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 https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=1061649101784166496#editor/target=post;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 :-)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Thoughts from Tech Talks 5

This afternoon was the fifth Tech Talks event in Bristol, run by local web hosting company SpiderGroup. These events have an opportunity for networking followed by three 20 minute talks from experts on various aspects of business and technology.

Today's three speakers were Richard Caddick of CXPartners, talking about user experience in design, NetMentor Peter Brill, talking about how content is king, and Steve Allpress of Nvidia and formerly Icera, telling us the story of building a microchip company and selling it.

Fascinating speakers as always, here are some key points I noted down that I thought I'd share.
  • Designing for people is hard, and so you need to research and understand people and their behaviours to do it well. Richard mentioned a project for TheTrainLine, where they watched people trying to find the booking references hidden in their email printouts as they collected tickets at a mainline station, leading to the booking reference being moved to the top.
  • We all know that content is king, but it can be difficult finding the interesting stories in what we see as mundane. So Peter told us we need to think like a journalist and sniff out the answers to the non-obvious questions. 
  • Peter also talked about repurposing content, so look forward to seeing my blog posts re-hashed as forum posts elsewhere!
  • Steve told the fascinating (and occasionally technical) story of creating a startup which shook up the world of 3G chip manufacturing by doing everything better, faster and smaller. But the most fascinating thing was the insight into building a company which is dependent on round after round of VC funding - your end purpose is to build something that someone else will eventually want to buy, as they achieved with their sale to Nvidia.
All in all an interesting afternoon, certainly for a biz-tech geek like me. And a great quote from chief Spider James Cook at the end: "A lot of business people don't realise that business is essentially process driven".

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Apple's patent victory is bad news for everyone else

Apple's recent victory in their patent dispute with Samsung is bad news for the rest of us. Why? Because it will stifle innovation, as smaller businesses will be less willing to innovate in the space Apple occupies for fear of litigious bullying by the world's most highly valued company. This means less competition and therefore less choice for consumers.

Patents were originally designed to protect inventors from having their inventions copied and used by others. They were not designed to allow already massive companies to consolidate their dominant market position. Apple is not the only culprit - did you know that when you buy an Android device, a few dollars go to Microsoft in patent royalties despite the platform being built on the open source Linux operating system which Microsoft had nothing to do with, and in fact did its best to crush?

Patents, especially in the US, need urgent reform. A first step would be to limit the ability to enforce them to smaller companies. This would encourage small companies to develop new products, while forcing the behemoths to compete by just building better products. The irony of all of this is that Apple does build excellent products that have a massive fan base. They could just compete successfully on that basis, instead of trying to shut out the competition.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

When you die, will someone need to know your online passwords?

Here's an interesting, if slightly morbid thought. When you die, what happens to all the 'stuff' you keep in The Cloud, assuming you are a user of such services as Google Docs/Drive, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Picasa etc? Clearly the services will carry on without you, but there's a pretty strong likelihood that your family will have to untangle all sorts of things within your social networks, may want or need access to some of your online assets (what about domain name registrations and the like?), and could possibly want to remove some things from the internet.

How will they do this without passwords? I can imagine a long drawn out process of having to contact every single service provider, supply death certificates and the like.

So there are a couple of ways around this. I could write down all my passwords and put them in a sealed envelope which I give to my lawyer (or some other trusted individual) for safekeeping. But then I can never change my passwords, or if I do I need to open the envelope and write them down again.

Then there is a service called LegacyLocker, who for a one time fee of US$299 (or $29 a year) will store passwords (and anything else you want them to), only releasing them to named beneficiaries on proof of your death.

Another option would be to put all of your passwords in a file which you encrypt using a strong encryption key, and then store the file somewhere publicly accessible online. You could then just put a URL and the encryption key in your sealed envelope, so this is a kind of halfway house.

Food for thought at any rate, especially if you have the plethora of online services and passwords that I have, and take sensible precautions to keep your passwords secret.