Friday 2 December 2011

My wife’s phone doesn’t understand me

A couple of months ago my wife upgraded her iPhone from a 3GS to a 4S. The three really noticeable differences are the flat, slab-like design, the detail and colour of the screen and, of course, Siri. I suspect that the S after the 4 is for Siri and not for speed, sport or snobbery.

So of course we’ve been doing what ever one with access to Siri does – see if it does what it claims. I say it because in the UK Siri is a man who sounds like a Radio 2 announcer. (For non-UK people, Radio 2 is a BBC Radio service aimed at those who listened to pop music stations 20 years ago and haven’t migrated to talk shows or culture.) Siri here is not the subservient female that caused such a rumpus in the US when she first came out, as it were. It would be very interesting to know why they made that decision.

First to try Siri out are, of course, the kids. Younger daughter and her friends found endless amusement in trying to get him to say things and had already heard most of the Easter eggs so they tried all those too. And Siri understood about half of it.

But for me, speaking normal, Siri just simply did not understand. In fact the results were positively comical. It was very frustrating, frankly, and if I wasn’t in the industry I’d have given up. I may be Scottish but I have very little accent, certainly nothing that should have caused problems.

Some perseverance and some research enabled me to replicate some of the known forms successfully. I was able to teach Siri that I was the husband and was able to call myself by saying “call my husband” into my wife’s phone. And I was able to add an appointment to the calendar. Pronouncing Cautiously In Carefully Composed Sentences Worked Quite Well.

However when it came to more general queries, nada. The recognition of generic terms was significantly worse than Google Voice Search, for example.  Apple have done their usual thing of creating a protected environment where things they consider you likely to say work reasonably well but outside of that you’re on your own. At least Siri doesn’t say that generic queries violent your terms and conditions.

Thursday 15 September 2011

The Right Channel

Not been posting here for the last couple of months. Can you work out what happened then? Google+ of course!

It's interesting to match our communications needs to the right channel. We have an overwhelming choice when it comes to how to reach our fellow humans:

  • Talk to someone
  • Telephone
  • Text
  • Email
  • IM
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • And others
Different mechanisms have different priorities and groups. We fit the urgency, size, privacy, interactivity, audience and  importance of our message to the right channel. 

Google+ seems like the right format and speed for quick comments on technical things. Twitter is great for thought bites, many of which turn out to be either complaints or discoveries. Facebook is about family and friends.

This means that we don't have a hierarchy of channels, but a graph. And I don't see there being winners or losers. I don't mean the deluge of identical startups rushing to do something social that's been tried before and doesn't work (eg finding nearby contacts or uploading and sharing photos), I mean the core backbone services. They are probably fixed for a while anyway.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Pasta and PayPal

I normally try and avoid chain eateries, but I made an exception last night to check out the new mobile PayPal payment mechanism at Pizza Express. The Richmond Pizza Express is an interesting fitout in huge space at ground level in an curious stripey building that looks like it was originally built in the 1920s. This design conceit was echoed in the china as in this saucer.

For those unfamiliar with this chain, the quality of the food is a definite step up from the internationals and the decor is usually quirky and different at each location. This one has crazy round booths and black and white Italian movies projected in loops on the end walls.

Payment works via an iPhone app only at the moment, developed by 2ergo. I'm not keen on the user experience of the app in general, but the payment mechanism is very cool indeed. It is deeply integrated into the point of sale system. When you get your bill it has a long number at the bottom. You type this into the app and up comes your bill - really quickly. You add your tip and authenticate with PayPal, agree the sum to be paid, and that's it. You may now leave the restaurant, the app says.

I didn't as it struck me that I'd have half the staff running after me if I did so. As it happened I had a surprised waitress appear saying that the payment had popped up at her when she started entering someone else's order.  All very smooth and efficient. And astoundingly fast.

What was striking was the huge step difference in user experience from credit cards and banking. This is user-centric and design-conscious payment, not something that comes at you in the battle-hardened-we-don't-trust-you way of conventional systems.  No clunky hardware interfaces. No bits of paper. All electronic and all filed away conveniently. And by the way, did I mention that it was fast?

One thing the app didn't let me do was request a change of movie. My end of the restaurant was projecting the incredibly sad Ladri di Bicilette, a grim tale of poverty in post-war Rome totally unsuited to the cheery venue and the conspicuous consumption of good food.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Incomprehensibility of roaming data

This comes to you from a windowless meeting room in the middle of a US office block, just like all the other windowless meeting rooms. Outside it could be snowing or sunshine, as it happens it's bright sunshine with a slight breeze.

Since arriving here last night I've had a variety of SMS messages from Vodafone on my various devices. All of them slightly different and none of them readily comprehensible. My favourite is this:

From Vodafone: To let you know it's nearly midnight in the UK. If you do need to carry on using data after midnight, you'll be charged £12.75 per 25MB.

I've read this several times and I think they are saying that the current 25MB batch that I've been using isn't finished but is going to be reset because it's midnight in another timezone and that I've to buy another batch to keep using the data.

Surely at that inflated price they could afford a copy writer who could craft better messages?

Monday 16 May 2011

Underground Movement

I was in Paris over the weekend and was rather startled when I received a call while I was well underground. I already knew that the Metro has been fitted with 3G repeaters, but it hadn't really sunk in. The sound quality was better than in many British streets.

While no one looked at me in an aggrieved manner, I didn't feel comfortable taking. Nor apparently did the only other person who took a call on the Metro during the weekend. And I never saw anyone originate a call.  What I did see was loads of people staring at their phones, running apps, reading websites and, presumably, text messages.

Is there an intrinsic sense of privacy that stops us having loud, one-sided conversations in crowded public places? I hope so. The young woman relaying her love life to her friend so loudly that everyone in the carriage could hear, back in London, could do with learning that lesson. When they eventually got off the train there was a collective sigh of relief. Perhaps the same applies to mobile calls, or maybe we just haven't got used to the idea yet.

Monday 18 April 2011

Three things iPhones do better

Prior to iOS 4 I had a strong preference for Android. 4.x has narrowed that to a slight preference, mainly because folders are really neat. But there are three things where iOS is slicker than Android:

  • Reconnecting to wifi
  • Automatically splitting words when you don't tap the space properly
  • Popping up the accented character box
All small things, but they can be the niggliest. 

One area where they are just as niggly as each other is the wilful way they select just the wrong wifi signal. This, of course, only applies if you have more than one available, but that is the position in which I find myself quite often. And both phones always pick the one I don't want. Systematically. I guess they are just proving they are computers under the cute hardware.

Friday 25 March 2011

Rise of Design

I installed Color today, yet another photo sharing app this time with the twist of being hyperlocal. The idea is (I think) that people at an event, party or a playdate (that's when you invite your kids' friends or friend's kids over to play for Europeans) and you can bang away with photos and they are shared with all the other sad people busy with their phones rather than talking.

Ignoring whether that is interesting or not, the app is gorgeous. Really nicely designed with crisp features and educated aesthetics. It is also fabulously easy to get started with no long painful sign up or banging out to another authorization site.

I'm hoping this signals a wave of raised awareness of design as there are still a lot of horrible-looking apps out there.

Monday 21 March 2011

iPod Time

One of the abiding myths of the industry is that Apple stuff doesn't go wrong. But of course it does, like any other piece of technology things will occasionally fail. However the assumption of perfection has an undesirable side effect: not much in the way of debugging help or even informative messages.

This was brought into sharp relief when I fixed a problem on an iPod Touch this weekend. It had 40 apps sitting saying Waiting... underneath the icon. Nothing would get them to install or allow them to be deleted. Nothing that I could find on the web seemed to address this problem.

I eventually discovered that the issue was that the clock had reset itself to the epoch - 1st January 1970 for those who don't speak UNIX.  This wasn't very noticeable, of course, because iPod Touches aren't normally something where you check the time regularly.

Correcting the time unblocked pending updates and lo, all the apps installed themselves properly without any further action. So there you are.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Comms bring us closer

Not that long ago it used to be that when someone moved to the other side of the planet they effectively vanished. A Scot who emigrated to Australia was gone forever - post was uncertain at best. Of course modern communications have changed all that, but on Friday I was reminded quite how far we have moved to bring family and friends together.

The occasion was a sad one, a memorial thanks giving service for my friend and colleague Mark Munro who sadly passed away after a long illness. The Minister's welcome told us that the service was being broadcast live on the internet to allow Mark's family and friends, spread across the globe, to join with us in celebrating his memory. A touching and fitting tribute to someone who had given so much to technology companies.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

In Memory of Ken Olsen

Ken Olsen passed away on February 6th, 2011 after a long and productive life as an entrepreneur, scientist, philanthropist and educator. Unfairly if he's remembered at all, it's primarily for having said that that there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home. He said that in 1977. Even having the thought in 1977 was radical when you think about it.

Without Ken Olsen there would have been no Digital Equipment Corporation, and without Digital, the whole shrinking, connected computer might not have happened, certainly not as quickly as it did.

While Digital's computers might seem laughably enormous to us now, they were actually very small for the time, heralding in a completely new era of computing where users actually got to see and touch the computer they were using. Prior to that you had to submit your supplication to the great machine in its temple via the priests of data processing.

I never had the privilege of meeting Ken when I worked at Digital although those who did had many stories. I'll leave them to tell those tales. I have two favourite memories. The first was Ken's belief in doing the right thing. It's a shame that that ethos was lost in the myriad layers of self-aggrandising middle management.

Finally, my favourite memory of Digital computers was the clock speed control on a relic we had at the University. I think it was a PDP-7 which was already 15 years old or so when I was a student. To help debug your programs you could turn a knob to slow down the clock from the breath-taking top speed of 8khz (yes, kilohertz) so that you could see the registers changing as the instructions were executed. Brilliant.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Having Crystal Balls

I like reading fiction set in the near future, usually the ones which are slightly dystopian where many things are the same but some have changed dramatically. I've even written one myself.

I particularly like John Spencer's three Charley Case books, set in a California towards the end of this century but written in the 1980s. The big change is that an earthquake has turned Nevada into a sea and pushed most of Los Angeles under the ocean. What remains is an island. Charley is a private detective who habitually gets into cases that are too big to handle and the books are full of one liners and written in a clipped style.

There are many things that Spencer predicts that seem reasonable: projectile weapons continue to be used but with increasing sophistication, medical systems allow resuscitation of the recently deceased assuming all the bits are still attached, huge cars running on synthetic gasoline, huge gap between rich and poor, and people living much longer.

But the reason I'm writing about this is that there are a few things that are already hilariously out of date yet with some features that we don't have. A case in point are phones. Charley is always having to beg access to people's phones. The idea of the ubiquitous telephony that we already have just didn't occur to the author.

Yet Charley's phone has a message capability that allows the other party to push him information that would otherwise require him to write it down. A potential client can push him their address without hassle. This same concept happens in Gibson's Virtual Light where flight information is pushed to the courier's phone after an initial voice call.

Now why don't we have that as part of our comms flow? Because we have segmented businesses, of course, where voice and data don't mix because the business units providing them don't mix. Because audio and RF engineering don't talk to the people making the network stack.
Computers are little bit more advanced than phones, with their name being chomped down to comp which is pretty cool. His domestic comp controls his kitchen. His friend in the police force has what sounds remarkably like a character cell terminal on his desk and habitually has to use mounds of prints outs. They even have trolleys for pushing print outs around the police station. The idea of wireless networking, tablets and on-screen reading didn't make it into this version of the future.

The reason that I'm talking about all this is to highlight how incredibly difficult it is to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. Whether we are looking at analysts projections for market size or novels doesn't matter. Many people would argue that they are both fiction anyway.

While we can generally predict what technology can do, you need to have balls of crystal to be able to predict behaviour and applications. We also have a curious tendency to overestimate the immediate effect of technology while underestimating the long-term effect. We've all seen the shape of the adoption curve, and I think it is wrong. There's a long nose and either a small drop to nothing or a huge take off when it moves into mainstream. But that's the subject for another blog post.

The only Charley Case story still in print is Quake City published by Jim Driver's wonderfully-named The Do Not Press. The cover of the first book bears no relation at all to the content. The female police officer on the front of the second book, remarkably, actually represents one of the characters although at no point is she in uniform and toting a gun.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Lonely in Location

Another couple of comments on location-aware systems.

First an update to my last post - Foursquare has a setting so that it opens on Places and not Friends by default. This is much better, but doesn't change what is presumably the way the Foursquare designers expect it to be used.

Next is that a few people have put together systems that show hot locations, using the rather unscientific method of taking check ins from the last half an hour to get round the lack of a check out option. An example of the is MisoTrendy which combines a witty name with a simple mashup between Google Maps and Foursquare. It shows "trending" venues on a map.

Unfortunately the main information you can take from this is that very, very few people actually check in anywhere at all. Edinburgh only has occasional traces of activity, even London has only 15 people currently checked in. Checks on other major cities where it is not the middle of the night showed equally low levels of activity.

So I fear that anybody trying to use is likely to continue to be sad and lonely.

Update: Just found Ratio Finder which identifies ratios of the sexes in locations as long as you are in San Francisco or New York, based on the much more amusing Wee Places which draws maps of your checkins with some cool animations. Is it long-term useful? Probably not, but it is pretty and briefly amusing. I suspect that it proves the old wisdom of the third place: home, work, and somewhere else you hang out.

Monday 31 January 2011

Location Lacks Logic

For the last couple of weeks I've been assiduously checking in to places using both Foursquare and Facebook Places. I was hoping to understand the logic behind the excitement that check ins allegedly generate. I have so far singularly failed to do so.

So far the only benefit I've received from checking in is a free slice of cake from Moo Cafeteria for my first check in there, but even that highlighted some difficulties in the process. That delicious incentive was a one-off, and immediately carries the risk to the merchant of me now heading off to find out which of his many competitors are also offering free stuff for a first check in and only returning when I've exhausted those offers.

The process wasn't without hassle for me, the consumer, either. First of all I find Foursquare's Android app deeply unusable. It is slow, often not returning any information before I loose patience and quit the app. Even when it does connect, it shows me a list of usually laughably out of date check ins from friends and acquaintances. I have to specifically selected a list of places, wait again, and only then check in.

This first time I checked in at Moo I get my cake voucher. The waitress understandably wanted to see the voucher, but I couldn't find any way of bringing it back on screen once I'd moved away from it. Some negotiation resulted and my claim was accepted. Just as well that the Moo owner is a really nice guy as my phone battery had died by this point and I couldn't show him the check in let alone the voucher.

Each time I use Foursquare I get the impression that I'm on a secondary user journey, while the main purpose is seeing where my friends are currently checked in. There are several issues with this concept. The first is that there is no check out so the location information is in most cases hopelessly out of date. Secondly I am blessed with good vision and it is just so much easier to look round and see if there is any one I know in the place. Thirdly, if I was planning on meeting up with someone I'd have planned it using some other social-media connection or that old fall back, a voice call, before arriving at the venue.

As for Foursquare's badges and majorships, all I can say is they are deeply, sadly pathetic. I managed to become major of one place I visited once - what value is there in that to anyone? Last time I was excited about badges I was still at school and discovered that I could use the Edinburgh Student Union badge making machine for 10p a shot. At least those had dayglo paper and sharp pins; Foursquare ones don't even raise a flicker of interest with me.

Facebook Places is generally faster and cleaner to use, but I'm afraid that is only because it is still new and as yet underdeveloped. News that their Offers system is being launched suggests that I might get some benefit from checking in, but that depends on whether I check in to anywhere that has offers.

Maybe if I lived in a larger city (ie London, San Francisco or New York) or if I had more mobile-active friends I'd see some utility in location check ins. Maybe if the interfaces were slicker, read instant, it would be better. But for the moment checking in is a chore with marginal  benefit at best.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

That Retro Look

No one interested in photography can have failed to notice the incredible numbers of DSLR cameras parading round the streets. Branded camera straps for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony make it abundantly clear that mid-range kit is very much de rigeur for the serious tourist. And mid-range kit nowadays takes incredibly high-quality technical images, even if the content is poor.

But there are two counter movements afoot. The first is Lomography, celebrating nasty cheap plastic lenses, mechanical marvels and film developed deliberately in the wrong chemicals. The second is the rise of fake Lomography via apps for smartphones. Leading the charge here is unquestionably Hipstamatic, although other iPhone apps do the same thing. On Android we have Retro Camera.

The images these apps produce do indeed resemble the low-end quality that was typical of cheap colour films and cameras in the 1970s and 1980s, with some artistic license thrown in on top like frames and spool marks. Given the right subject they lend a kind of mysterious air; the preferred word of Lomographers is "dreamy".

So what is the appeal of these apps? The cynic in me says that it is a way of compensating for the low quality of the phone's own optics, although that is less true for people with iPhone 4s than other devices. The cynic is also saying that its a way to make an otherwise bland image more interesting, but I don't think that's completely fair. The creative side of me really likes the appearance.

As a test I created a number of identical images with different settings plus a control taken with my Canon. I think that the Retro Camera has the more interesting effects, but only by a small amount. What do you think?

Retro Camera

Thursday 13 January 2011

The Reality of Augmented Reality

There is still lots of hype and words sloshing around augmented reality, but I have yet to see one person actually using it. And bear in mind that I live in a city that is full of tourists all year.

For this reason I think the classic notion of holding up your phone and watching an annotated version of the street scene in front of you through its screen will never become anything other than an amusing toy. The use case is just too difficult and uncomfortable, and in some places too dangerous.

But that doesn't make the whole idea of augmented reality doesn't work, and I'm not thinking of waiting until corneal implants remove the need for looking through a phone camera. Audio guides have been with us for a long time, and a location-sensitive platform like a phone have the potential to work well in this context. We already have Google Maps walking directions on Android with its disembodied voice telling you which way to turn from your pocket. I can see lots of professional and consumer applications using voice alerts.

It will be interesting to see if 2011 will bring some more practical applications of augmented reality or if we are still in the hype phase.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Back to Android

My replacement Nexus One finally arrived on Monday evening.

Reconfiguring the new device turned out to be blissfully simple: almost everything was restored automatically from my Google account. This included WiFi passwords and bookmarks, which was a pleasant surprise. And all my apps were automatically reinstalled which was nice. The only things that were lost were my text messages and the layout of app shortcuts and widgets on the screen. Not too fussed about the latter as a slight rearrangement was due anyway, but I would have liked to keep at least some of my SMS history. Clearly there is an opportunity there as I've mentioned here before.

Three things struck me since having the device back. The first was how much I use it in conjunction with what I'm doing on my laptop - it is a secondary screen for looking things up, often satisfying my curiosity about who has just sent me an email without moving away from what I'm currently doing. It's less of a distraction than switching tabs or windows.

The second was how the combination of updating apps and running mobile Skype over wifi chewed through battery charge so fast you could practically count the level down. Switching off the wifi and exiting Skype restored battery use to normal levels.

The last item was how important the screen was to the user experience. Returning to the small, low-res, dark Samsung screen for a while has really highlighted how good the screens on top-end devices really are. Smooth animations, great fonts and intense colours don't make a great user experience on their own, but they certainly contribute enormously to them.

Perhaps the best way to express my delight at being back with this device is to quote Sondheim's Sweeney Todd when he is reunited with his razors: at last my arm is complete!

Saturday 8 January 2011

Website Fails Undermine Trust

Today we wanted to take the opportunity of younger daughter being at a party to go and see The Deathly Hallows part 1 on the big screen. Checking on the Cineworld website there was a perfectly-timed showing. However when we got to the cinema there was no record of that showing and the next one wasn't for three hours.

Out came my wife's iPhone (since my Nexus One is broken and the browser on the Samsung Genio isn't up to such complex activities) and we checked the other Edinburgh cinemas. Vue at Omni promised a showing with just enough time to jump in a cab and get there.

And, yes, you guessed it: that showing wasn't happening either! So we're now left wondering if on-line cinema times can be trusted. I don't suppose they offer phone numbers any more either.

Trust is a critical issue with all publishing. That's why people cling to their familiar titles - trust that the content will at least conform the reader's world view if not being entirely accurate. We've taken a decade for on-line sources to become the reference. Incidents like today undermine that.

Vodafone Fail

The continuing saga of getting my broken Nexus One replaced hopefully has taken a step forward.

I spoke to yet another person yesterday and he tells me that the request for an exchange (as they call replacing a broken phone with a repaired one) had not happened properly and there never had been one waiting for delivery. SCREAM.

So now the new exchange is scheduled for Monday, although I have yet to received and tracking information. I'm suspicious and more than a little bit sceptical. Furious too. This guy was the sixth I've spoken to at Vodafone, so that means four people didn't bother checking.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Just call it YAPS

Yes, Yet Another Profile Site - I've created my profile to join my as well as the inevitable and others. is noteworthy for three things. The first is that setting up profile didn't require me to enter any URLs or fish about for passwords. All the links just worked. Integration at it's best. The second is the exemplary use of DHTML: the interface is highly dynamic, gorgeous but with excellent usability. Thirdly because the company, with no obvious means of generating revenue, has already been acquired.

Slumming it

My replacement Nexus 1 has, apparently, become lost in the backlog of Christmas deliveries due to the unexpected snow storms. Earliest expected delivery will be late next week, although the tracking number I've been sent by Vodafone doesn't work as it's missing some digits.

So not wanting to be cut off from the world too long I went into Car Phone Warehouse to buy me a backup device. Apparently PAYG phones start at 99p plus £10 for phone credit, but that seemed a bit too basic. The cheapest devices with data connectivity come in at £50 plus the £10 for calls. There was even a touch-screen device at slightly more.

However I opted for the Samsung Genio QWERTY which looks incredibly like a BlackBerry. Even the user interface looks superficially like a BlackBerry. Because of this it is easy to criticise the device for not being a BlackBerry: no 3G, no WiFi, virtually no interface customisation, lumpy email client, and 220x170 screen, but that would be missing the point. This device costs a fraction of a real BlackBerry and you get what you pay for, and this includes excellent call quality, a better external speaker than the Nexus 1, a reasonably music player, and preconfigured for Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa and pretty much any other useful mobile service.

However there are a couple of things that struck me as weird. The first was that connecting the built-in email app to my gmail account showed me the oldest 100 messages and had no means that I could find of looking at the newest. So I installed the good old Java ME gmail app which works a treat. Except that once in the app the screenblanker is disabled, so the device chews through batteries faster than an N95 with GPS enabled.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the phone, however, is how light it is after years of smartphones. I barely notice that it is in my pocket. As ever batteries are where we wait for big progress. Maybe 2011 will bring some power breakthroughs - that could be the next mobile revolution.