Must focus… Ooh look! A butterfly.

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS...

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS #opinions / SML.20130111.SC.NET.Facebook.iOS.iPad.Notification.UX.FAIL.Opinions (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

I don’t know when the rot set in, but I do know it started happening a long time ago. In my first office job, we had two different types of computer. One was a fully fledged PC which sat in the middle of the office. Everyone in the office shared that one PC. When you needed to use it, you took your place, did what you needed to and left it.

You could only do one thing at a time and it was easy to focus.

The other kind of computer wasn’t really a computer at all. It was a dumb terminal, connected by cable to the massive beast of a mainframe in the basement. Again, you could only do one thing at a time and almost everything involved submitting a job that would get executed overnight. In the morning, you received a print out of the results. When things happen that slowly, you make damned sure you don’t make mistakes.

When I started programming, it was a similar story. At first, I wrote Adabas Natural programs on the mainframe. Everything I did took place on a terminal screen. Later, I moved on to program PCs, but they still ran DOS so there was little or no scope for multi-tasking.

Along came Windows with its promise of releasing the shackles of single-threading. When it first came out, it was so unstable that trying to do two things at once was like playing Russian roulette. On an operating system that crashed if you left it alone long enough, let alone loading it up with running applications, saving your work every 10 seconds became second nature.

But slowly and steadily, Windows improved and applications along with it. Instead of Single Document Interfaces (SDIs), now applications could have many windows open. The first web browsers could only show one website at a time. When tabbed browsers came out, you could have loads open.

Somewhere along the way came email. Then social networks. Somewhere in between came notifications. Most applications now have some sort of auto-update feature.

Someone’s sent me an email. Adobe Acrobat needs updating. Auntie Maud has posted on Facebook; she’s lost her cat. Ooh look, Stephen Fry‘s following me on Twitter. Ooh – another email. Windows needs to apply updates. A reminder – I have a meeting to go to. Another email. It’s OK, Auntie Maud’s found her cat.

Modern life can easily turn into a sea of distractions and it builds up over time. To start with, it’s nice to hear about something cool your friend’s found on Kickstarter. It’s great that you can read your email on the train. But it’s also very nice to sit down, relax and read a good book.

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Weasel words

Advertising advertising

Advertising advertising (Photo credit: Toban Black)

Without advertising, many of the services we enjoy would either no longer be free or they would cost a lot more. How would you feel about paying for every Google search you make? Or would you pay a monthly fee for Facebook? How about Twitter? How would you feel if your daily newspaper cost twice as much or if your satellite TV bill was similar to your mortgage?

To most people, advertising is something they put up with and maybe sometimes complain about, but the alternative to advertising is often unpalatable. However much you complain about advertising, if it wasn’t there, you would pay more if that advertising wasn’t there.

Most of the adverts we see nowadays are a good deal more advanced and agencies have budgets that could only be dreamed about before. Most modern adverts resemble mini blockbusters with an all-star cast, an expensive soundtrack and cinematography that wouldn’t look out of place in a blockbuster premier.

With the advent of social media, advertisers are hunting for the holy grail – they want an advert to become viral. If they can make their story entertaining enough, armies of Facebook and twitter users will do all the hard work of making sure that the advert gets to a much wider audience and all at no additional cost to the advertiser.

I have a lot of respect for a finely crafted advert. I love the Honda advert where all the car components roll, swing or fall into each other in a complex chain reaction in order to switch on a piece of music. Allegedly, they filmed it without any CGI and admittedly after numerous attempts, the final advert was one complete take. I also like the gorilla playing the drums for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and the man sliding through the city on a helter-skelter to a Doobie Brothers soundtrack for Barclaycard.

I hold a special kind of loathing for lazy or misleading adverts. Shot on a lower budget, they tend to go along the lines of “We’ve got some cheap stuff. Come and buy it.” They tend to be characterised by advertising weasel words. Typically, phrases like “up to x% off”, “everything must go”, “massive reductions” or “biggest ever sale”.

Up to 50% off means that the price could have been reduced anywhere from 0 – 50% and guess which end of the scale most products will lie. I thought the whole point of retailing is to sell your stock so everything must go is more a statement of the seller’s fervent desire. I’ll be the judge of how massive your reductions are and when you say it’s your biggest sale ever, how exactly are you measuring that? By the vendor’s expectations?

If I ever commissioned an advert, I would definitely strive for the viral audience by putting some effort into it. Your audience will appreciate the experience rather than endure it and you never know, they might tell a friend.

Technical Isolation

Hursley House - geograph.org.uk - 967947

Hursley House – geograph.org.uk – 967947 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ever get a chance to visit IBM‘s Hursley Park campus, it’s well worth going. It’s a lovely mansion-house in beautiful surroundings just outside Winchester. There has been a lodge at Hursley since 1413 and the current house dates from 1724. The Heathcote family donated the house together with £5m (a figure equivalent to £116m today) to provide a hospital for US military personnel in WW1. In WW2, the house was used by Vickers to develop the Spitfire. IBM moved in during 1958 as a temporary measure and they are still there today.

The System 360 and the Winchester hard drive were developed there and IBM were granted the Queen’s award for industry for storage & CICS. Today it houses 2800 IBM employees – roughly half of which are software developers making it the biggest software lab in Europe. Altogether IBM has 59,000 employees of which roughly half are based in the USA. They are heavily into the R part of R&D with research going on into particle physics and nanotechnology among other things.

On the Hursley campus, they have an isolation lab which is a completely shielded building used to test the electromagnetic emissions of devices to ensure compliance with the plethora of regulations governing such things. They really needn’t have bothered. There is a perfectly good isolation zone on the South Coast of the UK just outside Highcliffe.

A popular retirement spot, it’s a tiny village which must be the only place in the UK where the funeral parlours outnumber the charity shops. Nothing on any wavelength passes into or out of the place which renders mobile phones completely useless. A couple of times a year, myself and some friends spend a long weekend there and bearing in mind my attachment to social networks and blogging, I find myself isolated for the whole time.

Initially, I find the experience anxious. I can’t check twitter, Facebook, yammer, wordpress or linked in. I can’t phone anyone (unless I search for some change and use the call box). I can’t look anything up on Google or check the news or how the FTSE is doing. I can’t even download the Times.

After a while though, the anxiety ceases and I feel liberated. I get used to being away from email and social networks. I even start to like the idea that I am completely out of contact with anyone. Maybe we should go there more often! Of course, on return, the first thing I find myself doing is checking my email, blog, social networks etc. but it was nice while it lasted.

How free should free speech be?

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON'T HELP FREE SPEECH ...

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON’T HELP FREE SPEECH – NARA – 515409 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To say that law enforcement agencies are struggling with how to cope with the direction that technology has taken in the last decade is an understatement. Back when life was simple and there was no social networking and most people were still using landlines, policing was much simpler. If you wanted to be libellous, you needed to print something in a newspaper or a book. If you wanted to organise a heist or a riot or some terrorist activity, you probably had to do it in person.

Celebrities who are concerned about their reputations have been resorting to age-old legal machinery to protect their reputations which in the modern-day and age is just not up to the job. An injunction granted in a court of law in one country has little or no jurisdiction in another. So you may not be able to name the latest dubious liaison by a premiership footballer, but someone from another country can. It can then be retweeted by someone else and so it goes on until it’s trending and everyone knows.

I happen to think that free speech is one of our most important rights, but people can say and put into bits and bytes some pretty vile rhetoric. The authorities walk a knife-edge between overreacting and contravening the sacred right of free speech and allowing such vitriol to go unpunished. The Crown Prosecution Service has recently decided against prosecuting a man for a homophobic tweet he made about divers Tom Daly and Pete Waterfield, but the fact that they considered prosecution shows how seriously they are taking it.

Then there was the infamous case of Paul Chambers who faced a fine of just under £3000 and a criminal record for his joke tweet about blowing up Robin Hood airport in January 2010 following flight delays. I’m sure the sense of relief he felt when the court overturned the conviction on appeal was palpable but again – it shows the sense of gravity with which these actions are considered.

There is a need for consistency. A man who recently posted a message on Facebook suggesting that all soldiers should die and go to hell after 6 British soldiers died in Afghanistan got off scott free. Another man who posted vile comments on his Facebook page about the missing girl, April Jones, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail. Both comments were despicable, but why was one sent to jail and the other allowed to go free?

The legislation being applied to social media was never designed for the purpose and it is time for a free and fair debate about what is and is not OK to say and print and for new purpose-built legislation to deal with today’s technology. I don’t envy the lawmakers their task though, what a minefield.

The synergy of the network

A segment of a social network

A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the concepts I found challenging to grasp many moons ago during a course in business and finance was synergy. Maybe it was because I was only 16 at the time and the sum total of my possessions added up to one Casio calculator and a dog-eared biro but when he said that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts – I struggled to see what he meant. Of course I now understand that if you deliver two tons of metal, a few bits of rubber and some plastic to Massey Ferguson, you get a very different product compared to the same shipment arriving at Bentley with a commensurate difference in value.

Almost every mobile phone is pretty much the same form factor and made of similar materials and yet we place very different value on different brands. The whole perfume industry relies on people forgetting the inconvenient fact that the product they are selling is nicely scented alcohol served up in a nobby bottle as they hand over a small fortune.

Those who know me well will know that I enjoy playing games. Not the sort that appear on a computer screen because I spend far too much of my life staring at pixels as it is. I enjoy social games where the participants are vaguely humanoid. Some being more vague than others. The most satisfying games I play are also the most difficult to explain. Games which rely on the collective imaginations of the players concerned can result weaving amazing stories. The reason these games work is synergy once again.

The idea of a social network is not new. In the early 1930s, a self-published psychologist named Dr. Jacob Levi Moreno introduced the sociogram, the first formal attempt to map out the relationships within a group of people. Moreno’s sociogram — a cluster of individual points, or “nodes,” connected by straight lines — became a powerful tool for identifying social leaders, outsiders, and what he called the “sociometric star,” the person to whom all others are connected. [Source: Psybernet]

Social networks are built on synergy.

Facebook made its début on the markets this week amid a flurry of law suits and accusations. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third biggest with only China and India boasting larger populations. Something like 1 in 5 couples meet through social media. Opinions vary as to how much time people spend on social networks, but whichever estimate you believe, it is a very large number. Each individual’s contribution to the network is not worth much, but taken together, the value of all the contributions is much higher. Whether that justifies Facebook’s valuation I don’t know but I certainly didn’t buy any shares.

After one of those conversations one sunny lunchtime at the local watering hole where everyone walks away thinking they are going to change the world, we decided to get Yammer up and running. Yammer is a bit like Facebook for companies. My colleague installed it and sent me an invitation. When I signed up, I was asked to invite some other people. After 6 months or so, half the company was online after no promotion and no backing from the company. It’s fair to say that Yammer has revolutionised the way that we collaborate and communicate within the company.

There is a massive proliferation of different social networks available. Where they overlap, usually a winner emerges and the others die off. Where they are complementary, they are linking together. Already, a post you make on WordPress or a fresh pin on Pinterest can automatically appear on Twitter & Facebook. One day, they will become seamless and it won’t matter which social network(s) you are signed up to. Then we will really see some synergy.

News travels fast

 

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalg...

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s connected world, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago, events took a long time to become widely known. News was originally spread by word of mouth which meant that it travelled only as fast as the people who carried it. With the advent of literacy and language, people began to use the written word to communicate with the wider world around us.

Military communications relied on various methods throughout the ages. A company runner was often sent across a battlefield carrying instructions between different units. Sometimes he even survived the trip. Semaphore signals using flags or lanterns were somewhat safer and are still in use today between ships in the same formation.

There is a plaque in Kensington marking how the news of Nelson’s death was broken. After he was killed in the battle of Trafalgar just off the coast of Cadiz, the ship carrying his body pickled in a barrel sailed to Falmouth where the news was sent by rider to London. Even after riding through the night changing horses at every opportunity – it was days before the public knew about Nelson’s death. As time went on, despatch riders exchanged their horses for motorcycles and advances in radio and telecommunications rendered them pretty much obsolete altogether.

In the wild west, news was propagated by the pony express – literally men on ponies riding from town to town spreading news of anything noteworthy. As the railroads crept across continental America, telegraph lines were built alongside and before too long, a message given to a telegraph operator in one town could be relayed to the other side of the country in a matter of hours.

The first recognisable newspapers came about in Venice around the 17th century. Costing one gazetta (a small coin of the time), these handwritten sheets gave the reader an inkling of what was happening in the world. During the industrial revolution, great advances were made in technology and it was possible to buy a printed newspaper for the first time. Many of the newspapers we recognise today (such as the Times or the New York Post) started at around this time.

In order to populate the newspapers with stories, they relied on correspondents. They were so-called because they would send in the stories via letter. Any such letters from far away climes would travel on packet steamers across the oceans to deliver their stories to the newspaper office ready for publishing. The further away the correspondent, the longer the delay.

When I was growing up, if you wanted news you either read a newspaper or tuned in to the television at 6PM or 10PM.

Today, there are whole networks and channels devoted to bringing the news into your life 24 hours a day. There are hundreds of sites all over the internet dedicated to providing the very latest news. It can be a matter of seconds before a story becomes world news. Satellite technology means that correspondents can report direct from very remote locations live as events unfold.

Not only that, but smartphones have become so sophisticated now that every user is a potential correspondent. Nowadays, we get breathtaking footage of disasters as they unfold – often in high-definition. Revolutions that might have once been quietly suppressed by brutal regimes are now headline news. There have been many high-profile cases where people have attempted to stand Canute-like against an unwelcome story by taking out injunctions. With Twitter, the news seems to sweep over them like an angry wave.

If only more of the news was good news!

 

Information overload

Big Data: water wordscape

Big Data: water wordscape (Photo credit: Marius B)

Information is the most valuable tool we have. Without reliable information, decisions can only be made on hunches. One of the main benefits of computers was that they were supposed to help us deal with information, but there are some unfortunate side effects. Partly because of our hunger for ever more power and partly because of progress in making bigger and better computers, they have steadily grown ever since they were invented in a phenomenon is widely referred to as Moore’s law.

Not only that, but devices have become cheaper and cheaper. The Sinclair Spectrum was priced at £179 at launch 30 years ago, a sum probably equivalent to double that now. That was a machine with no screen, 48K of memory and no storage. Nowadays you could have a tablet, or a phone or even a couple of netbooks all with power that would completely dwarf the humble spectrum. As computers have become more affordable, they have proliferated.

And not just consumer devices. It now makes perfect sense to use computational devices in almost every setting thanks to the cheapness and the ingenuity of the Chinese. IBM told me at impact that there are 9.5Bn connected devices in the world today growing to 20Bn in 2015. All of these devices are producing data at an alarming rate. Storage companies fall over themselves to tell you how fast this data is growing, but take it from me – it’s exponential.

The other side effect of computers is that the average human being now has the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish. Because the answer is available from Google in 0.2 nanoseconds, why would you want to read a report or a book? Twitter delivers a constant stream of news in 140 character long chunks. This means that we are no longer happy to do lots of analysis to get our answers, we want to know instantly.

So how do we make sense of this muddle?

I have always been a fan of infographics as a mechanism for presenting complex information. Ingeniously through pictures, infographics helps the reader to understand the big picture. Spatial and relative relationships are easily picked out, but detail is not. Newspapers use info graphics to great effect – especially when trying to explain concepts like exactly how much money we all owe thanks to the financial meltdown. This is a great site to see some really good examples; http://www.coolinfographics.com/

Big Data was a much vaunted concept at IBM Impact too. If you want to process the huge amount of data available today, then traditional methods are just not going to work. Reading all the data into a relational database and then running a query will mean you need a huge building to house the storage, a power station to feed the computers and half a century to wait for the result. The only way to process this data is as a stream – a bit like the water coming out of a firehose. Then you need to use something called complex events processing to look for relationships between the data.

One of the most interesting concepts in dealing with the information overload is the semantic web. The idea is that computers need to make sense of all this data themselves and answer any questions we have. This is the technology behind the Siri voice response software in the latest iPhone. There is even a search engine. It’s not perfect by any means – try searching for “Who is the richest man in France” or my personal favourite “Who is the sexiest woman” 🙂 But what is interesting is how often it does get it right.

One day – the characters in Star Trek the next generation talking to their computers will look positively antiquated – and I for one can’t wait.