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Did Clayton Christensen predict Twitter in 2004?

By , March 14, 2011 11:45 am

Professor Clayton Christensen has written some very interesting books outlining his theories governing disruption in industry, where new entrants to a market using seemingly inferior technology carve out a niche the existing incumbents are not interested in. From this niche they then gain prominence to the point where it is too late for the incumbent players to respond. These are the reasons DEC and SGI no longer provide computing equipment to anyone. The workstation class PC killed them.

One of Clayton Christensen’s books is Seeing What’s Next, Seeing What's Next published in 2004. The final chapter of the book “Breaking the Wire” is about the possible future of the telecoms industry. The last section of this chapter, section 4, “Competitors from strange places” outlines possible threats to incumbents from Instant Messaging and from Microsoft’s Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). Hindsight shows us that Microsoft didn’t use SIP to enter the telephony market. The interesting text are the comments about Instant Messaging – how the ability to do instant messaging provides an adequate service even at low quality. The hallmarks of a potential disruptive idea.

“Once operational, user can type a message (often littered with acronyms such as LOL, TYl and AAMOF) press enter, and almost instantly transmit the message to friend’s computers and their portable devices. This is disruptive growth. IM brings real-time communications into a new context.”

Later on Professor Christensen writes

“IM’s growth and improvement is worth watching because companies that play in the IM market could develop business models that just don’t make sense to telecommunications companies”.

I couldn’t help thinking of Twitter as I read these few paragraphs. SMS text messaging is not instant messaging, but for me the parallels are there. Its restrictive and inadequate (140 characters!), but it does the job. A few years later Twitter was born.

OK, I have the benefit of hindsight as I read this book. But those words I quote were written in 2004, maybe 2003. If you want to read some interesting books about business, backed with lots of case studies, I recommend Innovator’s Dilemma and all the books that flow from it by the same author.

If you are a software developer or run a software based business, you can hear Professor Clayton Christensen speak at the Business of Software conference in Boston this October.

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EU Cookie Directive. Damaging the competitiveness of UK and EU companies.

By , March 9, 2011 12:03 pm

When I started this blog I never expected I would end up writing an article about a European Community Directive. Let alone one with such a catchy title.

The new EU Cookie Directive comes into force on 25 May 2011 and will require any use of cookies by a website, except for the purpose of fulfilling the demands of a shopping cart, to require the consent of the website visitor. On first blush, certainly to a naive technology user, that sounds OK. “Cookies are used for tracking. I don’t want to be tracked. Ban cookies!”

But not all cookies are bad. Consider the following cookies uses (which we use on this website).

  1. Google Adwords. Track if someone that clicked an advert on Google (which we paid for) downloads our software. Only works on our website. We cannot use this to track users of our website on other websites.
  2. Google Analytics. Track website effectiveness. Only works on our website. We cannot use this to track users of our website on other websites.
  3. Hubspot. Monitor inbound martketing effectiveness. Only works on our website. We cannot use this to track users of our website on other websites.
  4. A/B Testing. Only works on our website. We cannot use this to track users of our website on other websites.
  5. Shopping Cart. Only works on our website. We cannot use this to track users of our website on other websites.

I think you should have spotted a theme in the above. All of the above are for our use only and cannot be used to monitor someone once they leave our website. All of these services are provided by third party companies. We have no control over how they use the cookies to collect the data they collect, but they only collect data about our website, because that is their job. Furthermore, we have no ability to change how the data they collect is collected. So we either use their services or we do not.

So how does this damage competition?
The directive requires that for cookies to be used for anything other than a shopping cart, the user must be asked permission.

EU Cookie Directive (example)

At this point you are instantly refusing to let the user view the website content and forcing them to interact with a popup that asks them a question most people will not understand.

How many web users know what a cookie is, or what it is used for?

Most uses when confronted with this dialog box will not know how to choose correctly. Others confused by the question will abandon the website altogether and go and find a website (that is not in the EU) that doesn’t ask them such a confusing question. Every time that happens the UK or EU company that lost that visitor has potentially lost some business. This is not good for our economy and hinders our competitive position compared to the rest of the world.

What the EU Cookie Directive should disallow
The intent of the EU Cookie Directive was to ask for the users permission to track them across multiple websites for the purpose of providing advertising related tracking. You can see how there may have been good intent with this directive. But it has been expanded to encompass tracking of every type, whether that tracking be for advertising, or as shown above for perfectly benign activities that do not invade the user’s privacy but do increase the effectiveness and usability of the website.

The EU Cookie Directive should be restricted to dealing with cookies for advertising.

If that is not possible then exceptions for the use of cookies should be made for internal website tracking, where the tracking is provided by the website or by a third party. For the purpose of this tracking cannot be cross linked to another website. This allows Google Analytics, Google Adwords, Hubspot, all A/B testing services, shopping carts and the like. This provision bans cross site advertising tracking, thus satisfying the EU Cookie Directive.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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User experience, alcohol and Buddhism

By , March 7, 2011 1:31 pm

Last Thursday I attended an event hosted by Red Gate Software with the topic “User Experience in Software Development”. I also met with Roger Atrill at the event – we used to work together at (the now defunct) Laser Scan. After the event I went swimming, swam 1km (physiotherapy) and while getting changed chatted with another swimmer about my evening (two bottles of Grolsch provided by Red Gate, 3 and half talks – had to skip half the last one to get to the swimming pool) and the swimming. We were both surprised my swimming was still quite rapid despite the 1 pint(ish) of Grolsch I had drunk. It was during this chat I realised a connection between Buddhism and user experience testing.

The event consisted of four talks about user experience.

Council
The first talk was about the challenges of creating a website for a councill and balancing the conflciting desires of many council service providers and a useful user experience finding your way to the right part of the website to find out if (for example) your local school is closed because of the snowfall overnight (no big deal where you live, but snow is rare in the UK and a heavy snowfall causes chaos here because we are not equipped to deal with it).

Red Gate
The second talk was about how Red Gate managed the challenging task of going from their 1500 page hard to navigate website to a smaller 750 page easier to use website. Some of the techniques they used were one room for all the work, complete transparency, post it notes for everything, anyone (even non-ux team) could walk in an annotate prospective design changes, allowing people to comment on work when the ux team were not present. Don’t put colour in your mockups because then people argue about incorrect branding rather than looking at the ux. Don’t create real webpages, keep it on paper or using mockup tools like Balsamiq, but even Balsamiq can be “too realistic”.

Scientists
The third talk was about user testing from the perspective of someone whose users are mainly scientists and for whom computer use is only 10% of their daily task – the software needs to be easy to use and obvious. Simple things like naming items “Literature” is not helpful – too obscure. Choose a more useful name. And don’t use two tabs, tabs only work well when you have more than two tabs. Post it notes (super sticky, not regular) for everything and colour coded by topic to make things easier for analysis afterwards. Don’t talk too much. Everyone knows that one, but it still needs to be said.

Remote Testing
The fourth talk was about remote testing. I didn’t see much of this talk as the first three talks had overrun and I had to leave at a given time. Fortunate for me as I think this would have been the least useful of the talks (as I had already used some of the tools they were going to talk about).

Being present
One Buddha thinking about user testing of the key aspects of user experience testing is being able to observe without influencing the test. You can do this with isolated rooms and one way mirrors, but there is still influence at work – the fact that this room (and possibly this computer) is not the room the user normally uses. Or you can test at the user’s site in their normal room using their chair and desk. But you will need to be present and there will not be a helpful one way mirror (unless you are testing inside a police interview room!). Your presence may influence the test. In fact, it probably will. You will be tempted to offer the user helpful hints when they get stuck. Or maybe they are thinking and you ask them a question and break their train of thought. After all, you thought they’d gone quiet because they were stuck. Its a bit of Schrodinger’s Cat. You don’t know if its dead, but if you look it will be dead. Hmmm.

But there is another part to user testing. Separate from you, the tester, influencing the user. And that is being present in the moment. Actually watching the user, observing what they are really doing, not what you think they are doing. Not drifting off into some other train of thought, whether it be able why they clicked there five minutes ago, or what they’ll do on the next page (which you know really sucks and does need work), or about something unrelated like Star Wars or your girlfriend. You need to be present in the moment. Noticing what is happening, why it happened and noting it down.

In that respect I think user testing and Buddhism have more in common that most folks realise. Buddhism is all about being present in the moment. Not off on some fleeting journey somewhere else. Not in the past, not in the future, not in some drunken haze because you got blittered last night. Many folks think Buddhism and Islam ban the consumption of alcohol. They do not. But they do ban the consumption of such quantities that cause you to lose your focus on the moment.

Next time you find yourself drifting off in your user experience testing, think about changing your focus. Be present.

And if you find yourself too agitated to focus on user testing, you may want to consider some meditation classes (Buddhist or otherwise) to learn how to be calm and in the moment.

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The Six Waves of Computing

By , March 2, 2011 12:15 pm

Last year I was lucky enough to be present in the audience when Hermann Hauser gave the keynote speech for the Discovering Startups talks presented by Cambridge Wireless. Later in the year, during the SVC2C event Hermann Hauser again gave reference to his Waves of Computing idea.

I’m going to cover what I remember of his Waves of Computing idea in this post. I think the basis of the Waves of Computing idea was that there have been five waves of computing. I’ve expanded this to six, as it makes a bit more sense to me. I think you could argue that a few other waves could also be added (analogue and valve computing at the beginning and home computing in the middle).

I’ve recently read some incredible books about innovation (“Innovator’s Dilemma”, “Seeing What’s Next”), disruptive ideas (“Blue Ocean Strategy”) and alternative thinking (“Different”, Youngme Moon). The ideas in these books dovetail nicely with the Waves of Computing idea.

Six waves of computing

The image is for illustrative purposes only. I’ve made approximate attempts to get date ranges about right, but you can argue about them either way. Likewise, the performance scale is relative. I’m not presenting on any particular performance metric (MIPs, memory, disk size, disk speed, I/O bandwidth etc), just the overall “is the consumer satisfied” metric (which is why the PC and laptop dates start so late compared to the technology, you could have a laptop 15 years earlier than I’ve drawn, but it wasn’t up to much).

What you can see from the graphic is that over time the technology of the day is replaced by a newer technology. Mainframes get replaced by minicomputers. Minicomputers get replaced by workstations. PCs get so powerful they become workstations. Miniturisation allows laptops to go from being luggable (1980s) to portable, powerful and ubiquitous (2000s). Smartphones, introduced by the Apple iPhone in 2007, are starting to make inroads into the laptop market. Not as powerful yet and the software and compatibility issues are yet to be ironed out, but you can see it could happen. I’ve met people with a HTC Desire and when I’ve questioned them about their use of it, their answer is “I do nearly all of my work on this, hardly ever use my PC anymore”. Thats a pretty emphatic statement of where they are going with their usage.

What is implied by the graphic is that after three decades of dominance by the x86 platform and its many variants, during which the x86 killed off nearly every RISC processor and also Motorola’s excellent 68000 platform, the x86 is under attack by what many people would have thought an unlikely attacker: The ARM processor. Its low power (by design, unlike the x86) and its very efficient (I’ve met several people in Cambridge that have told me about their RISC PC that could emulate DOS and still run faster than a real PC). Could it be that if this graph is drawn in 2020, the x86 is on the way out and the ARM is on the ascendent (after a very long wait).

The irony is that Intel is indirectly responsible for the creation of the ARM chip. You’ll need to ask Hermann Hauser about that though. Its a good story.

Smartphones
Imagine if you could take your smartphone home, plug it into a dock and it can then display on a nice high resolution screen, has a keyboard, mouse, external peripherals (printer, DVD player, etc) and the screen is also a touchscreen (OK, so why do I need the mouse?).

All you need for smartphones to replace PCs and Laptops is:

  • Universal docking standard to allow smartphone hardware to dock with a keyboard, mouse, high resolution touch screen and external storage.
  • Universal software standard so that smartphone software can recognise external hardware and use it when available.

I can see with Apple, the above two conditions will never happen. With Apple, its the ‘i’ way or the highway. Thus we have to look to Android, Microsoft and RIM for this ideal docking solution for a smartphone.

An early attempt at this future is the Atrix 4G (Android) smartphone and dock, available in the USA.

Future
After smartphones, what will be next?

Some people are working on computing embedded in clothing. Others are working on computing embedded inside humans. There is already a miniture sensor that can be embedded in a patient’s eye to monitor eye pressure. But that is hardly personal computing is it? I think for computing embedded in humans you run into a variety of health related issues (cooling, radiation, toxicity of construction, rejection) and form factor issues. For embedding in prosthetics most of these issues go away, so perhaps that is a future for some people.

Looking forward 10 years or more this poses some interesting questions for developers of processors, hardware, operating systems and software applications.

I hope you found the graphic interesting. If you have any comments or think I omitted anything please let me know.

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