Jul
21
2009

The myth of intuitive

Today in a description for a Bluetooth headset I read the following line:

“Intuitive, single-button control”

To me this reads as something of an oxymoron. How can something with multiple functions and only a single button to achieve them with ever be called intuitive?

Intuitive is a word that gets thrown around rather a lot in IT. Normally it is used to describe something people can just pick up and use with no training or instruction. Apple likes to use the word a lot in in relation to its devices and software. But tell me this, on the iPod, does the idea of moving your thumb round and round a dial ever equate to an up and down motion? Does three diagonal lines in the bottom corner of a window on any OS suggest to you that this is where you click to change its size? Does a circle with a line breaking it in the vertical suggest on and off or power?

The simple answer and conclusion from this is that there is no such thing as an intuitive interface or control mechanism. An easy to use interface is simply one that builds upon knowledge you already have.

To return to my Bluetooth headset, the one I was looking at was a few models up from the one I have now. It has the same one button structure as my current headset. Although I would not describe this interface as intuitive, if I ever was to use this new device I would assume double tapping that single button will call the last dialled number, pushing and holding for 6 seconds will change to pair mode.

These are not intuitive interactions, but they do come from knowledge I already have.

Jul
21
2009

Tinker time

We are always so scared about children getting hurt we never give them the chance to find out for themselves…

This is just a short presentation by a guy who runs a “Tinkering School” for kids where they are given real tools and real materials and actually allowed to do things. What they achieve is really quite impressive.

Jul
20
2009

Just works (TM)

There is a certain irony to how I feel about computers at the moment.

Today started with the sync partnership between my phone and Outlook on my computer getting lost broken or stolen from me one way or another. The net effect of this was all my contacts, tasks, notes and calendar entries vanished from the phone. While this was not a catastrophic loss as all the data is in Outlook too, a phone with no contacts is like a car with no wheels.

So I set about restoring the flaky connection between the two devices and forced them to kiss and make-up. All in all this lost me about 3 hours of this morning with other distractions and tasks occurring in-between. You would have thought that now I would be generally annoyed at technology, but in actual fact the exact opposite is true. This successful patching of the morning spurred me on to sort out a couple of other things on my phone and general organizational system in the in-between times of the day.

Specifically I re-discovered MS OneNote.

In a way there is nothing that special about OneNote, it is a note taking application for the computer which is part of the Microsoft Office suite. All you do is keep notes in it, that is all. Yet it is how elegantly that this all works that makes me feel I can appreciate computers for that they are again, tools to get the job done.

I dragged bits from websites including text and images and they just appeared in the note along with date time and where they came from as a block ready to be moved about. I can just pick up any element and move it round like publisher. I can also just start writing wherever I want and use all the nice powerful formatting tools from Word. I have workbooks, tabs, pages, folders. I can tag items, draw things in, highlight text, search for anything (including text inside images). In short, it is an application that makes collating and storing little notes and bits of information for projects and alike really really simple.

The best part of all of this… I knew I could set this up to work with my phone. I found the option to install to my phone. Up on my phones screen popped the installation, I clicked through and 30 seconds later I had all my notes on my phone so I have them with me.

I like it when things just work!

Jul
01
2009

Firefox 3.5

OK, new version of Firefox came out yesterday, version 3.5. Nothing that interesting in my opinion, bit faster, uses a bit less RAM, look and feel is pretty much the same and all of my add-on’s work. Nothing that special, nothing bad, just gentle progression. To be honest, it is the kind of development I want from something I use everyday.

For those who feel like giving it a go, have a wander over here: Firefox 3.5 download

However today one of those “little features that makes the big difference” caught my eye.

Normally if I were viewing the source of a page I would see all the URI’s of all the media included in that page like the CSS files. If I then wanted to go to that CSS file I would need to select the text, copy it, go back to the browser and then paste the link into a new tab and go to it. This is a little slow but it is just second nature these days.

Enter Firefox 3.5 and below is a screenshot of what I see when I view the source on my site:

image

Clicking on any one of those links opens it in the source viewer!

This tiny change is a major step forward. Unfortunately there is no back button, but backspace works just as well.

All I want now is CSS code highlighting built in and we are there…

Jun
11
2009

Is Google really the best search engine?

Some of you (tech foo dependant) may have seen that Microsoft have released a new search engine to replace Live Search called Bing.

This in itself is not that interesting. It does have a couple of nice features in things like the image search and the drilldown on each item in your search results. I do recommend that you have a go with it, if only to have tried Google’s competition.

What I would much rather talk about is a service called Blind Search.

It is pretty simple, it takes the query you enter and comes back with three columns, each containing the results from either Bing, Google or Yahoo. To find out which results go with which search engine you have to vote. This is actually a pretty cool idea, it takes branding away and forces you to base your decision on the pure results. What I find really interesting about this is you would assume Google to be on top of this…

In fact I found Google to come back with my least favourite set of results pretty consistently.

This was not something I was expecting at all. According to the 30 or so searches I have done on the site it turns out I prefer Yahoo.

I have no plans to switch to Yahoo in the near future due to them having the most cluttered homepage known to man, but it is still interesting to see how poorly everyone’s saviour Google can perform.

Jun
11
2009

What is clutter?

So I’m moving out of the house in Brighton this weekend. I have lived down here for the last two years and in that time, although my living has been fairly spartan there is still a fair bit of stuff in my room.

Turning into a neat freak has certainly had a hand in helping me stay fairly organised, but it doesn’t seem able to stop the clutter… well, maybe it has, I don’t think I’m really sure what I regard as clutter.

For example, I am always fixing computers and picking up spare parts. Every time I am about to throw some random bit of hardware that doesn’t work I take all the screws off it and add them to the (sorted) box I have. I hate having a screw that just fits when I could have one that really fits. The same applies to bigger bits of hardware such as MODEM’s and graphics cards. To that end I currently have 5 spare graphics cards and 3 spare MODEM’s in my room. OK, now it doesn’t take a genius to know that is too many, but exactly how many is the right number? Fine, one lets me help one person with that problem, but I don’t get new graphics cards every day. It would be really annoying for everyone involved if I ended up needing two.

This sort of problem, however small, seems to apply to a lot of my stuff. I like to keep things around that would be handy to have in the future, but at the same time I don’t want to be surrounded by stuff that never gets used.

I do something similar with clothes. When something is old and worn out it just moves into another pile so it’s kept for events (mainly Scouting based it has to be said) when I want something I don’t care much about.

How about magazines. I pick up PCPro fairly religiously each month if only for the DVD of software it comes with. I regularly find myself going back a year or so in magazines to find some article or bit of software they talked about. OK, so I could throw out everything older than a year but I guarantee the day after I do that I will want something from 13 months ago….

I want less stuff in my room, I want less clutter, but what will it cost me in convenience to do that?

Jun
10
2009

Apple’s newest service pack out

OK, so technically it is a new OS, but I’m sorry Apple, this is just too feature light to ever be considered a new OS. As far as I can tell you like the sound of “OSX” so you don’t want to move to version 11 because it sounds less cool. You also take as long with your service packs as everyone else, but it is much easier to be “current” when you call them a new OS each time.

Now it has to be said, unlike previous service packs this one will not cost $129 (or about that in £’s), nope this one will only cost $29. Now you might think that to be mighty generous of them, especially given last time they released an update the 3rd best feature according to their own website was a more shiny dock menu (no, not the new features in the dock, just that it was more shiny).

So, given the last light feature set you would be expecting something pretty pathetic for this amount of money…. and you would be right too. Here are the user noticeable features this upgrade includes as noted by Lifehacker:

  • Faster bootup and shutdown times, and half the disk footprint of Leopard, which will save you about six gigabytes of disk space.
  • Signal strength indicators in the Airport menu.
  • A split pane terminal, so you can run jobs side by side.
  • Date in the menu bar.
  • Safari 4 (which is a free upgrade/download to all current versions of OSX anyway)
  • Video editing and screen recording in Quicktime (I’m going to assume this is going to be for all OSX versions too).
  • Microsoft Exchange support.
  • 64-bit computing.

Hell, 64bit won’t mean anything to almost everyone anyway. So all in all, it sounds truly pathetic doesn’t it.

Well, it seems that all the changes are “under the hood” giving you a much faster OS. And if you read the Apple press brief you get some pretty impressive numbers like this:

Mail that loads messages 85 percent faster and conducts searches up to 90 percent faster*

These are however the only OS specific statistics they give, for everything else they claim it is all “faster”.

Jun
03
2009

How the movie industry could have stopped piracy before it began

In recent weeks the news has been awash with yet more “statistics” and articles regarding movie piracy, particularly this rather disturbing bit of research that claims that the UK industry could be loosing £120billion per year (films software and music mainly).

How flawed this “statistic” is boggles the mind. They are assuming that every file that is downloaded would have been bought in full every time. This method of analysing the costs of piracy was shown to be more than just a joke, it is a fabrication leading people to the wrong conclusions.

Before I get to the movie industry I want to take you back to the music industry. The internet has come on a long way since the late 80’s early 90’s. For one thing is has got faster every year and it is this speed boost that gave the movie industry the head start it needed. You see, in the days of the slower internet movie piracy was never an option, it could take you weeks and cost considerably more than the price of the film to download it. However music files are much smaller in and were much more in the grasp of the ordinary person. With the onset of the MP3 player people started looking for ways to get more digital content. With an absence of anything official, illegal alternatives such as Napster (now re-opened and legal) popped up. People shared their content there for some time before the music industry got wind of it and had it shut down. But by then the damage was done, people realised the best way to get digital content (in this case music) was to download it.

It took the iTunes store to ever make a dent in that method. Where the iTunes store succeeded was it made music easy to find, readily available, granular and most importantly, sensibility priced. It was a hit and didn’t take long to be a major driving force in the music industry. There was however still one problem, Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM allows manufactures to lock content to only be  able to do certain things. It can only be played on specific players, on specific machines by a specific number of people. People were also used to being able to download illegal copies without DRM or for more money go get the CD and make DRM free versions of the files. Recently the music industry finally “got this” and started making DRM free tracks available. The online music industry is moving on in leaps and bounds now, OK, there is a lot of catching up to do and some more tweaks to the system are still required, but it works and gives people a viable alternative to piracy.

Now with this firm and clear example ahead of it you would have thought the movie industry would have been more than prepared for the digital revolution to hit its market. Apparently that is expecting a little too much of them…

If you think back some time ago we had the VCR and the cassette that went with it. This had no concept of DRM on it whatsoever, it was a simple device that went from one side to the other. Yes, they put advertisements and notices at the start of the tape back then, but at the very least you could fast forward through them.

With the arrival of the DVD the industry took advantage and ended up not only getting, but abusing the ability to force people to go through content that could not be skipped or fast forwarded. To add insult to injury this content is mainly a lot of anti piracy stuff being targeted at the people who didn’t pirate the film. Not only do they force you to watch adverts etc, they are also big fans of DRM, using it to lock content onto the disk so it can’t be copied easily, locking which screens you can view it on (ever heard of HDCP?) as well as even locking some of the sound out on certain devices.

Now in our ever connected world these restrictions simply cause people further frustration and aggravation. What happens when I have a film on DVD and I want to watch it on some small device I can take on the train like the Archos? The simple answer is it is almost impossible. What happens if I would rather download my films and not have to go to the shop and buy them on disk. What happened to the iTunes concept for the movie industry? Well, the simple answer is they never made it. So, what would I do if I wanted to solve all these issues? In fact the answer is fairly simple, your pirate it. This gives you the content you want DRM with a method of delivery that works for most people instead of paying through the nose for content which doesn’t do what most people want. fact, only the other day did a study come out showing that DRM actually encourages piracy.

So, what is the final step in this picture? Well, in the last year or so content providers are starting to get this, they have realised the way in which films have taken off online and are finally starting to push back with solutions not laws. They are starting to see that the internet could be a very powerful delivery tool, but in my opinion they still missed the boat. They were too busy stopping people pirate they forgot why people did it, they did it because industry never provided the content people wanted in the way they wanted it, they ignored all the evidence and now they are quite literally paying the price for it. These should have been the companies leading the digital revolution, not trying to slow it down.

Yes, there has been change in the right direction, but if this comment by Sony pictures CEO Michael Lynton is anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

Jun
02
2009

Usable UI

I don’t think there is such a thing as an “intuitive” user interface (UI), however, I do believe there is such a thing as a guided UI, one which walks you through the process.

I was talking with Nik and Dan on the subject of the self checkout tills at Sainsbury’s and Nik was explaining a recent example he saw of where the hand-holding falls down. He saw a guy scanning an item, paying for it and then scanning a new item and paying for it etc. Now granted this method works, however the intention is that you scan all your items and then pay. Where on the user interface does it tell you this? Last I looked there were no visual clues, just the assumption people would expect it to work as the other tills do.

Today I found another hole I think. I scanned in items then I shoved my card in the reader expecting to be asked my pin etc. Instead I was met with an error telling me my card was being rejected by the authorizing body. So I tried another card, same error. I eventually realised that I had made a mistake, I had not hit the “Finish and Pay” button. Now fair enough this error was down to my mistake, however, how did that error message help me? It led me away from the real problem!

What really irks me about this is why don’t they allow you to shove the card in to signal you are ready to pay? I mean, if I hit Finish and Pay and then instead of selecting “cash” or “card” just put the card in it is quite happy with that.

So Sainsbury’s, relevant error messages and more short-cuts please.

May
07
2009

Irrational fears

Between 250,000 and 500,000 die from flu each year in the world, so far only 31 people are known to have died from swine flu this year.

Over 40,000 people die in the US from car accidents per year, yet between November 2001 and October 2005 no-one died on a passenger aircraft in the US.

14 people are know to have died from Anthrax in 2004 none of them in the US.

150,000 over 65’s have died from being too cold in their own homes in the UK from 2000-2006.

Side note, most popular day to go to A&E in the UK is a Monday with 16% of admissions

Oh, and those masks you see people wearing in countries with swine flue have been shown to have no affect whatsoever (other than they make you look silly).

Hmm, there are so many more of these types of stats I just can’t seem to find them nor do I have the time to go hunting.

May
06
2009

Baby steps

Microsoft’s Windows OS has picked up a bit of a reputation in recent years. It concerns general instability, slowing down and becoming buggy. Although some of this is fear mongering etc, there is no doubt there is some truth in the matter.

So why is this? I would say almost every major bug or instability that exists in Windows is down to one thing, backwards compatibility.

If you think about it, what you can run under Windows is more than just impressive, it’s scary. I play a game about 10 years old every few days. Ok, it isn’t perfect, but most of that is down to multi-monitors. In fact, if I think about it, almost any old bit of software I try to run works. It isn’t always pretty, but it does get by with reasonable success.

All this compatibility comes at a price though, it take up space and introduces system instabilities. You end up with little patches of old code still kicking around and they all add up.

There is however a solution to this, virtualization. You have an emulated copy of older versions of Windows running, you integrate them into the new OS and then if an application needs the older version you have it run within there. That way you keep your new OS to itself and keep all those nasty old bits of code out of your shiny new OS, and you keep backwards compatibility for your old applications through virtualization.

Up until now this has just been something we wished Microsoft would do, however, the other day they made the first baby steps towards this solution. They announced that hardware dependant you could download a special virtual XP for Windows 7 to allow you to run old applications that are not compatible with Windows 7.

There solution is by no means perfect, it is the first step in a chain of that needs to be taken for a more stable and reliable Windows, it is however still that first step and this can only be a good thing.

May
06
2009

Sooooo close….

OK, some of you may or may not know about the new Windows 7 beta (the release candidate 1).

For anyone interested this is the new version of Windows that looks to be out sometime at the end of this year.

To sum it up, it is a very good OS, much better than Vista (which was never as bad as everyone would lead you to believe). It seems to be faster and more stable than anything else before it. Not to mention being more feature-full and In my opinion at least, easier to use. These are of course all good directions for a new OS to take. I do however have one big gripe.

You see, one of the best features they were introducing were libraries.

Libraries

These change the way things like the documents, music, and videos folders work (although you can apply this to anything). Your documents “folder” becomes a virtual folder made up of the different locations you specify. So say I have documents in C:UsersSome folder and I have data in D:meh. Well, then I just include these two locations and open my documents library and I see the data from both folders as one (you can set a default so it knows where to put new files).

Changing library locations

A feature like this would be amazing for things like the network setups I have in mind for the not so distant future. For example, I want my machine, Demelza’s machine, a Media center and a file server. The file server has two music folders. One for my music and one for Demelza’s music. That way our music is stored off the machines which is so much nicer for millions of reasons. My machine will link to my folder and Demelza’s machine will link to hers. Now on the Media center I want all our music to appear, so I include both locations and that’s it. It will always have our current music. The thing about libraries is they are live. So if I were to delete something from my machine, it would delete off the network storage and just vanish off the Media center (as it should do).

However, when I tried to add a Linux based machines shares (most Network Attached Storage is Linux based) I get the following.

Windows 7 fail

In short Microsoft, I can see where you are going with this error. However, you have just crippled one of the best features to come to Windows 7. I am so angry about this. This would have been so nice and you were so close, but then you broke it.

You see, from here we have a couple of options. Either you set your share to appear offline (which defeats the whole sodding point!) or you have a current Windows box to share from (not practical for home servers yet in my mind). It seems they have assumed a mesh network of data. So in my example above I would have my music on my machine, Demelza has her music on her machine and then the Media center picks it up from both. But then I now have to have more storage capacity in the machines, I then have to worry about backing up each machine, not just one location. In short, it is a mess.

Microsoft… You were so so close with this feature. Would you be so kind as to fix this. You see, this isn’t a feature, this is a bug. This is one of the most annoying bugs I have seen in some time. Not a good start.

May
04
2009

They’re just kids!

What is childhood? As a society we seem to have got it into our heads that it is a magical time of fun and play, a safe and secure time where you are free to be “a child”. We protect “childhood” with the sort of diligence that would cure cancer or stop Aids, yet what is it we are actually protecting?

From time to time the media harks on about how children grow up so fast these days. The parents lap it up and double their efforts of protection. But don’t we want them to grow up fast? What is childhood if not a time to learn and progress into being an adult?

If I remember correctly common wisdom says our ability to learn begins to decline from the age of 8, yet we want to waste this time with false truths and pointless ideas. The more false truths we tell them the more we stunt their ability to make logical leaps of their own and push their own learning boundaries.

For example, it is very common for parents to avoid the question of where they came from. Now I’m not saying tell them all the details straight away, they are still young and learning is a process (journey not destination etc), but at least don’t lie to them. Give them enough to let them ask questions and learn at their own pace.

A few years ago my little brother was about to start the sex education part of the national curriculum. There was a parents evening to explain to the parents what they were going to be taught etc. Several of the parents objected to the meagre information being dished out to the children, citing wanting to protect them. I feel for those children and the harsh realities they will face one day. Besides, kids have a habit of knowing something well before their parents think they do.

The irony to all this is that not that long ago children were down the mines and working the fields to earn a living and provide just like everyone else. Now I’m not calling for a return to those times. I still want to protect childhood, but I want to protect it for learning and development and not to fill it with falsehoods and half truths.

Apr
18
2009

Mac fail the 2nd

Below is what happens when you scan the network on my Mac. As with before we still have Apples BSOD joke. However now there is a twist. My machine (the Windows Vista one) finally shows up…. as a Mac…. *head desk*

mac_fail

I don’t actually have any Apple software on my PC. I banned it after the whole pushing Safari as an “update” debacle.

Keep trying Apple, one day you will get there…

Apr
14
2009

Did you know?

Sometimes we forget how fast times are changing, especially when you are caught up in the middle of it. Some of these statistics scare me, other I don’t think go far enough, I find that in itself pretty scary.