Mobile strategy: Amazon vs. Flickr

I would love to understand the mobile strategies of some of the biggest brands on the internet. I am the user of two apps that one might consider to be rather major: Amazon UK, and Flickr. (On an Android phone.) Their strategies seem to be vastly different. And from usage of the respective apps, below is my interpretation of their supporting mobile strategies:

First, Amazon UK.

Make sure you can do everything on the app. that you can do on a computer through the website. Do so while recognising the difference between the way in which people use the different devices.

If you can add a new delivery address on the web, you should be able to do the same through the mobile app. Wishlists, split deliveries, save for later. All of that. Make sure people can do it. And make sure they are able to do it in an intuitive way.

Never lose sight of people’s desire to instruct us to do everything we can do for them while on the move. But also, never compromise the beauty and simplicity of interacting with Amazon.

Now, go deliver.

Now, Flickr.

We need to recognise that the mobile interface is way more limiting than the web browser on a computer. So we need to be mindful of which features we enable through the mobile app.

We can’t expect that the user can do everything through the mobile app. that they would be able to do on their computer. So we need to select which features we enable, and which we don’t.

We need to make judgments on what people might want to do, and not clutter the interface by giving them the option. For example, if someone’s in one of their friend’s photostreams and wants to search, we should make a judgment on what they want to search within.

My view is that Amazon’s strategy is right. It strives for the best, and it hits the mark. Flickr’s is wrong. It strives for compromise, and I always feel cheated when using the app. I am writing this very post from my computer. I turned my computer on after trying and failing on my phone to find an old photo from a friend’s Flickr photostream.

The heated discussions that surround thermostats

Well that was all rather bizarre. Some time ago, I joined a Facebook group called Photo Of My Thermostat. As its name suggests, it involves people taking pictures of their thermostats, or those they encountered upon their travels. The group’s description is as follows.

A group for people who wish to post a photo of their thermostat. Please note that only one photo of your thermostat is permitted, though if you have more than one thermostat (perhaps through inhabiting more than one property, or due to having an atypical central heating regime), you may post a photo of each thermostat*. In the event of one thermostat being shared by more than one group member, each member must post their own photo of the thermostat. *For these purposes thermostatic rad valves count as individual thermostats.

It’s an “Open Group”, meaning that anyone can see who’s in it and what its members post. But membership must be requested; and granted, refused or cancelled.

The group is humorous. It’s dry. It appeals to my geeky side, and, it seems, to that of its 200+ members. Its purpose is exact and exacting, and its members seem to relish in the geekery and humour that accompanies the subject matter. To me, it holds a similar allure to the Pencil Museum in Keswick.

I was alerted to the group a few months back through a friend’s status updates. I thought that it might be fun to join, and so requested the group’s owner to allow me membership. My request was accepted, and I was granted membership. I never got round to posting a picture of our thermostat, but I enjoyed the updates that the group yielded. And on the odd occasion, I contributed to the friendly banter, both with people I knew and those I didn’t.

Until recently.

One member of the group, Sharon, posted a picture of her air conditioning unit, complete with remote control in the foreground. Naturally, some lighthearted banter ensued surrounding the definition of a thermostat – specifically whether the device or the remote control technically constituted the thermostat. As you can imagine, things got pretty heated. (Ha!)

But actually, they did. I chimed into the discussion with a viewpoint, and agreed with Sharon when she cited what she saw as a constitutional crisis for the group. I suggested, rather glibly, that the group be renamed to “Photo Of My Thermostat And/Or Its Associated Remote Control, Wireless Or Otherwise”. The group’s owner, Neil Edmond, who had already shown frustration at the possibility of a constitutional crisis, seemed to come in heavy-handed with Sharon, challenging that there wasn’t a constitutional crisis beyond her that of her own making.

He was right, of course, although I would argue that Sharon’s comment was meant entirely in jest. At first, I thought Neil Edmond’s retorts were also in jest, but their frequency and lack of humour suggested otherwise. Greg chimed in.

It’s tantamount to anarchy, what’s next? Pictures of ceiling fans???

At this point, I posted within the comments a picture of a remote-controlled ceiling fan, with the comment:

Look at this bad boy!

Neil Edmond then took what was clearly banter that the group was enjoying, and thoroughly shat on it. Figuratively.

You see, Dan, that’s just you being provocative while knowing that it’s an infringement of the Thermostatic regulations, so you may either remove it or leave the group.

His comment was lovely and warranted, apart from the threatening and rather sinister final clause. After some further banter surrounding the word “umbrage”, there was another comment from Neil Edmond, recognising the quality of my involvement and then further threatening me.

Dan, yes, that’s good. However, it does not compensate for your inflammatory fan. You have until 11:00 GMT today to remove it.

Oddly, in the height of summer, he was still operating in Greenwich Mean Time. I would expect better from someone whose Facebook group is doubtless so seasonally aware. I left the picture up, and posted the following comment.

I’m sure the fan picture will be taken with the humour with which it was meant. If the authorities deem its posting to warrant expulsion from the group, then I relish the 53 minutes that I have remaining.

Some further banter. Then, shortly after 1200 BST, I was expelled from the group. And, indeed, all of my comments on said post were removed. (I know that this latter piece was a specific action on the part of Neil Edmond, rather than a symptom of being removed from a Facebook group, as my comments on other posts remain intact. A subsequent comment compared Mr. Edmond to General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. Neil Edmond threw in his final oar.

There have been some very nice Photos Of My (Their) Thermostats posted today. That is why the group exists. I do not enjoy people deliberately testing the boundaries of the Regulations because they think that’s the point. The Regulations in place allow tasteful, playful self-governance. Demands and accusations – which disrupt and overshadow the advice, discussion and communal invention which this Group is full of – will be met with warnings and action.

I believe the “demands and accusations” comment was directed at me, though I have no idea what demands I was making, nor indeed what accusations I was levelling.

All in all, I find his reaction all rather hilarious. Yes, I lose out for not being part of a rather enjoyable group. Yet I feel strangely freed from the dictatorial regime that seems to define it – though I quite enjoyed the support I received from fellow members.

Someone who has clearly set up a group partly for amusement purposes has come in heavy-handed on one of its newer members. Cuntitude of the highest order.

Here is a link to the diatribe-fuelled discussion in the Facebook group itself, after the edits that Neil Edmond made. Below is an image of the full discussion, complete with ceiling fan image, with many names redacted purely to protect the innocent. Click through (three times) to see it in all its glory. And notice the lack of a comment box at the end, signifying my lack of right to reply.

PoMT (reduced)

Candy Crush Saga: Saving the Planet

I have a theory. It’s utterly ridiculous. But it’s a theory nonetheless.

Who knows the book/film Ender’s Game? If so, carry on reading. If not, I thoroughly recommend you read the book. (I’ve not yet seen the film. I’ve heard it’s a bit shit.) And come back once you’ve read the book. (The book is wonderful.) If you choose to ignore my advice, then note that there are some spoilers to follow. Read on at your own risk.

So here’s the premise of Ender’s Game. It’s all about a kid called Ender Wiggin. He is selected by Earth’s authorities and is made to spend much of his life in Battle School, pretty much playing shoot-’em-up video games.

Spoiler alert: The last video game he plays is not actually a video game. Unbeknownst to him, it is instead a real-life battle against a bunch of aliens that are invading Earth. Ender wins the battle. Earth is saved. For the win. Literally.

Now here’s the theory. King, the company that developed the Candy Crush Saga game, is actually the Ministry of Earthly Defence. And Candy Crush Saga works on the same premise as the video game in Ender’s Game.

Every month, 46 million people are presented with screens filled with pieces of candy. They play the “game” every day some people every waking hour. In the game, they have a certain number of moves, or a limited amount of time, to complete each level. They practise the game, getting better and better, faster and faster. Hell, they even send invites to people who have no interest in receiving said invites asking that they join the legion game players. (I’ll politely decline, if it’s all the same.)

King has a record of who is good, who is not so good, who’s dedicated to the cause, who’s learning quickly, and who’s not worth bothering about. They know who’s stuck on Level 33. (Apparently, Level 33 is a bitch.) And who’s made it past Level 350 (also a bitch, though a more advanced bitch).

All the while, King are fine-tuning a sister application, Candy Crush Missile. This is a program that uses people’s activity in Candy Crush Saga to control real-life missile launchers that are positioned at various points around the globe.

When aliens invade Earth, the United Nations will press a button. The button is red, naturally. And the button links the Candy Crush Saga app with the Candy Crush Missile app.

Upon pressing the button, the world’s six most proficient Candy Crush Saga players will be selected to defend Earth from alien invasion. They will have no knowledge of having been selected. The candy in the games that appear on these players’ screens will suddenly be a live feed representing the aliens’ attacks.

The swipes that Pauline Collyer makes on her iPhone while stood in the aisle by the toilet on the 0656 train from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street will directly feed Candy Crush Missile, launching alien-bound missiles and rockets from all corners of the globe. Likewise, while the kids are sleeping upstairs in Richmond, CA, Ted Rubenstein will switch on his Nexus 7, his swipes sending yet more missiles skywards. Seinfeld will be on in the background. “The sea was angry that day, my friends.”

Their actions will feed the missile launchers along with those of Hanari Akemi from Umahori, who will decide to grab a quite late bite to eat while playing Candy Crush Saga during her lunch hour in downtown Kyoto, Japan; Brad C. Johnston, who by all rights should be paying attention to his 4pm Applied Mathematics lecture at the University of Newcastle on Australia’s east coast; nine-year-old Kirsty Tenneson in Honolulu, playing on her Nexus 5 instead of sleeping (her parents are downstairs watching Orange is the New Black); and Tania Nuñez, a night owl in Valparaiso, Chile, who has taken a break from her history assignment that’s due in on Friday.

Only time will tell whether their skills will be enough to protect us. And whether the history assignment will ever be handed in.

Being a contractor

Tonight, as I arrived at the train station to start my journey home, my client emailed me to ask whether I was still around. I picked up the email on my phone.

I called him straight away. He needed something urgently.

Five minutes later at my interchange station, I got my laptop out on the platform bench and VPN-ed into work using my 3G dongle. (My 4G one arrives next week.) When my London-bound train arrived, I boarded and continued my investigations, connected all the while. Upon arrival in London, I wasn’t yet done. But I emailed my progress through.

I descended into the Underground and boarded the first Tube to arrive, not before connecting to the Wi-Fi with my phone. An email arrived from the same client asking me to call him. I alighted the train immediately, just before the doors closed and without having travelled anywhere, and used Skype to call him from the Tube platform. Neat!

I then took the Tube to my home station and popped into the pub. I had been intending to catch the end of the Italy–Costa Rica match. But needs must.

I got my laptop out and logged in again via my 3G dongle. A quick Skype call to the US helped me complete my analysis, leaving me free to go and watch my daughter recite her Brownie Promise and beam with pride.

As a contractor, I pride myself at being always on. There are rarely times when I cannot be contacted, and usually I’m able to react quickly to a request for help.

I surround myself with tools that allow me to do just that. My dongle allows me to connect my laptop pretty much anywhere. My phone alone allows me to accomplish an awful lot without delving into my bag, and allows me to stay on top of things on the go.

And PowWowNow and Skype (including Skype On The Go) give me the edge. I can call internationally without worrying overly about cost. And I can schedule a conference call without a moment’s thought.

All of this costs money, cost that is not passed onto the client directly. But in my view, it’s an essential part of being a contractor. The extra mile, if you like.

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average: what does that mean?

I read a slightly odd article today. It was in that popular rag Computer World UK.

It contained two sentences that while not in themselves contradictory, were certainly juxtaposed.

First, the story’s headline:

G-Cloud achieving 50% savings on average.

And later, this:

Some organisations have saved 50 percent on previous costs for IT services, according to [Tony] Singleton.

I don’t have the data. But these two sentences are far from tautological. Nor is either as mind-blowing as it might at first read.

Let’s take them separately and in order.

If G-Cloud supported 10 deals, the first five reducing costs from £1,000 to £100; and the other five reducing costs from £100m to £90m, then G-Cloud has achieved 50% savings on average. Five deals came in with a 90% saving; the other five came in with a 10% saving. ((5 * 10%) + (5 * 90%)) / 10 = 50%.

In this example, the total saving is 10.0008%. But the headline is grander.

And now to the second. Some organisations have saved over 50%. This is basically saying that two or more organisations have done better than halving their costs. Two organisation may have each cut costs from £1,000 to £400, with every other organisation’s spend dwarfing these two organisations’ spend, all bringing in trivial relative savings.

None of the other statistics in the article gave further clarity on the savings achieved. But a bogus spelling of the word “received” certainly made me question its journalistic credibility, perhaps unfairly.

It’d be good to get hold of the data set used to inform the assertions.

David Cameron’s letter re. the Employment Allowance: my views

On Saturday, the last day of the 2013–14 tax year, I received a letter. It was from David Cameron, our prime minister, and it introduced me to the Employment Allowance, which as a small business owner could save me up to £2,000 per year. (It won’t. But that’s by the by.)

Here is a full transcript of that letter.

I was annoyed. Deeply annoyed. And this was for a couple of reasons.

First, the letterhead was that of 10 Downing Street. Now HMRC contacts me quite regularly to tell me about entitlements, my obligations, changes to my tax status, how much I owe, how much I am owed (rarely), their losses of my data etc. But never before to my recollection has any such communication come from the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government.

My view is that this is an official change to tax legislation that has a potential impact on me as a small business owner (owner of a small business, not a business owner of diminutive stature). As such, it should come from HMRC, the people who are responsible for the administration and coordination of my tax affairs. It should not come from the prime minister’s office.

Next, the letter was signed by David Cameron. (Or at least a scanned version of his signature appeared at the base of the letter.) My view is that this should come from a civil servant, not from a politician. This is not a political matter. When HMRC allegedly lost some CDs containing my data, along with that of all other child benefit claimants, I received a letter from Dave Hartnett, then permanent secretary of HMRC, not the minister of the day.

Third, the marketing spiel.

Britain has been through some very tough years. We endured one of the biggest bank bailouts in the world and the deepest recession in generations. For businesses and charities like yours, on the frontline of the economy, we know it has been especially difficult.

We came into Government with a long term economic plan to rescue the economy.

Thanks to your hard work, we are now seeing the results. A private-sector recovery with the economy growing, jobs being created, and confidence reaching new highs. Businesses are saying to us they want to invest, grow, and take on new people. The Employment Allowance is about helping you to do that.

This is the main bit that made me put pen to paper. This is a letter being paid for by me, the taxpayer. And it is being sent by Mr. Cameron, who holds two primary positions: prime minister of the United Kingdom; and leader of the Conservative Party. If the letter had been sent from him in his position as prime minister of the UK, then that is fine and dandy. But the three paragraphs above strike me as having been written more by the leader of the Conservative Party.

They are marketing through-and-through. They are intended to make me feel fantastic about the good work that the current government is doing. They are intended to make me vote Conservative at the next election.

I resent the fact that Cameron is using taxpayers’ money to make a political statement. It’s so blatant and goes entirely against the ethos of government.

(As an aside, David, my view is that front line should be two words; long-term as an adjective should be hyphenated, and private sector should not be hyphenated, even when used as an adjective within a sentence that’s not a sentence. (A colon would have been a much more welcome introduction to that little clause now, wouldn’t it?))

Driving range shot tracking: this, my friends, is the future

Today, I witnessed the future. Not only that, I *experienced* the future.

I took my daughter to play crazy golf at World of Golf’s Dinosaur Golf in New Malden. Our first visit to that venue. Thoroughly recommended. (I had a good round, scuppered by a woeful effort on the 16th, comparable only to Rory McIlroy’s efforts on the 10th in his final round at Augusta in 2011. I digress.)

After an intense 18 holes, we bought 100 balls to crack off on the driving range.

A big banner told me that my shots would be tracked and measured at no extra cost. This had me rather excited. Data meets golf. What’s not to like?

This is how it works.

You choose your bay. We chose bays 45 and 46 on the top deck. (If there are two decks, you have to choose the top one, right? It’s the law.) Then you log into the Wi-Fi with your smart phone, hit a website and tell it which bay you’re in. And you put your phone on a stand in front of your tee.

Then you start cracking off your balls. (Not a euphemism.)

Cameras track your shots. Don’t ask me how. It’s voodoo I believe. Your screen shows you the arc of your shot. (The right side of my screen was becoming well-worn and overheated.) And it tells you the take-off angle and speed, as well as the distance the ball carried and its maximum height. Utterly mesmerising.

And it seemed pretty damned accurate.

I didn’t figure out a way of you telling it which club you were using. I’m sure there’s a way, but I was too busy being blown away by the concept to worry about that.

Apart from the odd 5I shots, I stuck to my lovely new driver and my equally delightful new 3W. It was only the second outing for the 3W, yet it proved rather fabulous, equalling the driver for distance and being more reliable in direction. (This was probably more down to my poor handling of the driver than my prowess with the 3W.)

Here’s a link to my stats. Only 25 shots were recorded. (My daughter took half of the balls, and the technology had me sufficiently baffled for many of my own. For the record, she strikes the ball consistently and well, and while she lacks distance, her aim is probably better than mine.)

I’m happy carrying over 200 yards on a few occasions, some of those with the 3W. But I need to work on my direction consistency.

Utterly blown away by the technology. It really is rather special. And I will most certainly be going back.

Gwynne and Marsh: Questions of Grammar

I attended a debate last night. Titled Questions of Grammar, it featured David Marsh, Production Editor for the Guardian, and Nevile Gwynne, author and pompous buffoon.

The premise was a discussion on the merits of grammatical education, although it was confused slightly between this topic and a wider one about the evolution or otherwise of language.

Gwynne was stuck in the Dark Ages, arguing for the rigorous education of every nuance of grammar.

His view was that while words have changed, grammar has not changed significantly since the 16th century. And that every child should learn its intricacies so that they know when to stray and when not to. (Shit, did I just start a sentence with a conjunction?) Someone not educated in grammar is, after all, incapable of thinking, so he believes.

His argument against the use of “hopefully” when qualifying an entire sentence, while grammatically watertight, was utter bunkum.

Marsh was more pragmatic, accepting, nay embracing, grammatical evolution. He delighted over split infinitives and quoted some grammatical ugliness from Wodehouse that simply sang *because* of its grammatical ugliness. (I wish I could source the quote.)

At one point, through the powerful use of utter fiction, Gwynne cited a causal link between declining grammatical education and the suicide rate in the UK. Shoot me now!

The high point of the evening was when a girl from the audience, aged around eight, stood up (after being invited to do so by our chair, Matthew Reisz) to confidently refute Gwynne’s suggestion that schools stopped teaching grammar in the 1960s. (Ah bollocks. Split infinitive.) Her Islington school was, she informed us, rigorously educating its students in the specifics of grammatical structure.

The low point of the evening was when Gwynne retorted almost angrily, asking whether the girl knew what a conjunction was.

I myself asked a question of the protagonists:

Is American English a different language altogether, or are they simply illiterate?

My question was intentionally loaded, prompted in part by a very eloquent lady, who sounded vaguely American, having previously asked a question. Gwynne berated the intentional bastardization of the language by the Americans, while Marsh cited their use of some traditional constructs, such as “gotten”, that have fallen out of favour/favor over here.

(As an aside, my view is that the Americans have some beautiful constructs – the use of write as a transitive verb (“write someone”); the omission of a preposition in “schedule a meeting Monday”. Any assertion that American English constitutes a different language because of subtle grammatical differences is preposterous.)

To me, Gwynne came across as inaccessible and unapproachable. His formal stance made one not want to listen to him, thus defeating his own argument about the important constituent parts of communication. Marsh came across as fun (to the extent that grammarians can be fun) and accessible.

I could see myself sharing a Nando’s with Mr. Marsh; but hopefully I’ll never encounter Mr. Gwynne ever again.

#KPgrammar

The role of Ofsted in schools

Ever since I can remember, education in the UK has been measured through the use of exam results, at GCSE and A-level. Until the last year or so, some statistic about how many students received a certain number of A*–C (A–C grades before the A* was introduced) has been steadily increasing, giving the general public a warm and fuzzy feeling about how well the Secretary of State for Education is doing in his or her role.

During the same period, school qualifications have become more and more meaningless and valueless.

As I’ve said previously, this needs to change. The proportion of students achieving each grade in a given subject should be fixed year on year. Students should be evaluated against their peers. This is the only way in which grades can become meaningful again. If I received the CVs of two people, one of whom attained five As, three Bs and two Cs; and one of whom had ten As, I am unable to meaningfully compare them unless I know which year in which they took their exams. And even if I was armed with that information, I wouldn’t have sufficient information to be able to discern which candidate had performed better.

Children’s inherent intelligence is not fundamentally changing over the course of time. Certainly not to an extent that can be detected between one August and the next.

(The same is arguably true of employees, by the way. If your organisation is sufficiently large, you should be able to group a fixed proportion of people into each of a number of performance brackets. But that’s an aside.)

So if exam results were to be standardised, Ofsted becomes more important. The quality of education being offered by a school should be measured in two ways: its overall approach; and its outputs (exam results). (Arguably, a school that only accepts really bright students will demonstrate very good exam results, so perhaps a third measure, about its outputs compared to its inputs (11+ results?) might also be useful.)

The quantitative measure(s) involving exam results can easily be collated and presented based on hard data. But Ofsted’s softer role is ever more important in ensuring that this is backed up with empirical evidence about how a school operates on a day-to-day basis.

Eight years of BBC News reporting on rail fare increases

2006–07: Train fare rises draw criticism

Above-inflation price rises for rail tickets have come under attack from rail groups and opposition politicians. Many areas’ regulated fares, which include season tickets, have risen by 4.3% – about 1% above inflation – but some unregulated fares are up by 7.3%. The Tories said the “galling” rises showed ministers had failed to sort out the railways. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said fares needed simplifying.

2007–08: Passengers face train fare rises

Passengers are to be hit by above-inflation rate fare increases. Season tickets and saver and standard day returns will rise by 4.8% on average, says the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc). Others, such as cheap day returns and long-distance open and advance fares will go up by 5.4%.

2008–09: Latest train fare rises attacked

Above-inflation rail fare increases of more than 6% are “completely out of kilter with the real economy”, passenger groups have said. Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus said hikes were “difficult to explain” as wages were not rising by the same rate. Train firms say more money will allow greater investment in services.

2009–10: Rise in rail ticket prices criticised by watchdog

Rail watchdog Passenger Focus has criticised the new year rise in fares, which have gone up by an average 1.1%. Season tickets and standard day tickets might see a “very small reduction” in cost, but some of unregulated ticket hikes were “quite stinging”, it said. Another campaign group said fares should be cut to the European average. The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said the majority of passengers would see “a fall, no rise or an increase below inflation”.

2010–11: Rail season tickets for some commuters ‘pass £5,000′

The cost of some annual season tickets will exceed £5,000 for the first time when prices go up on Sunday, the Campaign for Better Transport has said. Season ticket prices across the UK will rise by an average of 5.8%, while London bus and Tube fares go up 6.8%. CBT said some Kent commuters would have to bear rises of nearly 13% and warned of people being priced off the trains.

2011–12: Commuter pain as rail fare rises take effect

Rail commuters preparing to return to work after the Christmas break face fare rises of up to 11% from Monday, watchdog Passenger Focus has said. Chief executive Anthony Smith said they should not have to keep paying for a “fractured, inefficient industry”. The annual rise will see the average price of regulated fares, such as season tickets, increase by 6%. The Association of Train Operating Companies said money raised through fares helped pay for better services.

2012–13: Rail commuters hit by 4.2% average fare rise

Rail fares for season ticket holders have increased by an average of 4.2% as the annual price hike, announced in August, comes into effect. Overall, ticket prices have gone up by 3.9% in England, Wales and Scotland, but rises vary between train operators. The TUC has claimed average train fares have risen nearly three times faster than average incomes since 2008. Transport minister Norman Baker said the government had intervened to ensure fare rises were capped at about 4%.

2013–14: Rail fare rise of 2.8% comes into effect

An average 2.8% increase in rail fares comes into effect on Thursday, pushing the cost of some commuter travel to more than £5,000 a year. The increase is the smallest rise in four years, according to the pan-industry Rail Delivery Group. Chancellor George Osborne said in last month’s Autumn Statement he would keep fares in line with July’s Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate of 3.1%. But campaigners say that fares are rising three times faster than incomes.

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