Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Permanent OOOM

This is my Outlook Out-of-Office message and it is permanently turned on:

Hi, I am not traveling, nor out of town, nor on vacation, nor without Internet access, nor in a place with limited Internet access.  In fact, most likely your mail popped right up in front of me and caught my immediate attention.

Having said all of the above, it doesn't mean that I will be reading your mail, will be able to understand it, or will be working on it.

Have a great day!

--Sent not from an iDevice

Friday, October 12, 2012

Open Book Exams

I am surprised that schools are still conducting examinations the old usual way.

As explained here, life is not about memory capacity anymore. It is about sieving memory. Finding the needle in the haystack is not a good enough analogy, as the smart guy will just deploy a metal detector.

I suppose a tougher challenge is not merely opened books, but how to allow the use of the world-wide web in examinations without the ability to contact another live human being. Even intelligent databases or systems that allow asking interactive questions should be permitted.

Perhaps here is an opportunity for Google - how to duplicate a section of the www such that everything in the world's knowledge repository can still be fully accessed but short of human assistance and contact. Besides schools, the military and prison authorities would be interested.

We all know that we are quite helpless during the few moments we are without Internet access. But we don't want to be too dependent on it. Imaging surviving an air crash in good shape but only to die because in the jungle you can't Google for Newton's laws or on methods to make fire or collect water.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Scripting FTP in Windows PowerShell

What was supposed to be a straighforward task took me more than an hour.

I out-file my commands to a text file:

"ftpUserName`r`nSecretPassword`r`nDIR`r`nQUIT" | out-file ftpCommands.txt

And then:

ftp -i -s:ftpCommands.txt

But it did not work.  It says:

331 Password required for f.

and after a while:

User cannot log in.
Login failed.

It turns out that the default encoding for Out-File is Unicode.  That added two bytes to the beginning of the file ftpCommands.txt.  Somehow, the -s option of ftp does not open the file in the Windows way but treated the file literally byte for byte.

By explictly adding -Encoding ASCII to the Out-File command solved the problem.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Apple Thought Mapping Was Easy

I had never believed that maps could calculate for me a practical drive-able route from point A to point B in the real world.  Earlier this year, just for the fun of it, I asked Google Maps the route from where I was in town to home.  I was surprised!  It knew where the U-turns were, where I could turn left, and where the ramp into and out of the highway was.  It gave the exact route that I was using for years.

The details of the  information required for such as feat is complex.  I have been left behind on the progress and standards made in the cartographic world.

In the last forty-eight hours, everyone has heard how Apple has bungled up on their maps.  I would like to relate an experience with Google maps here to demonstrate some of what it takes to build usable maps.

In April, I had to make a trip to a remote outback of south Malaysia.  This was from Google Maps the day before I traveled in April.

Google Maps BEFORE I drove
For part of the journey, I drove along the gray route as indicated by the red dotted line from right to left on the outward journey, and in the other direction on the return journey.  Although the class of road was labeled gray, it was a good wide hard road with one lane in each direction.  Google Maps was a bit out of date regarding this road.  I was traveling at an average speed above 50kph.  I had signed in to Latitude, and there was good GSM/3G coverage everywhere.

The next day, I took a look at Google Maps again, and lo and behold, this is what I got:

Google Maps AFTER I drove at above 50kph

How Google crowd sources everyone's inputs to improve their maps is IMPRESSIVE!

Unless, it's a coincidence that Google was updating the maps of south Malaysia that day.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Windows 8 the new Vista

Steve Jobs said users don't know what they want or need and went on to build a couple of wildly successful items.

Microsoft went the opposite way. According to Mr Sinofsky here, Microsoft collected telemetry on, I suppose, ordinary dumb users, and designed Metro/Windows 8 based on that data. It's hilarious how such a big company can be so dumb.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Critical Success Factors

With hindsight, we can tell what cause certain things to succeed wildly.  My takes are as follows.

BlackBerry: It was the full qwerty keyboard.  Anyone who has tried to use a 0-9#* keyboard to enter an Url, even with T9, will realize that it is a real pain.  All BlackBerrys had a full qwerty keyboard, and to me that was the critical success factor.  It is not enterprise acceptance because of fantastic security.  In fact, any CIO who recommends the BlackBerry service should be sacked.  Permitting all mails to go to route to one Canadian operator is plain wrong.

iPhone: The pinch zooming and touch panning.  The iPhone screen is small, very small, only 480x320 addressable dots.  No web pages can fit into that amount of real estate.  Hence, the ability of a very quick way to allow the whole page to be read is critical.  All small screens without a similarly efficient way to pan has failed without exception.

SMS: The limit of less than 160 characters.  Surprising as it may be, the inability to send long messages is the critical success factor for SMS.  If SMS (initially) had the ability to send long messages it would have been still born.  The expectation of a capability of something like email is that people will want to send email.  But with a 12-key keypad, emails would be killed instantly.  Other contributing factors could be the negligible bandwidth required, the 99.99% availability of an SMS app on every make and model of mobile phone, and the fire and forget capability of messaging.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Touch Is. Why Touch.

What do you notice about mobile devices, especially the cell phone? It is the extremely small screen. An entry-level tiny 14-inch notebook can typically hold at least twelve (12) cell phone screens! Hence, what you can see on a cellphone is less than one order of magnitude of what you can see on the cheapest notebook. If you are using your cell phone to send and read SMS’es, it’s no big deal. The moment you use it to do something like reading a “usual” web page, there is a big problem. You are able to see only a small fraction of what you can usually see on your notebook. Until the iPhone came along, this stumbling factor prevented phones from being used to browse the web. It was just impractical as you would be spending 99% of your effort scrolling the page one direction or another.

Apple is rightfully credited for introducing touch zoom and pan. Touch zoom and pan was innovative and is the best solution so far to read a document that is bigger than your display area. Touch is a solution to a problem that problem was created as a result of a huge compromise – the trade-off of a decent size screen for mobility. We sacrifice a readable screen size for mobility. Hence, touch is not a virtue that is good to have on its own. Touch is a good thing to have when you have given up something important – screen real estate.

While touch is the best user interface for zoom and pan, touch suffers from serious deficiencies in almost every other area. The most obvious is entering text. You are now only a fraction as efficient in typing with touch, and the keypad obliterates half your already small screen. This is not too serious if your major pastime is information consumption rather than information creation.

Even a simple task such as dialing a phone number is harder with touch. How many times have you dialed wrongly or activated the wrong function because you touched wrongly? Touch has no feedback. You cannot not keep you eyes continuously focused on what you are touching. I now cannot enter the 4-digit PIN to unlock my phone without looking, something you can do pretty easily with a real tactile keyboard. Airplanes would crash very much more often if there was touch in the cockpit.

Hence, with a small cellphone, no matter how smart or how wonderful touch may be as a user interface, you cannot do serious creation work. When you are doing serious work, you need to enter text fast and with great accuracy. You also can’t be standing all the time. When you are sitting down, you can afford a bigger work surface.

While touch is a great user interface for a small device held in one hand, it is impractical when you have something on a near vertical screen like a notebook display. Those laptops that add touch serve no useful purpose except for the occasions when you hide the physical keyboard, eg salesperson doing a demo while standing. If you have the display opened in real keyboard typing mode, after five minutes, your hand carrying your touching finger will be too heavy for you. If you insist on continuing, be ready to call for an ambulance.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Network madness

The technology to connect two (mobile) parties by voice or message has been solved a long time ago. Whether it's GSM, PCM, VOIP or whatever, it's all passe.

Messaging is even simpler.

What makes a solution useful is, not news, the network effect.  Remember the old story about that super fax machine that can transmit a full color page in 0.01s and you are the only one with the glorious privilege of owning one?  It's totally useless until you can find another person with the same machine.  And its value increases proportionally, if not astronomically, with the number of people owning the same fax machine.

Part of the network effect is also the directory system.  Besides having to be technically compatible, you need to know the address of the other party you want to talk to, when you need to.  It is a joke if you have to frequently use another communication network in order to find out the number/address of the person to whom you want to communicate.

The only networks that are totally pervasive are plain old telephony (POTS) fixed and mobile and plain old SMS.  The client apps for these services are available on every phone, with a globally universal addressing system run by the ITU.  The only problem is that telcos like to fleece the maximum out of customers and customers feel better if they are able to get something for nothing.

SMS exploded in 1999 not just because the telcos finally made it affordable, but because every phone has an SMS client and SMS uses the same addressing as POTS.  (MMS is dead despite every phone being fully equipped for it because telcos make it too expensive relative to its value.)

Today we have many contenders vying to replace mobile POTS and SMS.  There is serious fragmentation.  I have to install Viber, WhatsApp, a SIP VOIP client, Google Talk, Skype, Windows Live Messenger in order to network with the few people I know.  Technically speaking they all perform the same job if you want to send/receive an instant message.  Technically speaking they are all incompatible with one another.  It's a nuisance.

Here's the low down:


SMSWhatsAppViberTalkG+ MsgrLive MsgrLive Msgr PCSkype
CostNo$0 1st yearFree
Android Client*YesNoYes
PC ClientNoYesNoYes
Multi-PartyNoYesNoYesNoNoYesNo
Send picsNoYes NoYesNo
VoiceNoYes NoYes
Video CallNoYesNo Yes
Send FilesNoYesNo
Multiple IdsNo YesNo

*From the messaging service provider

WhatsApp and Viber use an ingenious method for directory.  It attempts to use your MSISDN as your identifier and is successful for 99% of users out there.

From the table it is clear you cannot survive on one service for collaborative work, even if all your contacts use the same service.  The best service for PCs is Windows Live Messenger.  For mobiles it is split between Viber and Google Talk.  From the people around me, it seems WhatsApp is more prevalent than Viber.  Talk is automatically available to every Android phone but not many people may be aware it is there, or that they can add a second account if the account they use to register the phone is different from their daily Gmail account.

That, above, is the sad state of affairs.  I don't even want to mention FaceBook.  Because I am irritated by someone reporting he is eating curry at the moment.