Thursday 26 March 2009

The Dream Gadget that we all really want

Its been a long while and I realized that a post is long due; its been quite a hectic week with a lot of things moving in progression and some things losing out to the more prioritized  set of tasks. 

What got me intrigued about the gadget that we as users really want is this post by techcrunch. Arrington believes that if you build features that users want, you will never succeed. And that the walkman would never have been made if this were so. The porsche would have been a volvo with user demanded features and horse would have been a camel. I beg to differ and disagree.

The fundamental assumption I'd like to make here is that users are dumb. Yes, marketers would disagree, and users and developers would all go up in arms with the defense "the user is king". But if you notice, just about carefully enough, you will see that the user has certain wants and desires that s/he wants fulfilled; but doesnt know how to go about getting them. 
The Xerox machine was never demanded by the users, It literally came into the market and begged everyone to realize that they want it. 
Ditto with the ipod. Any many many other products.
The features that users ask for result from their deductions about how to satisfy their wants and desires. And most often than not, these deductions are wrong; and that is why the user is "dumb". If I as a user am uncomfortable in my sitting posture in a porsche and demand more leg space, the designers should be able to see through my discomfort and maybe design an ergonomic or higher seat rather than conceding my demand of more leg space, and other features that would take the porsche to being a volvo.

The point I'm trying to make is that user feedback does matter. But not at superficial level or face value. It matters one further level away. User feedback about features should *ideally* reveal what they really want. And smart organizations would focus on serving those wants / needs / desires rather than blandly conceding to the features that the user demands. (or denying them the way Arrington has argued).

As for the title of this post. Before I talk about the gadget I really want, lets talk about the why I would want something like that. 
  • I have a PC which is powerful but its bulky and un-portable.
  • I have a laptop but thats bulky too and I'd like to have a simple, fast laptop with a touchscreen interface to browse the net, read ebooks (like kindle), keep me updated with feeds.
  • I've seen the tablet, but its too cumbersome and expensive. I want reduced specs and usability.
  • I want something light and portable that i can carry around anywhere. Imagine watching TV on the sofa and querying for the latest discounts on the advertisement you just saw on TV.  or maybe read about the reviews of a move that will feature in another 5 minutes. Or maybe verify the facts that Bush / Obama / other leaders are talking about in a live speech; maybe live blog about it?
  • It should look nice and trendy and be usable and fast and sleek at the same time.
As said in the first post on crunchpad:
I want a dead simple and dirt cheap touch screen web tablet to surf the web. Nothing fancy like the Dell latitude XT, which costs $2,500. Just a Macbook Air-thin touch screen machine that runs Firefox and possibly Skype on top of a Linux kernel. It doesn’t exist today, and as far as we can tell no one is creating one.

Crunchpad
Techcrunch went about its own task of making one such gadget. Here is Prototype A and Prototype B. A screen picture:


There are no plans of going into production yet, so lets put this aside as a mere hobby project.
Moroever, it seems a trifle too thick (and maybe bulky?)

Cost: 200$.

Touchbook
Recently I came accross Touchbook.
Until now, all netbooks were engineered the same way: Power-hungry Intel Atom, ugly case, and outdated 90's OS. Our goal: To achieve a breakthrough in both architecture and design. The result: a revolutionary device that works as both a netbook and a standalone tablet thanks to a detachable keyboard and a 3D touchscreen user interface.


Some highlights:
  • Like a cellphone, it is always-on, so there is no need to reboot each time. And without noisy fans and disk drives, it's completely silent, so it won't intrude on your inner space.
  • The Touch Book OS has two modes: one for use with keyboard and touchpad, and one for use as a standalone touchscreen tablet. The innovative 3D interface is easy to use and does not require a stylus or a skinny pinky.
  • The Touch Book also includes Mozilla's upcoming mobile browser, code-named Fennec, which was designed with touchscreens in mind.
  • 400$
  • The best one in my opinion
Mintpad
A device that is between a phone and a laptop, one notch above a PDA. 


Does almost everything on the checklist:
  • Memo - one of the core functions, vector-based memo engine, advanced technology that mimics the "same feeling of writing on paper," auto-save, detailed drawings
  • Schedule - calendar, appointments, to do list
  • Name Card - individual contact cards using photos taken with built-in camera
  • Camera - still images (JPG) and video recording (AVI)
  • Life - community feature, daily contests for mintpad users to enter
  • Blog - community feature, create your own and view others' "mint blogs"
  • Book Store - community feature, create and share content published as "books"
  • Chatting - real-time memo exchange, chatrooms, WiFi and ad hoc connections
  • Music - standard music functions (APE, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WMA)
  • Video - internet streaming TV, standard video functions (DiVX, MPEG-4, WMV, XviD)
  • Pictures - photo album, slideshow, up to 2048 x 2048 resolution
  • Recording - voice recording (WMA)
  • Internet - "high-speed full browsing with Flash support" (according to product brochure)
  • 160$

Others
There are couple others trying to build a similar product. the Kindle itself does pretty well on few fronts though falls back on features and capabilities. Apple is roumored to be doing something with touchscreens lately. But as of now the touchbook seems to be the best of the lot.

Only time will tell which of the gadgets takes a lead and provides what we truly want.

Friday 6 March 2009

Social Media and Microblogging Roundup: What do you do with it?

We've all heard of the buzz around social media and the hype around the likes of twitter, facebook etc. OK, you've got yourself a twitter account. But what next?


Twitter is not just the next "cool" or "trendy" thing that exists just for you to join and brag about to others. Its more of a connecting tool, where you can share views with others, just like facebook; though twitter is not as much of a sharing tool as a "shout" tool: You're shouting out to the world and you know there are people listening. What you talk about is also a matter of choice and opinion, It could be what you're doing now (status updates), what you think about things (views, opinions) or News (Like the recent earthquake). And how much blogs influence what web surfers buy on the net is not so well understood, but social media is impacting this very quickly. But this is not all. If you're a company or a brand, you can get to build a whole personality around yourself to interact and listen with customers / prospective clients,  general public. The interactive nature of the system makes it much more effective at what marketing is all about: engaging the user.

  • Why brands absolutely DO belong to twitter by mashable discusses exactly this.  Its fun to note the ideas they provide if companies like coca cola were to ever have a twitter profile:
    "Coca Cola has millions of ways to go with this, from showing old ads, to trivia to history and answering questions about the product. I see many ways that staple brands—ones that people would think would be boring online—can be exciting. Not all brands need to reinvent the wheel with their own Social Networking sites. Some of the best tools like Twitter are out there for free to let people know all this great stuff about you."


  • For brands and businesses / organizations who want to project themselves using the new social media technologies, mashable has its own list of Top 10 Reputation Tracking Tools Worth Paying For. They charge a small fee to analyse the company profile and tell you what people think of them and other analytics including brand personality and keyword based searches. Ofcourse, if you want some free tools, there is a short list of them although not all that fancy and maybe requires a bit of effort. An interesting service is filtrbox which does a host of activities related to brand monitoring, but the service seems a bit cluttered in some places, too naive in other places and in general shows a lack of focus IMO. Although these tools (like MyReputation) are centered around SEO, they do have the focus around brand building and engaging with the users / customers / clients.  Buzzlogic comes very close to this goal.
    I feel this space is still naive and needs lot more innovation to deliver valued services.

  • For other organizations who have no clue about what they need to do once they've gotten into social media / microblogging, there are these handy "How to Develop a Social Media Plan for Your Business in 5 Steps" which btw apply to individuals as well, because as Reid Hoffman puts it, you are the entrepreneur of a small business: the business of your career.

  • In case you're an artist or a designer, you might be interested in twitter tips for artists.

Once you've got yourself into the social media space and have become active, there are these handy tools that you can engage in, either for pure fun or for real analysis:
  • Yacktrack allows you to track conversations accross blogs, bookmarking sites, microblogging sites depending on keywords you provide.
  • Socialmention is a realtime search aggregator that searches through blogs , microblogs and other social media networks for the keywords you provide (it uses other search services like google blogsearch, technorati search, twitter search etc behind the scenes).
  • Twinfluence shows you how much of an influence you have over your network and your second level network. some consider it as a metric of popularity or authority, others see it as a metric of reach or visibility (of yourself as an individual or a brand)
  • Twitter-friends is the best tool according to me. It shows you all kinds of statistics / graphs of your social network, activity, replies, messages etc. And it doesnt require a twitter login, so you can explore safely.
  • Twittercounter is a tool that shows you how many people follow you and how this number changed over time, along with a graph. Interesting for analysis.
  • Tweetoclock lets you find out what is the best time to tweet someone or when they're most active.
There are many other tools that I havent yet come accross (or just arent all that interesting to note!). I'll add them here when I do. 
All these signify that user generated content is not limited to what we have seen so far. The level of interactivity is just beginning to showcase itself, there is a long way to go.

Update: Found a lot more new stuff since I wrote this post. Here's an update -

Favourite (and good) Twitter Client tools for desktop
  • Tweetdeck - "The default columns can contain All Tweets from your timeline, @replies directed to you and direct messages. The GROUP, SEARCH and REPLIES buttons then allow the user to make up additional columns populated from the live tweet information. "
  • Feedalizr- "Feedalizr is becoming a way for you to “re-mix” the web and we notice that lots of our users are using the product in the discovery of serendipitous content. Not so much reporting to each other about what they had for breakfast…  This is largely a function of  how twitter/friendfeed are evolving. I think the facebook status update makes feedalizr the must have web 2.0 killer app (if I may say so myself - and you guys can flame me cause I am wearing kevlar !)." by John Kotsaftis
  • Twhirl - Very similar to TweetDeck though slightly less in features.

Some new (and amazing tools) for twitter users:
  • TweetBurner - Heard of feedburner? This does the same for tweets. You can check out which of your links were clicked how often and manage many other things.
  • TweetTimer - Need to be reminded of something at some time? Just follow timer and send a message in the format mentioned here
  • TweetBeep - Twitter alerts by email. (for eg, if anyone tweets your name or id, you get notified).
  • Quitter - Tells you who stopped following you, and the most likely tweet that lead to that unfollowing. Pretty cool.
  • TweetLater - lets you time tweets, so that you can tweet them later.

Reid Hoffman: "Every individual is now an Entrepreneur"

Reid Hoffman shares his views on the his investment successes and most particularly in the vision that he has for web 2.0's next generation user interactivity. This is the charlie rose show featuring him:
An interesting viewpoint and a quote that redefines the difference between individuals today compared to the generation before:
"I actually think every individual is now an entrepreneur, whether they recognize it or not. Because it used to be that you got a job at one company and you were there 20, 30, 40, years. That’s been dead for decades. That’s even dying in Japan. The salary man no longer even exists in Japan. Average job length is two to four years. That makes you a small business. You are the entrepreneur of your own small business. How do you get to your next gig? How do you do your career progression? All these things now fall on the individual shoulders. And so, they’re essentially an entrepreneur. Now, they’re not an entrepreneur a la, I’ll go create, you know, Google, LinkedIn, a business. They’re entrepreneurs in terms of the business of themselves and how they drive that. So it’s how they get, like, their next job opportunity, how they get a promotion. All of that stuff comes from how they manage the network around them. Which is, by the way, what gave me the idea for LinkedIn."
On Risk and investment:
"I think that one of the key things — the reason why I think risk tolerance is important is because what happens is people delude themselves they’re not taking risks. They say, oh, I’m going to get a job at, you know, Hewlett-Packard or I’m going to get a job — and that’s not risky. Well, look at current economic climates. Everything in life has some risk, and what you have to actually learn to do is how to navigate it. And people who take risk intelligently can usually actually make a lot more progress than people who don’t.
(On Bad risk:) Yes. Well, there’s a huge difference between intelligent risk taking and stupid risk taking. Now, the trick is to know the difference.
I mean, this is actually one of the things that makes me mildly nervous even on the stimulus package, because if you think about, well, our problem is leverage. What is the stimulus package? Borrow money, spend it.
So I think it’s really…
Well, and therefore, I think to do it successfully, you actually have to make sure that the stimulus that you’re spending it in is actually creating sustainable jobs. So I’m a huge believer in the way that you actually get out of these economic downturns is through entrepreneurship, because that creates new kinds of jobs that actually have longevity and strength to them.
If you’re investing in an industry that has, for example, known problems, you’re just delaying the problem. That’s not necessarily a good thing."

Techcrunch has covered the interview excerpts here.

Monday 2 March 2009

Barcamp Singapore (Feb 28)

This is a long overdue post. I attended Barcamp, Singapore last Saturday. Being my first experience of a barcamp, it was a fun filled event with lots and lots of interesting talks (view the slides). Besides interacting with a lot of diverse, enthusiastic people, it was interesting to discuss and come accross new ideas, technologies and methodologies. This is a long post, you may want to skip to my ideas on people and talks I attended, My talk at barcamp, Pictures or links.


The Barcamp team organized the talks on a 2 tier level. There was a pre-registration online for those willing to present an idea or a talk; and certain slots were left vacant for on the spot presentations after their proposed topics were voted by the public on the whiteboard. (The schedule).

There were 5 tracks going on parallely and barcamp was characterized by the steady movement of people from one track to the other very frequently. Oh, and wifi access made live tweeting possible :)


The talk on virtual worlds by Jeremy Synder was interesting particularly because it focussed on the non-game aspects of the topic, something that is very hard to find since gaming is almost synonymous with 3d or virtual reality. Interesting also, because one of the guys I met earlier at RIAction and here at barcamp again, Gabriel, runs a startup focussed on getting 3D to the web (No, they dont use flash or other plugins, they write their own objective C based plugin).

I met quite a few people over lunch, and it was a bit surprising to see many NTU / NUS students with startup ideas on web 2.0, made for a good discussion. There was a general sentiment that blogging as a phenomenon will soon die in the face of other growing social networks like facebooks(which allows posts of stories) and microblogging. I strongly disagree with that, because a blog allows you to build a brand besides being a publishing platform (not merely where you share stories with friends). And then there were people working in new startup companies with eventual aims of starting their own thing soon. It turned out to be an interesting exchange of ideas, views and concepts.

I was kinda looking forward to the talk on the other google APIs by Vinoaj at Google, but was dissapointed to know that he couldnt make it and the presentation was done in lieu of him. It was an interesting topic because web development now is so focussed on standalone php / aspx / ruby etc development that getting a common task such as creating graphs/charts requires plugins and isntallations and configurations to get working. With google api's its just a matter of calling the right function and letting google do the graph generation for you. The same goes for the Google Web toolkit and other API's. It was amazing to see the demo on live swiss train positions (in real time) overlayed on google maps. Maybe sometime the MRT train positions of Singapore can be seen in real time on google earth as well.

There were a couple of other talks by the folks at CreativeCrew on Adobe products, I attended those on photoshop techniques, fireworks. CreativeCrew also had a presence at the First Rich Internet Applications conference in singapore, and their next upcoming event is this Wednesday.
An interesting topic towards the end was the poor state of funding available for aspiring entrepreneurs in Singapore (Only 600$ pm availability was claimed). There was a discussion on "Fundraising WTF" where stories on fundraising were shared and solutions discussed. There was a sentiment that NUS is very rigid and traditional in its procedures and something needs to be done about that. 

All in all, a very interesting experience, that ended in an interesting end with a game of werewolves, a kinda tradition at barcamp (you might want to read the-weirdest-werewolves-game-ever). The next barcamp, according to Preetam over dinner, may just happen this June, if you're interested.

I spoke on how microblogging is the next thing for web 2.0 and what could be future directions that it could potentially take. With facebook's attempted (and failed) acquisition of twitter, Google's acquisition of Jaiku (a twitter alternative), and Facebook's retaliatory move of opening up its LiveFeed (counter twitter?) shows how everyone is scampering into this area. 


My presentation:


I did get quite a good feedback later on, apart from a question on "How do you see microblogging emerging in singaporean culture". That took me offbeat, and I later learnt that commenting and talking freely on topics or arguments is not something that comes freely to native singaporeans. Two months in Singapore, and I'm still learning the culture :)

Some snaps of the event. (Disclaimer: All the pics do not belong to me. They have been taken from here and are the copyrights of their respective owners).