I'm sure they culminated in me throwing it across the room one day as it lost some files for the nth time).  They were for a presentation in January 2003.  I included this graph based on the scribbles in my notes (these were made-up numbers - I imagine I couldn't find any research back then either) - but I thought that wifi would be bigger than 3G by now and that MMS would be smaller than both (figures are for users not, say, volume of text sent):


And I suppose this graph shows why I'm not in the research industry

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Do Testers Really Thrive At Night?

A couple of weeks ago I presented at Qbit's TestExpo in Manchester.  Rare indeed is it for me to go there these days.  There was a good turnout, a whole bunch of presenters and me to wrap up the show before the prizes, the bar and the night shift.  What would you expect for an audience of testers? Having spent the day gabbing I was sure they'd have to go back to work right after I was done.

These are the slides from the presentation I gave (If you're reading this in an RSS reader such as Google Reader, you're probably not going to be able to see the slides so click on the blog title to get to the page itself and you'll be able to see them.  Alternatively, if you really don't want to visit the blog, you can access them at this page on slideshare.net.


The essence of the show was a proposition that too often in programmes, testing is treated as contingency time.  Because testing can't start until design and build are broadly completed, the only scope that ever gets cut is that of test.  Programmes are generally loath to over-run and, even if they do, it's rarely because more time is needed for testing. So, to get as much in as possible, all the stops come out and long nights and many weekends are worked over and over to try and hit the live date.  Inevitably stuff gets missed.

Every so often over the next few weeks I'll pull one of the slides out and post it here as a picture and talk through the things that I said at Qbit - very roughly at least, I have no script (how did Cameron put it?  "It'll be a bit of a mess but it will be me"?) so whatever I post will doubtless not match what I said and here, of course, I get more room to be lazy and expand my points.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Only iPhone Review You'll Ever Need - Part 3

Things that make you go "uhhh..."  I love most of what the iPhone does but there are some things that just make you slap your hand to your forehead.  Some of these can, I hope, be fixed with future software releases, some will doubtless not be fixed until the hardware changes. Some will never be fixed.

First, the things that everyone, especially the UK press, have already complained heavily about:

- GPRS/Edge. It's slow, yadda yadda. Every pundit has slammed Apple for using this 2.5G or even 2G network and for being dumb enough to launch so a laughably slow phone in the European market that is oh so saturated with 3G service after the operators spent their [shareholders] billions (some stats here and here - my reading says 3G market share is about 20% of total in handsets but that there's limited use, certainly very few browsing the 'net or doing email).    The difference between "good" edge and standard 3G is not that great.  The difference between full HSDPA and edge is enormous. So Apple has certainly fallen behind the very best but is not far behind most phones.  Blackberries invariably work on 2G, mostly GPRS and not even edge - but their background send/receive makes that less of an issue. The trade-off, though, is plainly increased battery life, a bigger screen, and ready access to Wifi (via the Cloud once the iPhone launches in the UK). So far I've really not seen the issue - if you're working on all you can eat data tariff (fair usage rules 'n' all) and have occasional access to Wifi, you're probably just fine. But, if you're running Wifi, bluetooth and video a lot you'll probably see less than a day of battery life - with 3G too it might have been half that. My guess is that, apart from the PR and marketing hype from the other vendors and the noise in the press, you won't much care about this "downgrade" to an older network)

- The camera. It's "adequate" at best, it doesn't do video and don't expect to send any MMS.  The review I link to does a far better explanation of what it's like.  I've taken a few pictures with the camera and it seems ok or, at least, on a par with the Treo (which had an awful camera) but not as good as the HTC Touch (which had a range of options allowing photos to be adjusted for indoors and outdoors).  I take "fun" snaps with my phone, not pictures I want to print or put on a slide show.  Sometimes I use those photos in my presentation slides and they work fine for that.  But this is not a "camera phone", it's a "phone camera".  In fact it's a "Phone iPod camera."

So I'm not sweating either of these.  I know Apple will come out with a new phone next year that upgrades the hardware and I'm pretty sure that some of this stuff will be improved in some software releases over the coming months.  I'm also hoping that the iPhone might actually be a catalyst for more websites to do mobile versions of their websites - and for all of them to auto-detect that you're viewing them on an iPhone.  We built a mobile version for direct.gov years ago (that's not quite true - we built style sheets for small screens and auto-detected when a mobile browser was being used so that the pictures were stripped and the navigation was made simpler; it's not hugely difficult).  It's actually very frustrating to use google's mobile search, click a link and then be thrown straight into a page with flash, big graphics, left and right hand navigation and so on.  If the iPhone gives folks the nod that it's ok to use small screens, all the better for everyone.

But the stuff that doesn't quite gel for me ...

- SMS sending. Texts are sent "while you wait" and sometimes that feels like a long wait.  Whilst sending there's a white bar that fills from 0 to 100% (or perhaps 0 to 168 characters, who knows?).  You can't do anything whilst that's happening.  I'm used to phones - Treos and even Windows Mobile - that send in the background and flag an error if there was a problem sending.  You're also unable to forward one text to another person (see also the "cursor" point below"). This, of course, means that you can't send a text while you have no reception, say when you're on the tube, and expect it to send as soon as you have signal again.  You also can't forward a text or send it to multiple recipients from within a chat stream.

- SMS opening.  When you switch to SMS the iPhone opens the SMS application wherever you last were.  Even if you have new texts and you were in the middle of a thread when you last used it, it opens back in that thread.  The odds are, if I have new texts, I want to look at those.  On the upside, if you're watching a video, it will flash the text up on the screen with a view/ignore dialogue.  I like that.

- The cursor.  Simply put, there isn't one.  If you make an error in some text and need to go back to edit that text, you'll have to poke at the screen with your finger until you get to the right place.  I doubt that will be with the first poke, it certainly isn't with me and I don't think I've got particularly fat fingers.  By the same token, don't expect to be able to copy text, drag and drop or cut and paste.  I have no idea how this gets remedied given there are no buttons to speak of (and i don't want any more than those that exist now) - it may be as simple as a menu bar at the bottom of text with left/right/select, inelegant though that is (and therefore probably why it's not there now)

- Applications.  Apple has spent years evangelising its stuff, creating a tight knit community of developers who have supported it through thick and thin.  With recent operating systems they've created not just applications but widgets and gadgets.  The operating system is a platform and other people fill it with things that they think customers want; if Apple comes out with a better product, then the market adopts Apple's product, if they don't come out with a product then someone else fills the niche and the customers are happy.  This approach has worked just as well for Palm (with 1000s of applications) and, of course, Microsoft who kicked Apple's butt (and everyone else's along the way) by opening up (we can argue about degrees) their operating system and working harder than anyone else to get developer support.  Now I'm expecting that Apple's stance is temporary - after all, plainly the iPhone is not even close to being "finished" yet - whilst they mess with version 1 of the iPhone and that as they stabilise it and stop making big changes, they'll allow application deployment right to the phone.  Sure it might mean several pages for the Home Page or it might mean folders for storing things.  It might also be niche - some people will just like their iPhone pristine - and I suspect that this is the bulk of the market; folks don't want their phones like their PCs, bloated and prone to crashing as the PC sceptics would say.  But lots of people will want to do other things with it from figuring out where they are in rudimentary GPS terms to waving the phone around like a Wii controller playing pong.  Who knows? Who cares? They should be allowed to do it.  Personally, I want a version of Robert Parker's wine database and a Nintendo Brain Training programme (the second to help recover from the damage of the first).

- Headphones. What were you thinking Apple?  You straight away disabled my shiny Shure headphones by making the socket so different on the iPhone that they can't plug in.  Why would you do that?  You don't even sell an adapter in the store - I have to go and get one somewhere else.  Your headphones are average at best - indeed more sound seems to leak from them than go into my ear.

As with previous posts, I'll update this as I find more.