Sep 8, 2009

Wonderful Mobile Applications

I love it that the mobile phone is becoming the 'most accepted' mobile device, so vendors are packing more and more features into it. Of course most users use it for voice calls and texting, but the integrated camera is opening many new ways to use the mobile phone. Most people don't know that many mobile phone camera also have rudimentary photo editing capabilities too. I take a picture of something and send it by phone to someone to show him/her that what I see, and ask them to comment.

Some TV shows demonstrate how the police are using the cameras in their mobile phones to take photos of suspects to send to colleagues and witnesses thereby getting information faster and keeping third parties safer. Forensics shows tell us that cell phones can help law enforcement people track the time and location of phone calls. We see that by-standers are capturing photos and VIDEOS with important information for law enforcement and the news media.

We already know that browser-enabled phones let us browse the web, such as to 'do' email, use search or map addresses. The problems are often, the display on the phone is very small so it's hard to see detailed web pages; and the keyboards are small and often require repeating several key strokes to enter information. There are shortcuts and built-in auto-text, but most people don't want to make the effort to learn and train their devices -- and rightly so. Devices must be intuitive and easy to use. Well, better user interface have already been built. A large virtual display as well as virtual keyboards and other ways to control the display were developed for the heads-up-display and user interface for fighter pilots. Voice input is also available, as is eye-movement tracking. The hurdles to consumerizing those technologies are market acceptance and cost.

There's a web application where you take a picture of the bar code of an item with your mobile phone, then the application searches the web, and using its GPS (or by communicating with the cell tower closest to your location), it tells you where the same item is available nearby and the price of that item. Helps you to shop better!

Many, many diverse, useful, charming and ingenious applications are available if only people knew about them! There are so many choices of ways that mobile applications can improve our lives.

The type of application that I am currently enthusiastic about is 'augmented reality.' No, it's not a game or like those 3D movies. Such applications give more information about your surroundings, based on what you ask it to find out. F'instance, you're driving in an unfamiliar part of town and want to know whether there is a police station or hospital nearby. Or you're a child who's lost and wants to let your mother know how to find you. By taking a few photos of your immediate surroundings, the mobile application will figure out where you are and you can send that information to your Mom. Augmented reality applications can help you.

In countries other than the US, mobile phone service providers have partnered with vendors to do bill processing. You can pay bills with your phone. In other words, your phone provides similar services as credit cards.

This post is quite long enough so I'll stop now, but my main message is, a personal mobile device such as the phone can improve our lives in many, many ways, in addition to making phone calls and sending text messages.

A very important problem that inhibits consumers from choosing and using so many capabilities is the relatively high cost of data services. That's a huge, complex topic that is receiving a lot of research and discussion. Maybe I'll do a little homework and write about it next time.

Aug 6, 2009

Managing online credentials

Managing one's web credentials is a very important topic that is especially relevant to privacy, especially for social media sites. Do web users have too many different credentials and find it troublesome to manage them? 

There are primarily three ways to 'remember' your credentials:
  1. Use storage and retrieval methods that are at your end:
    • biometric authentication e.g., your fingerprint recognized by your computer. Biometric authentication only controls access to your local, individual computer. What happens when there's a software error, for example, with your biometric software, or when you move from versions of operating systems, change computers, or are a victim of malware? Or when your computer is damaged? As of now, more intelligent authentication methods such as face-recognition are not yet commercialized.
    • Cookies or Browser-based which means your username and passoword are stored on your computer.
    • A pass-worded document on a hard-drive or a piece of text saved on another device such as a mobile hand-held
    • (God forbid) a hard copy such as a Post-it note stuck to the bottom of your PC
    • In your head or in your wife's head
  1. Storage methods that are 'remembered' by the websites that you must log into such as your bank account, social networking sites like FaceBook, and/or other subscriptions. Some sites are more secure than others. Most just use cookies; others encrypt and validate through sophisticated methods. Most subscription log-in pages should have a way for you to ask them to email to you a new password, but you must get your username right or answer their security questions so that they can send the new password to the correct email address. The better ones will send you a new temporary password that you must change immediately.

    Many web sites that provide primarily content (such as newspapers or blogs) now post 'share' links to popular social networks like Facebook, but they are relying on those networks to check your credentials.

  2. Store your credentials in a central place on the web, either at a provider like Google or Verisign, or elsewhere.

    One such initiative is OpenID where groups of web sites agree to 'recognize' the log-in credentials of other web sites. You will see sites that say you can log in using, for example, your Facebook or Twitter credentials. Google has integrated their applications with a single sign-in. Once you log into Google, you can use many (if not all) Google applications such as the calendar, documents, Wave, Feedburner, etc.
The normal progression of a new product's path to the market is:
  • introduce point solutions
  • then offer a 'swarm' of incompatible solutions that don't work together,
  • followed by ones that interoperate meaning they're not 'native' but do work together
  • and, finally, after technologies, standards, licensing deals, APIs or open source code have been worked out, and the market is mature enough to support profitable pricing models, we will have 'end to end' or 'universal' solutions.
I hope we've attained the 'swarm' stage for tools to manage credentials. Some strategies that people on the social network have confessed to using:
  • Use the same credentials everywhere. This is ok provided those credentials are 'strong.' "Strongness" means username and password that are hard to guess. There are programs that test for credentials so they're not just guessing.
  • Use variants on the same credentials. This is better than 'the same' but the complexity might make it just as hard to manage as altogether different credentials. You can create 'protocols' for yourself like in the paragraph below after 'strong passwords.'
  • Using your browser's 'remember me' is not very secure.
  • Many sites now use your email address as a unique username. That is easy to find out or guess. Many people use their ISP's email address so when they change ISPs, it can become a problem (although ISPs have gotten smart and keep those users active instead of deleting those addresses). So, many web sites now rely 'solely' on your password for authentication.
Here are tips on how to create STRONG usernames and passwords:
  • 8 characters or longer, use one or more capital letter(s), one or more number(s), one or more special characters (some authentication software have limitations such as you cannot use a dot, or underscore)
  • A good way to make strong passwords is to use the first letters of words of song lyrics, such as "Oh Say Can You See! 1776" to create the password: "Oscys!1776"
It's a good idea to build two levels of credentials: high and low. For 'high,' such as to access your online bank account, change the password frequently. You can change only a part of it, for instance, from "OsCys!1776" to "Oscys!1778" for the month of August.

For low level credentials such as your subscription to a newspaper, it doesn't really matter that much if someone accesses your account. I make my username and password the same, such as "mariatseng" as username, and the same string, "mariatseng" as the password.

It is critical that you remember the rules (protocols) you made up to create usernames and passwords, such as 'same username and password for magazine subscriptions' but for important applications, use 'email ID as username and patriotic song for password.' It's ok to write your rules down because whoever is spying still must discern the specifics.

There's lots more to say about this topic, and there are lots of experts, entire fields in computer science for security and encryption.

Jul 9, 2009

Toshiba laptop's stupid marketing mistakes

This blogpost is about Toshiba's marketing strategy. Toshiba made some bad decisions. Many people believe that marketing is about advertising or public relations or marketing communications. Yes, marketing includes all of those functions, but it also includes product management: deciding what products to build, their features, pricing, roadmap through its lifecycle. Product management makes the build versus buy decisions, selects which partners are needed, the terms of the partnerships, the product's position relative to other products... the many decisions that determine the satisfaction of the targeted customers. I hope this post shows the mistakes that were made in the marketing of my new Toshiba laptop.

I bought a Toshiba Satellite A355-S6924 a month ago because its hardware config looked good for that price. I thought I can live with Vista until I upgrade to XP7 later this year. A few weeks ago, I rated the laptop highly at Toshiba's web site and at Amazon. Now, after a month's intensive use, I have buyer's regret.

Toshiba's pricing strategy of near-zero pre-loaded software (Vista only) means a lot of the cost of ownership is 'shifted forward' meaning you have to buy almost everything. I knew this going in, but who could have imagined that a system utility like a Bluetooth stack would require the end user to purchase a separate license? As it turned out, it did NOT require an end user license; a poorly written message made it seem so.

This machine does not have embedded Bluetooth support, you have to use a dongle which I have from my previous laptop. Imagine my surprise when a dialog box popped up saying the Toshiba Bluetooth stack's 30-day trial use license has expired. No link, no advice, no further comments, nothing.

That message wasn't about any end user license, but was about an OEM license. Why is Toshiba telling me, an end user, about the need for an OEM license? That message would have been more useful had it said something like, "The Bluetooth dongle that you are using does not have a license to use Toshiba's proprietary Bluetooth stack. Please contact its manufacturer for help, or use a Bluetooth dongle that has a license for Toshiba's Bluetooth stack."

Why did this even happen? Windows XP SP2 has an embedded Bluetooth stack. It's not as capable as the Toshiba stack, but it's there. However, Vista does not use that stack. Why didn't Vista include a low-feature stack to help Windows XP customers migrate? Poor marketing.

It's a bad marketing decision to make Bluetooth support proprietary, and not offer some kind of limited continuing support. Now that interface with mobile media devices is becoming increasingly important, being suddenly dead in the water with Bluetooth, especially having enjoyed it for 30 days, creates bad customer sentiment.

Toshiba's other stupid marketing strategy mistakes:

1. Toshiba doesn't give any information about which Bluetooth dongles have Toshiba licenses thereby missing an opportunity to co-market with those OEMs. You can make money from co-marketing, you know? And your customers like having choices.

2. End users who are not IT-savvy won't know what the hell this licensing esoterica means. There is no help at all from Toshiba's 'expired' message to ANY help for end users to solve this problem. On Toshiba's user forum, the question "How to buy a license for the Bluetooth stack" is posted, but is 'locked' so no one can post comments. There is NO ANSWER given. I've searched the web and found NO ANSWER elsewhere. Bad customer communications, bad support management.

Fortunately, I know that BlueSoleil, a vendor of Bluetooth software, will support the dongle that I already own. After registration at their web site, I downloaded BlueSoleil 6, a stack that supports many, most, if not all of the profiles that the Toshiba stack does. Unfortunately, it's available for free for only a 15-day trial after which BlueSoleil will only transfer 2 MB files. This is a good marketing practice by BlueSoleil for two reasons:

First, the 'free trial expiration' message appears on day 1 so you're forewarned and might buy early instead of waiting for the end of the trial period. Second, the message includes a link to BlueSoleil's online store where you can immediately buy a license for $29.99 with no interruption in your use of Bluetooth. BlueSoleil solves the problem instead of posting a cryptic message that doesn't apply to end users, then not giving any way to enable the end user to continue to interface with Bluetooth devices.

I am shocked and disappointed that Toshiba, a well regarded consumer electronics brand, does such a poor job of end-user marketing and support.

Oh, while I'm in rant mode, let me warn you that Toshiba's tech support, while free, is NOT KNOWLEDGEABLE. I called to get help with accessing the pre-loaded free trial of Microsoft Office. My call was dropped, no call-back. I had to navigate again through the n-level deep voice messaging, call another number, more 'press 1 for...' 'press 2 for...' ... to reach another randomly selected support person, explain my question again... He suggested searching the hard drive for hidden sectors. The software was there. That was a good experience.

I asked about getting a recovery disk. He said it's not Toshiba's policy to give out recovery disks. After a crash, call again and they will ship a disk; you pay for shipping. That would incur an unacceptably long downtime for me, so after hasseling the guy, asking to talk to his supervisor, he said he'd send me a recovery disk. A month later, nothing arrived.

I complained to a geek friend who told me that I don't need to buy Toshiba's recovery CD because the machine has a utility for you to create your own recovery CD. Sigh.

I am afraid of what else I'll find out, as I continue to try to use this laptop.

Mar 26, 2009

Non-Technical Resources about the Semantic Web

I've been posting information-rich coments on other people's blogs. Why not post them on my own blog too? The cut/paste from various places caused the various font crazies in this post. I guess HTML isn't as transportable between applications as I had hoped.
  • The primary source of info, more reliable than Wikipedia, about the Semantic Web (scroll down past the technical stuff)
    W3C Semantic Web
  • That page has lots and lots of links. Suggest you start with the FAQ
  • Recent interviews with Tim Berners-Lee.

I filtered for Cisco’s SP customers because I was posting a comment on a Cisco blog. Here are the 4 results when the W3C page is filtered by “telecom.” Select filters (right side) for IT, or multiple filters. Most use cases are for drug discovery because those are already very large and well annotated databases.

There are many, many special interest groups all over the place, ranging from very technical to almost fantasy-oriented. If you seek, you shall find!

Mar 3, 2009

Emergence of OpenSocial for the Social Web

Social networking is all the rage. I personally belong to more than 17 such networks ranging from the archaic but trail blazing Yahoo Groups to the latest darling, Facebook. Let me whine again: I need a competent, flexible, customizable content aggregator!!!!!!

It seems that social media is following the normal growth path for new markets and technologies.
  • When a market or technology is new, players use 'walled gardens' to capture and defend market share. They use proprietary code, user interfaces, tools and of course content. An example is AOL during the first ten or so years of the public Internet.
  • As more players enter the growing market, product features and interfaces become increasingly varied and tools become simultaneously more capable and more complex. Examples are different social networking platforms optimize on selected capabilities. Socialtext does wikis well; Jive differentiates itself with its forum capability; WebEx seems optimized for realtime meetings and communications...
  • Despite a proliferation of ingenious dashboards, single (or limited multi-) function notifiers, and cross-platform tools, users want better productivity to manage identities, authentication, profiles, content and contacts.
  • Users now want interoperability, ease of use, standardized interfaces and the transcendence of 'walled gardens.' They also want to be able to selectively share a body of content.
  • Enter the "open" model. Open source, better DRM (digital rights management), not just interoperability, but overlap operability. We're seeing 'openess' emerge in the segments for routers, browsers and I hope soon, content.
Social Web Q&A with Google’s Kevin Marks is a good blog post that clearly outlines the Open Social initiative. It's a consortium of Internet players that intend to leverage existing code where possible, create open sourced tools where needed. They use the familiar 5 layer 'stack' as a conceptual model. The consortium is led by the most resource-rich player, Google. There's lots more detail and overall, is good news.

Read it, it's great.

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Feb 26, 2009

Assumptions about human nature

Re bad behavior, graft and corruption...

I hope you agree that a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is the assumption about human nature. The Left believes that in a benign environment, humans are naturally good and it's abuse that triggers bad behaviors. The Right believes that people are naturally selfish, jealous, greedy, power hungry...

So the Left tries to create Eden so that people can express their natural goodness while the Right tries to build policies that channel vile urges in constructive ways, like use self interest to control prices.

I believe that graft, corruption, evil, all those bad things have been with us all along. With the Enlightenment and the more general acceptane and practice of Humanitarianism, I think global society, overall, has gotten better. But with the Information Age, we find out more about more of the bad stuff.

Soap opera, crime shows, newspapers, magazines, pulp fiction, even literature, seem to deal with the bad aspects of human nature. The types of media that try to communicate positive stories do not enjoy as broad an audience. So I guess whatever human nature may actually be, we enjoy learning about the evil aspects.

Feb 19, 2009

US' main exports: Raw Materials?????

I just saw an expert on TV saying because the US' main exports are raw materials (fertilizers, grains, lumber), not manufactured high technology goods such as electronics and semiconductors. The expert infered that therefore the US is like Third World countries (who export oil, intelligent, ambitious, hard-working people), destined for low standards of living and poor prospects. This kind of comment betrays an ignorance or willful denial of how world trade works, and the value of intellectual property.

Are "exports" measured by mass, volume, monetary value, political impact, social impact or by another metric?

US companies manufacture semiconductors or consumer electronics products overseas because they can get higher margins than manufacturing in the US. When the products are sold, say, from Thailand, where the factory or assembly plant are, to Korea, that export is counted as a transaction between Thailand and Korea -- the US doesn't seem to be a participant. However, a part of the revenue is repatriated to the US where Intel and Apple and many of the parent companies live. When a Ford car is exported from say, Germany where it's manufactured, to the UK, that's counted as a German export, but Ford's home office in the US gets some of that money.

Even better than the money from manufactured goods is the money from intellectual property such as software. When a PC is sold anywhere in the world, Microsoft gets a license fee for the operating system, for Microsoft Office Suite and for other applications such as the web browser. In fact the MAJORITY of the cost to make PCs is for license fees, not the hardware.

The US invented the advertising model, the most effective revenue generator for web-based businesses today. Every time a web user, anywhere in the world, clicks on a Google ad, Google gets paid for that click. Without exporting any physical item, Google, a US company, is enabling anyone with web access, anywhere in the world to use its intellectual property and web services.

It would seem that whereever that expert on TV got his data about US exports, that source has neglected to include US exports in the form of graduate students, basic science and technology, financial services, business models (like all those internet businesses) and other high dollar value assets that have 'long tails,' meaning they generate many daughter products and services.

If restricting this discussion to concrete exports only, how about the trucks, tanks, airplanes, bombs, ammunition, medicine, ... used in US and NATO bases around the world? (True, a lot of consumables are sourced locally, but especially weapons and high technology tend to be manufactured in the US or under US license.) Those are US exports. We also export, via the inumerable US-funded or supported NGOs, the vendors that support US bases, our troops who give away candy, toys, personal hygiene products, books, blankets, tents, shoes, construction equipment and materiel... to local populations. Those exports do not generate money for the US economy, but they do stimulate the US economy.

To me, the highest impact US export is content. All the movies, videos, music, web content, t-shirts, chachkis... luridly illustrated in multi-faceted, multi-media -- in every conceivable way -- for the world to see what it's like to live in America and think like an American.

In addition to generating money for the US, the content informs the world on the American culture, attitudes, ways to do things... that have long tails indeed.