The power of green

Thomas Friedman wrote a phenomenal article on green power in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The gist of it is that America leads the world in developing technology to conserve and cleanly generate in the few markets where the US government has acted in the past to mandate strict emissions restrictions, as in the example of diesel locomotives, and creating well-paying domestic jobs to boot. He argues that the free market can’t work properly without the government creating regulations that can provide guidance on future costs of emissions and fuel. People can’t and won’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars if they can be wiped out the next time oil prices drop. It needs to cost money to burn fossil fuels or no alternatives will be developed.
I’ve heard this before at Technical Review’s emerging tech conference last fall – hopefully with Friedman articulating the case for pro enviroment so well and in a manner that should make sense for lots of society, not just the “tree-huggers” we can finally make some real progress on meaningful environmental legislation.

Apollo alpha available

I saw (via that Adobe Apollo is available at adobe labs. It remains to be seen if the whole I need to install tens of targeted rich clients thing will take off (java web start, anyone?), but if it does, this looks like a great tool to be using.

When I was working at Lotus on Workplace Client, I often wondered if Java on the Eclipse platform was really the best way to deploy rich client applications. The only compelling things it had to offer over browser-based applications was an offline experience and desktop integration. (plus some hand waving about leveraging existing Java skills). Now that flex has a more traditional programming model around the flash runtime, and apollo provides desktop integration and offline support (with synchronization) as well as update/provisioning, the advantages of using the Eclipse platform with layers of overpriced IBM code piled on top are evaporating. One could still make a case for the lipstick on a legacy-code pig project (see Hanover/notes 8 ) building on the Java/eclipse stack, but I can’t see any reason why a company would invest in something like Lotus Expeditor for green-field development.

Wireless Net Neutrality

I saw a great paper on wireless net neutrality referenced on boing boing a day or two ago. It has a good outline of how the current state of the wireless industry mirrors the wired industry circa 1950s when it was all firmly under the thumb AT&T.;

By being greedy (demanding HALF of mobile revenue) and controlling (censoring and stifling information) the industry is getting a big slice of a small pie, but surely if they let up, they could get a small slice of a much bigger pie as the mobile information market expands and new, unexpected uses of their mobile infrastructure.

Given that wired net neutrality isn’t even a sure thing, I don’t think anyone can hold their breath on wireless net neutrality. Then again, the wireless carriers are using public radio spectrum to deliver their half assed service, so perhaps there is more leverage there than over wired carriers?

Clearly the US is lagging further and further behind Europe and Asia on the wireless front. If that remains the case surely the google or yahoo of mobile won’t spring up in silicon valley…

Cingular phones rss feed

I’ve been waiting months for Cingular to release the Nokia N75; it is a bit annoying checking their product page over and over again so I’ve been thinking about creating an RSS feed for their offerings for some time. Now its done – and here it is: Cingular RSS Feed. There’s a yaml data file here too. Updated nightly.

Now we can easily watch as Cingular keeps adding crappy RAZRs in assorted colors instead of actually adding new phones.

I tried a number of ruby and python screen scraping utilities along the way, ultimately I’ve been quite pleased with Hpricot, so if you’re doing some scraping and can use Ruby, I’d give that a whirl.

Bucking the left to right convention

Tufts Health Plan (no relation to the school) made an poor design choice for guiding people through multistep processes on their website. The convention for wizards has been left to right just about forever; the button for continue should be on the right, and back/cancel should be on the left. Combine that with the same mapping for back and forward in web browsers and I’m pretty sure the mental model most users have of this activity is left to right. So much for stimulus-response compatibility here:


Tivo DRM Broken. Hurray!

I salute Jeremy Drake for providing a platform-independent mechanism to decode Tivo video files. What I like most about the code he released is that it’s not a crack per se, as it still requires the Tivo’s password (as did the windows-only tivo software). You don’t let people have what they want (and should have been given) long enough, they’re going to take it.
The cat’s been out of the bag for a while anyways, it was just more difficult and required windows and direct show dump to get files decode so they could be (lawfully) played on the mac.

I love tivo, but they’ve been teasing the mac community with unfulfilled promises of tivo to go support for at least a year now. I’ve never understood their reasoning for this; of course the windows user base is bigger, but I’d guess the percentage of tivo owners who use macs are higher than the general population mac percentage. Mac users seem more willing (and perhaps able?) to pay a bit more for a better user experience. Now that cable companies are releasing cable boxes with DVR capability, I would think Tivo would want to cater more to this community of people with higher expectations, not less.

While I’m talking Tivo, I can’t see how the company is going to be around for many more years. Cable companies DVRs aren’t as good as Tivo’s, but there’s a lot of people who’ve never used a Tivo and don’t know what their missing. Then there’s this whole Tivo Series 3 debacle; $800 for an HD DVR that doesn’t let users do anything more than a cable company DVR – there’s no tivo to go for example. Why would someone who’s just dropped a couple of grand on an HD set up not be willing to get the cable company’s box for no money up front and less money per month?

Then again, people have been predicting the death of Tivo for years, so who knows what will happen?

Can you tell a company by its website?

I’ve been looking for a new job of late, so I’ve been looking at a lot of company websites to get a feel for the company. I know the saying is you can’t tell a book by its cover (even though a cover can catch your eye and make you buy it anyway), but can you tell much about a company by its website?

I like to think you can.

The following factors tend to weigh heavily against a company in my mind (especially if they create web applications):

  • Site looks ugly or broken under firefox (I know most people use IE still, but come on. This also indicates they may be writing IE-only webapps)
  • Messy javascript
  • Poor HTML- no css, lots of inline css
  • Bad information design

I understand that a lot of these companies probably outsource their web presence, but I would think that if there were some talented designers at a company, one of them would raise some concerns about or fix the issues above, particularly poor information design.

Here’s a case study. One of my recruiters told me to take a look at Outstart which appears to be in the business of information delivery (e-learning etc) via the web. So it was especially alarming that they didn’t seem to be able to deliver information about their product line very effectively. Take a look at the screenshot below (taken from here). I’m willing to bet that a large percentage of visitors to the page try to click on the product names (in blue, bolded) next to the short descriptions before figuring out that doesn’t work and using the menu at left. Talk about misleading information scent. (Click the image for a larger version)

Lame info design

Other strikes here (besides the different order of the products in the page and in the menu):

  • Parts of the site don’t render well in Firefox. (like the country drop down box) I don’t want to work on an IE-only app again. Ever.
  • The url is ugly and complex. It contains at least 100 characters, many of which are in hexadecimal. They break down into three coordinates on the menu to decide which page to show. Only each id is a 32 hex characters, which means there are 10^24 possible menus, and the same number of possible items per menu, and the same number of base menus. I guess they’re thinking about growth, or adding the entire internet to their menu structure. At 10^72 combinations, they might be able to have a page for every atom in the universe. Way to plan ahead for growth.
  • The HTML is broken. There’s a chunk of CSS before the html tag. No Doctype.

I’d expect more from a company that builds web apps to deliver e-learning, wouldn’t you?

Getting more organized at last

I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done at least twice now but never really implemented many of the ideas until now. I’ve looked at many productivity tools, both open source and not, in search of something I could use. I liked the tiddlywiki and GTDTiddlyWiki apps, but I don’t carry a laptop to and from work and didn’t want to have to carry a USB key everywhere. I’ve used backpack a bit recently, and its handy for some simple things, but it wasn’t really enough for my needs (especially without paying for it – I already pay for hosting so I might as well use it more than I do).

I found Tracks and its been great! Its written in Ruby using Rails, so you can easily host it somewhere public (as I do now) or run it locally on your own computer. There’s a free to use install at zenlist

As an aside, I was building ruby 1.84 on my macs, and I was really taken back that my macbook compiled twice as fast as my G5 Imac given that they’re roughly the same clock speed and the Imac’s disc is probably a bit faster. I was also surprised back when i got the imac that it wasn’t that much faster in non floating point tasks than my old G4 ibook despite an 800mhz advantage, so I guess I shouldn’t be amazed that the duo runs circles around the G5.

TRETC Panel: Innovation and The Energy Crisis

The most captivating and depressing session from TRETC was easily “Innovation and the Energy Crisis”. The panelists (well three of them: Nathan Lewis, Joseph Romm and Robert C. Armstrong) painted the most dire picture of global climate change that I have heard yet. They argued that within twenty years there will be massive redirection of capital into mitigating the effects of climate change, which will have such priority that relative luxuries like the space program will go by the wayside (clarification on this here).

The central issue is that in order to minimize climate change but still meet growing energy demands, we have to double today’s energy infrastructure but without any increase in carbon emissions. The problem with this is there are no magic bullets – society has to start using every technology at its disposal from conservation to generation, and the sooner the better so that we can figure out if some technologies (like carbon sequestration) will even work. Discussions on energy policy based on cost alone will never help to solve this problem, risk assessment must become part of energy decisions.

Some interesting tidbits from the discussion:

  • Wind power can likely never account for more than 10% of the worlds energy output.
  • Almost all the significant hydro-power resources are already tapped.
  • There is more energy worldwide in natural gas reserves than uranium. If the world’s ~11 TW energy was to be generated entirely with uranium, it would only last 10 years. This means that breeder reactors using plutonium have to be part of the arsenal, which means dealing with their proliferation issues.
  • The amount of geothermal energy available is on average just 55mW per square meter – so large scale geothermal power may never be possible (but home and business heat pumps are still an effective way to assist in cooling and heating)
  • China’s geology prevents any underground carbon sequestration except for a small portion of the north west. (They’re also apparently asking for the right to “catch up” with the developed nations in terms of cummulative CO2 emmissions before having to participate in any reduction treaties)

The short time frame to turn this around immediately made me think about patents and how they could help or hinder the process – as companies invent better energy technologies, can governments incent them to turn them over to the public domain or make them available for inexpensive licensing without taking away the financial incentive to invent in the first place?

I put the question to the panel leader Robert Armstrong after the talk. He drew a parallel to the mobilization of the US economy during world war 2, where it took just 9 months to switch from cars to bombers and any inventions were quickly disseminated among all producers. (I think another parallel is the way the US government guarantees certain sized orders of vaccines in order to foster their development today)

I wish the audio of the panel was online. [UPDATE! sometimes wishes come true quickly!. The MP3 of this talk is here.] There is this brief article. Here’s a description of some new research that appeared just before the conference and drove some of the discussion.

Bad things happen when the buyer and the user aren’t the same person

I was at Technology Review’s Emerging Technology Conference (TRETC) today which was great and about which I have much to say. Before I delve through my notes to put up some posts, something occurred to me based on several things I heard today.

First I overheard someone say to a colleague who had just gotten a new motorola phone that Motorolas have crappy interfaces, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Second In the panel discussion “Online Application War” someone pointed out that the reason so many enterprise applications (interestingly he singled out all of Oracle’s back office applications) have crappy user experiences is that the buyer probably never has to use the system. This likely means that these apps are being bought on the basis of feature checklists. (The extension of this is that the beauty of web apps is that people can make an end run around their IT department to use apps they want to without having to get permission).

So this brings me back to my hypothesis about why people buy so many Motorola phones: the “person” who is buying the phone has never used the phone. They’re making a decision based on features (camera: check, games:check) and the look of the phone. Most buyers never get an opportunity to actually try the phone out, because most of the display models are empty cases with stickers for screens. Which is why Motorola must justify spending so much more on industrial design than UI design. Imagine if people were forced to buy cars this way?

Once the user gets the phone home and uses it, it is either too late or too much hassle to return it (or they just don’t expect enough). Then they get used to the warts, two years go by and the cycle starts anew. Should I take the pink phone, or pay extra for the same phone in blue?

[Update] – I found this post (and related comment thread) on the lackluster UIs in all cell phones over at 37signals.