Monthly Archives: August 2006

Google’s functional expansion

Chris Anderson reports and Anil Dash analyzes Google’s gradual move towards providing more functionality on top of data elements.

This is a very significant move, and starts with the information. First Google lets you find information, in the process becoming the standard interface to the net and the first port for information in general. Then functionality is added to the information – not as advanced as what you can get on the desktop, but good enough for  a start.

The important issue here is that this is a potentially disruptive innovation because it allows people who formerly were not able to change/process/analyze information to do so – but with technology that will be deemed inferior by those that are the best customers of the existing software vendors. As Anil says, the 500 most important customers of Microsoft wants less change and other kinds of functionality than the infinitely larger market of individuals with smaller investment budgets.

Why professors should blog

Dan Cohen has an excellent article on this topic – which, if nothing else, is a pretty good argument for blogging in general and RSS feeding in particular.

Go for it. Nothing is as eternal (and as findable) as something written in silicon. Thanks to RSS, Google, and good ol’ Gordon Moore’s law, which pretty soon will lead to a situation where we are all working off the same (virtual) machine.

The VC version of Tech adoption

Cover of Coburn's The Change FunctionCoburn, P. (2006). The Change Function: Why some technologies take off and others crash and burn. New York, NY, Penguin Portfolio.

Picked this one up on a lark from Amazon. Written by a venture capitalist, it breezily argues that the many technologies fail because the perceived pain of adoption is too high.

I found this one hard to get into – my suspicion is that it is (like Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars) one of those books where the title suffices for understanding the main idea. In this case, the title doesn’t, but Coburn helpfully provides this summary in the introduction: 

ISSUE 1: High-tech failure rates stink
The commercial failure rate of nominally great new technologies is troublingly high. That failure rate is consistent with the hatred and distrust most normal human beings – which I like to call Earthlings – tend to have of high technology. That hatred and distrust is a bummer since our little planet can use all the help technology might provide.

ISSUE 2: Suppliers think they are in charge but in reality users are in charge
The technology industry operates according to an implicit supplier-oriented assumption. That assumption is that if one builds great new disruptive technologies and lets cost reduction kick in, markets will naturally appear. This is known as "build it and they will come."

He then goes on to provide a semi-mathematical formula of the "change function" with, I think, the likelihood of success (or, at least, technology adoption) as the product of "perceived crisis" and "perceived pain of adoption".

OK. The perceived pain of reading the rest of the book from that point on became a little too much for me, especially since a quick glance awakened reminiscences of 140-page PowerPoint presentations and hastily grabbed examples. Plus, my perceived crisis is in too much adoption. So I disengaged.

Refuse to be terrorized

Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s foremost experts on computer security, has a great essay about how we need to get less panicky about possible terrorist threats – in order to twart terrorists.

Common sense, in other words. May the newspapers and politicians of the world hear him, but I suspect that the economics of attention and influence is against him.

Eddie Bauer customer service

My colleague Frank Capek at the Concours Group is running a project collecting outstanding customer experiences, with a view to analyzing them. He asked for examples – so here is my favorite:

Photographer's vestBack in the early nineties I lived outside Boston, as a doctoral student. The children were small and required a lot of small items whenever we were out and about, so I used to wear one of those photographer’s vests, with lots of pockets and good ventilation. Now they are hallmarks of the elderly suburban dork, but back then they were moderately fashionable.

One day I needed a some new shirts, so I called Eddie Bauer‘s order phone. I ordered the shirts, and then (since I am a certified nerd, known to do that kind of thing) struck up a conversation with the Eddie Bauer lady at the other end:

Espen: By the way, I bought one of those photographer’s vests about a year ago – that thing has been great, very practical, use it all the time.
Eddie Bauer Lady: Great – is it still OK?
E: Sure! Well, come to think of it, there was a small tear under one arm, but my wife mended it, so it’s fine.
EBL: I’ll send you a new one.
E: But .. I am not complaining, it is fine!
EBL: They aren’t supposed to tear like that.
E: Well, but I have been using it a lot…
EBL: Still, that’s not supposed to happen. Hang on a second [sound of furious typing in the background] .. hm… here it is, yeah, you bought it last summer, at $49. [more typing] Seems we don’t have that kind any more, we have a new one, costs $54, I’ll send you that.
E: Er..well, thanks!
EBL: No problem. Anything else, Sir?

A few days later the new vest arrived. Later, I was told that the customer service representatives at Eddie Bauer have a certain dollar amount, per customer, that they can use at their discretion. In this case, it cost Eddie Bauer a garment.

On the other hand, I have mentioned this incident in many presentations around the world, and now also in my blog, so I think Eddie Bauer got their money’s worth in customer satisfaction and free advertising. And I still shop there.

Anyone else with similar stories, or other outstanding customer experiences you want to share? 

MS-supplied goodies

Here is a great list of downloads for Windows XP from Microsoft – I saw my favorite tool FolderShare was on the list. The Alt-Tab replacement looks interesting, and does many others.

(Via Scoble.)

Update Aug 24: Installed the Alt-Tab replacement. Shows a thumbnail of each application as you go through with Alt-Tab. Works great on my fast machine, not sure I will install it on my laptop.

Jurassic Blackboard

Blackboard (or, as I like to refer to it, Blackbored) is a learning management system used by many schools and universities, including mine.  I will have to admit to being somewhat involved in the selection process, by advocating that since there really was no difference between these products 6 years ago (still not much of a difference, really) we might as well go with the market leader, for reasons of externalities and experience.

Blackboard is not a good product. It reminds me of certain software packages I used on an IBM mainframe under VM/CMS back in the 80s – packages like PROFS, which were good then but are obsolete now. Blackboard has a few good attributes, first and foremost that it can be used by the truly clueless, both teachers and students. And it does have a nice sub-system called SafeAssignment, which does a good job with plagiarism detection.

Over the summer, the IT department here installed the newest version of Blackboard – version 7. As far as I can see, there are very limited additions in functionality, mainly associated with keeping score of students’ grades (which I do in an Excel spreadsheet, much faster and more flexible than Blackboard’s web interface). I am now working on re-establishing my courses after a six month sabbatical. That is a chore at the best of times, and Blackboard makes it worse with its tedious interface and limiting structure.

Here is a running list of irritations, as I notice them:

  1. When you upload a file, you can only upload one at a time (no control-click to select more than one.) Yes, you can zip the files and upload the zip archive, but that is a kluge. Why on earth can’t I click on several files at once – every web service under the sun can do that, starting with services that lets you upload pictures?
  2. It doesn’t work well in Mozilla Firefox. It has gotten better: Version 6 had several things that only worked in Internet Explorer. No problem, Firefox has a small market share – except on campuses, where it sometimes dominates. What kind of companies use Blackbored? That’s right, universities. Smart.
  3. It is not possible to publish a course, or parts of a course such as individual pages, to the web. Those of us who like to share our courses with the world will have to maintain separate web sites.
  4. You cannot pull external web pages into Blackboard, only link to them.
  5. Possibilities for customization are very limited – you can change the color of buttons and such, but you cannot, for instance, rearrange the order of courses that appear on your login screen, or where they go.
  6. The menu system requires an incessant stream of clicking – start at a top screen, click down in the hierarchy, click to do something, fill in a form, press Submit, wait forever, get a "success" screen that you have to click to close, and then get taken back to the screen you started with. If you have a lot to do, especially repetitive tasks, this drives you nuts.
  7. There is no ability to apply changes to more than one course. As a matter of fact, there are no shortcuts whatsoever for people who are comfortable working with information technology.
  8. There is excessive duplication of information. I am listed in 5 courses, and for each one of them I have to go in and fill out "staff information" about myself. To put it in technical terms, their database is not in normal form. If you have a number of courses that use (wholly or partially) the same material, this drives you nuts. Especially if you find an error and have to correct it 5 places.
  9. You cannot customize announcement displays – so I end up getting my login screen cluttered with stale announcements from courses I have guest lectured in a long time ago.
  10. The system is a nightmare to manage for the IT department. Trust me. Those guys usually don’t complain much, but they are swearing over the complications of adding new users to a course, for instance.
  11. There is no possibility to use social software tools, such as RSS feeds (meaning students could subscribe to changes), wikis (collaborative content creation), blogging functionality such as Trackbacks, or tags. (And don’t tell me about "next release" – this should have been in there a long time ago.)
  12. There is no click-and-drag functionality anywhere.
  13. There is no functionality for having a local copy and uploading (replicating), so that you could work in a non-connected setting.
  14. It doesn’t preserve session state, so when you press Refresh, it takes you out of the screen you were working in (the Control Panel, say) and back to the starting screen for the course.
  15. The courses (individual pages or courses in themselves)  are not searchable (or, to use Peter Morville’s term, not findable.)
  16. Each screen contains very little information, mainly because the fonts are big, so it is hard to get an overview. You end up clicking around a lot  just to find things. A more compressed view, perhaps with browser functionality that would let you jump between branches in an information hierarchy would be appreciated.
  17. You can’t log in automatically – in fact, you have to go via an opening screen with a "Log In" button. How about having the browser remembering the password and UID and jumping straight in?
  18. (added 8/31): The system makes it extremely tedious to change small errors in several entries. Item: I had, for one course, entered 10 assignments, all with text, due date etc. Then it dawned on me that I had forgotten to specify that they should be SafeAssignments, i.e., that they should be subject to plagiarism control. There was no way I could fix that, neither for the whole group of assignments nor for each entry. Instead, I had to create 10 new assignments, copy the text over, and set the "display until" dates again. Why oh why? Doesn’t the company have anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of user interfaces?
  19. (added 9/17): When students submit a paper to SafeAssignment, they don’t get a receipt that the paper has been received (for instance through an email). Coupled with performance problems in SafeAssignment, this means quite a few students think they have submitted the paper even though they haven’t.
  20. (added 9/17): When you send out an email to all participants in a course, there is no standard way of limiting it to only students. There is also no way to CC: someone who is not inside the system – for instance an external guest speaker. Instead, you have to go back to your email inbox and forward the mail from there.

Blackboard does something for straightening out formalities and making administration easier – but not as easy as it could be. It offers a space to leave content you want limited to the course participants, and has a rudimentary collaboration system. But the system forces you into a very rigid and limiting form of teaching and communicating – essentially, it automates a traditional way of teaching rather than make use of all the wonderful things the technology can do. Rather sad, for someone who is a market leader in learning management systems.

That being said, the fact that they are suing competitors to protect a patent for the idea of bringing together online learning in one package might be an indication that I am not the only person onto something here. It would be nice if they started listening to the people that use their softw
are and give them tools that made them better. If they did, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about the competition. And I wouldn’t have to work with a system that assumes I am an idiot.

PS: A tip if you have to work with Blackboard: Get the administration to set up a fake course for you (I call mine "0 Espens resources", with the "0" ensuring that it shows up on top of my list of courses) where you stuff all your teaching material in nice little folders, with questions, articles and data. When you are setting up a course, you can then copy materials from this repository into the new course, and not have to laboriously upload everything. Works like a charm. Would be even better if it was part of the package. Would be even greater if I could do it automatically from my PC and press "synchronize"….

Get rid of Caps Lock

There is an underground movement forming aiming to rid keyboards of the dratted cAPS lOCK kEY, which, when you accidentally hit it, screws up your typing and occupies valueable real estate on crowded keyboards.

Hear, hear. Move it to Ctrl-Shift or some other multi-key combination. And give me back that large space bar and a key (on a Norwegian keyboard, that is) for @, $ and perhaps €.

Come to think of it, my Das Keyboard has one fewer key than a Logitech keyboard, and when it is set to Norwegian, I have trouble writing HTML code. Now, if I reprogrammed CapLock and ShiftCapLock to "<" and ">", life would be simpler.

Now, how do I do that – there are files for turning CapsLock into Shift and other things. But to a regular character?

I’ll be back….

(Via Engadget and Slashdot.)

Irritating "Good site" spam

For some reason I have gotten a lot of irritating comment spam the last couple of weeks. The comments are all on the form "Good site. Thanks!", tend to hit a few old posts, and somehow manage to slip through Movable Type’s pretty good spam filter. I have tried upping the strictness of the spam filter, but that has resultet in some legitimate comments disappearing into the spam holding pen.

What to do?

Beer and diapers again

Regdeveloper tries to debunk the wonderful story about the co-buying of diapers and beer. And it turns out the story is based on an actual finding, but the reasons for the covariation is left to the imagination of the marketeer.

My take on the situation was always that diapers is a stress purchase. When you run out of diapers, you don’t wait until the next time you go shopping – someone has to get in the car right away, or pick up something on the way home from work. The man of the house gets the job, enters the store and goes straight to the diapers section, then rewards himself with a sixpack since he is out shopping anyway.

The fact that Osco never moved beer close to diapers to increase sales is neither here nor there – they could have. And perhaps they should, at least between 5pm and 7pm on Thursdays.

So I will continue to tell this story, with careful insertion of “it might be a good idea to” rather than the affermative.

Testing Windows Live Writer

This is a test of Windows Live Writer, inspired by this review by Om Malik. Installed fine with Movable Type 3.2, we’ll se how things turn out. The idea is that you can write blog entries locally, and then upload them to the blog.

One good side I can see right away – backup. I keep forgetting to back up my blogs. This way, there would be natural duplication. Another good aspect is the interface, though in my experience most programs that are supposed to generate HTML code tend to insert lots og spurious stuff and make the code unreadable and impossible to edit manually.

I suppose what I really want is a sparse and syntactically correct WYSIWYG HTML editor to edit my regular web pages, for instance those that go with courses. With offline page management.

Oh well. Put that in there with the wish for the PIM that makes me effective, not just efficient….

Changing, not ending business travel

Seth Godin thinks new security requirements (no laptop, no hand luggage, no carry-on liquids) will cramp business travel. I don’t think so. All the airlines need to do is install in-seat terminals in business and first class along with in-the-air Internet connections. Throw in some decent food and you have a much lighter and more satisfactory flight.

Goodbye laptop, hello Gmail, Thinkfree and Skype. Looking forward to it. Not to mention reading books and blogs online, rather than buying them at the airport Dan Brown outlet. Yay.

No cosmopolitan, me….

Douwe Osinga has a cool feature on his web page – a mapping system where you map out all the countries or US states you have been to. Here are mine:

Hmmmm…..seems there is a lot of unexplored territory, I have never been to South America or Africa, for instance. Anyone need a speaker on technology and strategy in those parts of the world?

(Via Doc Searls