The gentle art of TMI

In a moment of boredom, I decided to sign up for Pepsi’s latest promotional campaign, which is yet another variation on entering confusing codes from bottle caps into a website, in the hopes of some sort of reward. I indulge in a daily diet soda, so I figured I might as well earn something for my efforts.

Aside from a poorly coded website at iconicsummer.com, which was heavy on glitz and pointless animation, but gave no indication that it was processing or loading data, it broke one of the primary tenets of social media linking.

I’ll often use a “login with Facebook” option when available for sites like this, since it prevents having to create yet another username and password, but the Pepsi site demanded extensive access to my Facebook profile, looking for birthday, friend information, and an ability to post on my behalf. The Twitter link requested even more access, and then to top it all off, after authorizing what seemed to be the lesser of two evils, the site demanded that I create a full profile with username, password, and address information.

This is the equivalent to meeting someone for the first time, and requesting personal details, names and contact information of friends, and access to that new acquaintance’s  email account to send out missives on their behalf. All with little or no promise of benefit.

Like the physical world, your motives in meeting someone new may not be all roses and puppies, and you may ultimately want access to that person’s expertise, contacts, or professional and personal network, yet you’d usually have the tact not to demand or expect this level of intimacy upon the first handshake. Unless Pepsi’s marketeers routinely introduce themselves with “Hi, I’m Joe from Pepsi, might I have all your friends’ phone numbers?” they may want to rethink their demands for Too Much Information in the virtual world.

Beautiful presentations

As someone who has crafted and viewed a fair number of PowerPoints, I’m well-versed in poor visuals. In an item for the “good old days” file, apparently management presentations and organizational charts were far more artistic. I came across and article about the first “modern” organizational chart, produced by a railroad executive in 1854, and it’s truly a thing of beauty. You can view the chart here, in PDF format.

The New user interface

I was recently reading about personnel changes at Apple, with Johnny Ive, Apple’s hardware design guru taking over the reigns of design for Apple’s software. Aside from the Apple-related intrigue, the article contended that this changing of the guard might spell an entirely new era of user interface design.

Apple, and the broader technology industry, has long used the physical world as analogs, presumably to ease the transition from the physical to the digital. Apple’s calendar applications have graphics of torn pages from the days of paper calendars, and most email clients have a “CC” field, an homage to the long-forgotten days of physical memos, where a piece of carbon paper would be used to produce copies on a typewriter (hence “carbon copying” several recipients).

As a generation of workers that never experienced paper calendars, analog cameras, or reel-to-reel tape players comes into the workforce, trying to present digital analogs to these unknown technologies becomes counterproductive. It also frees application designers to experiment. Who says an audio or video application needs play, pause, rewind, and fast forward buttons? Do telephone numbers make sense? Could business processes that mimic old paper-based transactions be completely redesigned?

While wholesale abandoning or ignorance of the old is often counterproductive, clinging to irrelevant metaphors is equally so. Where could your company reinvent itself by completely abandoning a passé design metaphor?

Fixing the basics

For several years, I’ve had a wireless keyboard on my desktop computer, the machine I use to do my writing when I’m not travelling on business. While the wireless feature seemed like a good idea at the time, I rarely moved the keyboard from its position under my monitor, and the wireless feature never seemed to be 100% reliable. If you’re old enough to remember the days of television signals delivered over the air, and carefully adjusting the TV’s “rabbit ear” antennas to get a perfect signal, only to have someone move and static return, you might get an idea of how well this keyboard worked.

Some days it was fine, other days I’d spend half my time moving the keyboard an inch or two in either direction to restore its functionality, or furiously bang the backspace key when gibberish appeared due to an inferior signal. For someone who cranks out well over 1000 words every day, this was suboptimal at best.

I finally ordered a new keyboard. It’s the same ergonomic model in a non-wireless version, so there’s no learning curve on the keyboard layout, it has a wire to connect directly to the computer, and it appeared at my doorstep courtesy of Amazon.com for a mere forty bucks.

As these words appear flawlessly on the screen, no adjusting the keyboard or bodily gyrations to affect the signal required, I’m kicking myself for dealing with such inanities for such a long time. A New Year is a great time to evaluate life and work’s little inconveniences. Forty bucks just might make things much easier.

My month with a Mac

Aside from an occasional few minutes playing with a Mac, I’ve spend the majority of my two decade involvement with computers with Microsoft-based systems (including several versions of MS-DOS). I had purchased a Mac about 6 months ago to experiment with iOS development, but still didn’t use the 13″ MacBook Pro much more than occasionally.

More recently, I’ve taken a job with a large consulting firm that has a fairly reasonable BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, and I’ve converted my Mac to my “daily driver.” The primary reason was not what one might expect. Basically, the standard-issue Windows computer supplied by the company is loaded with corporate “crapware” (management, monitoring, asset tracking, etc) that essentially slows the otherwise capable system to a crawl. While most of the business-critical applications I use work on the Mac, the preponderance of corporate crapware does not, allowing me to run a fairly “clean” system and still comply with corporate policy. Furthermore, I prefer not to put personal applications on a company machine, and BYOD flips the equation, allowing me to carry only a single laptop.

I’ve not experienced the magical and revolutionary enlightenment, singing choirs of angels, or inner peace most Mac advocates describe, but I can say that it’s a high-quality bit of hardware, married to what’s essentially a commercially supported and tightly integrated UNIX-style OS.

At clients I’ve seen increasing numbers of Macs wandering corporate hallways, and it’s fairly easy to see why. Most companies are loading their machines with “lowest common denominator” images, and software that appeals to IT but ruins the end-user experience. With attractive hardware and a quick, crapware-free, modern OS, it’s hard not to like the Mac.

The definition of Insanity

I’m always intrigued by the dynamics of technology-driven marketing. On the high end, firms are now using incredibly complex analytics hoping for insight into customer intentions. I recently read about retail giant Wal-Mart developing algorithms that could tie weather patterns to online buying behavior, and send targeted email promotions based on local weather patterns.

On the other hand, there’s downright stupid marketing.

One of my favorites is from a marquee business news organization, that sends a daily email with technology news. Every day, day in and day out, there’s an inline advertisement after the first paragraph. It is surrounded by a pleasant blue border, and after about the emails from these guys, my eyes are trained to skip right over it.

Similarly, I play the occasional game of solitaire on my iPhone. The game subjects you to an add before each and every round, and happily puts the “Skip” button in one of two places each time. Rather than looking at the content of the ad, I spend 3 seconds hunting for the skip button.

The famed definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. I wonder what the above two advertisers are expecting after a solid year of doing the exact same thing.

The Business Traveler’s Take on the iPhone 5

I received my iPhone 5 last week, and was excited to upgrade from my aging iPhone 4. I travel regularly for business, and my phone is a key tool as I traipse around the world.

The internet is rife with detailed technical reviews of the new iPhone, but I wanted to put together a some brief thoughts for those that are considering the iPhone 5 as a business tool, particularly those who travel frequently.

Hardware

Like most previous iPhones, the iPhone 5 looks nice. With the width being the same, and the device being a touch thinner, the increased height goes almost unnoticed in your hand. The phone is also a bit lighter, adding to the feeling that the larger screen comes with no perceived size penalty. I find the lightness of the device attractive, and have never understood the equation of weight with quality. If you’ve ever held a well-built titanium part, that’s about what the new iPhone feels like: uncannily light but well-built. I personally find the back of my white iPhone 5 with it’s overly shiny lettering and branding to look a bit chintzy, but I’ve never been accused of being fashionable so take than with a grain of salt.

The larger screen is a nice addition, particularly for reading. I often use my phone to catch up on books, news, and the WSJ, and the longer screen makes this a nicer experience. When reading, one really doesn’t notice apps that aren’t yet optimized for the larger screen (more about that later).

Supposedly there’s more “magic and revolutionary” in this new screen than the iPhone 4, and it seemed slightly nicer to me in terms of how it renders colors, but nothing earth shattering.

Speed

Yup, it’s faster than the iPhone 4. In some areas like loading certain applications, the speed increase is fairly dramatic. Not Earth-shattering, but certainly noticeable. Superlatives aside, this really is a noticeable benefit.

Passbook

Much ado has been made about Apple’s toe dipped into the world of mobile payments in the form of Passbook, a document/coupon/loyalty card storage application. For me, it’s essentially useless at this point. A couple of airlines I don’t regularly fly (United and American) are the only travel-related offerings, as are a bunch of stores I don’t really frequent.

When you open the application, you essentially get a “hey, this doesn’t do anything until you add apps” screen. Like all the mobile wallet systems, there’s promise, but little current benefit. In theory, Passbook has some neat features whereby it will figure out when you’re at the airport and make your boarding pass available on the lock screen, saving a few taps, but until US Air hops on board I generally won’t use it.

From a technology standpoint, it’s a bit disappointing Apple is essentially adding one more standard to an increasingly convoluted mix. While 5 million units sold during “opening weekend” is motivation to jump aboard Apple’s bandwagon, I think it will be another 5-10 years before mobile wallets are commonly used, and vendors now need to wonder whether they support Apple’s closed standard, Google’s “standard” or just stick with cross-platform tools like current mobile boarding passes that rely on the web browser.

Maps

Ahhh, the red-headed stepchild of the iPhone 5: Maps. Without beating a dead horse, Apple has taken some justified flack for its maps app. For a US-based business traveller, thus far I find Apple Maps to be helpful. You get more information about points of interest, and direct links to Yelp, which is a key tool for me as I seek food options on the road.

In terms of navigation, the iPhone goes from no inbuilt navigation, to a reasonably competent system, assuming the location you’re trying to navigate to exists in its database. This is the big flaw in Apple Maps: it looks nice and works reasonably well from a functional standpoint, but the data isn’t up to Google Maps quality. Exit numbers on major roads are incorrect, and handy details like exact building locations aren’t present in Apple’s mapping program.

Where things get particularly nasty is for the international traveler. I rely heavily on mapping when visiting a foreign city, and Google Maps has rarely let me down from Tulsa, to Thessaloniki, to Tianjin. Maps are detailed and accurate, and this has literally changed my travel experience. I can wander a foreign city aimlessly, and know that Google Maps will get me back to my hotel. Some preliminary browsing of foreign cities in Apple Maps paints a less rosy picture. The absence of public transit, something I’m more likely to partake in internationally is a glaring miss, and the level of detail Google provides in places like China seems to be missing. At this point I wouldn’t fully trust Apple Maps for an afternoon of wandering in a non-US or Western European city.

Siri

I was looking forward to Siri, a feature absent on the iPhone 4. The idea of an semi-intelligent robotic assistant is quite compelling, and something I’ve been following and yearning after for decades (although I wish we’d get the flying car out of the way first). Apple’s commercials make Siri look like an amazing tool for the harried traveler, but my experience has been a bit less impressive.

While it has only been a few days, Siri is batting around 0.300 for me, accurately fulfilling my request about 30% of the time. She’s diligently created a couple of reminders, but struggles mightily with transcribing emails or text messages to the point that it’s faster to enter them manually. She’s also failed several seemingly simple queries (like “When is the Beijing marathon”), and occasionally takes 2-8 seconds to “process” what I’ve said, or gets stuck in an infinite “processing” cycle, so she’s rapidly bumping against the point of diminishing returns.

I love the smart assistant concept, and thus far have been slightly more impressed with Android on this one. A recently-acquired Android phone prompted me that it seemed I muted my phone before going to bed each night, and asked if it should automatically mute at bedtime, and only allow calls from emergency contacts. I find that sort of functionality far more intelligent and helpful than telling bad jokes during celebrity TV commercials.

In both cases, at least this type of functionality is finally moving out of the labs and into the public, where it will presumably only get better.

Battery, Lightening, and Network

The battery in the iPhone 5 seems up to snuff for a full business day, and I’ve managed to go from 6AM to 11PM with around 20% left in the tank. The negative of course is that Apple’s new “Lightening” connector precludes you from borrowing a colleagues cable, or taking advantage of the ubiquitous iPhone docks now present in many hotels. There’s also an absolute dearth of accessories at the moment, so no adding an external battery or battery case unless it’s a “generic” USB unit. This will presumably change in the coming months, and again, the sales numbers of the iPhone 5 certainly bode well for a diverse aftermarket. I do find the new connector easier to use, and less annoying to pack, so the new connector is a positive in the long run, but a negative in the here and now, especially when I have a drawer full of “old” Apple cables, and the new Lightening cables border on highway robbery at their current $40 a whack.

On the data side, yep, the 4G/LTE stuff is actually faster, and in some cases startlingly so, particularly when downloading attachments. I can’t say my life was particularly lacking when I had to wait a whopping 8 seconds to download a picture or email attachment, but that same download now takes less than a second.

Closing thoughts and Apple’s Big Miss (it’s actually not maps!)

There’s a lot to like in Apple’s latest iPhone. The battery is solid, it uses the latest mobile networks, and checks the “lighter, faster, thinner” boxes. You also get the global network of Apple retail stores, which make for easy service and exchanges when needed, a feature I’ve used to painless exchange two defective iPhone 4’s and an often-underestimated “feature” on the Apple product.

The biggest miss in my experience is not maps, but the “letterbox” mode that accommodates applications that aren’t yet compatible with the longer screen. In this mode, black bars appear above and below the application to fill in the missing 0.5” of the older application.

Visually this is no problem, and for apps where you’re not typing all is well. The problem comes when you need to type. The black bar at the bottom of the screen moves the keyboard up a few millimeters, and thus changes the location of all the keys. I’m not a touch-typist on these tiny keyboards, but apparently my brain naturally expects certain things, for instance that the space bar is located at the border of the screen. My typing on the new phone grows noticeably worse when I switch between “old” and new apps, due to the keyboard moving up or down. This is a major productivity killer in my mind.

While this will be alleviated to some extent as apps update for the newer screen size, I would imagine it’s something that we’ll be stuck with to a large extent, and something that will make typing on this device sub-optimal. I hope Apple will correct this by putting all the “filler” for legacy apps on the top of the screen, so the keyboard stays in the same place, but I would imagine the company’s preference for the visual will win out over the needs of boring pragmatists that want to write things rather than gaze at pretty pictures.

Some of the major negatives are imminently fixable, and part of the early adopter penalty. The problems with Apple Maps are primarily around it’s data, something stored “in the cloud” that will presumably improve rather rapidly. The dearth of accessories will certainly improve, and I hope Apple with revisit it’s “moving keyboard” problem. If you like Apple products and own an older iPhone, the iPhone 5 seems like a sure winner for the business traveller, although you may consider waiting a few months if you’re troubled by the current problems, most of which should soon be things of the past.

Google’s $1.5B Market?

While I hate to harp on Apple’s map woes twice in one day, this interesting post notes that Apple has removed traffic, transit, and street view from 1.5 billion potential customers, and stripped one or more of those features from a total of 5 billion potential customers (these numbers represent the affected populations of countries where these data have changed, not iPhone owners).

If Google were to offer even just the standard, old Google Maps for iOS, and charge a buck for it, there’s a pretty nice market. Good luck with that thermonuclear war, boys.

The first casualty of “thermonuclear war”

Steve Jobs famously quipped that he would go to “thermonuclear war” with Google, over his perception that the latter “stole” many of the concepts and design of the iPhone and iOS. While there’s little benefit to arguing that point one way or another, it appears we have our first major casualty of Apple’s war with Google on the mapping front.

If you haven’t followed the usual brouhaha that accompanies the release of a new iPhone, among the new features of the device is an in-house mapping program, that replaces Google Maps. Google Maps was included with every version of iOS, but slowly began to lag behind the version of the product shipped with Google’s own Android mobile OS, missing key features like spoken navigation and detailed reviews of local establishments.

Apple announced it would part ways with Google, and dumped Google’s You Tube video service from the iPhone while announcing it’s own mapping application. A raft of “he said, she said” emanated from both camps, with Google claiming it would gladly update it’s iOS maps application, and Apple declining. However, today it became clear that Apple has some “work to do” (as admitted by their PR folks) on the mapping application, while end users are a lot less generous. Apple’s maps have problems ranging from landmarks like the Washington Monument misplaced, to so little detail in some countries as to make them useless, to a complete absence of transit directions, a really great feature when you’re in an unfamiliar city. The navigation component even suggests a swim, or perhaps really long leap, over the Hudson River in Manhattan rather than a nearby bridge or tunnel.

With Google having reduced mapping to what amounts to a commodity, and Microsoft also a major player, one wonders what Apple hopes to gain investing hundreds of millions merely to reach parity with these two giants, all while frustrating and angering users. While Apple users are inordinately loyal to the company, history is littered with companies that got distracted, or took customers for granted, arguably including Apple during it’s “dark days” without Jobs. While there are surely some benefits to controlling all aspects of your mobile OS, bringing mapping in house looks like a high-risk proposition with correspondingly little upside.

I’m looking forward to the arrival of my own iPhone 5, and will be interested to see how Apple copes with its mapping problems. As someone who travels frequently and has come to rely on mobile mapping, I hope Apples seemingly misdirected efforts don’t literally misdirect me.

Xbox and the Gift that keeps on Giving

I have a Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console, that I originally purchased for the occasional online game with far-flung friends. It continues to amaze me that a half-dozen of us from around the world, sporting goofy call-center operator style headphones, can chat and catch up while tossing virtual grenades at each other. The other aspect of Xbox that amazes me is that the device has evolved well beyond gaming. It can play movies, check the weather, suggest interesting songs and movies, and remains easy to use, with a fluid and intuitive interface.

Technology companies are constantly touting “partnerships” and “value-added content,” but this usually comes in the form of technical feature porn, or thinly-veiled advertisements for you to buy more, the worst offenders also appearing on a Microsoft product in the form of dozens of “crapware” applications that litter a new computer.

Where Microsoft gets it right with Xbox is that new features and capabilities are truly beneficial to the user. One gets the sense that the Xbox team is looking to make the product better for the end consumer, rather than add spec-sheet puffery, or squeeze another dime out of the consumer by loading the product with ads and junk. While most products lose utility and value over their lifespan, Xbox grows in utility with every software update. Does your product or service do the same?

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