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!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Moving to the Resource Paradigm (or, computer files are so 1990s!)

We're all familiar with files. Most of our computers are full of them - documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, pictures. Those of us in more technical fields will also add things like source code files, CAD files, vector drawings and the like. Whatever the type of file, it encapsulates a single thing or piece of work. But I would argue that this 'file paradigm' stands in the way of productivity and effective collaboration. 

Some background then. Three of my projects currently involve document management in one form or another. Broadly, this is about managing the process of writing a document between a group of people. This might be the formal editorial review process of a publishing house, or something more informal like a committee coming up with a new set of professional guidelines.

But what they all have in common is that several people need to work on the same document, sometimes at different stages, sometimes together where each is working on a different section. They need a version history, and they need a way of commenting on or discussing changes to the document.

So, how does this work in practice? We're all familiar with the 'email' version of document collaboration. Jane writes the first draft, and emails it to Pete and Sarah who review it. Pete writes a load of comments and emails it to the other two, meanwhile Sarah writes a whole new section and emails it to the others, along with her comments. Now there are three versions floating around in email. Jane incorporates the comments and additions from the others as best she can, and sends another version for them to review. Pete thinks it's ready for management to take a look at so he emails it to Emma, who sends back a load more comments. And so on. In a very short space of time there are lots of versions of the original document floating around and it may not be clear which is the latest.

Add in a bit of document management and you will have all versions of the file being checked in to a central repository. It should be easy to see which is the current version, and who changed what, and they will (hopefully) have made some comments about their changes. But we are still working with files. Versions of the file need to be downloaded for people to open and work on them, and this makes it a) difficult for two people to work on the document at the same time, and b) means there are still various versions of the document strewn about people's computers. Also it's quite likely that at some stage someone will email a copy of the file to someone else...

What we need to do is to ditch the file paradigm entirely. Now, granted that doesn't quite work for everything, an image is an image for example. But for documents, spreadsheets and the like that are written, often collaboratively, a better approach is to move to a shared resource, probably identified by a URL (which remember stands for uniform resource locator).

Confused? OK, you needn't be, it's actually quite simple - here's an example. I am writing this post on Blogger, which is Google's blogging platform. At the top of my browser is a URL which uniquely identifies the resource that is this blog post. It is;postID=57130144964987853

Now, if you follow that link, you will actually get an 'access denied' message (I checked before including it!). But if I gave you access to it, you'd be able to edit it also. And of course you'd also be able to find it through the Blogger user interface and the mobile app. Just for fun (ok I need to get out more), I wrote the last sentence on my tablet, then switched back to my PC.

So here's the point, this blog post is not a file sitting somewhere on my PC. It is a resource that lives on Google's blogging platform that can be accessed by anyone I give access to, anywhere they choose. Google Docs takes this a couple of steps further, by both allowing people to make changes to a document at the same time, and by tracking the revision history. Their main competitors in this space, Microsoft Office 365 and Zoho, also offer similar features.

Of course, with the likes of Google Docs and Office 365, you have to trust the cloud storage provider and the recent revelations of the extent to which they're spied upon might well put you off. There are other options such as OwnCloud which you can run on your own server, but they aren't quite mature yet. A lot of the corporate solutions, such as Quark, are still very much focussed on files rather than resources.

Most of us aren't quite ready to ditch our office suite yet because the alternatives aren't all quite there yet. But as anyone who has experienced the simplicity of sharing and collaborating on a Google Doc will know, the resource paradigm will definitely make working easier. My prediction? In 10 years files will pretty much only be used for static media files and the like, everything else will be resources stored in the cloud.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Make data collection easy with Google Forms

Yesterday, I was playing around with my Google Drive account and came across something which really engaged my geek brain about the possible applications of it, and that was Google Forms.

What this is essentially is a very simple way of building a form in a web page with different types of fields (text, date, dropdown etc), the results of which are automatically stored in a spreadsheet in your Google Drive.

It's that integration bit that's very powerful, because if, say, you want to set up a survey on an event you just held, you can quickly knock together a form and send the link to your attendees. All the responses will be stored in a spreadsheet which you can either use within the Google environment or download for offline processing. We are now going to start using it within my rowing club for signing up for regattas and the like.

I'd particularly like to see Google add in a feature which allows you to use data from another spreadsheet as the source for dropdown lists. It would then become very powerful - you'd be able to do things like have a private form for logging sales calls or time spent on projects, essentially allowing the microbusiness owner to use Google spreadsheets in a much more flexible way for managing their business information without having to invest in specialist software.

Hmm, mental cogs whirring here. Expect more on the applications of Google Drive and Google Apps...

PS Yes I know this is my first post for 15 months, New Year's resolution, get back blogging :-)