Friday 27 July 2012

Custom music for all: MusicFlow

Hours and hours of summer holiday videos are no doubt being cranked out everyday, many of them to never actually be watched. The production values required to make truly watchable video are very high, and include good and ruthless editing, titling, and a proper soundtrack. We now have some super easy and powerful tools for editing and titling, but music has been a really tough thing to get right. Most of us don't have composers and orchestras at our beck and call. But this has all changed with made-to-measure music with MusicFlow from MuseMantik.

Now in open beta, MusicFlow let's you pick a style of music and dictate the required emotions on a time line for your video. So if there's a an exciting bike stunt at 3m 27s you can crank excitement up to maximum, fading away to the sunset behind the mountain to close at 5m 43s.

As an experiment I showed MusicFlow to my 12 year old daughter who likes making videos, including Lego animations, but always struggles with music and sound effects.  She got it immediately and is now eager to lay down some tracks for a new animation that she and a friend were working on.

So if you are looking to make a polished summer vacation video, check out MusicFlow to add your own soundtrack.

Monday 23 July 2012

Well done Vodafone for reasonable roaming

While most operators are taking their time to comply with new EU roaming charge rules, Vodafone have again moved into a leading position with their new Euro Traveller tarif. For £3 per day you have your UK charging scheme and data plan anywhere in their Euro zone. There don't seem to be any other complexities:
If you're a Pay monthly customer, Vodafone EuroTraveller allows you to use your phone in our Europe Zonewith the same confidence as in the UK - so you'll have freedom from unexpected bills. For just £3 a day, you can take your UK minutes, texts and mobile internet to Europe - and you'll only be charged on the days you use your phone.
Previously Vodafone had Passport where there was a 75p charge per call over the home tarif and data was £5 per day for a fairly miserly quantity. So the £3 is a good deal. Kudos to Vodafone.

Friday 20 July 2012

Don't blame HTML5 for bad engineering

There's recently been quite a lot of anti-HTML5 based app publicity, usually surrounding reports like this that the Facebook mobile apps are being rewritten as fully native for performance reasons.

I am reminded off two sayings, one old and one more recent, although I've not heard either of them for a long time.

A bad workman blames his tools is the first one, and it only takes an experienced eye to look at the Facebook app for Android to recognise that it hasn't been thought through, is sloppily written, and at best badly tested.

There's no language in which you can't write a bad program, or words to that effect, used to be an adage when programming languages actually looked different from each other. A good programmer can craft a great app in pretty much anything while a bad programmer can manage to ruin all the good intentions in any programming model.

Listing all the things wrong with the current Facebook apps would take more time than I'm prepared to invest in it, but there are some clear areas that have not been addressed. One is error handling, especially on communications, another is handling back which sometimes heads off to interesting pastures new, and finally interaction between push notifications, alerts and the news feed which all get hideously muddled. None of these are related to HTML5 and JavaScript being slow - they are architectural difficulties that need addressed at a fundamental level.

HTML5 may not be perfect, but it has huge potential. Just as the formal definition of the environment hasn't been completed, the engineering disciplines around using it have not firmed up yet. An HTML5 app has a lot of moving parts which need co-ordinating, and the tools don't have a lot of static checking yet. I have a nasty suspicion that the name HTML5 makes people think that designers can create stuff using it, but it really needs hard-core software engineers at least until the tools mature. You wouldn't want us, the engineering, doing the graphic design so why should the designers do the engineering?

Thursday 19 July 2012

UX crimes that should be extinct by now

Over the last few days I've been tripping over a bunch of very basic user experience problems with websites and mobile apps that should have died out years ago. It's all basic stuff yet it seems that too many people want to learn the hard way. Surely after all this time with the web these crimes against on-line society should have vanished!

Numeric Error Codes
I was utterly astounded to be told that error NZX005 occurred while I was trying to login to the Hertz Android app. Turns out this means that the password was wrong. Surely in this day and age we can do better than that? Actually the whole app is as bad as Hertz's airport service is good.

Click and Pay
I've recently found several sites, including LinkedIn, offer functionality which requires you to enter data only to find that when you click the Apply button or equivalent you are taken to a payment page. The whole area should be greyed out and clearly labelled as premium content, not dragging the user into expending effort that is wasted.

Selecting from a choice of one
How many people, do you suppose, have more than one account with Scottish Gas? Not many, I'd wager. Yet the vast majority, those customers with only one account, still have to explicitly select that single and only account before putting in a meter reading. For the hard of programming, there's a simple construct that is quite reliable that starts something like if (noOfAccounts > 1) {... which can be used to suppress things like that.

Hiding validation errors
Too many sites do this to name and shame them all. You've made some small mistake in entering a form, press submit and nothing happens. You try again, still nothing. After some hunting around, perhaps scrolling up or down, you notice a tiny piece of red text saying that there was a problem with one of the fields. Make it obvious, fools!

Galleries with jumping next/previous links
I like photos and often look through photo galleries. All too often when the photos aren't the same size the next/previous buttons jump up and down forcing you to hunt around for them instead of admiring the images. Fixing the size of the frame really isn't that difficult you know.

Horizontal scrolling
Much beloved of photographers for their portfolios, all too many galleries expect you to somehow guess that the other hundred luscious images are off to the right. Or the left. Even before Apple foisted the minimalist vanishing scrollbar on the world this was a really annoying design style.

No progress indicator
Another one from photo galleries - it's really nice to know if you are on image one of ten or one of ten thousand.

No wait indicator
One of my old favorites - show some kind of wait indicator if an operation even has the slightest possibility of taking more than half a second. All too many mobile apps forget to do this. I suspect it's because designers don't allow for real network latencies and do their testing using wifi on the same network segment as the back-end systems. We don't live in a perfect work, so don't design for one.

Fake data
This is common on search-based sites like travel and jobs. You find something interesting looking, click on it, and it vanishes, expires, or turns out to be buried in another site, the home page of which you are redirected to without any specifics. This is perhaps the worst offense of all as it's dishonest instead of stupid.

Can we please try and make these errors go the way of the dodo soon? Please?

Wednesday 18 July 2012

WAC Who?

At the end of the Mobile World Congress this year there was the usual distribution of stuff that nobody wanted to take home. The day before a dude was going round distributing black T-shirts like he couldn't get rid of them fast enough. They had a red logo on them that looked like WAG. On closer inspection the logo is actually WAC for Wholesale Applications Community.

This might as well have been called YAUOIDTF (Yet Another Useless Operator Initiative Doomed To Fail) as it's unstated objective was to overtake the App Store models of Apple, Google et al. You don't need to be an industry expert to realise that a committee of 48 large, competitive organisations are never going to agree to anything useful. Just look at BONDI, OMTP and JIL if you need proof.

The only good news out of this is that the development that was done has been acquired by a good company: apigee. Some bits and pieces are being picked up by GSMA and W3C who are further proof of the snail like progress of non-commercial standardisation. More information over at Rethink.

And of course we still have our T-shirts.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

MyTracks - Better location

I recently wrote about how location services still have a long way to go. While this is still true, today I've seen at least some of the obvious stuff fixed, although it is far from perfect.

Google engineering has an absolute obsession with math and stats, well into the obsessive-compulsive range in my view. I'm assuming this explains why the open-source Google MyTracks app applies at least some smoothing maths to tracking unlike, say, MapMyRun which had me flying from spot to spot by taking location data too literally.

MyTracks isn't perfect. It shows me jumping from one side of a river to another, but then it doesn't know there's a river there. It also claims that I left the house at 22km/h, a speed that might not quite catch Usain Bolt but is way beyond anything I can achieve. Even my heuristic approach to such algorithmic matters would spot that an immediate speed of roughly twice the average run speed is probably wrong and correct it.

The app is also missing a few simple UX things - eg starting a few seconds after you press go to allow you to put the phone away - but it is free and works pretty well. I'm assuming that if you're not running along the bottom of a steep-sided valley it will probably work very acceptably.

In my case I can knock off a few hundred meters from the logged distance and get something that's close enough for my needs.

Monday 16 July 2012

Jelly Bean first impressions

In case you hadn't realised, Android release names are in alphabetical order. Jelly Bean is, therefore, the successor to Ice Cream Sandwich. The names are more fun than version numbers which often don't make a lot of sense in any case. And I find them a lot more appealing than Apple's pretentious big cat series for OSX.

My second Android device came from Vodafone in the disguise of being a genuine Google Experience Device (GED) but turned out to have been mucked about by Vodafone and updates came out very slowly and in one notable case, totally broken. They had actually forgotten to include the dictionaries: no autocomplete, no correct, nothing that needed words worked. And they didn't bother to fix it either; couldn't care less and didn't even acknowledge the problem.

For this reason I splashed out on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus direct from Samsung when it came out, with unadulterated Ice Cream Sandwich on it. This has proven worth the money as it is a great device and the OTA Jelly Bean update arrived last week, well ahead of operator-provided devices.

So how is Jelly Bean? Nice - it is faster, a number of small glitches that most people wouldn't notice have been fixed, Google Now looks like it can be useful, and there's a pile more transitions, transparency and artful design changes that make it pleasant to use.

The installation was particularly painless and pretty - nice graphics to show it's working and no interaction required. It might be my imagination, but photo unlock works more often than not now.

On the other hand I have noticed one app that has been affected by the upgrade: Yahoo! Weather no longer shows the name of the city for which it is displaying the weather. Everything else seems to be powering along nicely.

Slick would be the word if I had to pick just one to describe the upgrade.