Intelli-J makes Android Easy

On paper Android should have been a good fit for my previous experience in java and C#. I’m quite used to using the Eclipse development environment and, despite some of its more quirky configuration aspects, it has generally proven relatively painless. However, for much of the last couple of years, any involvement in Android has proven to be a bit of a heart-sink moment. Write the code…wait for the emulator…wait for the debugging to commence…wait…wait…wait. 

There is much to like about Android, as a developer, but somehow, compared to the slickness and immediacy of the iPhone emulator and debugging experience in Xcode, and the depth and sophistication of Microsoft’s Visual Studio, Eclipse has been the source of much heartache, cursing and premature ageing. Recently, however, I have moved from Eclipse to Intelli-J (IDEA 12 CE) – a free IDE from JetBrains that can be used for Android. This has revolutionised my Android experience – now I feel  like I can focus on the job at hand, and on the well-thought-out Android Framework – in short, I feel like a developer rather than a software trouble-shooter. Moreover, with sophisticated code-completion and all the other whistles and bells you’d expect from JetBrains, coding productivity shoots up.

Now we have the three major platforms with very pleasant and capable development environments, I am more convinced than ever that the advantages of quick-adoption offered by PhoneGap and other HTML-based cross-over frameworks are more than outweighed by the power of having direct access to the underlying frameworks and better performance. Indeed, my current experience of porting over a complex application framework from iOS to Android suggests to me that whilst code might not be shared directly, the platforms have enough in common to make the translation reasonably painless.

As the mobile development market matures further, we will no doubt continue to see steady advances in the ease and productivity of native code development – something no developer is going to be sorry about.

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What should you expect from your CMS?

Content is key to raising your profile on the web, and having good quality, relevant, accessible content is essential to attract good search ratings. Good quality content is time consuming to author and approve – so being able to reuse it is important for increasing the returns, in terms of visits, revenue and long term interaction, that it can help to generate.

Implementing a web site using a Content Management System (CMS) is a major undertaking. The end result should be a platform that will facilitate the growth of relevant services and channels of communication for your key target audiences. A good CMS should make it both quick & easy to author content and to reuse it.

Adapting to new online behaviour

In the digital age, users expect content to be up-to-date and relevant to their needs. What is relevant at one point in time may not be relevant at another. Patterns of engaging with content are also changing rapidly with the explosion of mobile internet. The market for smartphones and tablets has already surpassed the sales of PCs[1]. Already 90% of mobile phone subscribers have phones that can browse the web[2] – but the actual use of mobile internet will eclipse that of the fixed internet within the next couple of years[3].

With mobile internet rapidly becoming the primary means of accessing the web, users will naturally expect content to be provided in a form that is appropriate for mobile devices. More and more users will be accessing your content directly from search, or from links in recommendations in social media.

In order to maximize the returns from your online presence, your strategy will need to adapt to accommodate these changing patterns of usage. Your online strategy will need to support these changes in patterns of usage and your CMS platform should enable you to easily adapt your existing content, with little modification, to use in these new channels.

The end result of a successful CMS implementation is a platform that enables you to keep up with your users by providing these key benefits:

  • Easy to author and maintain content
  • Easy to reuse and repackage content across different site areas and web browsing platforms
  • Easy to re-theme content where required, keeping content but changing its appearance
  • Easy to make content searchable and findable
  • Easy to set up new data captures and communication channels with your users
  • Clear APIs extending CMS and storing data within CMS structures
  • Easy to upgrade your platform and take advantage of new features

There are no doubt many CMS systems that can offer these benefits – but the best ones are those created by a development team that are focussed on their clients with a clear roadmap and vision for the future. Fortunately for my agency, these are things that have been abundantly provided by our chosen CMS supplier – Kentico.

News Roundup Now Monthly (Phew!)

I started off my news roundup with full of energy and determination, committed to doing it on a weekly basis. However, the effort was becoming quite untenable and, moreover, I was finding myself unable to properly think about the rapid stream of froth that is the weekly industry PR and news fest. Real news unfolds rather more slowly, so I have decided to lower the frequency and hopefully up the quality (not that I can be the judge of that).

I have no delusions of being a professional blogger…besides, I need to find my subject matter a bit more organically, with the idea that it would be an outlet for stuff I was doing anyway – so I think monthly is about right, with other blogs in between on more specific opinions. The first round up will be in the first full week of April.

How do you know if a Social Media Startup will Fly?

Last week I was at an intimate round-table event where two bright and enthusiastic social media entrepreneurs touting around a new location-based service. On the face of it their proposition had something going for it – they began their talk with a whole host of scenarios where it could be useful, and a number of different groups of people it could work for. For as long as they were talking, the picture they painted was vivid, but as soon as they stopped, that image disappeared.

When the topic under discussion was thrown open to the group, there were a lot of tough questions posed, some around the specifics of the social media space, and others which were simple basic business:

  • Is the service really different enough from what’s out there already?
  • Is it going to serve an actual need in practice?
  • Does it gel with the way people are already behaving?
  • Who is it for – will it “own” a particular group or demographic to begin with?
  • How will it generate revenue and make money?

Watching the owners of a social media startup being comprehensively grilled was struck a chord with me at a deep level. I have been through the ringer myself trying to get something off the ground that seemed entirely plausible, that generated enthusiasm, but which didn’t get anywhere, and which should probably have been abandoned a long time before it actually was.

The Key User Question in Building Critical Mass – What’s in it for Me?

In our case, the key question that we never really got a satisfactory answer for was how to build the traffic to critical mass. For network-based social media services, the value of the service is proportional to the square of the number of people already using the service. So, having 1000 people using such a network is about 100 times (102) more useful than having 100 people using it. Hence, for the earliest adopters, the value must lie somewhere other than in the practical use of the platform itself. At the most basic level, the platform must be capable of demonstrating their status as an early adopter – being ahead of the crowd.

Enabling the growth towards critical mass, where the platform becomes useful for users other than the earliest adopters, requires answering one question repeatedly for all groups of users, for all stages of development and launch – what’s in it for me?

Users won’t do something for the benefit of your platform unless you make it worth their while. In our case, the time and effort involved in sourcing or authoring appropriate video was probably prohibitive for early adopters – the platform did not facilitate them showing off their early-adopter status. Without content, there could be no audience of people to either comment on, vote on, or even just view the content. In hindsight, this was the kiss of death to our own venture.

Believing in Oneself whilst Listening to Others

I am not sure how much the social entrepreneurs we met were listening – I suspect they took some of the tactical considerations for success to heart, but I’m not sure they will be seriously questioning their key premise. Getting a startup off the ground certainly requires sufficient self-belief to generate enthusiasm in potential partners and users alike, but that must be mixed with being receptive to good advice. Overall I felt that what I witnessed had too many holes in it – the answers to the basic business questions were too equivocal, too complicated, and, ultimately, not quite plausible.

I really wish that I had been given a similarly rough ride before I had committed to spending a lot of time, effort and money on my own doomed pipe-dream. Did I learn anything in my adventure? Yes, definitely? Would I attempt to create a pure social media platform again? Possibly under the right circumstances – but I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t sure that all the basic business questions has been posed and answered plausibly and unambiguously. In particular, I would want to see a clear plan for building traffic and measurable sign-posts that would offer early exit points if it didn’t to take off.

That 30% Revenue Share, Subscriptions and the End of Apple’s Empire

Why are Apple products such a joy to use? Because their every aspect is part of a clearly defined singular vision, a vision that is kept in place by a zealous control over every aspect of its supply chain, OS and application ecosystem.

Steve Jobs’ instincts have so far managed to prevent this monomania lurching into out-and-out megalomania, but has it now overstepped the mark? Contrary to the Apple Orwellian 1984 campaign of the 90s, it is no longer the subversive facing down the might of the totalitarian Microsoft Machine – now it is the machine.

For anyone who hasn’t been connected to the net for the last week, Apple is now demanding a 30% cut of any revenue passing through its market place (gross, not net). If content providers want in on Apple’s platform, they can’t offer their content cheaper anywhere else. There must be very few business that can afford to give away a 30% cut of potential revenue in the current market place and hope to remain in business for very long. At the same time, Apple will not guarantee passing along user information for the fee – users will have to opt in, meaning that the relationship stays firmly with Apple rather than the provider. Put this egregious demand together with Apple’s constant gerrymandering of rules and regulations, as well as its flip-flopping over the use of 3rd party development tools, and one can see an unhealthy degree of contempt for both content providers and the Apple development community in general.

For the record, I have an iPhone, I like Apple products and I think Apple are to be congratulated for the trailblazing that they have achieved with such amazing consistency. However, I hope that the current anti-trust cases that seem to be gathering pace in the US and Europe will result in them receiving clear signal that it is simply not possible to operate with impunity in the commercial market place in any position of market hegemony. Perhaps Apple should remember how Microsoft ended up in deep trouble in Europe simply for the way it packaged IE with Windows – they weren’t even demanding any financial reward for things associated with IE.

At the moment Apple might feel like an irresistible force – but let us not forget that the greatest extent of empire often occurs at some point after the decline has set in – just as it did with the British Empire. Whilst Apple will no doubt to continue grow for some time, I can’t help thinking that their new subscription model and its aftermath will mark the passing of its zenith.

Apple’s hold-everything-close-and-tight approach to getting things done seems is in stark contrast with Google’s lets-give-everything-away-to-everyone ethos of getting everyone possible to buy into their preferred future – somehow the latter seems more in step with the age of Social Media, Open Source and Crowd Sourcing. Nevertheless, there will, I think, always be space for singular vision – but it remains to be seen whether Apple, in a post-Jobs succession, will have that vision.

For Fortune magazine’s take on this see http://rss.cnn.com/~r/fortunebrainstormtech/~3/HkozhYGYrnI/

A “Marriage Contract” for Successful Projects

When a client engages the services of an agency on a major project – an intranet or major web site for instance – the important elements of the contract are not necessarily those written on the paper to which the signatures are added. Given the high level of mutual dependency, intense frequent contact and joint expectations, this relationship can often feel like a marriage.

If it is going to work, the relationship must be fair,  the “marriage contract” must allow for trust and understanding on both sides. The agency, for its part, must undertake to keep the client’s goals firmly in mind, offering a good level of flexibility and understanding, as well as a commitment to a high quality outcome without trying to pump the price up every time anything changes. On the other hand, the client must understand that not everything can be known in advance – there will be human, organisational and technological challenges that crop up along the way, delaying the project, or requiring more effort and resources. The client must also understand that the agency is a business, that work costs money and that changing decisions costs time. Most importantly, perhaps, they should be willing to listen to informed advice and accept that any agency worth its salt will have some useful insight into what works and what doesn’t work in their own particular medium.

Like all marriages, the one between agency and client must involve mutual empathy and respect – liking each other helps too. Working in an often very exposed position, dealing with the high and often conflicting expectations and desires of the many and varied project stakeholders, the client Project Lead needs the agency to understand the pressure to deliver, they need to be know that when their neck is on the line, the agency will pull out all the stops to make good on promises made. Similarly, on the agency side of the fence, the project manager knows the importance of regular praise and thanks for their team – designers and developers work best when they know that the pride they take in their work and the time they spend debating the minutiae of interface design is being appreciated by the users.

Let’s be honest, we all spend a vast amount of time at work. When we are working hard, when we are putting our all into a joint enterprise, we need to enjoy ourselves, to feel fulfilled, to receive encouragement and positive feedback when it is deserved, in the client and agency alike. When the relationship goes well, when everyone feels liked and fairly treated, when everyone is looking out for each other, that is when great things happen, when the ideas flow.  At the same time, just like in any other marriage, there will also inevitably be some habits that may annoy each from time to time – but such is life – sometimes we must all bite our tongues.

Now the project is over, just one question remains – who gets the bouquet?

 

The Dangers of Painting Technology Trends with Too Broad a Brush

When it comes to the debate on the relationship between Social Media and Knowledge Management there is an article that though quite old now (Sept 2008) is still very often cited as authoritative – “Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War” by Venkatesh Rao. Whilst seductive on first read, this piece demonstrates for me the danger of using too broad a brush to trace the outline of unfolding trends in technology.

Rao’s blog paints a picture of two generations – the Baby Boomers and Generation Y-ers – fighting it out with two different paradigms of how they relate to and handle knowledge – through top-down Knowledge Management on the one hand, and free-for-all Social Media on the other. According to Rao, in the middle of this are the Generation X-ers, involved in both and allied to neither.

There is certainly always an inertia involved in any discipline when new ways of doing things emerge – people work long and hard to become established in their field, and they will naturally try to fit what emerges into paradigms with which they are already familiar. It is also natural that people will cleave to ways of doing things that they grow up with first – this certainly does not mean that people are stuck in ways of doing things dictated by their age – there are enthusiastic older users of social media just as much as there are younger people seeking to impose order and taxonomies on their knowledge.

Rao’s post is part and parcel of a wider mindset that views the unfolding of technology and knowledge-exchange in simplistic terms, uncomplicated by culture, race, class, education, profession, personality and so on. The whole notion of the Baby Boomer, for instance, is one that is located in a specifically western developmental paradigm – the use of computers and the web has followed a distinctive trajectory in other countries and continues to unfold with a specifically local flavour depending on the environment – familiar western demographics are not universal. If the sentiments in this blog reflected reality, marketing would be simpler – we could just pursue everyone simply based on generation. Wherever technology and techniques are adopted, they become embedded in and reshaped by the local cultural and social environment.

The history of the internet as much as any other unfolding of events, past or present, is not so easy to characterise or periodise – people are complex, their mass behaviour is often chaotic – otherwise, why would we need to get a grip on knowledge in the first place? Whilst it is perhaps easier to divine the likely future behaviour of corporates, where the profit imperative is clearly driving things, for everyone else there is no single dimension – age, race, class – which can be used to group and characterise behaviours. One of the joys of the net is that the way people adopt and use particular sites and technologies is unpredictable in the extreme – which is why we all necessarily indulge in some level of futurology.

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