avast: loyalty in spite of problems

Last night, avast suffered a rather large issue. All of a sudden, it started blocking seemingly every http web page. I still had email access (over https), but even attempts to Google what the problem had the results blocked.

avast’s blog post of yesterday indicated that this was a result of a false positive issue with one of their virus definitions updates. By the time I’d read this, I’d already downloaded AVG’s free offering just to get me up and running again. avast’s mistake here was not to advertise the issue clearly on their website, particularly given its crippling impact. (I’ve just watched a Guy Kawasaki video in which one of his messages is: Deliver Bad News Early.)

As a paying avast customer, I will go back to them. Not *because* I’m a paying customer, but because the product is all kinds of awesome.

I’ve been burnt by horrendous anti-virus software in the past. Namely: Norton. Norton is a horrendous application, a virus in and of itself. It sucks the life out of users. It announces and advertises its presence at every opportunity. And it makes you want to throw your laptop through the next available window.

avast is the opposite of Norton. Its spinning disc sits innocently in the tray at the bottom of the screen, there purely to inspire confidence. On occasions, it tells me that the virus definitions have been updated. But beyond that, I know not of its existence.

I’ve been an avast customer since 31 May 2006. And I will continue to be their customer long after our fifth anniversary.

The cost of Kindle books

I was waxing lyrical about my Kindle at work on Thursday. This followed my post extolling its virtues the previous evening.

My client was lacklustre about the concept of an electronic reading device. She claimed she liked the feel of a book, and didn’t see the appeal of reading it on a screen. In fact, she was mildly repulsed at the thought.

So I showed her. She immediately warmed to it. She liked that it was the size of a book, and that the contents of the screen looked just like a book, as opposed to being backlit in an iPad-esque kind of way. She liked that it could hold 3,000+ books, and that its battery would last for weeks. She was particularly interested in being able to take lots of books on holiday without having to pack them all. The upfront cost didn’t bother her too much either.

She asked whether all titles were available. So I asked what she would be interested in. We did a quick search for the book that she was currently reading. On Amazon UK, Martina Cole’s The Family was priced as follows:

She will never buy a Kindle.

This needs to be sorted. I’m not sure why the Kindle book costs more than both the paperback and the hard cover. Is the publisher charging more for making their author’s work available electronically? Or is Amazon strapping on a significant margin for Kindle editions?

Whatever the reason, the electronic version of a book should *never* be more expensive than its physical equivalent. Same price, possibly; cheaper, almost always. As well as not turning people like my client off immediately, such a cost model is important to reflect the true cost of delivering the work to the buyer. Kindle editions are cheaper to create in the first instance, and the incremental delivery cost is so much lower than that of physical editions.

So Amazon, sort out your cost model. And don’t shame yourself in front of prospective customers again. OK?

Kindle: reviving my interest in reading

I’m loving my Kindle. I’ve had it for a few weeks now, and it’s re-ignited my love of reading.

Don’t get me wrong—I read before. But over time, my reading has become more bitty. I now read blogs, tweets, news articles, seldom delving into books any more.

Enter Kindle stage left. I’ve started reading books again. First up was Peter Taylor’s The Lazy Project Manager. And now I’m reading Professor Brian Cox’s Why does E=MC2. And each morning, my daughter chooses whether Winnie the Pooh or Alice in Wonderland will delight us aboard the bus to school.

I’m not reading swathes—I’ve never been that sort of reader. But when I board a bus or Tube, I automatically reach for the Kindle. And that, I love.

I have but two gripes thus far.

First, it seems that books launched to the Kindle are not proofread as well as their offline equivalents. (“Andmass…” at the beginning of a sentence, instead of “And mass…” in Why does E=MC2, for example.) Where the book is available both physically and on the Kindle, I’m surprised at the Kindle typos, and doubt that they’ve made their way into the offline versions. Yet I would be equally surprised if the books had been re-typed for electronic delivery. So I’m flummoxed.

Second, there’s a user interface gripe to which I have no answer. It seems that standard text formatting is justified, meaning that the edge of the text lines up beautifully down the left and right of the page. But because of the Kindle’s relatively narrow reading pane, fewer words appear on a single line under the standard portrait view than is the case in a paperback. The result: on occasions, where a particularly long word appears at the start of a line, the Kindle is unable to successfully kern the previous line, resulting in a ragged right line in the middle of an otherwise justified paragraph. It grates.

Overall though, utter joy.

BBC News: six months on

It is six months to the day since the BBC launched their new look news website. The timing of this post is entirely coincidental—I sent myself a reminder earlier to post my more considered opinions. So here goes.

I still hate it. On 19 July (a birthday post, it seems), I wrote a considered yet damning post articulating my views. Nine days later, upon reflection, my opinions hadn’t changed.

And six months later, I’m in the same boat. I use the News homepage as a means of accessing directly some of the lead stories. But I rarely touch the rest of the site. On the previous version, I regularly accessed many of the main sections on what was the left-hand nav.—Technology, Science/Nature (as it was), Politics, Sport etc. Now, I access my bookmarked Sport page, but rarely think to go to the other section homes.

I feel that the BBC are depriving me of news I was once eager to access. Yes, it’s partly down to my laziness. But in the main, I feel that it’s down to some site changes that didn’t focus sufficiently on the user—me.

UPS/Apple fail

I bought my wife an iPad for Christmas.  She only just got it in time for the big day.

The bundle of joy (iPad) was bought on the Apple store.  Apple chose to use United Parcel Service (UPS) to deliver said good.

They tried on three consecutive weekdays, and their door-knocks went unanswered.  I was at work trying to earn enough to pay for the device.

I called them up at an extortionate rate and arranged a re-delivery on a day I knew I’d be home.  The lovely man from UPS turned up as promised.  He delivered package two of two—a SIM card.  He informed me that he was the driver that attempted the prior deliveries, and was fully aware of the other parcel, but told me that it wasn’t on his van.  Shit.

Once again, I called the 0870 number, again paying for the privilege of waiting for someone to answer the phone.  I asked for package one of two to be delivered to my work address the following Tuesday.

It wasn’t.

I called the 0870 number (hold, etc.) and was told that the reason it wasn’t delivered to my work address was that to do so would have needed authorisation from Apple.  I had not given this authorisation.

So I asked for a delivery at home, on another day I knew I’d be home.  It didn’t show.  I called (yada-yada) and received an apology (backlog) and was promised a home delivery the following day (Christmas Eve).  When I looked online at 11pm that evening, I received confirmation that it had been delivered that morning.  To my work address.  Despite no such authorisation having been given to Apple.

So on Christmas Day, I spent £30 on taxi fares to and from work (open, fortunately) to collect the iPad.

The Apple user experience thus far has been dreadful.  I’m hoping that it will improve herein.

Unique selling points: Apple, Google and Microsoft

Charles Arthur yesterday pondered what the USPs were of the big three technology giants of our day: Apple, Google and Microsoft (listed in alphabetical order, for those trying to read too much into things). He was after the companies’ USPs, as opposed to those of the products or services they offer. But naturally, these worlds overlap somewhat.

Here’s my attempt at a response.

Apple: its USP is its user experience, or UX to coin a slightly wanky abbreviation. Its products are beautiful to use—simple as that.

Google: its USP is its deep understanding of the relationship between users and web content. Whether this is search and results or targeted advertising, Google is able to connect the two better than anyone else.

Microsoft: its USP is fulfilling vital, generic functions better than anyone else. Word, Excel and PowerPoint merely represent replacements for lined paper, gridded paper and blank paper respectively, but the functions therein are so rich and deep-rooted that they will continue to dominate this space for some time to come.

I’d be interested in other people’s perspectives on this, as indeed would Charles, I expect.

paper.li: my take

paper.li is the most beautiful and practical application of Twitter data I’ve yet seen.  And somewhat ironically, it harks back to a day when newspapers were all the rage.

The application essentially aggregates and presents back information in the form of a single web page based on a Twitter ID.  Mine is here.  Sounds simple, but I’m guessing the algorithms that drive it are quite complex.  And that’s what makes the offering so compelling.  They seem to find the articles that I find most interesting, those that I would have retweeted had I seen them on my Twitter feed.

In some respects, its charm is similar to that of Facebook.  The algorithms that determine what constitutes your Facebook homepage seem similarly complex.  How long does Facebook wait until it tells you the number of your friends that have recently connected to another person, for example?  And with paper.li, what factors determine whether articles are presented to you and the order in which they appear?

It’s lovely.  And useful.  If you’re off Twitter for a while, it’s a good way to catch up without being overwhelmed.

Google Contacts annoyance

Google Contacts is allegedly getting an upgrade.  It has apparently been rolled out to the basic (sorry) GMail customers and will soon be with us Google Apps customers.  I’m never sure whether to be honoured that upgrades always seem to be road-tested by the lesser GMail brethren, or to be annoyed that they get them first.  Either way, I can bear little influence.

The upgrade will make contacts more usable, allegedly.  But as far as I’ve read, I don’t think it will solve my biggest gripe.

You see, I like order in my digital world.  I like my photos to be tagged and geolocated.  I like my invoices to be consistent.  And I like my contacts to be pure.  They are always saved as “Surname, Forename” (even my grandma, for Doherty, Pete’s sake).

Whenever I email someone new, either actively or as a response to an incoming email, they automatically appear in the All Contacts bucket, but don’t make it into the My Contacts bucket.  That’s good, because I don’t want what might be stray contacts making their way into the sanctity that is the My Contacts bucket.  But only by undertaking a comparison of the All Contacts bucket to the My Contacts bucket can I figure out what these wretched new contacts are, to make a decision as to whether to formalise them or bin them.

So on an ad hoc basis, I export My Contacts, export All Contacts, load both into Excel, do some vlookup jiggery-pokery and identify the delta.  I then go through those contacts one by one deciding whether to delete them or formalise them by transferring them to My Contacts and adding the necessary metadata (Surname, Forename etc.).

Frustrating isn’t the word, but it’ll do.

Interoperability of road markings

I admire Boris.  I think he’s done a great deal already to promote the profile of bicycles in London, doing a similar job for bikes as Ken did for buses.  The recent introduction of the Cycle Superhighways (CSs) and the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme can only be a good thing.

But the road is now a very confusing place to be.  Many years ago, bus lanes didn’t exist.  Now they do, each one operating during a different set of times, some allowing taxis and motorbikes, others not.  Many road junctions now come with two solid white lines separated by an “advanced stop zone” for cyclists.  Possibly for motorcyclists too—who knows?  (Whether it’s technically illegal for a car to stop in said zone is subject to some debate.)

We have green cycle lanes which have been around for some time and the newly introduced blue CSs.  But when the blue CS expands to encompass an entire car lane, the only such lane that allows vehicles to go straight on, heaven knows what the cars should do.

Meanwhile, single and double-yellow lines on the side of the road are now joined by double-red lines, a suggestion that double-yellow lines were not sufficiently stringent.

And big, red Cs also adorn our roads, indicating that you’re approaching/in the Congestion Charging Zone.

The road and its plethora of colours and markings make a confusing place to be.  And I’m a Londoner, supposedly well-versed in, and certainly well-travelled on, the asphalt underfoot.  What it must be like for a tourist is anyone’s guess.

Someone should really take a step back and redefine the business requirements that the road markings are trying to achieve.  And then come up with a revised stylebook to support their implementation.  For I for one am confused.

BBC News: you win some, you lose some

BBC online may have just saved itself.  For iPhone users at least.

Earlier this month, BBC News launched its new offering.  While the information architecture of the site didn’t undergo a change, the navigation into that information architecture was turned upside down.  Side menus were moved to the top, while the navigational elements within the body of the homepage were unrecognisable.  And the site sucks on an iPhone where the previous site was easily navigable.  My review of the changes can be found here.

As is often the case with such wholesale changes, people reacted badly.  People don’t like change.  And when it’s something as beloved as the BBC website—an offering that has generated affinity and affection in keeping with its offline brand—the reaction to the change is all the more vociferous.  But usually this reaction calms down as people get used to, nay sometimes begin to prefer, the new offering.  (As an aside, I loved the previous redesign in March 2008 from the moment I set my eyes on it.)

With this change, there has been no such calming.  Three weeks in, the people who I know and trust still don’t like it.  It’s still confusing and unintuitive, and the BBC has ruled out reverting to the previous incarnation.

To address my frustration at the user experience of the site on the iPhone, I downloaded the newly launched BBC News iPhone app.  And I have to say, it’s lovely—at least in comparison to the disgrace that is the website.  And it also addresses head-on the Adobe issue, its video footage being accessible through the application.

But I’m still annoyed with the website from my laptop.  And I can’t see this going away.  And so for the time being, the Guardian will be the source of a greater proportion of my online news absorption.

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