Our new Kenwood Car Radio … Awesome

Following the Blaupunkt Car Radio debacle, we decided to switch brands and get a Kenwood. I’ve always liked Kenwood gear, already having had a Kenwood hi-fi system that I lovingly called “The Monolith”, in that it was big and black and very very mean. So I don’t understand my reticence in getting a Kenwood from the outset when looking at car stereos.

We needed a car stereo that could play CDs and MP3s using CD-Rs and USB Mass Storage, such as a hard disk. We also wanted some form of handsfree functionality for my wife’s mobile phone. We opted for the Kenwood KDC-BT8041U from Car Audio Direct. Bizzarely, considering we spent upwards of £300 for the Blaupunkt equivalent, this package had all the features (and more) for half the price. We got DMC on Desmesne Road, Douglas to do the installation for us.

From the outset, this device has been impressive. The radio is excellent, and the Traffic Announcements work well (they never worked on either of the last two Blaupunkt’s we had). The CD player is responsive and sounds well enough (considering we’re using OEM speakers) and there is an AUX in. Usefully, the AUX in uses a standard 3.5mm jack, unlike the proprietory version on the Blaupunkt unit (which had to be disabled when used with the Bluetooth module, anyway). The USB has worked almost perfectly, too. For some reason, it does not like the hard disks we are giving it, but we suspect that is because the hard disks need more than the 500mA the USB connection is able to provide. Instead of looking at some hacky attempt to find the remaining 1000mA required via cigarette lighters, etc. we decided to switch tactics and use USB keys instead. This works brilliantly.

Oh… and it plays New Order!

The Bluetooth function is built into the unit, this time, which is really welcome as it operates as a combined unit and not as an extra. The phone pairing is fast and reliable. Calls are very clear and the user interface in using the phone/stereo when making/receiving calls is excellent. Some neat features are also supported, such as downloaded phonebooks, SMSs and phone status. What really impressed me on this is the support for Bluetooth Streaming Audio. After hooking up the phone, it is a breeze to play Podcasts and MP3s through the car’s stereo and it works very well. You can also switch between phones so one phone can handle calls, another phone can handle Audio streaming – though we haven’t yet used this feature.

Use of the device’s user interface is pleasurable. Unlike the Blaupunkt, the screen is responsive and there is tactile and auditory feedback provided. While using a device as complex as this via the limited controls available will always result in compromises for User Experience, Kenwood have done well to minimise issues. What I particularly like is navigating through large file directories using the control knob. It is fast to navigate between screens and if the data isn’t available to display, it is “filled in” asynchronously.

Unfortunately, the user manual isn’t that great, relying on mnemonics to identify features and when to those features are available. Also, the unit doesn’t support a Random mode across an entire USB device which sort of detracts from the point of having large amounts of audio files available.

Otherwise, though, highly recommended!

Effectively and fairly quantifying UGC is challenging

At today’s “Isle of Man Super Third Thursday Social Media Club” (getting more of a mouthful every month!) it struck me that quantifying social media is very difficult. In order to assess the success or otherwise of a social media programme to management, you would hope to be able to point at real sales, web site visits or other conversions to justify the extra effort and time required to implement a social marketing programme well. Social media is just too fuzzy, however. While it can be gratifying to find the occasional positive comment, incoming link or your company mascot having its own facebook page, if a direct sale or income doesn’t result social media becomes just a hobby, as such less time will be spent on it and it will suffer.

Social Media covers a wide area of services, software and ideas. While we generally think of social media to be all about Twitter and Facebook, it is ultimetely about anything that encourages and supports User Generated Content. Many sites have been providing this before Facebook was a glint in Zuckerberg’s eye (or whoever claims to have written it this week). Sites which encourage users to rate their purchases, rentals, favourite films, artists, etc. are all essentially social-media services. Amazon, of course, is probably one of the oldest examples – particularly in the e-Commerce space. It has allowed users to rate their purchases (or just products if they purchased the product elsewhere), the performance of their Marketplace sellers and even generate customised lists of products and share with other users. eBay offers a similar rating system to try and reduce the risk of making purchases and selling your prize possessions. While Amazon’s scheme seems to be pretty simple in that it allows users to rate something out of 5 stars and leave a comment, it isn’t always that simple.

EBay have recently modified how their ratings system works. Whereas previously both the buyer and the seller could rate each other during their transaction either positively or negatively, this has now been reduced to only allowing the buyer to rate the seller. This obviously causes sellers to worry about no longer being able to help their fellow sellers avoid a potential difficult customer. But it has come after a number of users complained about having unfair ratings applied to them, and the system being mis-used. I for one would have loved to leave a negative mark on one seller who sold me fake Twin Peaks DVDs. After politely disputing the genuineness of the DVDs, the seller withdrew the auction and left me with no recourse against him to advise others not to take the risk or believe the “100% genuine” claim.

This highlights that allowing users to make their own judgements on service, content or products is fraught with difficulties, particularly when using a discrete rating system like a stars system or a positive/negative mark. A soon as you start to be able to quantify user-generated feedback, you enter a dangerous area. During the Work Connexions project, one of the biggest challenges was to be able to accurately and diligently identify a quality lead, individual or service but without providing the opportunity for any overtly negativity to be attached to the content. We had to be able to provide a means of rating other users, but as soon as you offer users the ability to leave negative feedback which could directly impact their performance to generate further leads by affecting their ranking in search results, visibility on home pages, etc., you run the risk of losing users who may feel that they have been slighted or unfairly rated. Equally, when you remove the possibility to leave a negative mark against content, you may be accused of being weak and a toothless “quality mark”.

The Manx Graduates web site, which was discussed at today’s Super Third Thursday is a case in point and faces similar challenges. While the site is being placed in the social media space, it is with a degree of required control, which is somewhat against the principles of social media. The site is designed to make it easier for graduates who have left the island to study to return and gain employment on their home island. There is no real target age-range or skill-set. The common theme is essentially enticing talent back to the island and avoiding the “brain drain” that inevitably occurs on an island such as The Isle of Man with its limited opportunities and education facilities. Users can contact potential employers, and vice versa. Users can also message each other, assuming they already know other users on the site, it isn’t after all, a social networking application. So the “real” social media-style tools commonly found aren’t to be found. In particular, there is no opportunity for users to be able to recommend or otherwise working for a particular employer. Again, there is the problem that as soon as you provide users the power to submit their own content, they could use it to attach negative feedback to other users, subscribers and stakeholders of the site. This could be particularly damaging if a quantifiable rating system was applied to an employer or potential employee.

There are ways to try and control how to limit the possibility of negative feedback – or even overtly positive feedback – which could impact on quantifiable scoring systems or constitute an attack on another user or service. They often come with their own difficulties, however. Moderation of content reduces the spontaneouty of content submission, causing delays before content is published. The user may not trust or agree with the decision of the moderator. Scoring maybe limited to certain ranges after certain mebership qualifications have been met, for example, disable low scores until a user has been a consistent and repeated user of the site. This reduces the opportunity for a “true and accurate” account to be provided by the user. There is no real defence against a malicious attack against a user or service, if someone wanted to create a negative response it is almost impossible to prevent without withdrawing the life-blood of the social media application. The trick comes in being able to give the illusion that user generated content is freely submissable but exercising tight control over user content, essentially a thankless and full-time job.

Twitter at Work

Twittering at work raises interesting questions about security, commitment to work and protection of intellectual property; all questions raised by use of Instant Messenger applications. Whereas a company IT policy often (and I think, should) ban or actively prevent use of Instant Messengers such as Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo, etc., how employers should approach Twitter use should be considered carefully.

Twitter provides two ways of communicating and participating with other Twitterers: the web, or their API which is used by Twitter clients such as Twhirl, blu (formerly known as *chirp), etc. Twitter is an ideal platform for participating in discussions with people you’d never dream of being able to reach in any other situation and the only way to really be a participant in this discussion is using a Twitter client which itself can look and behave almost as an Instant Messenger application does. So it would hardly be surprising if, on sight, an IT policy zealout would immediately object to its use. If it looks like IM, and feels like IM, then it must be IM.

Twitter is a distraction to work. Those seconds of distraction to your thought process as new notifications pop up or a couple of minutes here checking the current Twitter feed and establishing the flow of discussion, if any, can add up. In some jobs, such as my own, those seconds distraction cause more delays as I try and recover my train of thought, often along quite challenging lines.

So there seems very little reason why employers should allow or accept Twitter usage in the workplace.

Consider, however, the hidden benefit of Twitter as a training and awareness tool. By expanding your network to people within your industry sector, you can monitor others’ Tweets which are probably quite irrelavent, boring or even egotistical much of the time but sometimes there are gems that can help. For example, my current role is involved in developing a CRM system, so I add CRM users/developers to my network. I work with Sitecore, so I add Sitecore Twitterers. And so on. My network includes Journalists, Developers, Technology Evangelists, Product Area experts (CRM, BPR, etc) and you can learn a lot from this network. The development of this network is largely down to Twollo.com, which has really helped grow my network to be one of quality, with less noise.

This is what I learnt from Twitter this week:

  • The iPhone does not correctly use the mobile CSS stylesheet, which we knew, so our mobile interface didn’t work on iPhones. Turns out that you can add a tag to address this
  • Why WordPress removes tags from the XHTML in the Post Editor
  • Where Microsoft intends to add the Managed Extensibility Framework (MEF)
  • How the new Microsoft Semblio could be used as a Training resource for our software

(actually, those 4 things were just in the last 24 hours)

This proves that Twitter is actually acting as a hidden trainer. Sure, this knowledge could be Google-d for, but we all have busy lives, often such searches fall by the way-side. In the case of the iPhone fix, I was not directly involved in that issue, but I remembered my team member had raised it so it helped him.

This knowledge comes both as a result of inviting response by my own posts, but also passively monitoring the Twitter feed. But you have to participate in the discussion. Participating shows that you are able to provide the time and attention to others, whether or not anything you contribute is useful or not. If users see you participate, they would be more willing to return the favour if you ever needed help.

Titbits of information can come from Twitterers working at their desk, re-posting information while in a seminar or presentation or even secretly tweeting in a boring meeting! The source may be an individual, or it may be a brand. Many brands are already on Twitter, which represents an additional channel from which to access useful material. Telerik (@telerikbuzz) tweets about upcoming product releases, hints and tips and suggestions that I have found useful on more than one occasion. This can provide an ideal opportunity to market your product, access new and existing customers and provide “passive” training. This could be a “Tip of the day”, or hidden features that may not be documented due to their support issues (promoting the idea that only Twitter users heard about it). Twitter provides an opportunity to create a training relationship between the brand/company and the end user, whatever their level of expertise. I intend to build on this idea in our next CRM version.

An Honourable Exit

People who know me and have been watching my Twitter Feed will have seen something or other about our car radio debâcle. About 6 months ago, we bought a nice new car. It’s a great car that you can feel safe in. As with any new car, you need a new car radio. We previously had a Blaupunkt Acapulco MP54 (bought from Ramsey), which had a great radio, great internal amp, CD player and – importantly – could play MP3 on CD-R. With over 7,000 tracks, having two wallets with indexed CD-Rs was getting a bit unwieldy so we decided to look for a hard disk based car radio, and stick the MP3s on that. After much deliberation, we decided to stay with the Blaupunkt name, after all the previous player had performed very well and it was a name associated with quality. We also decided to “shop local” again, this time buying the Blaupunkt Memphis MP66 from the Auto Electrical Centre on Old Castletown Road, Douglas.

Functionally, the player was ideal. It accepted SD-cards, CD-Rs, CD and the all important USB hard disk. Playback was excellent, responsiveness was okay and the screen was well designed and specified. Navigating thousands of tracks was also really easy, a difficult accomplishment in such a small form factor in a difficult operating environment (even though you SHOULD be concentrating on the road). A small disappointment that there was no Play/Pause button, surely a requirement in anything of this nature?

We did however start to see problems. Principally, it would crash the player when playing certain tracks. One of these was New Order, and any stereo that cannot play New Order is not worth anything! A few other tracks also caused the problem, so we wondered if maybe the track format (MP3, no DRM, 320Kbps, Fixed Bit Rate) was incompatible in some way for those tracks. We tested the MP3s on a Creative ZEN Vision:M, XBox 360, Windows Media Centre and Nokia N95-2 and they played fine. Therefore, the problem had to be in the player. Another thing we did notice was that the player was starting to put red crosses over folders, indicating it couldn’t play those files. Being an advanced player we had a look around to see if there was some way of updating the firmware, a common practice for complex consumer devices. None was to be found, so we went back to Auto Electrical and asked for them to have a look at it and attach a Bluetooth kit to it, too. (Despite paying for a handsfree kit for my wife, with the best intentions in the world, inevitably it never gets worn). I actually disagree with making any phone calls in the car, by the way, but I’d rather her accept calls in maximum safety if possible.

The car came back (we had to leave the car with them each time and my wife had to arrange lifts in/out of work), and the Bluetooth system barely worked and the original problems of the radio were not solved. Two further visits were made, each time, nothing was corrected. The second time they actually replaced the player with a Blaupunkt Casablanca MP56, a cheaper model by some £100 in an effort to try and narrow down the fault to a particular model. Nothing changed. So we returned the car again with more detail on how to reproduce the faults. Calls were made to Blaupunkt technical support, which were not returned. On following up the calls, Auto Electrical were told they could not correct the problem. That’s it, then, rip it all out.

That’s when this transaction could have taken a distinctly sour turn. Throughout this process, even though it was at significant disruption to my wife getting into work and myself making myself available for technical questions, we remained polite and resolute. On their part, Auto Electrical were working towards resolving the problems and were also polite throughout. When asked to remove the equipment, they were most fair and returned the cost of the radio and the installation, in full. No complaints, just a sincere apology.

So in the end, even though the transaction didn’t work out, we have both come out feeling as good as we could from the experience. While I would not recommend a Blaupunkt which may or may not work depending on the incompetence of their developers at the time, I would certainly recommend Auto Electrical for the Customer Service Experience. Meanwhile, we’re going to switch brands and buy a Kenwood, instead. Unfortunately, this time it will have to be online because the island’s Kenwood suppliers do not sell this particular model.