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.

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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.

Some key considerations for achieving a successful intranet

Perhaps I should do myself a big favour and keep a set of generic documents to stuff into proposals – but I don’t! However much I try to copy and paste what has gone before, I still end up refreshing my thoughts for each new proposal. The following are some thoughts I put together for a recent intranet proposal – top level project issues that I think merit attention at the beginning of each new intranet I get involved in.

Informing and engaging users
There are key elements of an intranet that must be realised in order to achieve core business objectives, such as document repositories, content searching, user permissions management, news and so on. At the same time, the users should want to come back, the intranet should become the “go-to” application of choice for many of their key daily tasks. In other words, there must be a balance between informing users and engaging users.

Intranet is a process, not a system
Clearly an intranet is a system, but it is also more than that – a vehicle for changing the way that people work, for making their lives easier and the company more effective and efficient. As users start to engage with the intranet, they will find new ways of engaging with the knowledge provided by the organization. The ultimate goal of a good intranet is to become an effective knowledge sharing platform – not just between the company and the users, but also between users.

You can’t know what will work in advance
Some ideas that seem excellent on the face of it don’t work in practice due to unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances. Often ideas that we seek to translate from other settings – such as social media – fail in a corporate environment. For instance, my agency have implemented highly engaging attractive features such as noticeboards for car sharing, which have failed to take off. On the other hand, small elements of functionality such as ‘Who’s locking up’ and ‘Who’s out of the office’ add an unexpected value, and are picked up with enthusiasm by users.

Early involvement = happy users
Because an intranet is a system that impacts upon users’ everyday lives, they need to have confidence that it will work for them. If the system feels imposed from above, it is likely to meet resistance in rollout. If, on the other hand, users are involved early and often, it is easier to identify what works and what doesn’t work.

Ideally the development process should include a product owner from the client, as well as representatives from key user groups. By so doing, it becomes possible to identify what works and what doesn’t work early on, as well as creating a group of enthusiastic advocates who will help smooth the way for eventual buy in by the user base as a whole.

80% of value from 20% of functionality
With intranets, as with many any other kind of technology, 80% of the value is realised using 20% of the functionality. By releasing key functionality early in the development cycle, it becomes possible to:

  • achieve early wins
  • demonstrate successful progress
  • build user confidence in the solution
  • ensure the most critical functionality is the best tested

In Conclusion
If pushed, I will always prefer a methodology that involves frequent releases and lots of user input. For reasons of internal politics, as well as the paperwork required for formal budget applications, it is often not possible to wholeheartedly adopt an agile approach in full. However, I think it is a matter of focus here – are you more bothered about ticking boxes, or about maximizing the amount the business objectives achieved with your budget? An agile mindset is all about getting useful work done as soon as possible, about satisfying pressing business needs, building confidence, and flushing out issues so they don’t stack up at the end of the project. Agile does not mean chaos – despite prejudices to the contrary. Agile to me means acting in light of the facts, and illuminating the facts through action – once the research has been done and the groundwork has been laid.

Roundup of the Week (w/e 27/02/2011)

Without a doubt the key market development over the last week or so has been the major change in Google’s search algorithm. Taken together with Google’s commitment to take greater account of social media, this signals a profound change in the terrain of SEO and online marketing more generally. Organisations that already use social media in concert with websites other channels to pursue genuinely useful content-based marketing will have little to fear. Content farms and organisations who play the game more cynically will have to change tack pretty sharpish.

Search

  • Google Announces Massive Search Algorithm Change
    Google just changed its search algorithm and effectively declared war on Content Farms like Demand Media. The change has only taken effect so far in the US, but will be shortly rolled out across all of its search domains. Google aims to filter out sites that are simply there to capture traffic and sell premium ad-space whilst promoting sites with genuine original content.
    Given Google’s recent spat with Bing over the quality and reuse of search results, as well as Google’s overall dependence on primacy in the search market, they simply couldn’t afford to allow the quality of search results to continue to decline.
    Silicon Alley Insider
  • Google Social Search Integrates Twitter, Quora and Flickr
    Internet users are relying more and more on location based services and peer recommendations than general search results. Accordingly, Google has updated their social search to feature three new levels of integration, including Twitter, Quora and Flickr.
    The general search landscape is being transformed rapidly by the inclusion of social media. This will present a challenge for SEO-conscious enterprises, who will need to depend more on the genuine provision of useful content across social media as well as more traditional web-based content outlets, rather than simply producing content to feed the SEO-machine.
    CMSWire

CMS

  • Apache Chemistry Official
    The Apache Chemistry project, the open source implementation of the Content Management Interoperability Specification (CMIS) standard, left the incubator stage and was promoted to a full Apache Software Foundation project.
    Though many commercial vendors have offerings permitting the repurposing of CMS based content, this open source project heralds the mass adoption of more formal content reuse techniques. Technology only offers the fulfilment of cross-platform content – the bigger question is how to intelligently manage the different contexts of information use across desktop, smartphone, tablet and in-app content re-use.
    CMSWire

Mobile

  • 20% of Employees Use Smartphone at Work
    Almost 20 per cent of employees use a smartphone for work, up sharply from 13 per cent just a year ago, according to new research from Forrester.
    Corporates need to start acting in order to take advantage of their staff use of smartphone through a sensible knowledge and content management strategy, rather than simply reacting to the threat such expansion in use might present.
    Mobile Marketing News
  • 140 Million Android Portable Devices by End of 2011
    There will be an installed base of 140m Android portable devices, including smartphones and tablets, by the end of 2011, according to IMS Research forecasts. The market intelligence firm says the recent unveiling of Google’s Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system for tablets, along with enhancements to Android Market, will do much to enhance growth prospects for this segment.
    Apple may be in the driving seat at the moment in the tablet market, but Google are almost certain to dominate in the longer term – the main question is how well they can tie together that base with their undoubted flair for open exchange of content and information.
    Mobile Marketing News
  • Apple Subscriptions for Publishing Apps not SAAS
    Apple’s new subscription rules, which take a 30% cut of all subscriptions done through the app, apply to content publishing apps and not SaaS apps, Steve Jobs has said in a new email. Whilst this does, on the face of it, seem like good news, the lack of definition between publishing apps and SAAS still leaves a very significant room for commercial interpretation on the part of Apple
    Given Apple’s track record for frequently changing tack on Apple Store guidelines, one wonders whether this ‘clarification’ really makes anything very clear. Apple seem to operate very much in the moment when it comes to guidelines, so this conceptual ambiguity only serves to leave yet more guideline gerrymandering on the cards.
    Silicon Alley Insider
  • Windows Phone 7 Update a Disaster
    Microsoft just rolled out an update to Windows Phone 7, and what should be routine has turned into a fiasco. For some phones, the update just fails and you have to reboot the phone (without the update) — for other phones, the update “bricks” the phone, i.e. turns it into a paperweight.
    Following so close on the heels of the contraversial link up with Nokia, it would seem that a disastrous mobile OS update is about the last thing that Microsoft needs right now
    Silicon Alley Insider

Tablets

  • HP Touchpad on Sale in April?
    As with other tablet suppliers, the rumour mills are put into full operation to maximise marketing message in advance of launch, so any announcement should be accepted with caution. Current noises-off suggest an April launch for the HP Touchpad, with its Palm-derived WebOS.
    If there is one thing that Apple is good at, it is the creation of desire and its subsequent prompt fulfilment – when they have a product launch, they have stacks of product ready to buy. Other tablet suppliers who are yet to release their big product are suffering from prolonged pre-release rumour mongering – the boy who cried wolf syndrome. Nevertheless, HP’s release of the Touchpad and its subsequent progress are sure to be of significant interest – will they steal a march on Microsoft given the latter’s late entry into the tablet market.
    Engadget

Apps

  • Chrome Browser Becoming OS within an OS
    Little by little, iteration by iteration, the Chrome browser is quietly morphing into a full-fledged multitasking operating system in its own right. The release of functionality this week shows an aggressive policy aimed at eventually supplanting Microsoft’s Office suite and eventually Windows itself. The announcements included support for new file types in Google Docs, the ability to run background apps and, perhaps most significantly, Google Cloud Connect, which allows users to sync Office documents to Google Docs. Chrome browser is slowly becoming Chrome OS on another OS.
    Perhaps the biggest attraction of Google’s Chrome model is the sheer mobility it encourages. You could move between totally different machines in different locations, with a different OS and hardware and still be confident that provided you can install the browser, you can do whatever you need to without the headache of installing apps and ensuring versions match up. As very fast broadband becomes more widely adopted, its hard to see how this proposition won’t be attractive to many users. Others may talk about the cloud, but Google is still the only company who define what that means to everyday users.
    Tech Crunch
  • Google is Getting Strict About Android App Payments
    Google has suddenly pulled the popular Visual VoiceMail app from the Android Marketplace, seemingly because of a dispute over in-app payments, according to GigaOm. After two years with no problems, Google notified PhoneFusion on Tuesday that it was pulling the app for a violation of section 3.3 of the distribution agreement for the Android Marketplace, which requires developers to use Google’s payment system for in-app payments. Visual VoiceMail is free, but the company sells add-on services like transcription through its Web site.
    Although Google have made their own subscription platform a lot cheaper – only a 1/3 of the cost – of Apple’s. However, by beginning to act publicly on subscription rule enforcement, Google run the risk of validating Apple’s model and thereby strengthening its hand. This risk seems to be outweighed by Google’s desire to capitalise on the the runaway success of Visual VoiceMail.
    Silicon Alley Insider

Hardware

  • 2011: Year of the Solid State Device (SSD)
    Disk manufacturers are putting a new spin on an old product: Solid State Drives. New technology, increased power costs, space limitation, and new business requirements are driving advances in storage. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are part of that new technological push toward more efficiency, increased agility, and higher demand.
    Solid State Devices (SSD) based systems offer rapid startup and reduced mechanical complexity compared with hard drive based systems. With the continuing long-term downward trend in the cost of memory, it is hardly surprising that offerings like the MacBook Air appear attractive. Will this year be the year of the SSD?
    Dzone.com

This Week’s Excitement

  • More Evernote
    I got my API key through for Evernote this week, now I can start playing around with its Edam API, to create some more interesting ways to interact with the content.
    www.evernote.com/about/developer/
  • More MVC and Razor
    Microsoft’s new version of their MVC framework (MVC3), including a new way of including dynamic functionality, called “Razor”, hits all the right notes. They have basically been watching what their development  community has been doing and then adopting all the best practices – which is as it should be.
    www.asp.net/mvc/mvc3
  • Google Trends
    I’m sure most of you have tried out Google Trends – it had only grabbed my passing attention – but there is no doubt that it is a tool of major importance in trying to gauge interest in particular issues over time – it is also a brilliant way of assessing the likely effectiveness of your keyword alternatives in SEO.
    www.google.com/trends

KISS with CMS!

KISS – “Keep It Simple Stupid” – is often mentioned in relation to technology, but not very often observed. User Experience may be well established now as a discipline, but many systems are still woefully lacking in due consideration for users, requiring them to jump through lots of hoops to achieve their everyday goals.

Content management systems (CMS), including intranets, are an increasingly important kind of technology, one that more and more corporate staff are expected to deal with. Given its expanded role, it is vital that users should feel comfortable using their company’s system whenever they need to. For some users this will be an every day experience, and for others once a week, perhaps. Some users may access the content over the web on their PCs, others on their tablets or mobiles.

However frequently it is used, and on whatever platform, it is vital that users find their system intuitive and engaging – they should only be presented with the minimum level of complexity required to complete the task at hand, any extra complexity should be accessible in the background, but neatly tucked away. The tasks that take up 80% of your time as a user shouldn’t be slowed down by the ones that take up 20% of your time.

Being Useful Means Being Usable
It may be a tautology, but it is still one that is worth spelling out: a system is only useful if it is used, and it will only used if it is usable – hence careful interface design has a major role to play in the effectiveness of information systems. In an age when organisations are expected to produce a constant stream of timely and appropriate content, it is in their interests to decentralise the creation of content and the sharing of knowledge, to avoid the ever present problem of content bottlenecks. It is thus also in the interests of organisations to make their systems as easy to use as possible.

I have witnessed many different CMS systems in use, of all shapes and sizes, and some of them prove to be difficult to use because they employ inconsistent or unclear metaphors for interacting with content. I have sat through training sessions on some of the market leading CMS systems, where most of the time seemed to be spent explaining away idiosyncracies of the interface. The success of such systems often reflects the fact that sales are sometimes made purely in the boardroom, rather than with reference to everyday users.

A CMS system may in itself be excellent, but if the agency implementing a website or intranet is lacking a deep understanding of its inner workings, and best practices, you can be sure that users will have a hard time getting to grips with the implementation. On a number of occasions I have had to pick up projects where an agency has thought that a CMS just means editable text, rather than structured content, meaning that users were expected to user HTML in their editing process, when properly implemented the users should only need to worry about their own content.

The Influence of Software as a Service (SAAS)
If there is something that the explosion of Software as a Service has demonstrated, it is that given the right kind of intuitive interface, users can be up and running in moments with doing what they need to do, even if the more complex side of their activities may require some extra training or research. It should be just the same with a CMS system – get up and running in minutes, while you find out more about the advanced features as and when you need to. A good CMS system should be effectively invisible to users – if it is working, it should not draw attention to itself, the focus should be the creation, the curation and the consumption of content.

Kentico CMS – Easy and Effective
There are no doubt many CMS systems that could be used to achieve the appropriate mix of simplicity, engagement and sophistication for users, but my own personal preference is Kentico. Ever since I chose this as my agency’s preferred CMS platform, I have been consistently impressed with its mix of features and simplicity – when properly implemented, users find it so easy to get to grips with that they hardly need any training. At the same time, it can do anything it needs to, as well as being easy for developers to extend in any way required. Whichever tool you use to manage your organisation’s content – don’t forget to keep it simple!

Don’t Write Off Microsoft – they Know How to Keep Developers Happy

Like many others, my team now feels liberated from platform specific ways of working, due in no small part to the flourishing of open source frameworks for just about anything you can think of, from user interface to middleware, security and beyond. We have just gone through a major explosion in it’s use of different platforms, in no small part due to mobile. We used to be exclusively Microsoft, but now we also use Java for Android, php on lamp for web and last, but not least, Objective C for iPhone development.

I remember the bad old days before the widespread use of the web, when a developer spent most of their time with their heads in their hand guessing the meaning of cryptic error messages and log entries. How much easier it is now than then to focus on the job in hand rather than the pure mechanics of getting it done. Despite all of this, it is still easier to use some platforms than others. Even though I constantly try out new things, have a secret geeky affection for things like regular expressions, and am an enthusiastic user of Linux, there is still something very definite to be said in favour of the much maligned Microsoft.

While some market analysts are busy writing Microsoft’s ultimate obituary, and comparing them unfavourably with Google or Apple, they often miss the unique capacity Microsoft has for looking after their developers: Visual Studio is unmatched as a development tool – everything fits together beautifully and works wonderfully. Unlike days gone by, Microsoft now have strong open source communities surrounding key technologies like MVC, which help move things in the right direction, whilst the MS teams keep it tidy. By comparison, Eclipse, for writing java, seems quite fragmented whilst XCode for Objective C feels quite awkward and basic.

I am in no way an ideologue or cheerleader for any given technology, they all have their pros and cons, they all have appropriate contexts for use. Nevertheless, if you want to make predictions about the future of mobile or other platforms, you would be wise to remember that application ecosystems require a development community – and that is one thing that Microsoft excels at supporting.

Roundup of the Week (w/e 20/02/2011)

Last week’s tech headlines were filled with the endless stream of model releases and general hullabalo of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. To mobile vendors and resellers alike it was certainly a key event, but remarkably little news of substance emerged – predictably given the difficulty in getting one’s message heard above the noise.

No doubt about it though, Google’s made a huge impression with their sushi-bar style display with Android handsets passing tantalisingly by the assembled journalists, the mainfold shapes and sizes of Google’s challenge to Apple. Whilst this year will continue to be Apple’s in mobile and tablet terms, something tells me that next year will be Google’s.

Market News

  • Mobile Subscription Wars – Apple Demands 30% Share of in-App Purchase Revenue, Google asks for 10%
    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. The predictable reaction from content providers suggests that many of them will simply look for alternative platforms…In a direct counter to Apple, Google announced it’s One Pass subscription model with a more modest share of 10% going to Google and the user data passing to the content provider – a deal that is clearly going to be much more attractive than Apple’s for publishers and the music industry. Over the long term, I can’t help thinking Apple have got this badly wrong. For the analysis in full see https://takenobabble.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/that-30-revenue-cut-subscriptions-and-the-end-of-apple%E2%80%99s-empire/.
  • This Weeks Punch-Up – Mozilla v. Microsoft over IE9
    Last time round Microsoft received a savaging from Google over the ownership of search results and Bing. This week, Mozilla suggested that IE9 was not a truly modern browser, given its poor support for HTML5 and its second-rate CSS compliance. Anyone in the web design business could tell you a tale of woe about time, effort and money wasted on the non-compliance of IE6/7/8 – let’s all pray that in practice Mozilla are wrong – and certainly this hasn’t put off the 2 million who downloaded the release candidate within a week of being published.
    http://opensource.cbronline.com/news/mozilla-attacks-microsoft-claims-ie9-not-modern-170211

CMS / Knowledge Management

Web

  • IE9 Offers “Pinning” to the Task Bar in Windows 7 as a Key Traffic Builder for Sites
    With the advent of IE9, it is now possible to have your site, rather than just the web browser, pinned to the task bar on Windows 7.  This is already proving a major traffic booster to sites that are using it, even though IE9 is still only in Released Candidate.
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-10805_3-20031845-75.html
  • Google Nearing Completion of Google Native Client for Browsers
    Anyone who attempted to use Microsoft’s ActiveX client plugins for delivering complex functionality to the web in years gone by may well have some apprehensions about the complications of using a similar platform. Google, however, assure us that the new Google Native Client will have none of the complexity and security concerns of Microsoft’s aged technology. If Google pull it off, it will herald the advent of full-powered low-level code running at high speed as proper apps within browsers – let’s hope they succeed.
    http://www.engadget.com/2011/02/20/googles-native-client-almost-ready-for-takeoff-ready-to-make/

Social Media

  • Twitter banished UberMedia, then readmits them
    Twitter doesn’t often make the news for reasons other than growth or potential mergers and acquisitions. This week, however, Twitter suspended use of its API by UberMedia’s popular Twidroyd Twitter app, citing irregularities in manipulation of user posts for money. This caused somewhat of an outcry, as it immediately led to the blocking of access to Twitter, through the app, of a large number of users. Twitter has relented on the basis of reassurances offered by Ubermedia – though this will require an application update to be released by the publishers.
    http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/androidcentral/~3/pbRCEttK-W0/ubermedia-responds-twidroyds-suspension

Tablets

Android Market Growth Outstripping Apple Store

  • The App Genome Project by Lookout Security compared in detail the development of the Android Market with that of the Apple Store, highlighting some eye catching trends. Over the period since August last year, the Apple Store has grown by 44% and the Android market by 127%. The proportion of paid apps, and particularly paid apps over 99 cents in the Android Market has also markedly risen. As one might expect, as a more mature market, the Apple Store is nearer to saturation – but if these comparative rates of growth are sustained, the Android Market will surpass the Apple Store at some point mid-2012.
    http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/219780/app_genome_project_finds_android_apps_outpacing_ios.html

Mobile

Desktop

  • Mac App Store off to Good Start – Microsoft an Early Publisher!
    The launch of the Mac App Store is yet another significant move for Apple, bringing the tendency of users to buy fragments of functionality, rather than major app suites, to the desktop.  To a lesser degree this experience already exists in the form of Browser Plug-ins, particularly on Chrome, but the move by Apple is sure to be duplicated on other platforms, thus changing the dynamics, not to mention the economics, of the purchase of desktop software. Ironically, Microsoft were in on the game early, providing a Mac based version of software to connect to Windows 7 mobile.
    http://feeds.arstechnica.com/~r/arstechnica/index/~3/KOHgUntq_N0/ios-developers-making-leap-to-the-mac-thanks-to-mac-app-store.ars

This Week I got Excited About

  • Evernote
    I have tried all manner of personal knowledge management tools – but have only recently tried Evernote – and I’m mightily impressed – specifically because the variety of apps and browser plug ins available means that you can capture virtually anything you are up to on the fly, and have it synced via a web account with all of your devices. For a good overview of what you might want to do with it, see http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/the-world/article/14-practical-ways-to-use-evernote-guy-kawasaki
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