Tuesday, 9 May 2017

To Facebook or not to Facebook

I came across an article this morning on The Register arguing that it's time we 'divorced' Facebook as it's 'abusive'. So should we?

The core of the argument is that the cost of connecting easily with friends (and not-so-friends) is the amount Facebook knows about us, and this is too great. Facebook's experiments in emotional manipulation have been fairly well publicised. And we've heard plenty about the echo chamber effect, and the nefarious manipulation of social media for political ends. But, so far as we know, Facebook has to date been mostly interested in selling ads and has yet to do anything bad. The free-market, libertarian ideals of Silicon Valley, whether you agree with them or not, probably mean this is likely to continue in the medium term at least.

But how much do we trust an organisation that knows so much about us? What's interesting is that most people don't seem too bothered about how much information the likes of Facebook, Google and others hold on them, and this is even more true of the digital native generations. But it seems to me that the more people know about this stuff, the more they do seem to worry. I consider myself a techie, but not an extreme techie. I use StartPage as my search engine because it gives good results but doesn't track me, and even though I use Google for a lot of stuff (including this blog), I use Firefox as my main browser rather than Chrome because I figure Google already knows enough. I turn off Google location history on my phone. But a friend of mine who is a data analyst and really knows what companies can do with the data they gather doesn't put his real birthday on Facebook, doesn't have an email address with his real name in it and as far as I know is even more careful about his online privacy.

So, Facebook. Should we keep feeding the beast and hoping it doesn't bite us? It's hard not to, and there's no doubt about the social benefits. I am far more in touch with my cousin in New Zealand than I would be if it weren't for Facebook, and there are so many people from past bits of my life that I would certainly have completely lost touch with without it. I don't have their Messenger on my phone and don't really feel the need for it, although of course WhatsApp (which I do use) is now owned by Facebook.

I've always thought we (humanity) needs a social network run along the same lines as Wikipedia, not for profit and not ad driven. Others have tried to do this (e.g. Ello), but it will take a lot to gain the traction of a massive commercial operation. The author of the Register article says we should divorce Facebook. But we don't yet believe that we're in an abusive relationship.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Retro phones...

So the mobile phone industry has officially run out of ideas. While my 11-year old might like to tell me that the Samsung she inherited from her mum is better than my LG, the reality is that one smartphone is pretty much like another. Yes each generation has a slightly better screen, camera and processor. But they all take photos, play music, do messaging, access the internet and even make phone calls.


But now the company that bought the Nokia brand has relaunched the old 3310, and the whole consumer electronics world is massively excited about a phone that is, well, a phone. And that's about it.

Is it because of 40-somethings nostalgic about when smartphones didn't rule our lives? Or the novelty value for 20 years olds of a phone that can't connect to the internet?

Or is it that there is a real market for a simple device with a battery that lasts a month? Personally, I think if they added 4G connectivity and a wifi access point (but no actual internet enabled apps), they'd really be onto something. After all, internet and voice anywhere with a battery that would last (for example) a full two week camping holiday would have real value for me.

So, will be interested to see what's the next novelty retro gadget to come out. In the mean time I'll be scouring eBay for an old Nokia I can give to my kids when they use up all their credit and I need to just CALL them...

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The trouble with Android...

So let me first start by saying that in terms of mobile phones, I was a convert from a (fairly early) iPhone to the world of Android. Why? Because I could set up my Android phone how I wanted, not how Apple thought I should. I could add widgets for weather, news and music to the home screen which you couldn't do on an iPhone then. And I could get my music and photos on and off it without using the monstrosity that is iTunes.

In short, Android appealed (and still does) to my sense of wanting to actually own and be in control of the device and what was on it. The iPhone felt like a prettified version of my 1999 Palm Pilot.

But here's the thing that concerns me now about Android: security. iPhones are now heavily encrypted by default (as the FBI famously found out in 2016). Most Android phones aren't, although you can turn it on if you like (newer ones will often be encrypted however).

There's also the question of apps stealing data. As I had to explain to my daughter, the keyboard in Android is just an app, and most of us use the one the phone came with. But she had installed a free one called 'Emoji Keyboard' or something like that. I had to point out to her that she had no way of telling whether the keyboard was sending everything she typed (including texts to her friends and passwords) to a central server, linking it to her Google ID.

So I'm beginning to wonder if the walled-garden, controlled world of Apple is actually better than the Wild West of Android.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why email's broken (and how to fix it)

The world sends around 210 billion emails per day (source: the Radicati Group, Email Statistics Report 2015-2019). That's something like 30 per man, woman and child on the planet. Every day. That's a lot of messages.

Roughly 4 petabytes give or take and depending on whose figure you trust. Or 4 with 15 zeros after it characters. By way of comparison, the text of Wikipedia's 5.3 million English articles contain only about 3 millionths of that data, which is still enough to fill 2398 printed volumes.

So by any measure, we generate a lot of email traffic. But here's the thing. Most of that traffic is wasted.

To demonstrate, I did a little very non scientific experiment - I found a recent 10 message email conversation in my inbox, and copy-pasted the useful text (i.e. the complete last message with all of the replies below) into a text editor. Then I compared this with the size in my actual mailbox. What I found was that while the messages in the mailbox were about 650kB, the actual text, even allowing for the hidden meta data that identifies the messages, sender and so on, were more like 30kB. One of the messages took 74,000 characters for me to say simply, "I can do 8:30 tomorrow, yes".

Is it any wonder our mailboxes are flooded and overflowing? And that the young and trendy are increasingly moving to messaging apps?

Email is old by computing standards - the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) will be 35 this year. It has been improved a lot for security and spam prevention, but it's still the same basic, simple system where sending mail servers look up the 'mail exchanger' for a domain and send the message to it. No proprietary protocols or software (like WhatsApp), no per message charges (like SMS) and if everyone implemented encryption in transit it could be fairly secure (not everyone does though...). The simplicity and openness is why it refuses to die, especially in the business world.

But the reason for the bloat is nothing to do with the venerability of the protocol. There are actually two things. First, we like nicely formatted text, with bold characters, different fonts and even embedded images and so on. So the email needs to include markup, which is the codes that describe the formatting (like a web page) - this makes it bigger (<p class="body-text"> <span color="blue">Yes I agree</span></div> is obviously a lot bigger than 'Yes I agree'). Also it is pretty standard to include a plain text version for 'old' email programs that can't read the rich HTML, which of course no one actually uses these days so that's a waste.

But I can't see any of us giving up our rich text email. I'm old enough to remember text-based email software - I certainly don't want to go back to that. What we could change is the quoted text below the line. Why do we need it? Pretty much all email programs these days have the ability to sort a message by conversation, and behind the scenes they also tell the recipients the unique message identifier that they're responding to to make it more reliable. So why do I need to quote the message I'm replying to? I certainly don't feel the need when I send a text message on my phone or use Skype chat, because the conversation is there for me to read.

So here's an idea. Why don't we all turn off the 'quote message when replying' feature? It'd be weird at first, but we'd soon get used to it. And we'd end up sending a lot less crap with our emails, as well as not getting ourselves into trouble by forwarding something we were told in confidence 12 messages back to someone we shouldn't have. Now who's going to be brave enough to go first???

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What's in an operating system?

Windows, Mac OS X, Android, Linux, iOS, they all have their fans and detractors, but which is actually best?

Personally, I have spent the last 8 or so years avoiding Windows and refusing to pay the premium for Apple devices, so I've for the most part had desktop and laptop computers with Ubuntu Linux, and tablets and phones with Android. This changed a couple of months ago when I decided I needed a low end machine for travelling that was both tablet and laptop, so I bought a cheap Windows 10 convertible laptop/tablet. And it pretty much does everything I want it to do very nicely, even bits of coding. Oh and I also got a second hand Mac mini for a mobile app project I'm working on.

And this has all led me to the conclusion that really, for the majority of people, the operating system isn't important, especially for personal use. What most people do on computers is browse the web, send email, do a bit of document and spreadsheet writing and maybe photo editing. And you can get most major apps for both Android and iOS, and increasingly Windows phone. You can also avoid the 'Microsoft tax' if you use LibreOffice instead of MS office and Mozilla Thunderbird instead of Outlook, although to be fair Office 365 has made that cost much more manageable (I remember when I had an IT support business people got very shocked when buying new computers that they had to spend almost as much again on Office software). All the modern OS's are pretty slick in their own way.

So what's in an operating system? Well, if you are a developer, you are going to want to match what you're developing for. And of course Macs have the best reputation for 'creative' software, although I think Windows has pretty much caught up now. For me, since I still do a fair bit of my own development for Linux webservers, having a Linux machine to do that on makes it a lot easier. For everyone else, it probably doesn't matter that much.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Essential Android Apps

So being pretty well signed up to all things Android (I did have an iPhone once, didn't really get on with it), I thought I'd share what I'd call essential tools which have almost allowed me to eliminate paper from my life.

I've run an electronic diary since the days of the Palm Pilot, but that was always as vulnerable to being lost as an old paper one. So Android's native sync with Google Calendar is pretty cool. Anything I add or change on my phone or tablet is automatically synchronised with Google's cloud. And I have a plug in for Mozilla Thunderbird on my laptop to ensure it syncs there as well.

That also goes for Google Contacts, whatever I add on any device is automatically on the rest.

The real killer app for me though has been Google Keep. I've spent years trying to find a simple notetaking app that syncs anywhere, and this is it. It is text and attached photos only (although I have a draw app which can be used to add sketches*), but with Google Keyboard's awesome swipe-to-type feature my Nexus 7 tablet is as quick as a paper notepad. And I get colour coded notes and a powerful search facility, so when I want to find all notes relating to a certain client I just type in their name. Keep syncs to the Google Drive 'Keep' app in the background without any user intervention, so I can view my notes in my web browser on my PC. Being able to email notes quickly to colleagues or clients, or copy-paste them into documents is a massive timesaver too.

Since I seem to have let Google run my life (more on the pros and cons of that another time...), I looked for a way of using Google Tasks for my to do list. Now, the thing about Google Tasks (and there is a basic Tasks app as well) is that each of your to do lists (e.g. work, finances, home, sports etc) is separate. So I found a very powerful Android app called Taskary, which not only combines your upcoming due tasks into a single list, but also pulls in your calendar to give you a single agenda view.

The result of all this is that I now have two mobile devices (the phone for quick reference and quick notes that's always with me, the tablet with its larger screen when I want to do something more heavy duty) that completely replace the notebooks I used to carry around with me. And if I lose either, it's a pain because I have to buy a new one, but I don't lose any of that vital data.

*While finding the links for this post, I came across an app called 'Sketch for Keep', which I'll definitely be investigating!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Karren Brady in Bristol

So this morning I went along to a new business event in Bristol, Business Showcase Southwest at Colston Hall. I thought I'd have a wander about the stands, do a little speed networking and listen to Karren Brady speak.

It was a very good event, well attended and showed off one of Bristol's best venues in a fantastic way. Hopefully I made a couple of good contacts there, and hopefully they're reading this!

Anyway, Karren Brady was keynote speaker. She regaled us with some great war stories from her early days at Birmingham City, like being shocked to find players and club staff queueing up on a Wednesday to get their wages in a little brown envelope, and what happened to the player who made a sexist remark to her on the team bus (he got sold to Crewe!).

But most interesting were her insights on how she changes culture within an organisation so that everyone is working towards a common goal. In her businesses, people from different departments go and work with each other on a fairly regular basis, so they get a feel for the processes and issues outside of their day to day role. For example at West Ham, the players spend a day a month in the ticket office, so that they remember that if no one sells tickets there'll be no one to watch them play, and the ticket staff know the people create the product they're selling.

This seems like a blinding flash of common sense to me. One of the issues I come across regularly in my work is that different departments become information silos, and need better systems to get a view of what everyone else is doing. But this is only part of the problem - everyone I'm sure who's worked in an organisation with more than one department has seen the 'us and them' mentality at some point. If you can overcome the cultural boundaries by showing people how they fit into the organisation as a whole you are halfway there. And then of course I will say, you need to give them the right tools to actually see what's going on in the rest of the business.

Karren gave us a list of points on what makes a successful business person, but she finished with this fantastic quotation, which I've heard elsewhere and Google tells me is attributed to Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Back to work then!