Google I/O Extended – Isle of Man

Google I/O Extended - Isle of ManGoogle broadcast their Google I/O Extended conference from the US, as an adjunct to their much larger Google I/O conference.

Owen Cutajar of FutureTech hosted a live screening of the various announcements, guidance and tech gossip at The Forum, Mt Havelock, Douglas. Attracting a sizeable audience, possibly attracted by the free pizza sponsored by MICTA, there was plenty of opportunity to watch, absorb, chat and munch on pizza and sweets.

The night was captured on the Isle of Man’s Google I/O page.

The Forum is an ideal facility for meeting and learning with like-minded individuals. A number of events are held there, including training courses and seminars by the Isle of Man branch of the British Computer Society and the new and successful, Code Club.

Lots of topics were discussed, covering wearable technology such as Google Glass and watches, home automation using the recently-acquired Google/Nest, Cryptocurrencies and Android.

Although not a Google fan myself, I found the event particularly useful to fill in gaps of my knowledge of another side of the tech industry which I have views upon, though from an outsider’s perspective. Whilst I’m not going to run out and kit my house out with Nest or buy an Android phone, the opportunity to talk through the technologies with other audience members provided fresh insight. It would be nice to see the same applied to the other key players and conferences in the technology landscape, such as those by Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.

 

Moving from Windows Media Centre

I’m a big fan of taking control of your life by not living your life around TV schedules. I have been committed to the use of Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) for many years, starting with the ultimate nirvana of PVRs, TiVo. TiVo was a product before its time, when I explained the benefits, people just didn’t “get it”. Now, with Sky+ (an inferior product in many ways) with its more useful marketing campaign, many people now understand the benefits of leaving your TV viewing to an intelligent device that records your TV and allows you to watch it when you’re ready.

TiVo was the best product, but its lack of development and commitment to the UK market (it’s a big story in the US) led to me being forced to alternatives. Sky+ was never an option, as it is an inferior product with numerous usability issues. I also resent paying an additional fee for a service I receive with a basic subscription anyway (the required guide data). This left me to the adoption of Windows Media Centre 2005. This required the building and careful preparation of a Home Theatre Personal Computer (HTPC) to be able to process incoming video data, storage and simultaneous playback. Windows Media Centre has proved the hub of our media needs for the last 5 years and has been ideal. We’ve moved from Windows Media Centre 2005 through Vista and now Windows 7. The XBox extender system also allows us to relay content around the house very easily.

Using Windows 7 Media Centre has not been as pleasurable as Vista Media Centre. It’s much slower to use and even on a 100Mbps network video frequently breaks up. The music catalogue also requires rebuilding whenever you view the music library. I don’t know whether these issues are related to Windows 7 being in beta (I’m using the Release Candidate) but the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is low. I’d be happy to put up with it but for some reason BBC2 isn’t switched using the infra-red sender so we have to be on constant watch for BBC2 recording. Obviously, this is against the point of a PVR.

Windows Vista supports HD content, but not in the UK. Apparently, Windows 7 does support UK HD which is great because HD content from BBC HD is awesome and is a key reason why I have adopted the Freesat from the BBC option. So we decided to give the Humax Foxsat HDR FreeSat+ PVR a try. This will allow us to record HD content (previously we would have had to watch it live) along with SD content.

I’ll leave other people to review it as a product, I’m just going to give my feedback. Overall, I’m not that impressed. There is no Component Video sockets, which is a real shame as I have limited HDMI sockets and I would have preferred not to use an HDMI socket for content that is less than 1080p, which DVB-S HD cannot achieve (not in the UK anyway). The guide itself is a little sluggish and there is only 8 days of guide data. A screensaver appears whenever the screen becomes static which is frustrating as I happen to like frozen screens and LCDs are much less prone to screenburn than conventional CRT displays. Either way, I would like the option to turn this screensaver off. I’m not using a second LNB feed so conflicts will be a problem for me. One such conflict has just occured, with the device trying to turn the channel over at Championship Point in the 2009 Wimbledon Men’s Final. Whether or not I pressed a button or the device switched over I cannot be sure, but it did switch and then I could not switch it back. Typing “108″ to revert to BBC HD would not work. Consequently, I missed about 2 minutes of the climax of the final, ruining two weeks of tennis for me.

The device is pretty good, but I don’t think it is going to work for us in the longer term. Maybe we have been spoilt by the high quality of Windows Media Centre. In the shorter term, I’m keen on reducing my electricity usage, which is why I bought this device. (It uses just 1W on standby.) For “newbies” to DVRs or certainly users of the appalling Sky+ implementation, it’s well worth it, particularly for HD recording. But for me, I think I’m going to upgrade my Windows Media Centre PC for Windows 7 when it comes out and have another go. It still offers the best and most flexible solution.

Update:

After a few days of using it, I’ve found more poor design decisions:

  • For some reason, while the device is recording, you cannot delete *other* programmes.
  • When the device is recording, it is possible to turn over the channel. It is not clear whether the recording completes or not.
  • When time slipping, it is not possible to use the Red-button. Fair enough, but moving to Live TV by pressing Stop also does not permit Red-button services.

A few more weeks/months later …

  • When watching a recording programme and timeslipping, once the recorded programme ends, “live” viewing is resumed so you have to rewind back to the position you had time slipped to.

I’m counting the days till I get a Haupaugge DVB-S card for Windows 7 Media Centre.

Discovering BlackBerry

It’s that time of year again, when my phone feels a little long in the tooth and I start having primal urges to refresh my tech. Actually, my old phone (Nokia N95-8Gb) is perfectly useful and ideal for continued use. I have a problem and I shall submit myself to my addiction. Do you have a problem with that?

I’ve been researching what to replace my phone with for a few months, now. I want strong integration with my various email accounts, social networking and good web access. I also require a good music player with podcasting capabilities. The phone must also connect to Wi-Fi networks seamlessly, using Wi-Fi over my Mobile Network if possible. The Nokia N95-8Gb does all this. It really is a very good phone, even if it is 2-3 years old.

My original intention was to get a Nokia N97, the natural upgrade path for the N-series. This is being pushed as being Social Media aware and has a touch screen. It runs on Symbian so will be rock solid and I know I can rely on the strengh of the N-series platform. But it was on the dear side at around £500. I’m also not a big fan of touch-screens for typing numbers/messages – tactile feedback is essential and no haptic/pseudo tactile feedback is going to replace that. I also looked at the HTC Touch series of phones, which look very smart, but are handicapped by their adoption of Windows Mobile which Microsoft desperately needs to rewrite, preferably using the core of the Zune/XBox 360 with a number of business applications on top. I even looked at the Apple iPhone, an over-priced, under-specified device which has the fanboys excited every year when Apple does a minor refresh. While a very usable phone, its value serves more as a superficial and egotistical add-on to a personality than a phone that can actually be used.

I eventually decided on the BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220. It’s not that pretty, it’s a bit plasticy, it has no widgets, gizmos or slidey, touchy, happy screens. It’s a no-frills, no-BS business phone. And I really like it. While the learning curve is pretty steep both in terms of typing on the SureType keypad and figuring out how to configure it, I’m immediately seeing value in it. The only reason why I held off for so long is that it doesn’t have any podcasting or decent music player support which was a killer feature for me.

I might be a little late on this boat, but I’m not one to follow fads. Better to let other users adopt a new paradigm, get all excited, work out the kinks, then for me to buy into it.

Things I love:

  • The API allows applications to have deep access into the phone. No “sandboxing” means applications like UberTwitter and Facebook can integrate into other applications, appearing in the Contacts and Messaging menus. While sandboxing your applications improves reliability and safety of your phone, it does create a disconnected user experience.
  • It’s highly configurable. So configurable I have no idea what many of the settings even do or why they are even there. It took my a couple of days to figure out how to change my message tone, but once I found it, the flexibility offered is perfect.
  • Obviously the BlackBerry value-added service of email account integration and “push email”. Being able to off-load the collection of emails is very useful.
  • Integrated messaging between email and Facebook.

Not so hot:

  • The default web browser is pants. A shame for an “always on” Internet device. It’s slow and poorly rendered. Luckily, Opera can be installed on it, though it is not used by default so clicking on links in the BlackBerry will still open the original browser.
  • There’s no GPS, which is a shame. A mapping application is provided, though.
  • The processor is on the under-powered side, particularly when browsing the web using the default web browser or using the Maps application.

There is also a vibrant BlackBerry community and application ecosystem out there which I am dipping into. For Twitter users, I’d highly recommend UberTwitter, which ticks all my boxes and more. I’d buy a BlackBerry just for this application, to be honest.

This does leave my requirement for a music player/podcast downloader to be met, though. Not to worry, the BlackBerry was just £50 from Sure Cable and Wireless which means I can still afford a dedicated unit for playing music/listening to podcasts. I’m going for a Sony Walkman device, now they have finally dumped ATRAC. All in all, from a budgetted new phone of £500, I’m going to save at about £250.

UK: Have Microsoft fallen out with us?

The UK is widely regarded as being one of the key countries the drive
innovation in technology. Indeed, the computer was invented in the UK, in
Manchester. Obviously, much of the innovation now occurs in America. With the
signifcantly larger population and economy it provides  natural wealth of
resources for development of products and the eventual testing and purchase of
products. Companies like Microsoft often launch primarily in the US and then
“roll out” across the world. The UK doesn’t tend to fall too far behind in this
pattern.

Recently, however, we appear to have been given a distinct cold shoulder by
Microsoft.

The XBox Dashboard was recently significantly improved, using a
CoverFlow-style interface with a customisable avatar. It looks and works like a
dream. The US also got the benefit of integration of the Netflix service onto
the XBox dashboard. Now, not only does the XBox Video Marketplace allow
downloading of HD-quality films for watching at leisure, using the Netflix
service users can stream HD-movies at any time – no need to wait for the
download to occur. Netflix do not operate in the UK, so we don’t get this. Why
don’t they arrange something with LoveFilm.co.uk, who offer a similar
service?

The rival MP3 player from Microsoft, Zune, has never been available in the UK
officially. The Zune is intended to compete with the Apple iPod. The iPod is
unfortunately becoming synonymous for this particular technical gadget but there
is so much more to this market than just iPods. Creative and many other vendors
create MP3 players with a wide variety of features. Microsoft were keen not to
get too far behind on this so launched Zune as a means of listening to music,
but the “USP” was the ability to share music with your friends and buy music
wirelessly using the Zune Marketplace. Your Zune ID was the same as your Windows Live ID which is the same as your XBox Live ID, creating a real ecosystem of identity and technologies. Obviously, for Marketplace to exist in the UK, deals would have to be done in the UK which Microsoft don’t seem to be too bothered about. Maybe it is because the market is too small. As the Zune product is
developed, we see the Zune HD now has HD Radio, a technology the UK foolishly
did not adopt, instead we adopted DAB which is poorer quality than FM (in
practice). So they are pushing us further out of the door, reducing the glimmer
of hope that they may just change their minds in the future. The UK is left in
the clutches of Apple.

At the recent E3 Gamers conference, Microsoft announced a number of exciting
new features for the XBox. One of which was the rebranding of the Video
Marketplace which allows the downloading of videos form the XBox servers at a
small fee. This will be rebranded as “Zune Marketplace”. Indeed, the XBox itself
already provides some degree of integration with Zune devices. Where does this
leave the UK? Will we receive this branding and how will it afect us other than
a few colour changes on the XBox dashboard? Again we don’t know where the UK
will stand.

Microsoft Money is being abandoned (Guardian article), due largely to the success of the Quicken product by Intuit. Microsoft have committed to help users migrate to Quicken as part of a programme of future versions. Unfortunately, Intuit abandoned the UK years ago, so where does this leave UK Money users in need of budget accountancy software?

Hulu has been added to the Windows Media Centre, allowing access to their wide variety of video content direct from your PC or Media Centre environment. Hulu is not available anywhere other than the US. Media Centre content such as Extras which can include content direct from channels is also excluded from UK use. We used to have BBC content, but they pulled it when they reviewed their digital content output. Obviously this is not Microsoft’s fault but I think there needs to be
some effort made in replacing and securing new content for UK users.

Isle of Man TT: Rumour control

This year’s TT has been particularly enjoyable, mostly because I have been
able to take some time off and watch the racing. Until changing my employment, I
would have been involved in the publishing of the live timings over the internet
on the iomtt.com site. I would be in the middle of it all (physically and
metaphorically) and see very little of it.

Last night’s unfortunate incident involving Nick Crowe and Dan Cox reminded me of the problems involved with managing rumour control, particularly when potential injuries (or worse) may have been sustained. The racing and practice sessions were subject to delay due to typically bizarre Manx weather which included the sun “cracking the flags” in Douglas but the West of the island awash with severe rain, which included hailstones at one point. This resulted in quickly rescheduled sessions, the Sure Sidecar 2 race being moved to 18:15.

During the session, in the continuing and exciting competition between Dave
Molyneux and Dan Sayle’s outfit and Nick Crowe/Mark Cox’ outfit, Crowe fell
victim to more bad luck when first he appeared to disappear off the live timings
and then news came through that his outfit had caught fire. The exact details of
how this occurred are as yet unknown but may be linked to the poor reliability
of the outfit during the TT fortnight (and previous). Clearly, a fire on the
course is a serious issue and the Marshals were quick to red flag the race, that
segment of the track was sealed off and outfits sent back to the Granstand in
both directions (an interesting site for sure). No word came until later about
the condition of the two men, so rumour grew based on the actions of the Clerk
of the Course, helicopter dispatch and the ensuing “radio silence”.

Consider the timeline of events:

18:15: Race starts. Crowe and Cox are first off in #1, followed 10 seconds later by Molyneux and Sayle in #2.

18:28 (approx): Molyneux and Sayle appear at Ballaugh Bridge timings, ahead of Crowe and Cox. Crowe and Cox do not pass through Ballaugh Bridge. Clearly, something is wrong at this point. Live timings show a “disappeared” outfit which leads one to suspect further reliability problems (though this is not highlighted, you need to keep an eye out).

18:30: Red Flag is shown, terminating the race. So something serious has occured which may have caused or may cause harm to riders.

18:33: The cause of the red flag is confirmed to be a machine on fire at Ballacob (shortly before Ballaugh). Although no confirmation of which machine, it would be clear which one it would be most likely to be, that of Crowe and Cox in #1.

19:24: Helicopter carries riders to Nobles Hospital.

19:37: Sure Sidecar 2 race is confirmed to have been abandoned and will not re-run this year.

Rumour then started to get out of control, with speculation on the cause and
injuries sustained by the riders becoming uncontrollable. Traditionally, this
had started on the iomtt.com forums. Severe results were claimed, death/injuries, all of which were unsubstantiated. This post has now been removed, by a (ex)colleague who knows more on this than me and is very good at dealing with these issues. In previous years, particularly during the aftermath of the fatal incident on the final lap of the Senior race of 2007, this resulted in whoever was covering the race and the administration team for the forums to clamp down on the forums and attempt to control rumour.

The controlling of rumour tended to be clarification of actions and deletion
of posts which speculated or claimed to be aware of the aftermath of an
incident, which would include relatives or friends of the victims, even if they
were aware of the details. This would understandably create resentment that we
were “preventing discussion” and “being difficult” in wishing the affected
individuals well. What we were actually doing was working to prevent rumour
affecting the affected parties, those close to the affected parties and the
event and organisations attached to the event. I do remember in 2007 that posts
were posted that frequently claimed knowledge of the effects of the incident
which I had to delete using my mobile phone while inbetween internet
connections.

The interesting difference this year, however, was the Twitter effect.
Whereas a forum can be controlled by a moderation team, which may provide an
opportunity to provide some information to the users based on established fact,
Twitter is impossible to moderate, let alone control. At about 9pm, Twitter was
already carrying rumours from the iomtt.com site, which then started to create
another wave of unsubstantiated gossip. I then started to receive text messages
on my mobile from people telling me the riders were in a Liverpool Hospital
(this morning, news came that they were actually in Nobles).

Whereas previously, press agencies and “rumour control” could control the
channels of communication, publishing news only when they were confident
affected parties would not be offended or unnecassarily upset, the modern web
has moved away from this. From forums to Twitter to Live Timings, information is
being published and understood faster than ever before. The Live Timings service
is controlled, but the lack of times for Ballaugh and no news on the condition
of the riders only contributes to rumour. (That said, the person who updates the
news is very qualified and able – but it is a difficult job)

The iomtt.com site currently has this update.

By embracing new media such as web sites and live timing services, the
authorities need to consider that news travels much faster than ever before and
rumour can grow beyond established fact. This rumour needs to be controlled and
the only way to control rumour is to be up front and honest on the facts as soon
as possible. This puts the PR people in the driving seat by focussing attention
on an official source of information, which itself discredits claims of fact
from other sources. Maintaining a professional radio silence is not the answer.
Fans of motorsport follow their favoured riders religiously, particularly at the
TT where many fans know riders directly. Feeding correct information in a timely
fashion, even if in a drip-drip fashion, is essential to reducing the
opportunity for rumour to get beyond realty.

Isle of Man Transport: Badly planned, no wonder they make no money

BusThis post has been a while coming. I have been on the island for 4 years now, and have come to realise the predicament that the non-car driver/owner faces when trying to get around the Isle of Man. The island has 8 or so towns/conurbations that are spread around the island connected by roads of varying quality, many running through the countryside along winding roads. The island has a government owned public transport system consisting of buses, steam trains, electric trams and even horse trams. Clearly, the bulk of mass transit of residents occurs on the buses, as the trams and trains are very much tourist-centric operations. Almost all residents, however, have a car and use them with most households having at least 2 cars. This has seen traffic grow significantly, resulting in expensive road improvement and expansion schemes.

I am a keen supporter of public transport, after all, it is the most efficient means of getting people around while reducing the impact of carbon emmissions on the environment. Coming from Manchester, with its two major train stations, tram network and many bus services it was always easy to get around. On starting to find my way around the island, I knew it was going to be much more difficult. After all, who could reasonably expect the same level of integrated transport on an island the size of the Isle of Man? I don’t think, however, that the public transport infrastructure is as geared up and focused to the passenger as it perhaps could be. With most houses having 2 cars on the island (many of which drive up to 3 miles into Douglas), this should highlight that the public transport service is not meeting the needs of its existing or potential users.

What seems clear, particularly with the Department of Transport’s recent acquisition of 11 new double deck buses is that the passenger is not necassarily the primary user, and therefore concern of the service provider. With its wealth of school services provided by the bus services (and rightly so), the biggest customer is the Department for Education. Therefore, 11 new buses may be justified as it cascades other buses down to these heavy use services. What is difficult to justify, however, are the town services that run around with 50/60 seats, most of which are empty. This ceases to be efficient use of money, fuel or staff.

I believe that if you provide an efficient, reliable public transport service, people will use it – it has been proved the world over. So what’s wrong and how can things be improved?

Buses are infrequent and difficult to plan for

Bus services tend to have gaps of an hour or more between services. This is not helped by services not being around a clock-face timetable. Services depart from terminii at different times, making it difficult to plan for using public transport. (Service 3 from Ramsey: 06:50, 07:40, 08:00, 08:50, 09:10) I can’t wander down to a bus stop and wait for the next bus. I have no problem waiting 30 mins, but an hour or more if I have been unlucky enough not to fit within the bus timetable? More buses at better times that can be remembered are needed. A bus every 30 minuteson the hour or at a clock-faced timetable is a reasonable expectation, particularly on major routes. That way, even if the bus driver is early and I miss a bus (which has happened, resulting in a wait of 70 minutes), I only have to wait 30 minutes till the next. I am not asking for a high frequency service, just a reliable frequency service.

Use of vehicles is not entirely logical

Most vehicles are double decked, and are of relatively modern construction. There are a significantly smaller number of single deck vehicles for quieter periods and services. While double deck vehicles are ideal for school services and principle routes along the “commuter belt” (if one can call it that), they are less suited to town services. Town services provide the lifeblood to housing estates that are just a little too far for people to be able to walk, or even be prepared to walk. Again, the frequency and timing of “town services” is not logical. Instead, why not buy cheaper to buy, run and maintain vehicles – midi-size with up to 20/30 seats per vehicle? These would be ideal to zip in and around housing estates and into the various town centres, providing key accessibility for residents who do not have a car, cannot walk or feel they shouldn’t make such a small journey in their own vehicle (if such a person exists). A timetable may not even be needed for such small runs, allowing passengers to “turn up” at their local bus stop and expect a bus within 10 minutes or so. Such smaller vehicles would also be easier to manouvre around traffic calming measures on estates and difficult junctions, easing overall traffic flow. Services from the housing estates would also be better served if they went to Tesco, allowing parents and the elderly to be able to make a single journey, end-to-end.

Layout of routes isn’t logical

I tried getting on the bus to work from the Governor’s Hill Estate. This didn’t work out, but only because it didn’t save me any time in getting to work. the reason was that the bus started off at Governor’s Hill, then went into Birch Hill (therefore away from Douglas where it was heading), then around parts of Onchan, down onto the Promenade and to the bus stop at Lord Street. This seemed illogical to me. Why not have the bus travel from Governer’s Hill, maybe passing through Willaston Estate, Woodbourne Road (or the Promenade) and then to Lord Street? Why does the service have to go a long way out of its way before heading to its destination? A second service should start at Birch Hill and work through Onchan. Additionally, there is the bizarre situation where some locations on the island only get one service a day, going one way (for example, page 8, service 2 at 1155). What use it that? This seems to me just to be a way to meet public service requirements, rather than provide any common-sense of a service.

Bus times are restrictive

I’ve talked about the frequency and lack of useful timing of the buses, but it is also worth considering extending the hours of operation of the buses. The first bus from Ramsey left at 06:50, which would get me into Douglas at about 07:45 (Glencrutchery Road). I’d end up being at work at 08:00. If you need to get in to Douglas earlier than 08:00, forget it. Equally, travelling home late at night. Buses stop before midnight (last bus to Ramsey is Service 2 at 22:50, one and a half hours after the previous service), so late-night revellers (who enjoyed extended opening hours before the UK) have to pay the exhorbitant prices charged by taxi services. Older buses used for school services, or again smaller, nippier vehicles, could be deployed at these times particularly at festivals such as the Laxey Blue Festival and TT.

Why not use the Trams and Steam Trains?

I realise the Manx Electric Railway and Steam Railway represents a significant cost to operate, but has any thought been put to extending the services to encourage commuters to use them when they need to, in addition to operating for tourists? Running a tram every 30 mins between 07:00 and 09:00 from Ramsey would surely contirbute to reducing the number of cars travelling over the mountain each day, which can be a dangerous drive both as a result of weather conditions and other drivers’ actions. Would it cost so much more and contribute so little? Being able to travel to/from Douglas relatively easily can only improve Ramsey’s chances of avoiding an almost inevitable demise as a living town. Equally, what about the Steam Train? It even has a halt at Ronaldsway for Airport users to use. Indeed, a colleague of mine used to use the Steam Train to do their Tesco Shopping from Castletown.

SurveyFunnily enough, we got a survey regarding the bus services through the door today. This is a great example of the Department of Transport wanting to be seen to be soliciting user views. Opening up the survey, however, gave a different impression. For instance, question 4 reads “How often do you make this car journey?”. Erm, I’m in my house. Question 5 continues, with “What was the main purpose of your journey today?” Well, to pick up the survey from the bottom of the stairs, actually. Question 6: “Please tell us why you made your journey by car today”. Clearly, this survey is ill targetted or ill-worded. First rule of market research is: target your questions correctly, otherwise your responses are worthless.

All questions were closed questions and there was no provision to allow an open response, which I’d have quite enjoyed. (So I’m writing it here, instead). Brilliant idea in surveying users opinion, except that the users may not be users and those users would be thoroughly confused as to how to respond to the questions. Also, why send the survey out after spending £2 million on new buses? Surely the case should be used to justify the purchase, which had the right questions been asked, may have resulted in a better procurement being made – say of 20 (rather than 11) midi/mini-buses, operating more frequently?

As in the UK, public transport investment often comes down to cold cash. This is wrong. The knock-on benefits of a bus service or a train service can be slow to be realised, but can be significant. While technologically light years away from where the Isle of Man is, the recent opening of High Speed 1 is already proving that public transport represents serious benefits to the economy, and with High Speed 2 already being planned these benefits can only grow to wider parts of the UK. This goes for the Isle of Man too. Providing services people can use and rely on is essential for a public transport service to be successful. To lure people away from their cars needs more than plush new buses, it needs common sense thinking within public transport as a first step – and then encouraging changing of behaviour as a second step, such as increasing the costs of car journeys, particularly those under 5 miles or on equivelant bus routes.

Facebook Home Page

I’m not going to be the first and I won’t be the last to write about this, so I won’t labour the point. Hopefully the graphic says it all. The new Facebook home page seems to be trying to be more like Twitter than actually bringing prople together, which it was previously very good at. With the posted items and “ancillary” activity being demoted to the right column, I am now no longer as immersed in what my friends are posting, doing or playing. Some of my friends posted articles of interest, which allowed me to comment there and then. Now I only see abbreviations. The core area is now trying to be a Twitter copy, being filled with everyone’s status updates … oh, sorry “whatever is on their mind”.

Facebook home page

Verdict: Meh.

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.