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.

Kindle or tablet? Silly question

I’ve been involved in a few debates recently over why people need a Kindle when they have an iPad or other Kindle-enabled tablet.

It’s a ridiculous argument, in my view. For two reasons.

First, battery life.

My Kindle stays charged for weeks. Literally. I’ll probably charge mine every three weeks or so, more to top it up than necessarily because it’s running low on juice. This is of massive appeal. I can pop it in my bag, just as I would a book, and forget about it until such time that I choose to read it. If I had to take it out of my bag each night to charge it, something would be lost. Something very important.

Second, and more importantly, experience.

When I read my Kindle, I’m reading a book. It’s the size of a book, and the utterly delightful E Ink technology makes it feel like a book. A beautiful, imperfect book, even with slight “printing” flaws owing to the technology.

When reading on a tablet, I’m reading a magazine. Even when the screen’s brightness is set low, the experience is completely different to that of the Kindle. It’s backlit, and that fundamentally changes the reading experience. My eyes are working, not dancing. I’m no doctor, but I expect that their state while reading a Kindle is very different to that when they’re reading a tablet.

And that’s why for now, there’s absolutely a place for the Kindle in your bag, even if you’ve got a tablet.

(Note: I don’t own a tablet. But I’ve borrowed them, from the likes of my daughter.)

Google Play Music: a review

On 22 November, I decided that enough was enough. I needed a new music solution.

All of my digital music was residing on my old, largely defunct laptop which I’d replaced in June. It was sitting in iTunes in a library that I was far from happy with, as I’ve documented in a previous post, titled How Apple ruined my music collection.

Now as many of you will be aware, iTunes is the biggest piece of shit ever to grace a PC laptop. I know many of you Apple fanboyz/girlz will wax lyrical about how wonderful it is on a Mac (although I understand that there are even Mac users who hate it). But on a PC, it’s supremely appalling. Dog shit, if you will.

But that aside, the problem with digital music is that it came too soon. People had big music collections. Mine weighs in at a respectable but by no means mind-boggling 5,500-ish tracks. At maybe 4Mb per song, that’s around 20Gb of music.

Computer hard drives could just about cope with such volumes when iPods were first introduced in the very early part of the new millennium. But iPods could not. They started at 5Gb, although they soon got up high enough to cater for my 20Gb.

But then smartphones were introduced. And these came with SSDs rather than spinning discs. This meant that they were faster, quieter and much more worthy of a hug. But it also meant that their storage capacity was limited. And it meant compromise. You were (I was) unable to store your entire music collection on your portable device. So you had to pick and choose.

Even today, over eleven years after the first iPod came out, my Google Nexus packs a rather paltry 16Gb of storage. But that storage is for everything. Currently, about 5.5Gb of it is used for apps, photos and data other than music. A further 2.3Gb I am unable to access (the Android OS, I expect). Leaving just over 8Gb for music, if I so choose. Not enough for my entire music collection.

Over the years, I’ve upgraded laptops a few times, and music has been lost along the way. I’ve restored partial music collections from iPods. DRM-ed music confuses the hell out of me, and I’ve slowly grown to loathe everything that iTunes is about. It could have been so wonderful. But instead it contributed significantly to fragmenting my music collection. (Every time I’ve upgraded my laptop, I’ve struggled long and hard about how to move my music across.)

Now I’ve often thought about buying a NAS. But I don’t really have a N to speak of to which I can A the S. And they sound that bit too scary. So I haven’t.

But then along came Google Music.

Overnight on 22 November, and throughout most of 23 November, my old laptop’s internal fan was in overdrive as the laptop was resurrected to upload 4,705 songs from its music library into the Google Play Music cloud. It was working. And I felt huge relief and excitement. (There are about 400 tracks thereon that won’t upload, but I’m not quite sure why. It may be something to do with DRM. They’re probably those ones with the funny icon next to them in iTunes, an icon that I don’t comprehend and that has no hover text.)

And now it’s there, it’s lovely. I can play it direct from the Chrome browser. No need for installs. Just lovely. Some of the metadata has been maintained from iTunes, including number of plays. (Sadly, the five-star iTunes rating has been replaced with one with only three levels: thumbs up, nothing or thumbs down.)

And while all of the music can be streamed from the Android app on my phone (which over 3G might rack up some big bills), I can also highlight specific music that I want to store locally. And that music has been downloaded to the Nexus to use up some of my spare disk space until such time that available phone storage exceeds music collection.

The only thing I’d like now is the ability to stream to my Sonos player. I’m expecting that’s on its way.

In the meantime, I’m happy. Happy that I again have a definitive music collection, one that is not tied to a device for the first time since I collected CDs.

Using hashtags for metadata

Throughout my time working with the civil service, people have bemoaned the problem of metadata. Metadata simply isn’t captured in documents. Users don’t have the inclination to do so. And a centralised resource to do the same would be both expensive and, likely, ill-placed to tag documents appropriately.

In Twitter, we use metadata despite only having 140 characters within which to do so. Hashtags are themselves pieces of metadata.

So what if hashtags were used in documents. Not as tags at the beginning or end of a document, because that requires a specific effort beyond the creation of the document. Instead, hashtags littering the body of the document itself. CamelCase would again take off like it was the mid-90s, given the need for spaceless tags, but that’s a small price to pay.

Document viewing software could repurpose hashtags as regular text, both for reading and for printing. But critically, the tags would be there to categorise documents and to give glee to librarians the world over.

My view is that if people take the effort in tweets, then they’re equally likely to do so in documents if the effort is minimal (one key-press) and the reward is clear.

Or in this technologically advanced world, is metadata a thing of the past?

The trouble with Flickr

I made a couple of comments on Twitter last week about Flickr’s snail-like evolution.

That #Flickr is advertising as “New” the newly introduced “Upload” button in their primary nav. is what makes #Yahoo! doomed.

That Upload button is the most significant software upgrade in the last 24 months. #Flickr #Yahoo!

Reading Gizmodo’s article on a similar subject just now, I was quite close to the mark.

Since Flickr was bought by Yahoo!, there have been few technological developments that are visible to the end user. The odd screen may have received a makeover, and I think I can now see other people’s photos on maps. But beyond that, there’s little.

In fact, the main difference to me is that I was forced to start paying for the service (on 30 July 2008), as I needed to upload more pictures than the free account allowed. I don’t resent this. All services should be paid for.

What I resent is the lack of focus on me as a user by Yahoo!

I’d love to be able to log in with other systems’ credentials.

I’d love to be able to allow my Facebook followers automatic access to my protected photos.

I’d like a much richer interface for seeing my friends’ photos.

I’d like to be able to upload videos more than 90 seconds in length.

I’d like all photos taken on my smart phone to automatically upload to Flickr when in WiFi range, and for these only to be accessible by myself.

I’d like a much improved interface into my own photostream—timelines, montages, albums.

I’d like my geotagging of my own photos to have a positive impact on me, rather than merely fuelling other people’s views of the world.

Instead, I have none of these features. Instead, I have the privilege of losing access to all bar 200 of my photos if I ever stop paying.

Flickr will not die. Certainly not for a long time. Instead it will live a long dull life. Its user base will remain uninspired and unimpressed. And its functionality will creep forward while those around it bound past it. I wonder whether I’ll be a part of it.

Facebook, Google, Apple. Finding the line

Facebook is there to connect you with your friends, old and new. Its purpose is to allow you to share moments of your life, and enjoy moments in other people’s lives, generally to bring people closer together.

Meanwhile, Google is trying to make your online experience more simple and rich, providing applications such as email, maps, calendars, documents to make things easier; the likes of YouTube and Picasa to make things richer; and a kick-ass search engine to allow you to find exactly what you’re looking for.

And Apple is intent on providing a beautiful and simplistic experience when connecting with technology, both in the devices themselves and the interfaces that they support.

That’s the gloss. Here’s the cynic’s view.

Facebook is intent on ensuring that when people connect with other people or organisations online, they do it in the confines of Facebook. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Google is intent on ensuring that when people want to do anything online, they do it through Google. And in so doing, they will amass a swathe of data about you and sell it to the highest bidder, allowing advertisers to sell their wares to you, whether you like it or not.

Apple is intent on ensuring that when people want to enjoy media online, they do it through Apple. And in so doing, they will take a large cut of the profits involved.

There is a fine line between being perceived to do stuff that your users will love and being perceived to do stuff that will abuse the trust of those users. Ask Microsoft. And maybe treading that line most carefully will decide who wins the battle of the user technologists.

The war continues between the major players in the personal IT services market. To most of Joe Public, they will mostly see the veneer. They’ll see the shiny iPad, the beautiful way in which Google Maps helps them get to grandma’s house, the way in which they can now connect so easily with people who might otherwise be strangers. But behind the gloss, evil is going on.

In the 1990s, Microsoft became huge. And along the way it became hated. It tried to use its position in certain markets to push into others, often forcibly. Internet Explorer being packaged with Windows was one such foray. Maybe this hatred goes with the territory of being big.

Now we have, among others, Facebook, Google and Apple.

Each of them wants to own certain aspects of our online experience. Apple is doing so through hardware: the iPad and the iPhone. Facebook is doing so through software: its website. And Google is doing both: its swathe of applications now being complemented by hardware in the form of the Google Samsung Nexus, although this latter facet is being done through partnerships rather than directly.

But these companies, particularly Google and Facebook, are no longer inspired by making their offering lovely for the customer. (I genuinely believe they once were.) The companies have shareholders and these shareholders demand inordinate returns on their investments. And to do this, each company must milk its offering for all it’s worth.

In doing so, they will be perceived as being evil. They will open up your data to advertisers and use every opportunity to increase the value associated with your using their offering.

Arguably, the current king of the three is less into this business. Apple is about building beautiful hardware and operating systems. It’s less about building apps that can maximise the value of your interactions while using them. My betting is that with time they will move more and more towards this area over the coming years.

To use a mathematical analogy, there is, I expect, a maximum that the companies need to find. If they don’t push enough to maximise the value of our interactions with their services, then they will lose out to those players that do. And likewise, if they go too far in using that data, customers will become tired and go elsewhere. Finding that maximum will be the big challenge.

It’s going to be an interesting race to watch.

An occupational hazard

In anticipation of buying a car, I recently went about obtaining quotes for car insurance.

Most of the questions that I was asked were simple to answer: my name, address, date of birth, marital status, driving history, yada-yada.

But there’s one question that nowadays I struggle with: occupation. In the past, it was slightly more straightforward. As an employee, I could usually pigeon-hole myself into one of a couple of the entries presented to me. And I picked the one that I felt most closely matched my employment at the time. (Often the occupations on offer were somewhat bizarre and irrelevant, but I could generally find one that had something to do with what I did.)

But more recently, I lead many lives. I am a proofreader, a company director, a business analyst, a project manager and a spreadsheet modeller. And I expect that many of my friends will struggle similarly to select from the Occupation dropdown. Particularly among my consulting friends, I struggle to think of one that exclusively fulfils a single role.

In these austere times, is it time to rethink the Occupation dropdown? Is it still valid for everyone? I expect that more people than ever are working two jobs to make ends meet, turning to secondary skillsets to pay the bills.

So how should they respond to such a question? Should it become a multiple choice question? Or does it need to become something altogether less discrete?

Do not buy a domain from Mr. Site

My friend Steve has a website. It’s nothing grand, but once in a while someone will happen upon it and employ him for his proofreading services. And they could do a lot worse. He is one of the best proofreaders in the land.

He bought the domain from Mr. Site a couple of years ago. However instead of them notifying him when his domain was about to expire, they chose not to. Instead, they took over the domain themselves. And while the title of the website stayed the same, its content was replaced with pseudo-medical content, with links off to medicines promising men the ability to satisfy women in the bedroom more than and for longer than they ever dreamed would be possible.

The reason for this is that Mr. Site are a bunch of cunts. (Apologies for the language, but I feel it’s justified.) Yes they provided a service at the outset. But they were more interested in fleecing my mate and whoring his brand.

Their activities were completely above board legally as I understand things. But their actions were wholly morally reprehensible.

He is now in email correspondence with the company to see whether there’s anything that he can do to retrieve his domain without paying a small fortune for the privilege. I expect this will come to nothing, and that his domain – part of which is his name – will evermore be filled with the shit that gives the internet a bad reputation.

Google’s administrative nightmare

The Google Apps administrative experience has become a proverbial dog’s breakfast. And by dog’s breakfast, I mean a fucking mess.

Packages and products have been bolted together under a single login, and the administrative interfaces have been bolted together in a similar fashion. Separately, they probably made some sense. Together, they most certainly don’t.

Below is a list of the dashboards and administrative homepages that I’m aware of, how each is accessed and a brief description of what I *think* you can do from each:

I kind of get it. I think the Manage this domain feature comes with me being, as it were, the master of my domain. I own, so I am responsible for its master settings: what you can and can’t do in it, how Mail should be configured for each and every one of my three users (one of whom is four years old), how names and dates should be displayed, what logo to display (it took me an age to find that the other day), yada-yada.

Mail settings, along with its sibling settings pages, operates a level below this, allowing users within the domain to tinker with the lower-level features of that product: filters, look and feel, labels, forwarding and the like.

And account settings are specific to the user account, allowing you to change your password and access the products.

But the hierarchy is far from clear. And the navigational tools to drive you to the various admin. pages don’t do a good job in informing you what to expect, or whether you should be going there in the first place.

It took several weeks for me to uninstall Rapportive, a Google add-on furnishing me with additional information about people with whom I interact. I simply couldn’t remember where I’d added the feature, and couldn’t for the life in me remember where to deactivate it. I eventually managed to find it, but don’t ask me where—that information is long gone.

Maybe the cumbersome user experience is exacerbated by my very flat (and narrow) organisational structure. I am account owner, product user and domain administrator in my little world. But I can’t help but thinking that it would be similarly bad in a larger organisation.

Google needs to sort this out. I can’t go on like this.

Devolo power-based internet: dreamy

We had a loft conversion built last summer. The signal from the Belkin wireless router two floors below was not sufficiently powerful to be reliable up there, so I introduced an interim LinkSys wireless router on the intervening floor. The idea was that when connecting from the top of the house, you’d use the wireless signal from the LinkSys, which in turn connected wirelessly to the Belkin which went straight out to the internet. Rob was hugely helpful in setting this up.

But while connection to the LinkSys was strong and reliable, it seems that the onward wireless link was unstable. In short, I think that relying on two wireless hops was asking too much.

I was directed by Steve (megastar) to use a power-based connection. The idea is that the copper wires that support your house’s electricity are used to transmit data. I’m not sure that this is what Edison had in mind when he discovered electricity, but by golly it’s a fabulous idea.

I went ahead and bout the Devolo dLAN 200 AV Wireless-N Starter Kit from Amazon fr £89.99. It arrived on Wednesday and I installed it on Saturday.

The device consists of what look like two regular electric plugs, each with a small transformer-sized pack on it. An Ethernet cable, an Ikea-esque word-free instruction page and a redundant CD complete the box’s contents.

It’s sublime. You plug in one of the plugs near your router and connect it using the Ethernet cable. You plug in the other plug in the troublesome area of the house. The second device emits a wireless signal, the password for which is on the back of the device. You connect to this wireless network and the electricity’s copper wiring connects that device to the other one, which connects on to the internet via the aforementioned Ethernet cable.

So far so good. The only issue that had me worried for a while was that the 16-character password didn’t seem to work for Apple devices—iPhone and iPad specifically. It turns out that the hyphens separating each quartet of numbers that were not required by Windows were required by iOS. Odd UX fail by Apple there.

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