Sunday, 30 December 2007

The genius of Apple

With the huge resurgence in popularity and profitability at Apple, the importance of sleek design is clear. But I wish they would apply the same rigour (and some of their soaring value) to customer support. I spent five years in the Windows wilderness until I returned to Mac world three months ago.

All was peachy until Christmas night when the Mac battery stopped charging on Christmas Day. On close investigation we discovered that a staple was embedded in the magnetic power socket and was interfering with the contacts on the power adaptor. Even after removing the staple, the adaptor was not working and the magnetic pull was very strong. I went to bed and slept on the problem and the following day I tried again. The mac booted up, but only on the external power and only when the battery was removed. When the battery was in place, the mac booted but the screen remained dark - pointing to a power management issue.

Apple telephone support advised me to take it to my nearest Apple store - in Exeter, quite a distance from me. I had to ring and book an appoinment with a "genius" - another two day delay and a half day's time. The genius replicated the behaviour and said I'd have to leave it with them for investigation. He also suggested that the staple might invalidate my warranty.

When I said that it's pretty shabby to have to leave my three month old computer with them and not receive a replacement, the genius said that BMW would probably not give me a replacement car if they found a banana skin shoved up the exhaust pipe. I fail to see the connection between shoving a banana skin into something and not noticing that my socket has attracted a small, neighbouring object. And the bottom line is, if my car breaks down, it's easy to find an alternative. It is not easy to find an alternative computer where you can transfer your applications and files in a seamless manner.

Why is it not possible to rent a replacement machine at a low rate while your machine is in for repair? Before you buy, all the literature tells you why you must buy this product, how it will transform the way you work and socialise. But when something goes wrong, there's no hurry now, you'd better learn to manage without it!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Number crunching in the garden

This time last year, my social networks stretched to Skype. LinkedIn and a dormant blog. Nowadays, I must perform a growing number of housekeeping tasks to keep on top of a busy online lifestyle.

Today I went to delete some Facebook groups and was intrigued by the numbers.

I love Openads has 70 members and is administered by seven of the winning team at Openads. These people and this software is a major highlight of my year.

The Skype Developer group has 56 members but represents a platform delivering millions of software extras for Skype. Three of the group administrators no longer work for Skype.

The Techcrunch group has a surprisingly modest 282 members. Mike Arrington isn't among the two administrators - is this an oversight, a mistake or deliberate?

Om Malik is miles ahead of Arrington with more than 2,000 members in the GigaOM group. Personally administered by the great guy himself - the personal touch matters it seems.

With an exciting almost 1,000 members, the off-valley tech commentary proves its value and interest and benefits from personal supervision from key staff.

At 123 members, the Blognation group wasn't rounding up members like Om or RWW. But Blognation Belgium group (111 members) and Blognation Canada group
(60 members) showed the potential reach of the troubled project.

The Tech Writers, at 134 members is a fine size for a group that receives nil activity or administration. Membership is safe and requires no effort I guess. I will try to get some input going soon.

At the bottom of the scale are 10 Social Hermits. This group is a friendly cave to hide when the social whirl gets too much; a space for peace and contemplation.

Finally, off the richter scale, is 6 Degrees of Separation with a whacking 3.3 million + users. Gaining hundreds of thousands of members per day, and run by a Steven Jackson (sole admin) from London, author of a recently published thriller. I have absolutely no idea what this is about but it seems to be working - go spam go.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Hearing things on Skype

Today I was going to blog about curtains at Blognation - an elegant closure to a sorry tale. But my atttention has been distracted by something far more interesting and positive; a series of tutorials to help blind people to use Skype.

A blind lady has put together a series of voice tutorials to help blind people navigate their way around Skype. The navigation uses various scripts to translate Skype menus into the JAWs application that helps blind (Windows) users interpret the content of computer windows. As a sighted person, I closed my eyes and tried to visualise my way through the complex menu focus and commands but I could not follow the JAWs instructions which were way too quick for my poor ears. But JAWs users prefer to control the speed setting to speed past the page elements they already understand (or don't want) to reach the element that concerns them. At that point, they can reduce the speed until they are familiar with that element.

For all their focus on usability, few web 2.0 products are designed with accessibility in mind. Of all the sites using AJAX to create a drag and drop user interface, how many consider the needs of blind viewers? Of all the sites that incorporate sound and video, how many factor in deaf or blind users? When bloggers add widgets to their blogs to enrich the user experience, how many examine the impact on disabled users? And when programmers write the UI code, how many consider the learning curve for blind users when they make UI changes? These are serious considerations for web 2.0 developers because, with freedom comes responsibility. If you want to push your product into various institutional markets, accessibility is a basic entry requirement.

I learned about these tutorials in a public chat frequented by Skype afficionados, staff, developers and general onlookers. The developer of the Chat Translator for Skype has been working with Marrie (the blind tutor) and other blind volunteers who helped him build accessibility into his Chat Translator extra. This application manages some of their accessibility issues because JAWs will only read chats from the window that is in focus and if multiple chats are ongoing, messages will be missed. The Chat Translator overcomes this issue because you can set an option to read all chats aloud.

Before my Christmas package from Skype last year, I enjoyed early previews of the Chat Translator and discussed the possibilities for people with disabilities at some length. But I failed to make a sufficient business case for participation and then I had some basic survival matters to focus on. This was not the first time that Skype glanced at the area of usability and disability (a.ka. accessibility) as Stuart Henshall wrote about in Skype Journal over two years ago. But each previous concept was shelved in the face of more compelling business priorities - it's all a matter of priorities I guess.

Usability is a big word these days and grabbing UI feedback from Jo(e) User prior to development is an essential part of the meagre budget of many web 2.0 startups. But usability has many elements and blind readers have an awful lot to teach us about it. Shut your eyes and visualise your way around your application and you will lose your way. Try to figure how to navigate between internal and external widgets, between mandatory and required fields in forms, around flash images and google maps . . . Blind users must develop an internal mind map of their computers, remembering vast sequential routes to information and target pages. By working with these users, developers can gain deep insight into usability.

When this chat came up this evening I had a thought. If everybody in this chat donated a few bucks and a few hours, we could build this type of development into common practice. We could incorporate user feedback from some of the most savvy users on the web into our UI design - and it need not cost much when you incorporate these principles into site and UI design from the get go. If you are interested in donating 20 bucks and 20 hours to this simple goal, please leave a comment. If more than 10 people offer to help, we'll set something formal up - otherwise - thanks for the interest.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Sethi fraud was all Mike Arrington's fault

After a frenzied week of speculation around the blogosphere, Sam Sethi has finally thrown in the towel, and posted his resignation as CEO of Blognation. And even in this closing statement he couldn't show any grace or decency. It's nice to know that it is Mike Arrington's fault that I didn't get paid for two months work plus a stack of expenses. I can sleep better at night knowing that Sam is going to sell Blognation and I can finally expect my cheque in the post. And I don't have to worry about any more threats from him because he is too busy threatening others to have time.

I don't think anybody doubts that Blognation was (and I hope will continue to be) a great idea. That is why I joined - not for the ego-boost or the party invites or the self-aggrandisement - in fact I hated those aspects of it. I'd love to see it survive but I fear that Sam will take it down with him. He writes that he plans to auction Blognation and use the money to pay his debts. I have no doubt that he will try to sell it but I have little faith in fair dispersal of the income. He has said or done nothing in the past six months to inspire any confidence in this promise.

It astounds me that in light of the debacle, so many of the comments to Sam's post wish him luck. Not so Mathew Ingram (sensible chappie) who says "this is one of the most mealy-mouthed and insincere posts I’ve seen from an alleged business person since Conrad Black stopped blogging." A year ago, Sam had his infamous spat with Mike Arrington and it is interesting to read Marc Canter's views on that part of the Sethi soap opera.

Loic has every right to call Sam an asshole. He is an asshole. A manipulative asshole. BUt that’s how they train them at Microsoft.

But Sam is gonna make a fortune on this controversy. He’ll land someplace sweet, same as Jason Caacanis did. And Scoble - too. The more controversy - the better the NEXT job is.

So, it seems not everybody was taken in by slimy Sam's charm and posh shoes. For everybody's sake I hope the last paragraph doesn't come true - serial entrepreneur my ass, more like serial cheat.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Marc Orchant fund

As promised, you can donate to the fund to help Marc's family at The world is a sadder place today.

Marc Orchant RIP

I didn't know Marc - he came later to Blognation than me, but he passed away today after a massive heart attack last weekend. My heart goes out to his family and tomorrow (it's now nearly 3am) I will add a link to pay into a fund to help his family deal with the costs. I never met Marc but I liked his writing - the topics he chose and the voice he adopted - a fine writer. We had some mutual friends but that was not a "thing" in a life when everything continues. But it doesn't and Marc is gone and I never got to meet him.



Sunday, 9 December 2007

the corporate family

I haven't posted for a long time because I had some bad times and some good times - and there was no time for blogging. But events of the past week have driven the priority of posting a blog up the scale.

This week two matters close to my heart came to a head: meltdown at Blognation and redundancies at Skype including at the Developer Program. I worked on both these projects and was passionate about their respective missions - both dumped me in unceremonious fashion and rewarded my loyalty and expertise with rudeness and mistreatment.

A year ago almost to the day, I was a victim of the first big round of redundancies at Skype, weeks before Christmas. On that day they axed the entire technical writing function in Skype, as well as many others. The HR team were dressed, to a person, in black for the occasion. Both my uber-boss and direct manager gave me the same line that this would be the best thing for me in the future - I didn't appreciate it at the time and I'm not sure I do now - other than that I'm happy I'm no longer working for such people.

It took me months to get back on my feet and, along the way, a friend invited me to participate in Blognation. I was assured that funding was in place in advance for this adventurous project and I was to be editor for Ireland and play a special role in developing editorial standards. After a couple of months of serious planning including team and standards building, we met up in London as a team for the Essential Web conference. It was clear from the moment we arrived that Sam Sethi was not going to devote any time to team building and it became crystal clear by the second night that he was not paying his way either. That was in July.

My life has turned around from these grim times - I'm consulting for a really positive and winning team at Openads, and have the freedom to work and build other projects. I recovered from my second financial and emotional hit in a year and life began to settle into a nice pattern. Until this past week.

First off was the explosion of news around the blogosphere about Blognation - from the trigger, Oliver Starr, but covered in depth by Blognation rival, TechCrunch, as well as drawing attention of Dan York (who inspires and educates me and has made the best response so far I believe), Robert Scoble, Shel Israel, and Jemima Kiss of The Guardian among others.

As I was still reeling from the feelings this aroused, I had a couple of scary pings from former Skype colleagues about firings going on - another Christmas package from the Skype HR angels. This time the guy that fired me got the bullet along with many others. They have decimated the developer program and there have been hits right across the London operation.

I was concerned by how upset I was for people this week, including the git that axed my job in Skype, and I started to explore the reasons. And my conclusion is that teams are not unlike families. You may disagree internally but you show a united face in public. When teams split, by reason of redundancy or whatever, it is like splitting a family - you lose your siblings and connections. Companies do basic things to cover their legal backs when they make you redundant but they do not include any form of counselling for dealing with loss - either for those that are dumped or those that survive. A quick pep talk from the idiot that broke the team doesn't usually cut it. And while it's nice to get some redundancy money it is rarely enough to cover you to replace that job if yours is a specialist job.

Of my extended family of the past couple of years, many are in pain now and even the gits have my sympathy. In both cases the managers were the worst gits. I need to get back on track for next week, back on focus in my interesting job with a good team. All I want for Christmas is that my "work siblings" get by and that the same doesn't happen again soon.

And I'd like to forward Skype and Blognation a lump of coal to save Santa the trip.