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A shift in approach from Apple?

These are exciting times indeed. Over the last year or two we have seen the largest shift in personal computing since Apple introduced the Mac in 1984 and Microsoft introduced Windows for the PC in 1985. It was these product innovations that started the era of modern computing as we know it today. These products filled a need and solved an inherent problem with computing at the time. How do we put computers into the hands of the average person with no computer knowledge? Although the approach from the two companies were somewhat different (Microsoft evolved their existing product MS-DOS for hardware manufacturers, and Apple designed and sold a complete hardware and software package), they both essentially targeted the same end user. Believe it or not, the companies actually worked together on a number of software applications and licensed features to each other. The rest is more well-known history and both companies’ successes are well documented and both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are names the average person is familiar with.

Now we are seeing the biggest shift in personal computing since those days. It started with the launch of the iPhone in June 2007. This single device redefined the way we use and think of mobile phones. The introduction of the HTC Dream running Android in 2008 and the Windows Phone 7 devices in October 2010 further fuelled the shift in devices from stationary to mobile. Computing was in some extend made available on the move. Mobile data usage has steadily more than doubled every year since 2007 and in 2011 there was an almost threefold increase. And the growth is across all markets and show no sign of slowing down. The top 20% of mobile data users now consume almost 1 GB per month. Read the whole Cisco report when you have a spare 3 hours.

Now, I am sure you didn’t come along for his ride for a history lesson, so I will move on to the main focus of this article. Tablets. They are a form factor that has been very hard to nail. Microsoft introduced the first fully fledged tablet computers over a decade ago in 2000. Safe to say they never took off, being cumbersome and not designed for handheld computing. It wasn’t until Apple’s iPad was introduced in April of 2010 that the general consumer opened their eyes for the tablet devices. You can argue that consumers didn’t necessarily need the device, but it looked beautiful and Apple has always been perfect in their marketing strategy. A large range of Android powered tablets have followed and now Microsoft have finally launched their Surface device. Apple has sold over 100 million iPads and still control the majority of the market. But things are heating up to win the mobile consumer. And then Apple introduced the iPad mini.

Here is a somewhat controversial statement: Is Apple turning into a follower rather than a leader? I know you think I am going bonkers, but stay with me. When Steve Jobs was leading the world’s largest tech company, the focus was 100% on innovation, design and pushing the boundaries. Now that Jobs sadly has gone to the iCloud and Tim Cook has taken over, there seems to be a shift in direction. With the latest product launch of the mini iPad, Apple is no longer leading the industry, but playing catch up with competitors. There is already a large range of mid-sized tablet devices on the market, and it is questionable what the mini version of the popular iPad brings to the market. Granted the iPad mini is in fact 7.9 inches of screen real estate, but it is still in the same segment.

The first 7 inch devices bearing the Android flag came to market in early 2010, with Samsung leading the way. Apple’s iPad put the tablet on the consumer’s mind, but other companies succeeded in the small tablet space. So why is Apple bringing out a mini iPad now? It does seem like it is a move to not lose market share and to fill a gap in their product line, and that is absolutely fine. But it is not innovate and ground breaking.

Speaking of mid-sized tablets, Microsoft is now rumoured to be developing a 7 inch tablet as well, based around their new Surface device. According to several media sources it will be an Xbox gaming tablet and will be focused primarily on gaming. At least that is a different take on the tablet space, and I am keen to see what they come up with.

And while we are at the topic, let us now forget Amazon. The online retailing behemoth launched their own tablet, the Kindle Fire, with some success. As of 31 August 2012 they have sold an estimated 5 million device only in North America, which equates to about 22% market share. The device is priced very aggressively and Amazon intends to drive business to their website via the device.

This space is only going to get more and more interesting and competitive as the desktop PC experience seems to be shifting to mobile and handheld. Apple is the unequalled market leader at the moment, but many other players like Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung are looking to steal some of that business. Microsoft has just launched their Surface tablet device, and Amazon is coming out with the Kindle Fire HD. And as always when the big players get it right, the market will be flooded with cheap budget copies. I am very excited in this shift in personal computing, and as a software developer (geek actually) this presents a whole new range of opportunities. And as an end user of the products this development can only be a good thing. Cheaper devices with more and more functionality.


Windows Phone 8 – Near Field Communication and Why You Should Care

Yesterday Nokia and Microsoft announced the next generation Lumia phones. That in itself is exciting for a geek like me, and there are a range of new features which could entice even the most sceptical consumer mind. The new PureView technology leaves most cameras behind and the wireless charger is just an awesome party trick (look mum, no hands!).

The most interesting feature revealed, if you look at future uses and applications was the implementation of the Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. NFC has been around since 2004 in an organised format, when some big players including Nokia and Sony set up the NFC Forum to advance the use of the technology. So what is NFC?

According to the official NFC Forum

Near Field Communication (NFC) technology makes life easier and more convenient for consumers around the world by making it simpler to make transactions, exchange digital content, and connect electronic devices with a touch.

It is in essence a short range wireless signal that allows a simple touch with the device to transfer data. By short range we’re talking about something like 1.5cm, or half an inch. Not much at all. So why is this so cool? Because of the very short range of the signal, as well as part of the protocol, it is inherently secure. All it requires from the user to use it, is a simple touch with the device. And this touch enables a data transfer to happen instantly.

If you are still sceptical, let me exemplify it for you, so there is no doubt left. Here are 6 areas I can think of off the top of my head.

1. Payments

Google has already introduced their Wallet technology and Microsoft is now launching the technology as part of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Imagine if you could store your credit card data, your loyalty card data, or even coupons and special discounts applicable only to a select group of people. Mastercard and Visa are already members of NFC Forum, and NFC enabled phones could use the infrastructure already built for the current tap-and-go technologies PayPass and PayWave. Because of the short range and inherent security of the technology, this would be a great match.

For retailers and marketing agencies, this is a major step forward too. They can suddenly see when certain consumers have purchased a particular item, and can accordingly target them. German digital coupon company Coupies is one of the first companies to embrace the technology and taking it to the consumer.

2. Public Transport

I live in Melbourne in Australia. Over the last few years, the state government has introduced the infamous Myki system as a replacement for the ageing public transport payment system. So far it has costed the Victorian tax payer around $AUD 1.5B (yes, that is billions!) and the costs just keep on coming. That means a ticketing system for a single city has now cost about as much as the latest Mars rover. It just doesn’t make sense. If NFC technology had been used instead of the proprietary Myki card, commuters could have used a number of devices including their mobile phone as a payment option, and they wouldn’t have had to “Stop-Hold” (and often change reader) to go through the payment gate.

3. Health Care

Doctors and nurses could scan tags on beds with information about treatment, medication and much more. This would allow a full history of which medical professional has seen to the patient and what treatment they have given them.

Another application could be to help physically disabled people to ring their friends, by touching a picture of them with their phone, as developed and researched by University of Ljubljana all the way back in 2009.

4. Device Pairing

Imagine taking a photo with your mobile phone, and then to print it out, all you have to do is touch the printer with your phone. Or pairing Bluetooth devices with a single touch. Touching two devices together could enable file transfers or team gaming. No more driver hell of finding the right driver, then downloading and installing it manually.

5. Social Media

A German company called FriendTicker developed a system of physical tags in locations, where the user could touch a tag to check in. Or you can touch to devices together to say that you are at Jimmy’s Pub with this particular person. This could allow instant product promotions to consumers by sending them coupons, product offers and promotional material for a particular location.

6. Information Retrieval/Implicit Search

NFC tags could be placed in all sorts of locations. In a museum to allow visitors to touch and bring up information on a particular piece. On consumer items to build up an in-store wish list. Or how about on your suit case to work as your virtual travel agent. That is exactly what tag-a-bag won the 2012 NFC Best Innovative Solution for.

The NFC technology has a real potential to change our lives in so many small and not-so-small ways. And the fact that Nokia is now putting the technology in their latest devices indicates there will be a real push for the technology in the future. But until the technology has been made more “sexy” it will be a while before mainstream consumers, and not just us geeks, picks up on the infinite possibilities it provides. Watch this space is all I can say. Big things are about to happen.


How to Create Your Own Custom URL Shortener Service Using YOURLS

I am expecting you might have noticed the short URLs that are being used more and more frequently on Twitter, Facebook, Google and many more places. They look something like this http://goo.gl/maps/lPr5V  and are a way of limiting the size of your website links. There are a handful that are widely used, such as bit.ly, t.co and goo.gl.

I needed to use URL shorteners to tweet my blog posts, and it occurred to me that it would awesome if I could use my own domain klint.co. It is short, descriptive and I own it (as much as you can own a non-physical conceptual digital asset). Furthermore, I want to drive traffic to my site anyway, so why give that traffic to a third party?

I did some initial googling and binging to come up with the tool/library YOURLS. It is a very basic implementation using a database, redirect and some smarts to generate a short unique URL that maps to a normal URL.

And what is even better is that there is a complete WordPress plugin designed to allow you to combine your Twitter account with YOURLS. So far so good.

To set it all up follow these steps:

  1. Download and install YOURLS
  2. Follow the setup instructions
  3. If you are using WordPress install the YOURLS: WordPress to Twitterplugin.
    1. To configure it follow these steps (see what I did there?)
    2. If you have trouble authenticating your Twitter account with the plugin, try and disable all your Twitter related plugins. I had a conflict with one.
    3. You should be able to post to Twitter directly from your posts now.

In addition you can now log into the YOURLS admin panel, which lives at http://yourdomain/YOURLSdir/admin. From here you can create bookmarks to quickly create short URLs for whatever site you are on. This is handy for creating links on the fly which can be used on other sites, to then redirect traffic through your domain.

YOURLS also has the ability to act as an API, so other applications can interact with it and implicitly create short URLs for your domain. You set up a signature token in the YOURLS admin section and use that to authorize 3rd party applications to use YOURLS on your domain. If you are using the Chrome browser, the extension Template can make use of your custom URL shortener.

YOURLS is a great tool, and it is relatively easy to set up and integrate into your various sites, applications and tools. Have you used it? Any problems/caveats? Let me know in the comments below.


Windows Phone SDK on Windows 8

If you are a Windows Phone Developer combined with adequate amounts of geek, you will most likely have upgraded your work machine to Windows 8. All is good initially until you open your latests and greatest solution in Visual Studio 2010 and hit F5.

You get either this


or this


or maybe even both

The solution is to install the SDK version 7.1.1, which is now available from Microsoft. It takes a while to install, so be patient. But in the end you see the sweet nectar of emulation running on your shiny Win8.

via [windowsteamblog]


Greedy Windows 8 – How to Limit the Live Tiles Data Usage

I recently upgraded/installed/changed my primary laptop to run on Windows 8. As a matter of fact I couldn’t wait any longer than the day after the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version was released. I did a reasonable backup of files, photos, squirrels and projects before embarking on the path to greater computing (right?). I guess I am the kind of user that you hear about upgrading too early and too often. But I am a geek and that is what I do. And apparently I ramble on a bit too…

What I kind of forgot is that these tiles are live. They update. They show you the latest cool stuff

The reason I am writing this is something I discovered over the last week or so. There are many cool new shiny things in Windows 8, which I won’t touch on in this particular article. But one that I will, is the new start screen. It is by far the most dominant (and shiny….oh so shiny…) feature in the new OS. In fact it is so dominant it sneaks up on you all the time. Are you a windows Key+type searcher? Me too. Hit the win key, and up comes a world of changing tiles and colours (oh so shiny…).

What I kind of forgot is that these tiles are live. They update. They show you the latest cool stuff, the up to minute news and stock prices (who actually uses the stock app on a regular basis?). This in turn means they are constantly pulling data from some online service. All that is excellent and really cool, because you are being completely taken in by all the action. However, as I found out the hard way, these spinning, updating live tiles suck a lot of data. If you are on a landbound phone line and have a seemingly infinite data allowance, you will probably never notice. If you are tethering or using another mobile data connection, chances are you will.

In one week I racked up just over 2 GB of data usage. I didn’t watch any videos, download large files or update my apps or pc. I didn’t change my pattern at all. Normally 1.5 GB will last me a month with some to spare.

So opening my mobile provider account service I found this

Follow by this second near fatal experience

Plan exceeded (yikes!)

 

That is a lot of bits and bytes.

So what can you do to prevent this you ask? It is actually very simple and there are a couple of options.

  1. Turn off the live tiles that you don’t need. Right-click on the tile in question and click “turn live tile off” in the menu at the bottom of the screen.Live Tile Menu
  2. Limit the data usage for all live tiles.
    Open the Charms menu either with the shortcut Windows key+C, or by moving your mouse cursor to the upper or lower corner of the right screen. Select Settings from the list of options and select the tiles link at the top on the next screen. That will open this menu

    If you don’t see the bottom part of the menu, you need to select your connection as metered. Open the network connections, right click on the one you want to limit and choose “Set as metered connection”.

This also has the benefit of not stealing your internet connection, so it will be faster for your real use. And you won’t have a heart attack when you get your mobile bill.

via [ghacks.net]


An Event Organiser’s Checklist

Over the past three years I have been part of the organising crew behind the DDD Melbourne conferences. Together with my friends Alex and Mahesh we have put together the conferences from scratch and I thought I would share some of the points, thoughts and concepts we struggled with and overcame (mostly).

Although the event was a community event and the format was focused around the community, I won’t go into the structure of the event. The following points of advice are general and can be applied to any event format.

Venue

To me this is the most important point to get right. Once you have settled on putting on the event, you need to lock down the venue sooner rather than later. The venue is the heart of the event and most other points can be managed closer to the date of the event. You don’t want to be stuck with the wrong venue, nor having to suddenly move the whole event. Keep the following points in mind when looking for an event (in no particular order).

When you get a sponsor on board you get an association with that brand and their values.

  • Rooms: Based on your event format look for rooms to hold the talks, workshops, keynote, tea breaks, lunch and so on.
    Have an idea beforehand of number of seats needed in each room and make sure you can accommodate 10-20% extra. You never know if you might need the extra space.
  • Location: Make the venue easy to get to. Ideally the venue is close to multiple forms of public transport (trains, trams, busses, metro, kangaroos etc)
  • Price: Depending on the format of your event, try and get the venue for free or as cheap as possible.

Sponsors

Any event is in need of cash. Sponsors can provide that. But sponsors give you more than just money or prizes. When you get a sponsor on board you get an association with that brand and their values. It is important to choose sponsors well, and not just bring anyone in that gives you something for your event.

If you are putting on a technology conference, get sponsors in that space; sponsors that provide extra value to your event.

Make sure you have something to sell. Sponsors want to know what they get for their investment. Don’t be fooled; they only give you money or prizes because they see a return on their investment. Add their logo to your handouts, website, name tags, prizes, slide templates etc.

Set up different sponsorship levels (Standard, Silver, Gold, and Platinum etc.).  This will allow more sponsors to come on board and you can upsell their interest in the event. For example

  • Platinum: Logo on all material including name tags, slides, emails etc. Allowed to set up a booth in the common area of the event. Access to emails for participants (that have opted in to do so). Cash donations of X amount.
  • Gold: Logo on some material. Allowed to set up a booth in the common area of the event. Cash donation of Y amount.
  • Silver: Logo on name tags only. Cash donation of Z amount.
  • Standard: Prize giveaways only.

Presenters

You don’t have an event if there is no content. Engage speakers and presenters as early as possible. The content and those who present it is mainly what will sell tickets to your event.

Set up guidelines for the speakers and be in regular contact, so they don’t forget or are left to their own. Explain the format of the sessions, what you expect them to do, what they can’t do. At the last DDD event we had a presenter that we didn’t know or had heard about before. Nothing wrong with that. But they gave a too short presentation and it ended up being a sales pitch, which was one of the points we specifically had asked not to. Had we qualified the speaker and their motive beforehand we might have spared our attendees this experience.

If you pay your presenters make sure that it is all in writing and there are no surprises.

Chances are one or more will back out for whatever reason. Have backups ready at a moment’s notice.

Giveaways

Everybody likes something for free. Door prizes, spontaneous giveaways, exit-survey prizes etc. are all extra motivators to keep your audience engaged. Prizes don’t have to be expensive, large or unique. They do have to add value though. At one DDD event we had stickers from a sponsor. Only problem was that the sticky bit was on the back of the bit you peel off the sticker. In other words a very nice non-stick sticker. Safe to say not many people grabbed any of those.

Make something out of the giveaways too. Make sure as many people as possible see you give out stuff and put focus on it. After all you are giving away lots of stuff for nothing.

Catering

Hungry and thirsty attendees are a dangerous prospect. They are more noisy, less attentive, distracted and hard to manage. Make sure you have plenty of food and drinks for the event. I would not recommend relying on people to bring their own, as most wont. Which means they have to leave the venue, get back late, complains etc.

Outsource what you can (order pizza, sandwiches etc for lunch) and buy in bulk what you can’t.

Have Fun and Network

You are the main person for your event. Use it. Make sure you talk to presenters, sponsors and get your name out there. After all, the more you know the easier it is to get them on board again.

Have fun with it. Set yourself goals in terms of how many attendees you want and how many sponsors. If you are positive and believe in your event, you will get more just like you. After all, why are you doing it, if you don’t enjoy it?


Top 7 Things For A Startup IT Consultancy

In the not so distant past I decided to start up my own business. The idea was to earn a bit of extra cash by taking on small projects. A relatively simple way of helping out people who are somewhat dehydrated when it comes to IT skills. Oh boy have I learned. Over the past months I have considerably reconsidered my take on being a sole trader. Thus follows my take on the top 7 things to consider when starting your own IT consultancy.

Aim at setting up maintenance contracts, monthly subscription fees or any other form of recurring income.

  1. Find residual income
    For me the main reason was to build a business that would generate more income the longer I was working it and the more clients I had dealt with. The only way that can happen is through residual income. Finishing a project for a lump sum is nice in that 30 minutes after you get paid. But then you realise that you now have to find another contract. You are simply trading time for money. It is essentially still a job; only difference is that you are your boss. Aim at setting up maintenance contracts, monthly subscription fees or any other form of recurring income. Create once, sell multiple times.
  2. Double the analysis more than halves project time
    Because you are only yourself, you need to be incredibly time efficient. Something I do really poorly. I have more than once jumped straight into a project, where the path was very clear in my head. But poor analysis of client requirements sunk the timeline for the project, as the client thought you meant round, when in fact you said square. Find out what the most important feature or part of the project is in the client’s eyes and go from there.
  3. Understand what the client wants
    An oldie but a goodie. Have you ever asked a tradesman to carry a job, only to find out he understood it completely differently? It is no different in IT. Because you are the expert, the client will talk about concepts and ideas, which are clear in their head, but poorly communicated. You need to come down to their level and speak their language to get in their head and extract the idea in terms that can be put down on paper. I once had a prospect come to me with “I have a Nail & Beauty salon, I’m thinking of having a website.” That was it. Now go and design and code the site. Impossible.
  4. Learn to say “no”
    The most overused word by business people that don’t have a technical background is “just”. Can you just move that up there. Can you just make those pictures smaller. Can you just…. As soon as you open the door to accepting their comments of “just”, you are heading for a loss. A loss of time, loss of scope, loss of profit, loss of sanity. If you have any doubt, re-read point 2 above. Get to the core requirement as early as possible, and stick to it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the client will back down when you say no. You are the expert, you know what is possible. Say no now, but open the door for more work post completion of the project.
  5. Only take on projects of interest
    I took on a project where the client wanted a web server set up as part of the project. I am a developer, not a sys admin. I can probably set up web servers for my own use, but professionally is another thing. I like developing software and exploring new technology. I really have very little interest in servers and infrastructure. I ended up getting a friend to do it and the project took much longer than necessary. The client was unhappy and I was unhappy.
  6. Communicate
    If you don’t regularly communicate with your client about wins and losses, they don’t feel warm and fuzzy. Reassurance from you as the expert, that you are on top of things is paramount. If something breaks and delays the project, tell them. Honesty goes a lot further than silence. I always tell things as they are. If something goes the wrong way, analyse, figure out a solution then tell the client. Let them know that you are on top of it.
  7. Have fun
    Sound like a cliché, but it is true. If you don’t enjoy what you do, then everyone around you will feel miserable too. I will argue that you can’t be successful in your own business if you don’t enjoy the work and the challenges. Sure, there are obstacles, but it feels great to power through them. If you don’t have the passion, don’t bother.

Windows Phone Clawing Back

I have been using Windows Phone as my primary mobile OS since it came out in October 2010. I had an iPhone, which I was very happy with, but the lack of innovation and the extremely strict rules imposed on the device I own made me consider my options, once my contract was up for renewal. I have probably always been a bit of a Windows Fanboy, but the first iPhone available Down Under (got mine in 2008) was by far the best device on the market at the time. The Windows Mobile offering (which incidentally preceded my iPhone) was clunky, ugly and designed by developers.

When WP7 came out in Australia the iPhone penetration was close to 50% for all mobile web traffic and that was only due to Android. No one really cared about WP7. Except me.

To me it was a lime green car, a platter of raw marinated fish, a … Allow me to explain.

I would argue that most of the “popular” consumer items have the sheep effect. If it is shiny and the guy next to you have one and tells you how great it is, you must have one too. Surely it must improve your life exponentially and you can get all the benefits that everybody else gets, combined. This shininess is a major part of anything being successful, as well as a well-oiled marketing machine. Most of the people I ask why they have an iPhone, will say something like “It is the best”, “I can check my email” or “I can listen to music and download apps”. Most bought it because it is “what you do”. This is what I call the sheep effect. Just look at the long lines outside Apple stores when a new product is launched. None have held the device or even seen it, yet they still part with a large wad of cash buying an unseen and untested item. Hats off to Apple.

And this is where I like the lime green car. Most people buying a car will get a silver, black or white car. Mainly because of resell value, but also to not stand out too much. They want the safe choice that everybody else has. In my world the grey, silver or black car is the iPhone. Not terribly exciting, but shiny and has some nice buttons. Oh, and everybody else has one.

I want the lime green car. The option that is against the stream, against the norm. I want to consider all choices, and then choose the option that best does what I need.

And all this leads me to an article I recently came across. For some reason people are now starting to port the Metro UI from Windows Phone to iOS. Seems odd that someone will try and force a conceptually completely different paradigm onto the iOS platform, but all I can surmise is that there must be a market for it. Perhaps it is a case of “because I can”.

I am generally not a fan of making something fit into a mould that was never meant for it in the first place, and this is the same. If you want Metro UI, get a Windows Phone. Or even Windows 8 very soon.


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