My wife has been on holiday overseas for the last couple of weeks. In today’s age of WhatsApp, Skype and Facetime, video calling the kids has been no problem – when she has been able to get to Wi-Fi. But what if I want to get a message to her when she’s away from data networks? And mobile roaming is still an expensive proposition…
SMS (text) messages still have their place – even if my wife couldn’t respond without incurring charges, I could get a message to her (e.g. saying check your email/WhatsApp/whatever) and she could get online soon after. But my iPhone wants to send messages as iMessage to anyone it recognises as having an iCloud account.
In cases like this, all you do is compose and send the message in the Messages app as normal, letting it send as a (blue) iMessage. Then, press and hold the message and you’ll see some more options – including to “Send as Text Message” (text messages are shown in green). Select this and the message will be sent over the mobile telecommunications networks instead of the Internet.
As Britain enters the traditional school summer holiday season, hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the coast, to our national parks, to beautiful areas of the countryside. After the inevitable traffic chaos will come the cries from teenagers who can’t get on the Internet. And from one or two adults too.
This summer, my holidays will be in Swanage, where I can get a decent 3G signal (probably 4G too – I haven’t been down for a while) but, outside our towns and cities, the likelihood of getting a mobile broadband connection (if indeed any broadband connection) is pretty slim. I’m not going to get started on the rural broadband/fibre to the home or cabinet discussion but mobile broadband is supposed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately that’s a long way from reality.
Rural idyll and technological isolation
Last half-term, my family stayed in the South Hams, in Devon. It’s a beautiful part of the country where even A roads are barely wide enough for buses and small trucks to traverse and the pace of life is delightfully laid back. Our holiday home didn’t have broadband, but we had three smartphones with us – one on Giffgaff (O2), one on Vodafone, one on EE. None could pick up any more than a GPRS signal.
To find the information I needed, I used another function on my phone – making a telephone call – whilst for other online requirements I drove to Dartmouth or Kingsbridge. I even picked up a 4G connection in Kingsbridge, downloading my podcasts in seconds – what a contrast just 8 miles (and a 45 minute round trip!) makes.
A new communications role for the village pub
Public houses have always been an important link in rural connectivity (physically, geographically, socially) and Wi-Fi is now providing a technological angle to the pub’s role in the community. From my perspective, a pint whilst perusing the ‘net is not a bad thing. Both the village pubs in Slapton had Wi-Fi (I’ll admit standing outside one of them before opening hours to get on the Internet one day!) and whilst visiting Hope Cove I was borrowed pub Wi-Fi to tweet to Joe Baguley, who I knew visits often (by chance, he was there too!).
Indeed, it was a tweet from Joe, spotted when I got home, that inspired me to write this post:
I take my kids on history trips. We go to Devon where the broadband is 100x slower than it is at home in Marlow…
It’s not just on holiday though… I live in a small market town close to where Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (OK, Milton Keynes) meet. Despite living on a hill, and my house being of 1990s construction (so no thick walls here), EE won’t even let me reliably make a phone call. This is from the network which markets itself as the
“the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable mobile network today”
3G is available in parts of town if some microwaves stretch to us from a neighbouring cell but consider that we’re only 58 miles from London. This is not the back of beyond…
Then think about travelling by train. On my commute from Bedford or Milton Keynes to London there is no Wi-Fi, patchy 3G, and it’s impossible to work. The longer-distance journeys I used to make to Manchester were better as I could use the on-train Wi-Fi, but that comes at a cost.
Broadband is part of our national infrastructure, just like telephone networks, roads and railways. Fibre is slowly reaching out and increasing access speeds in people’s homes but mobile broadband is increasingly important in our daily lives. Understandably, the private enterprises that operate the mobile networks focus on the major towns and cities (where most people live). But they also need to think about the devices we use – the mobile devices – and consider how to address requirements outside those cities, in the places where the people go.
More snippets from the life of a geek playing at being a manager in the IT industry…
Replacing text with a carriage return/line feed in Windows Notepad
It’s a long story but I needed to find out how many people are in our department, at a level above me. My manager is on holiday, so I couldn’t ask him. Instead, I drafted an email to the whole department, expanded the distribution list and then counted the names…
Of course I didn’t quite do it like that… I pasted the list into a text file (which I thought I’d import to Excel as a CSV and then count the number of rows). That didn’t work out (I got 111 columns instead and I lost count shortly after AA, AB, AC, etc.) so I tried replacing the “; ” with line feeds in Notepad. Notepad can’t do that, but Word can… Ctrl+H will open the find and replace dialogue and using ^p as the string for the replacement will insert a new paragraph mark. 111 replacements were made (hence 111 names).
Changing the voicemail number on my Windows Phone
One of the issues with my iPhone is that I can’t change the voicemail number from 901 (O2 – the network my phone thinks it’s on) to 443 (Giffgaff – the MVNO that my account is actually with). I’ve jailbroken and hacked around with config files but it doesn’t work on iOS 7.0.4.
Thankfully, my Nokia Lumia 625 (running Windows Phone 8) is a little more flexible. When new, it asked me what the voicemail number I needed was. In the absence of any information from my service provider (EE), I googled and found information that suggested it was +447953222222. My IT department later suggested I should use +447973100123 and changing it is as simple as hitting the ... in the phone app and entering settings, then changing the voicemail number. As my messages are still intact, I guess that both numbers actually end up in the same location…
Turning off Twitter’s lock screen updates on Windows Phone
Talking of Windows Phone, when I installed the Twitter app it asked if I wanted to see selected tweets on my lock screen. It seemed like a good idea at first, until I realised I couldn’t actually click on them. Turning off the Twitter lock screen updates was difficult to hunt down – it’s not set via the Twitter app settings but in the lock screen settings, as Jamie Thomson (@jamiet) and Craig Hawker (@craighawker) highlighted to me. Thanks guys.
Recovering deleted images from a camera flash drive
Of course, any of us who work in IT know that we automatically get to provide a family IT support service. I shouldn’t complain because, after my parents in-law paid for someone to do some work on their PC I was horrified to see that he had removed Microsoft Security Essentials and added AVG (which I had removed because it kept nagging to upgrade to a paid version), installed a load of unnecessary software (Defraggler, Firefox, etc.). My “keep it simple, stupid” approach to septuagenarian IT had been destroyed by someone who wanted to inflict his way of computing on others.
Anyway, back to the point…
…My Mother in-law was disappointed to find she was missing some images on her digital camera. She swears the camera did it by itself (I suggest it was user error) but, critically, no new pictures had been taken since. Following advice from PC Advisor, I used a free application called Recuva to restore the deleted files on the memory card (ironically, from the same software company that creates Defraggler, the tool I said was unnecessary a little earlier). It was beautifully simple, although I was unable to get Windows to recognise the camera as a drive (it does depend on the camera) and had to mess around with card readers instead.
I’ve been using an Android phone for work for a few months now (a Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini: GT-I8190N) and, on the whole, I’ve been pretty disappointed. The user interface is clunky (and downright confusing at times) and the battery life terrible – but I’m also more than a little aware that there is a certain amount of OEM- or carrier-supplied software on the device and that a “stock” Android phone might be a little more “polished”.
I started to look into wiping the device and starting afresh but, after consulting with Dan Delaney (@dan_delaney), who knows more about this stuff than I do, I decided not to bother as it looked as though I’d need to root the device – something I’d be happy to do on my own phone but am not permitted to do on a company device that’s connected to our corporate infrastructure.
Even so, I’ve made a few tweaks over recent months that have slightly improved the experience, and I thought I’d make a note of them here…
First up, battery life. Three things that have made an enormous difference:
Firstly, I dropped the polling interval for email in the settings for TouchDown (the app used for ActiveSync connectivity to my Exchange email and calendar). Instead of push email, I poll every 10 minutes, or every hour during off-peak times (I have peak times set as 07:00-19:00 Monday to Friday).
Secondly, I removed the native ActiveSync connection to my Office 365 account as, between them, Exchange Services and TouchDown were drinking a lot of juice.
Finally, I installed the free Battery Doctor app, which not only intelligently charges the device but also watches out for apps that are draining the battery and gives me the ability to disable them.
Another change I made was to install the Android 4.4 Kit Kat Launcher. I may be stuck with Android “Jelly Bean” 4.1.2 but I can at least have some of the latest bits – although I now have such an odd collection of widgets that it looks a complete mess (sorry guys, Microsoft has tiles nailed in Windows/Windows Phone). The process for installing the Kit Kat parts is described on WonderHowTo and I have Google Play Services, Google Search and the Google Launcher all running happily now.
Still bogged down with Samsung and other bundled software, I decided to follow Jon Spriggs (@jontheniceguy)’s guide to stripping a UK O2 Samsung Galaxy SIII Mini down to the bare essentials. Jon’s guide is based on a “clean” device and mine has a load of extra apps I’ve installed, plus the customisations I mentioned earlier but I used it to disable some of the built in apps that I don’t use (if you can’t disable them, uninstall updates first, then the disable option should be available). Unfortunately, I can’t see how to hide the unused apps, now that I have changed the launcher!
My Android adventure continues… but it’s still very tempting to wipe the device and start again!
Many Android users will be GMail users. If you fall into that camp then it’s pretty easy – sync to Google Contacts via iTunes. An alternative (regardless of whether you use GMail) is to export the contacts from iCloud as a vCard (.VCF file). This can be imported to various places – including GMail – or, as I did, directly on my Android handset. The hongkiat.com post on transferring iPhone contacts to Android uses a Google account to sync the contacts onto the device. I elected to use Dropbox to get the .VCF file into the local storage on my phone, then imported the contacts from there, using the Import/Export option in the Options menu in my contact list.
A couple of years ago, QR codes were all the rage. The groovy little black and white hieroglyphs were on every bus-shelter advert, leaflet and even business cards. Some were in colour, and some either relied on the built in error correction to become a piece of art! I wasn’t convinced that they always made sense though – and it seemed I wasn’t alone…
[imagine sound effect of record needle scratching and music coming to abrupt end…]
Some mobile app developers are smart enough to realise that, when you navigate to a page on your PC that advertises their mobile app, you don’t actually want to go to the app store from the PC browser… so, what’s the perfect way to send you there? Exactly! Provide a QR code, which can be scanned with a mobile device’s camera to jump instantly to the appropriate Apple App Store/Google Play/Windows Marketplace location.
Yammer doesn’t do this.
Sure, it’s easy enough to search the App Store and download the app but, meh, why make it harder? Make the user experience simple. Maximise the number of conversions (or whatever the marketing speak is for “make people download your app”).
What a crazy week. On top of a busy work schedule, I’ve also found myself at some tech events that really deserve a full write-up but, for now, will have to make do with a summary…
Amazon Web Services 101
One of the events I attended this week was a “lunch and learn” session to give an introduction/overview of Amazon Web Services – kind of like a breakfast briefing, but at a more sociable hour of the day!
Contrary to popular belief, AWS didn’t grow out of spare capacity in the retail business but in building a service-oriented infrastructure for a scalable development environment to initially provide development services to internal teams and then to expose the amazon catalogue as a web service. Over time, Amazon found that developers were hungry for more and they moved towards the AWS mission to:
“Enable business and developers to use web services* to build scalable, sophisticated applications”
*What people now call “the cloud”
In fact, far from being the catalyst for AWS, Amazon’s retail business is just another AWS customer.
Adobe Marketing Cloud
Most people will be familiar with Adobe for their design and print products, whether that’s Photoshop, Lightroom, or a humble PDF reader. I was invited to attend an event earlier this week to hear about the Adobe Marketing Cloud, which aims to become for marketers what the Creative Suite has for design professionals. Whilst the use of “cloud” grates with me as a blatant abuse of a buzzword (if I’m generous, I suppose it is a SaaS suite of products…), Adobe has been acquiring companies (I think I heard $3bn mentioned as the total cost) and integrating technology to create a set of analytics, social, advertising, targeting and web experience management solutions and a real-time dashboard.
Milton Keynes Geek Night
The third event I attended this week was the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night (this was the third one) – and this did not disappoint – it was well up to the standard I’ve come to expect from David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins).
The evening kicked off with Dave Addey (@DaveAddey) of UK Train Times app fame, talking about what makes a good mobile app. Starting out from a 2010 Sunday Times article about the app gold rush, Dave explained why few people become smartphone app millionaires, but how to see if your idea is:
Is your mobile app idea really a good idea? (i.e. is it universal, is it international, and does it have lasting appeal – or, put bluntly, will you sell enough copies to make it worthwhile?)
Is it suitable to become a mobile app? (will it fill “dead time”, does it know where you go and use that to add value, is it “always there”, does it have ongoing use)
And how should you make it? (cross platform framework, native app, HTML, or hybrid?)
Dave’s talk warrants a blog post of it’s own – and hopefully I’ll return to the subject one day – but, for now, that’s the highlights.
Next up were the 5 minute talks, with Matt Clements (@MattClementsUK) talking about empowering business with APIs to:
Increase sales by driving traffic.
Improve your brand awareness by working with others.
Increase innovation, by allowing others to interface with your platform.
Create partnerships, with symbiotic relationships to develop complimentary products.
Create satisfied customers – by focusing on the part you’re good at, and let others build on it with their expertise.
Then Adam Onishi (@OnishiWeb) gave a personal, and honest, talk about burnout, it’s effects, recognising the problem, and learning to deal with it.
And Jo Lankester (@JoSnow) talked about real-world responsive design and the lessons she has learned:
Improve the process – collaborate from the outset.
Don’t forget who you’re designing for – consider the users, in which context they will use a feature, and how they will use it.
Learn to let go – not everything can be perfect.
Then, there were the usual one-minute slots from sponsors and others with a quick message, before the second keynote – from Aral Balkan (@Aral), talking about the high cost of free.
In an entertaining talk, loaded with sarcasm, profanity (used to good effect) but, most of all, intelligent insight, Aral explained the various business models we follow in the world of consumer technology:
Free – with consequential loss of privacy.
Paid – with consequential loss of audience (i.e. niche) and user experience.
Open – with consequential loss of good user experience, and a propensity to allow OEMs and operators to mess things up.
This was another talk that warrants a blog post of its own (although I’m told the session audio was recorded – so hopefully I’ll be able to put up a link soon) but Aral moved on to talk about a real alternative with mainstream consumer appeal that happens to be open. To achieve this, Aral says we need a revolution in open source culture in that open source and great user experience do not have to be mutually exclusive. We must bring design thinking to open source. Design-led open source. Without this, Aral says, we don’t have an alternative to Twitter, Facebook, whatever-the-next-big-platform-is doing what they want to with our data. And that alternative needs to be open. Because if it’s just free, the cost is too high.
The next MK Geek Night will be on 21 March, and the date is already in my diary (just waiting for the Eventbrite notice!)
Photo credit: David Hughes, on Flickr. Used with permission.
I haven’t found much time to blog recently, but this post pulls together a few loosely related streams of consciousness on technology – how we use it (or does it use us?), how it’s sold to us, and how the next generation view the current generation’s tech.
Driving up to and back from Manchester last Friday night gave me a great opportunity to catch up on my podcast backlog – including listening to an entire series of Aleks Krotoski’s The Digital Human (#digihuman). The “Influence” and “Augment” episodes are particularly interesting but I also found that some parts of “Intent” sparked some thoughts in my mind. That episode featured comments by Douglas Rushkoff (@rushkoff) of Program or be Programmed fame, which I’ve paraphrased here.
Email can be seen as a [broken] game with many unintended consequences coded into it. For many of us, our working life is a game called “empty the inbox” (in the process, filling the inboxes of others). Email has a bias to generate more email – even when we’re away we auto-generate messages. In effect, all problems become a “nail” for which email is the “hammer”.
We’re almost entirely reactive – and we need to understand that it’s a person on the other side, not a computer – someone who is expecting something of some other person. So, standing up to your Blackberry is really standing up to your boss/colleague/whoever, not to the technology. It takes a brave person to send an out of office response that says something to the effect of “I’m deleting your message, if it was urgent, send it again after I’m back”. But that is starting to happen, as people realise that they are the humans here, with finite lifespans, and that a line needs to be drawn “in the digital sand” to show their limits.
I was also fascinated to learn that the average US teenager sends 3000 texts (SMS messages) a month – a stark contrast with ten years ago, when I had to explain to American colleagues what SMS was. At that time, the USA still seemed to be hooked on pagers, whilst SMS was really taking off over here in Europe.
I spent a chunk of this weekend shopping for a (smart) television and a smart phone [why does everything have to be “smart” – what next, “neat”?].
The experience confirmed to me that a) I’m officially “a grumpy old man” who doesn’t appreciate the ambient noise in John Lewis’ audio visual department (nor, I suspect, do many others in the department store’s target demographic) b) John Lewis’ TV sales guys do not deliver the “well-trained and knowledgeable” confidence I associate with other departments in the store (i.e. they don’t really know their stuff) c) Samsung reps attached to consumer electronics stores are trained to up-sell (no surprise) d) Even John Lewis’ under-trained TV sales guys are better than Carphone Warehouse’s staff (who told my wife that the difference between the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 starts off with the operating system… at which point I bit my tongue and left the conversation).
Of course, the shopping experience had another angle introduced by my kids, who decided that it would be a good idea to change the channel on as many TVs as possible to show CBeebies (it kept them amused whilst we talked about the merits of different models with the Samsung rep who was in store) but I was fascinated to see how my boys (aged 6 and 8) reacted in Carphone Warehouse:
The switch from “oh phone shopping – that will be boooooring” to “oh, look, shiny things with touch screens” was rapid.
They liked using a stylus to write on a Galaxy Note.
All tablets are “iPads” (in fairness, my wife pointed out that that’s all they’ve ever known in our house).
An e-ink Kindle is a “proper Kindle” and the Kindle HD (which they had been happily playing games on – it took my six-year-old about 30 seconds to find “Cut The Rope”) was “the iPad Kindle”.
Our country desperately needs investment in infrastructure yet we can’t afford it, either politically, financially, or environmentally. At the same time, driven by rising house prices and other considerations, people are living ever further from their workplace, with consequential impacts on family life and local communities. So what can we do to redress the balance?
In a word: localisation.
Or, in a few more words: stay at home; cut down travel; and rebuild communities.
For years now, we’ve been hearing (usually from companies selling tools to enable remote working) that teleworking is the future. It is, or at least working remotely for part of the time can be (people still need human contact) but we’re constrained by our communications infrastructure.
Super fast broadband services are typically only available in metropolitan areas, with fibre to the home (FTTH) or even fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) a distant dream for rural communities, even those that are a relatively short distance from major cities.
So why not create business hubs in our small towns and villages – office space for people to work, without having to travel for miles, taking up space on a train or a road, and polluting our environment?
Local councils (for example) can provide infrastructure – such as desks and Internet access (a connection to one central point may be more cost effective than wiring up every home) – and employees from a variety of companies have the benefit of a space to network, to share ideas, to work, without the need to travel long distances or the isolation and poor communications links (or family interruptions) encountered at home.
The location might be a library, a community centre, a coffee shop, the village pub (which desperately needs to diversify in order to survive) – all that’s really needed is a decent Internet connection, some desks, maybe meeting rooms and basic facilities.
Meanwhile, instead of spending our money in the coffee shops of London (or wherever), local businesses stand to benefit from increased trade (fewer commuters means more people in the town). Local Post Offices may become economically viable again, shops get new trade and new businesses spring up to serve the community that was previously commuting to the city.
Cross-pollination in the workplace (conversations at the hub) may lead to new relationships, partnerships with other companies and generally improved collaboration.
Families benefit too – with parents working closer to home, there’s time to see their children (instead of saying goodnight over the phone on a long commute after another late night in the office); and, generally, there’s an improvement in social well being and community involvement.
The benefits to the community and to society at large are potentially huge, but it needs someone (which is why I suggest local government, although central government support may be required) to kick-start the initiative.
If foundations like Mozilla can create Mozilla Spaces in our cities, why can’t we create spaces in our small towns and villages? Spaces to network. Spaces to work. Spaces to collaborate. Spaces to invigorate. To invigorate individuals and to rebuild our communities.