Friday, April 30, 2010

Android/Google Ready to Improve the TV Experience?

Google is essentially trying to develop a television set operating system. It will be tough to make it work, since many of the television manufacturers will likely be protective of whatever software goes on their hardware. However, it sounds like Sony, Intel and a few other companies are already on board.

It's about time! I look forward to much better DVR software, and using my smartphone as a remote control.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stack Overflow Is A Marvel of Useability

I have been aware of Stack Overflow for some months, and have looked briefly at it once or twice. But this week I had the first occasion to post my own question, so I spent more time and much more focused time than ever before. The core concepts for Stack Overflow are terrific. But the many terrific useability touches just seal the deal. This is the best useability experience I have had in a long, long time. Some things that stand out, in no particular order:
  • The insta-preview is perfect.
  • Smart parsing of my offline-edited, pasted-in question was very impressive (converted *word* into italics, converted"-" into bullet).
  • Everything is BIG and easy-to-read (Atwood must be following his own advice about Fitt's Law)
  • The suggest-answers-before-submit was: 1) Painless, unlike the typical step-by-step, HTML-round-trip approach; 2) Pretty accurate (though ultimately did not answer or change my question).
  • The auto-complete for tags is very well-done.
So I would say that Jeff Atwood is doing a good job eating his own dogfood when he says "relentlessly polishing and improving every little part of it -- no matter how trivial -- you're not executing". 

    Wikipedia Is A Teaching Opportunity

    My kids are forever complaining about how teachers won't let them cite Wikipedia as a source for reports. Now I do understand, kids would like to use Wikipedia, and nothing else. It was much the same when I was a young student--teachers would make us use at least three sources, only one of which could be an encyclopedia. But we were allowed to use an encyclopedia. Many teachers are completely banning Wikipedia. Their rationalization? It's not authoritative, "anybody" can edit Wikipedia.

    They are SO missing a great teaching opportunity. There is so much to think about with Wikipedia. It is fundamentally an astounding collaborative intellectual achievement. It is remarkably resilient. And it contains articles on topical and pop-culture subjects that would just never be found in a traditional encyclopedia. Oh, and the fact that "anybody can edit"--this is often a feature, not a bug[1], because it lets errors get corrected, and quickly.

    Dissing Wikipedia--especially when not having a full command of the facts[2]--takes a toll on credibility. Sorta like exaggerating the dangers of drugs and alcohol[3]--in my book, it's always a long-term mistake to mis-represent your subject for the short-term benefit of "winning" a debate.

    If any teachers out there are interested in this topic, I might be up for collaborating on creating curiculum for a seminar or unit on Wikipedia.

    NOTES

    [1] This very link is an example of the kind of topical thing that Wikipedia is indispensable for documenting. (Ironically note that this link it not to Wikipedia, but an extremely edgy offshoot of it...which would make for a supplementary lesson in the Wikipedia curriculum, and just points out how rich the subject is...

    [2] Just to pick one...as it has developed, Wikipedia has put more and more limitations around the "anybody can edit" policy.

    [3] In no way should this be interpreted as a blithe, laissez-faire skepticism that drugs and alcohol are bad. No debate, they bad. My point is that their badness more often manifests in the longer-term, so exaggerating their negative effects in the short-term torpedoes one's credibility, particularly with an audience--teens--that is, for well-established reasons, especially prone to the bias of over-weighting short-term evidence.

    Saturday, April 24, 2010

    Undercover CEO Reality Show

    I don't usually watch reality shows, but I caught an episode of Undercover CEO (GSI Commerce the featured company) because my family was watching, and I got interested. I won't go into all the details, but it involved the CEO taking several pretty low-level, blue-collar hourly jobs. He learned a lot, made some changes based on what he learned, promoted a couple of people, and fired another one. All plausible, all good stuff.

    It reminded me of something I read years ago in Tom Peters' book In Search of Excellence. He talked about companies making sure that execs got their hands very dirty, with menial work--like having Disney execs direct traffic in the parking lot. I always thought there was a lot to be said for that approach, and that was basically what happened in Undercover CEO.

    The other interesting thing was that he uncovered talent in fairly "low skill" workers. Latent talent that was just in need of some nurturing, to make them more valuable and probably much better-paid. I think this is one area of vast, untapped potential in our economy. SO many employees are stuck in dead-end jobs, where nobody is making any kind of investment in them. And the results show.

    Innovative Flex Part-Time

    20 years ago, when I was in MBA school, there was a lot of talk about what the workplace would be like in the future. Some it is has come true--distributed and virtual teams, and along with that, working from home and flex-time. It's sometimes hard to remember, but flex-time was a pretty new concept 25 years ago, and working from home was almost unheard-of for the average knowledge worker.

    Other concepts have not come to pass, such as job-sharing. Very few professional positions are offered on anything other than an full-time basis. The rare concession is usually a reward to retain a valued employee--never something offered to a new hire. I see this lack of flexibility as unfortunate, and hope it will change over time.

    I think it would be very desirable if different variations on other than full-time were available. In some cases, that might be simple part-time. A more interesting case, though, would be flexible part-time. I am thinking of an arrangement, for example, where an employee is guaranteed 20 hours per week, but will work as much as 30 hours per week if needed. That is just one example, there could be other variations. For organizations with significant seasonal variation, they might work 40+ hours during peak season. If done right, the flexibility could benefit both the employee and the orangization.

    I think norms tend to get in the way of this for exempt employees. But especially as retirement gets pushed out (which I think is a given for most under-50s), this kind of flexibility will become more valuable. Apparently it is popular in the Netherlands
    The researchers concluded that — despite the carefully calibrated incentives that economists love so — women work part time in the Netherlands because, simply, they like it that way. It’s easier on the family and promotes a good quality of life. And over time, Dutch companies have gotten the message, and created rewarding jobs for part-timers. 

    WSJ Superstar Effect

    It's always interesting to connect different things you read. This article talks about the "superstar effect" that actually diminishes competition--the presence of a standout star so demoralizes the competitors that they try less hard (Tiger Woods is their favorite example). Then this article talks about "The Humble Boss" versus the hyper-competitive CEO model.

    So maybe companies that overdo the GE-style rack-and-stack employee rating do so because it fits the personality style of the CEOs. They are the type of people who are driven to complete, and probably are very accustomed to winning. I'm sure that feels good. On the other hand, it's not humble. It it also contrary to the tenets of much religion, notably Christianity, which cautions against falling prey to "scarcity thinking".

    I am all for high standards and high performance. I just think that it can be a mistake to always frame it in terms of direct competition. In competition, a win is a win--you don't have to great work, you have to make sure that your work is viewed as better than anybody else's. That can lead to some severely dysfunctional behavior.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    What Sets Apple Apart

    Excellent article from Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, putting the iPad release and strategy in historical context, based on his involvement in the original Mac project. I have been meaning for a while to write about how preposterous it is that Apple can go, from a standing start, to industry leader with the iPhone. It would be as if Hyundai entered the auto market, and their very first automobile surpassed Toyota for quality and BMW for product experience.It just shouldn't be possible--new entrants always start at the low end and claw their way up.

    It is both preposterous, and unfortunate. Apple needs competition (I need.Apple to have competition). They have it in some quarters, from Google thank goodness, But they could use much more. And there is just absolutely nobody even close to their league. They are as much better than the competition as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, at the top of their game (except more so). Sony used to be thought of as an innovator, but they are on life support, they couldn't eat Apple's crumbs.

    So I have been contemplating how this can be. I hadn't come to any satisfying answer. Tog's observations do give some insight:
    Probably the strongest character trait of Steve Jobs is his absolute lack of fear. While every other CEO in America, it seems, shakes in his boots at the very thought of not having a good next quarter, my experience in knowing Steve Jobs is that, frankly, he could care less about the next quarter. He’s much more focused on the next five years, rather than the next 90 days. But even more than that, it is his quest to change the world, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that end even if he risks failure in the process. [my italics]
    As any high school coach worth their salt would say--if you are afraid to fail, you will never excel.

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Mute Botton = Ejector Seat Button

    Jeff Atwood discusssing why it is important for the "ejector seat button" on a plane to be very, very hard to hit by accident, and extending that analogy (of course) to software--where all too often it is very easy to hit. My favorite commonplace example is the hangup button or switchhook on a phone--it is just ridiculous how easy it is to hang up on yourself, when you are eagerly reaching for the mute button, to make an insightful comment during a conference call! And my rant about a similar "feature" of my cable modem.

    New Term: Sitused

    This doesn't happen very often, but I learned a new word at work today: sitused. Here is a definition. There are a lot of senses, the one that seems most appropriate for my workplace usage is:

    the state, territory, or country where a Company or Corporation has filed its Articles of Incorporation becomes the place where the company is "sitused"

    I am not entirely sure why we couldn't just say "where the client company is incorporated" instead of "where the client company is sitused", but I am sure there is some subtle difference that is escaping me at the moment.

    Backdoor Billboard Ban

    Article claiming that electronic billboards are a dangerous distraction.This could be a good way to ban them ex post facto, sort of like OSHA attack on second-hand smoke as a workplace hazard. I am a billboard disliker, especially in scenic areas I think they are an abomination, but I do find the electronic ones are less ugly than traditional billboards.

    Jargonwatch

    "Get After" for "take on". Usage: business presentations. As in, "we have to get after our 2011 budget planning, if we want to be funded in the next fiscal year." Assessment: not too bad, but as with anything that shows up in Jargonwatch, in danger of being over-used.

    "Stand Up" for "put into production". Usage: business presentations. As in, "we've stood up 4 new, low-power, multi-core servers in the past 2 months, and that is only the beginning". Assessment: not too bad, but having a strongly colloquial flavor, it could be easily over-used.

    Saturday, April 10, 2010

    DoggCatcher Doesn't Delete

    I really like the Android podcasting app, DoggCatcher. It is by far the most complete, detailed Android app I have seen. However, I was recently surprised to learn that it had filled up my SD card with 2.5 Gbs of stuff. Almost nothing was getting deleted, even though I had the global setting of "Delete as space is needed". It turns out that only applies to items that have been marked as "Done".

    The thing is, the way I use DoggCatcher is to accumulate lots of stuff, so that I have a lot to choose from, when I want a PodCast. I do not for a moment plan to listen to more than 20% of the stuff I capture. So as it fills up, I want the old stuff to roll off to make space available, even though I have not listened to the old stuff.

    So I had to go in and manually delete every old podcast. Very tedious. I just find it so surprising that the DoggCatcher folks designed it this way. The DVR is somewhat analogous, and it works exactly the way I would expect--the old stuff rolls off as it fills up (assuming you don't invoke the "Keep" feature). I think this is a case of designing with slightly the wrong mind-set--quite analogous to Dave Winer's preference for RSS aggregators to deliver a "River of News", instead of treat feeds like a mail reader. To SnoggDoggler's credit, they do realize the need for an enhancement.

    Weirdly, the old feeds don't actually show up in the UI of the app. You have to go directly to the file structure to see them.

    Software Craftsmanship

    As Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror says, "In software development, execution is staying on top of all the tiny details that make up your app. If you're not constantly obsessing over every aspect of your application, relentlessly polishing and improving every little part of it -- no matter how trivial -- you're not executing."

    A small example of this is how Google tends to treat text pasted into text boxes. For instance, when searching in Google Maps, it is very common to wish to paste in address, scraped from some other web page. Addresses, however, typically have at least two and often three lines--with carraige returns embedded, of course. Most apps just choke on that--they typically truncate everything starting with the first carraige return. Google, on the other hand, elegantly parses the text, and strips out the carraige returns. And it all just work, for the user.

    Saturday, April 03, 2010

    Dolphin Android Browser: 2 Key Features

    I have been trying out the Dolphin browser for Android over the past couple of weeks. I don't do a lot of mobile browsing, for I don't yet have a fully-formed opinion. However, it incorporates two features that should be core to many mobile apps.

    Click-to-Scroll. Swiping to scroll the screen is fine for many uses, but when using the mobile device for reading content, you really want a button to click to get a page-down effect. This was something I looked for the first day I used Android, and have consistently looked for in a dozen apps since, but this is the first time I have found it. The Dolphin implementation is very sensible--it includes the configurable option to use the volume key to Page-Down and Page-Up. Every app should do this.

    Flag for Read Later. While surfing, I come across a lot of stuff that I want to read later. Dolphin specifically includes a "mark to read later" flag for this feature. Very nice.