A shout-out to Cambridge Savings Bank for great customer service

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It sucks to write checks for the IRS. But then again… I’m happy to contribute my share for the greater good. No big deal. A bigger deal would be losing money because of oversight.

So the other day, I had to write a check for what I owed the government. I filled it out, mailed it, out of sight, out of mind. But then, as things go, I remembered this while driving around in my car through beautiful Somerville MA. The morning of that day I had checked my account balance, and for some reason my brain put 1&1 together and surfaced the thought that I don’t have the balance for the check to go through!

Luckily, my bank, local Cambridge Savings Bank, offers text banking! So as I got to a red light… (ha! Thought you had me there, didn’t ya) I reached for the phone that, of course, already sat on my dashboard, and switched to the messaging app. I texted the words “transfer 2000″ to the bank. A few seconds (!) later, they confirmed that I had successfully transferred $2000 from my savings to my checkings account.

What had happened? Within a mere 15 or 20 seconds I went from thought of the moment to resolution. And all because my bank got four of the following “now consumer” (me!) expectations right:

They “let me do it”. They “made it mobile”. They “fit into my life”. They “saved me time”.

Here’s another example why I consider myself already a loyal customer. A few months ago I asked them whether they supported Apple Pay with the MasterCard I have. I asked this question on Twitter; a convenient channel for simple customer service inquires. They got back to me. Not in record time, but that wasn’t needed for this type of inquiry. They told me they didn’t support Apple Pay yet, but would tell me once they did – they were working on it. Did I honestly believe they would remember telling me? Not really. However, a few weeks ago, I got a tweet out of the blue: Cambridge Savings Bank informed me that they now support Apple Pay, adding a link to more information. They did remember!

They “know” me. They “made me smarter”.

Finally, I get frequent updates by email from the person that setup my account last year, proactively, without me even asking for it, whether the great interest rate that made me a customer in the first place, was being continued beyond the promotional timeframe or not. (It is.)

OK, one more. Just a few days ago, I needed to deposit a check that had a higher amount than what the deposit function in their mobile app allowed. I wasn’t in the mood for going into the branch, so I asked via email if they could help me somehow. Within an hour or two the mobile deposit limit was raised temporarily. I could deposit the check the same day.

They “made it easy”. 

Here’s a shout out to you, Cambridge Savings Bank. Thanks for providing great customer service. Keep doing what you’re doing. (Oh and if this post brings you a new customer or two, why don’t you keep up that interest rate on my money market account for a bit longer… ;-) )

Sincerely,
A loyal customer.

Digital Touch: The Hidden Gem inside Apple Watch

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I think Apple brought the “cool” back. Here is why I think the Apple Watch has the potential to be the company’s biggest success yet.

Social communication is everything. It’s the essence of mankind. No other “man-made” system is more complex than that of the human language. Having studied computational linguistics and phonetics at Bonn University, I got a glimpse of the intricacies that lie in our combination of sounds, gestures, mimics that make up this system. The sound system alone is more than just abc, the magic lies in what linguists call the suprasegmentals, such as melody, intonation, tone, stress, pitch, even volume.

When we added to spoken communication a system of written language some hundreds of years BC, we did just enough to carry the most basic suprasegmental traits over with punctuation and diacritics. Since written language was not primarily meant to represent everyday dialog but rather thoughts, facts and argumentation, the set of expressions of suprasegmentals available was just enough to avoid too many misunderstandings that a richer system of cues would help avoid almost completely.

When quicker forms of communication than the basic letter developed with the advent of the Internet, such as email a few decades ago, we started realizing the need for representing nuances such as a wink or sadness that we could easily convey with tone or color of sound in spoken communication. We invented the smileys, emoticons. They let us represent irony or other basic sentiment, which we could only do through more words before.

Soon after, communication got even faster with the introduction of instant messaging or “chat”. Suddenly, we found ourselves representing gestures or facial expressions with acronyms such as LOL, or, quite recently, SMH (shaking my head). We also went from using two asterisks surrounding a gestural expression (*sigh*) to the infamous “hashtag” – thanks to a few folks that came up with the idea of a “micro blog” in 2006 (technically speaking it wasn’t the founders of Twitter that came up with the hashtag, but the users). I am tempted to #SMH at that, but as a linguist by education I am just seeing (written) language evolve again, which is something that it has always done. There is also no need to despair over alleged degradation of our intricate system of language – if anything, the system is only growing in complexity, never shrinking.

Very recently, a new form of communication was again “invented” with the creation of the “Yo” app. Or was it? The app can do one thing, and one thing only: send someone a “yo”. It attracted venture capital of $1.5m. Now you might be throwing another #SMH at that at first sight, but think about it. When is the last time you sent a simple nod of your head someone’s way? Probably today. Since context is key in understanding human language, i.e. knowing what a conversation is about and knowing what has already been said (linguists call the study of context pragmatics), a nod can be all that’s needed in a certain context that both communication parties share. Yo has seen over a million downloads after only a few days. People love these simple forms of communication! Sometimes it can’t be simple enough.

In parts of India, Africa, and other areas of the so-called third world, people have agreed on ringing patterns to communicate, the so-called “flashing” or “beeping”. Rather than calling a phone with the intention to talk, they let the other party’s phone ring, having agreed on patterns beforehand. Ringing once might mean yes, twice might mean no, thrice “I’m downstairs, come out” etc. (I think I’ve used the latter meaning myself in the past…) As long as the context is known, that might be all you need to convey sometimes. And guess what, it’s free! Ringing does not incur a charge. Something the carriers in those markets do not love at all.

Now let’s get to why I’m telling you all this. I am because I watched Apple present their new communication paradigm with the recent introduction of Apple Watch and realized that they have a gem there that could explode big time and be the reason for the Watch’s success. Apple has come up with a number of new ways to communicate, which they call Digital Touch. Let’s start with the “coolest” one.

The Heartbeat
Since the Watch can measure your heartbeat thanks to its built-in sensors, you can literally send your current heartbeat onto somebody else’s wrist. The Watch cannot only vibrate one way, it has an elaborate vibration system that can generate tangible sensations of different durations, at different areas, of different intensities. What on Earth would I use that for I hear you ask. Maybe to share my heartbeat with my girlfriend. Maybe to share it with a friend after a run (“hey, here’s my pulse, not bad after 5 miles right?”), or while watching a horror movie (“oh man this flick is intense, check out my heartbeat”) or riding a roller-coaster. Or to communicate boredom to a presenter, or relaxedness to my mom before an exam. Or… you’re next with ideas.

The Sketch
The Watch lets me draw on screen and then re-draws that pattern following my exact movements on the recipient’s screen. An effect that made the game Blek successful and addictive recently. What I draw gets re-drawn and then disappears – something that made Snapchat famous and worth $10 billion. Yes, billion. I can draw a quick check mark to send a “yes” or a “got it” to a friend. Or a house to tell dad I’m home. Or a question mark to tell my colleague I have no idea what our boss just meant with that remark on the phone call we’re both on. Or a heart to tell my girlfriend that I’m thinking of her…

The Tap
I can touch the screen at different places. The touches will be shown as “drops” appearing and vanishing on the recipient’s wrist at the same rhythm that I generated them. I can imagine teenagers coming up with an elaborate “language” of touch patterns that only they can decipher. We will witness the birth of micro-languages that small groups agree on and use for communication. Something that I loved doing with friends when I was a kid. This is just a modern day version of the same.

Walkie-Talkie
We all loved doing this as kids, and guess what: the walkie-talkie is seeing a renaissance with apps such as Whatsapp that have been offering it for a while. You tap to record a snippet of voice or your surroundings, then let go to send. As simple as that. Apple added this feature rather late in their recent iOS 8 release, but well, they added it. And it completes the Digital Touch framework.

 

Honestly, as a linguist, I can’t wait for the release of Apple Watch to see all this come to life. As a consumer in love with Apple’s perfection in everything they do (tolerating the occasional disappointments they cause) I want to get my hand on one as soon as I can, hoping that enough others will join this exciting world of communication, too. And Apple will probably take some of these features over to iOS for phones and tablets: no reason why I couldn’t tap or draw on my iPhone and send these volatile communication primitives to a receiving phone.

Apple clearly brought the “cool” back with the Watch announcement and all the things they invented around this “most personal device yet”, such as the pressure-sensitive screen, the “digital crown”, and the numerous sensors onboard. And concocted yet another device I didn’t know I needed. Someone who can do that on a repeated basis deserves nothing but the utmost respect. Don’t you think?

How UPS doesn’t Grok Twitter Support, and 5 Lessons for Doing it Right

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I have to share this memorable customer experience I “enjoyed” today for your reading pleasure. It started a few days back, when I tried to change the delivery of a package from Apple I was awaiting.

I knew I wouldn’t be home in person for a signature on the expected delivery date, neither did I want to pre-sign, so I opted for a pick-up option at a UPS facility. On the UPS website I found out I had to register for a (free) account to make a change like that. Fine. I tried to register, but the website kept going in a loop of me registering, then trying to change the delivery option, and it telling me to register to do that, then me registering, then trying to change the delivery option, and it telling me to register when trying to do that, then me… you get the idea. A bug. I had no choice but to contact an agent (which is very expensive for UPS vs me using their website). I opted for Web chat. It worked fast and smoothly. I had the agent change my delivery to a drop it at a pick-up location. So far so good…

Today, I got an SMS alert from Apple (love their service) telling me that “today is the day”. I clicked on Track Shipment to find out where to pickup the package from – ie., which UPS facility. The tracking website told me everything about the journey of my package, how it started in China, then went to Korea, then Alaska, Kentucky, finally Massachusetts. What it failed to tell me? Where to pick the package up. All it said was “A pickup facility in Somerville, MA”. Thanks UPS, that’s helpful. Google tells me there are many UPS locations in Somerville. Which one?

Lesson 1: Fix your data.
It’s needs to be self-explanatory, not force the customer to make unnecessary inbound service requests.

 

I turned to Twitter, asking @UPSHelp for help. Here’s how that journey started:

Uh, yeah… There is. Kinda obvious, no?

Really? I’m contacting you on Twitter and you’re sending me to email? There’s your first mistake, @UPSHelp. I picked Twitter for a reason (simple: I like it – it’s convenient and fast for simple inquiries like this), and you would be perfectly capable of answering my question on this channel.

Lesson 2: Don’t force your customers to switch channels unless they ask for it.

 

Great. Looks like you got it now. So here is my DM:

Wow. “the local center”. Really UPS? You do know the very reason why I contacted you, don’t you? Also, spotted the second mistake? They responded on the public channel, rather than staying on the DM channel that we had just established through mutual following.

Oh, and – pickup times of 3 hours and only on weekdays? That’s almost disrespectful.

Lesson 3: Once on DM, stay on DM.
I didn’t chose Twitter to make my request public – I chose the channel for its convenience, speed, and simplicity.

 

I’m still communicating on DM, but their response again happens on the public channel:

I then realized that the pickup times were actually really bad, and I really wanted this package on a Saturday.

Wow. You just completely blew my mind. 20 minutes and you already completely forgot our conversation? That’s unbelievably silly. I don’t care if they had a change of shifts (note that the agent apparently changed from “SB” to “SO”). It’s just unacceptable to be treated like this. I’m starting to lose patience. Also: again the request to switch to email, even though they have clearly demonstrated they could answer my questions on Twitter.

Lesson 4: Never lose context, never force your customers to repeat themselves.

 

I responded right away, assuming I had their attention. That was naive of me to assume. Of course. I waited 30 minutes for a response. I became impatient.

That may very well be, but what about other facilities nearby? Can the package not be transferred to a facility with better opening hours (assuming those exist in the first place – I don’t know, you tell me)? Please try to solve my problem, not just answer questions.

Lesson 5: Think and help, proactively – don’t just answer questions.

 

That was my last interaction. I am still waiting for a response, hours later.

Sorry @UPSHelp, but you have a lot to learn (and fix) if you want to get this customer service thing right. Need help in doing it? Talk to my company, we are in the business of fixing bad customer service. Meanwhile, you have one more unhappy customer who happens to be a customer service professional that likes to blog.

 

Addendum: I did email them, which they had asked me to do, and they responded (6 hours later). In that email response, they told me that the location actually opens in the morning AND in the afternoon. So the info in their tweet was actually wrong! I’m still sitting here, shaking my head.

Customer Service – Don’t Treat Us Like We’re Still in the 90ies

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I witnessed a conversation on my Facebook wall today that obviously caught my attention, as I am working in the customer service technology industry. I want to share it here:

It is obvious how the recent advances in communication technology simply overwhelm some bigger organizations. While in the past they could compensate lack of speed of adoption as technological progress was slower, it is nowadays pretty much impossible to keep up with the Whatsapps, Snapchats and Secrets of this world. But looking at what my friends here discuss – they really don’t demand much. SMS and email are technologies from the stone-age! SMS celebrated its 20-year anniversary in December 2012! And still today, so many years later, businesses are not using the power of this channel for the most basic B2C customer communication.

And phone calls that ask you to call back on a number that isn’t even the one the call is coming from? Or a text that asks you to call back? Why the forced switch of channel, if obviously I chose to have you reach me via SMS?

It quite frankly blows my mind, knowing what is possible if only modern software and cloud solutions were embraced. How much longer will consumers tolerate companies with customer service technology from the 90ies? Well, research shows that they are increasingly taking their business elsewhere already, so hopefully the dinosaurs of the service industry will either go extinct soon, or adapt. Remember, it’s not the strongest that survive, but the “fittest”, meaning those that can adapt…

Pebble – How to Not Over-Architect a Smartwatch

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I bought my Pebble in retail a few months ago and have since fallen in love with it. It doesn’t try to replace a smartphone, which is a stupid idea to begin with. The screen of any smartwatch is tiny by definition, and I don’t want to update Facebook, play games or write blog posts on my wrist. I can easily pull out my smartphone for those more complex tasks.

The Pebble does what it advertises it does:

  • Send all notifications from my iPhone’s lock screen to my wrist (the latest release does it with a delay of only 2 seconds)
  • Show CallerID of an incoming call and allow the rejection thereof
  • Show CallerID and content of incoming SMS
  • Show content of Twitter mentions and DMs
  • Show content of other apps like Lync, Facebook, Reminders, etc.

The battery lasts for days, and the accelerometer built into the device turns on backlight with a flick of the wrist. (Though for 2 seconds only, which isn’t enough and unfortunately not configurable.)

With the help of watchface-generator.de I can create my own watchfaces (ie. customized screens) within a minute, incl. date and time information and a custom image – I prefer one of my girlfriend. :-)

The most useful feature of my Pebble when wearing it during a workday is the display of my current and next calendar appointments. I achieve that through the use of 2 apps. On my iPhone, I first download Smartwatch+ from the App Store. Within that app, I can then install 2 Pebble watchapps:

  1. SmartStatus, which displays date, time, current temperature, phone battery percentage, next calendar appointment (or current one if I’m currently in one – which I don’t like, as I prefer to see the next one on my calendar)
  2. Smartwatch+ (same name as the iOS app, which is confusing at first), which gives me comprehensive weather info, a full browsable list of my appointments, and my reminders. Furthermore it does stocks, music, camera (huh?), GPS, and custom HTTP requests to control things like your smart home… Nice, and all I’d really ever need (I think… I’ll let Apple convince me otherwise)

I find myself typically using Smartwatch’s calendar view on my wrist during a workday, as I can see all following appointments at a glance, plus the time. After work, I switch over to seeing my girlfriend smile at me and tell me time & date. :-)

The Bluetooth connection is still slightly buggy, which can be annoying. To get an update of weather or calendar data I occasionally have to do the following in the Smartwatch+ iOS app, in order to re-establish the connection:

  • Open Smartwatch+ and hit Disconnect
  • Wait 10 seconds
  • Connect again
  • Wait a few seconds
  • Press the right top button on the pebble to re-sync

I can live with that, however, hope that they’ll fix it eventually.

I am happy with the purchase and don’t think I’ll ever need more from a smart watch. But as I said, once Apple releases their iWatch, I’ll be happily corrected.

Goodbye Acer Aspire R7 and Windows 8. Come back when you’re ready!

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After playing around with the brand new Acer Aspire R7 running Windows 8 for quite some time, I have decided to return it. While I don’t want to spend the time on a full-fledged product review, I do want to share the highlights of WHY I made that decision.

Aspire R7:

What I like:

  • The flexibility of the screen. The “Ezel Hinge” is a nice and mostly practical idea. Even though I actually only used the mode where the screen would cover the touch pad to be a bit closer to touch. I rarely used the machine in tablet mode – way too heavy and clunky to be a tablet. And the ability to flip it around is something I simply don’t need.

What I don’t like:

  • The Wifi module is very weak. I couldn’t catch the signal in my office room at home. Show-stopper. Known problem according to Google.
  • The R7 they had on display at BestBuy had a broken Space bar. It would only work if you hit it on the left 30% of the bar. While I don’t see that problem on my own R7 yet, I fear it can only be a matter of time until it breaks there, too
  • When you touch on the screen in an editable area, the screen keyboard pops up. Every time. Even though the OS (and the device. by checking how the screen is positioned) knows that I am constantly using the physical keyboard. That’s annoying.

I really want to focus more on Windows 8, though, so here it comes:

What I like:

  • The tiles and general touch features of Windows 8 are nice when you use it like you use a tablet. That, however, is rare with a laptop.
  • Search. Hitting the Win key to get to the start screen and then just starting to type, plus the ability to search in various apps or pages (Amazon, eBay, Google, Bing, Apps, Store, Wikipedia, …) is nice.
  • That’s … about it

What I don’t like:

  • Touch doesn’t make sense in an office setup where you have the screen higher up and external keyboards and track pads/mouses, and where you use it 8 hrs/day. Touch, however, is awesome for occasional and hobby use. No doubt about that
  • Windows 8 is definitely “not quite there yet”.
  • The mix of the new full-screen, touch-optimized look with the “old-school” windows feels half-baked. When I learned about Win 8 and the idea to have one OS for smartphone, tablet, and laptop/PC, I considered that a good idea. Something that ultimately all OS vendors would steer towards. Now that I’ve used a touch OS on a laptop for a while, I have to take that back. Touch simply doesn’t make sense on a machine that you spend a lot of time on. It is tiring. It makes you slower, as the UI becomes simplified, which isn’t what you need with professional use.
  • Traditional apps that have grown in complexity while you grew with them, now have a simplified UI. You feel dumbed down. Nothing for me, a professional computer user.
  • Compared to Mac OSX, it feels flaky. Not as smooth. Occasional flickering when switching apps.
  • The configuration of Win 8 is a joke. A gigantic, utter joke. Just this morning, when I opened the laptop after quite some time, I saw a note at the bottom of the login screen talking about a restart needed after some updates had been downloaded. A restart?? On a 2013 machine? OK, I thought, I’ll do it some time later. I logged in and saw the start screen. After 2 seconds, or so, the machine just started installing the updates and restarting, WITHOUT EVEN ASKING ME. Are you fucking kidding me???
  • By the way, how shitty must an OS be if it needs weekly updates that you can’t skip!?
  • Powerpoint 365 wouldn’t open a PPT file from my Mac. Not sure who’s at fault here, but I blame it on Microsoft, either way.
  • Outlook and email management in general is ridiculous. The Win 8-style Mail app is a toy, completely useless. And Outlook? I wasted hours trying to setup my 3 email accounts, 1 Exchange, 1 IMAP, and 1 POP3. It wouldn’t work. It complained about missing .pst files, it wouldn’t show the accounts even though they showed in the “email configuration” part of the control panel (which is hard to find, by the way – you have to know it’s there). Till today, I cannot use Outlook. I tried manually uninstalling it once. A support site shows pages of directions on how to do that (instead of just giving me a .bat file that would’ve done all the steps automatically). I really think I did everything I had to do. After re-installing Outlook, though, it still claimed my .pst files cannot be found and it wouldn’t start without them. Ridiculous.

The Outlook and email configuration issues alone made me want to throw this device out the window. If this is all that Microsoft can come up with after years of development, then good night. This is probably the last time I gave Windows a chance. That’s it.

Thank you Apple, for giving me a reliable, powerful, and beautiful OS I can get my work done with. An OS that doesn’t make me waste my time with configuration hell.

These are the last words I’m typing on the Aspire R7. Now going through a factory reset, then heading to BestBuy. Roger, over, and out.

WebRTC business models (and impressions from WebRTC Expo 2013 – East)

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WebRTC, WebRTC, WebRTC. I just returned from 3 days of WebRTC. Nothing but WebRTC. I was right there, in the eye of what probably is the heaviest hype storm of the communications industry at the moment. It was interesting to see which businesses were there, jumping the bandwagon of realtime communications brought to “the Web”, and also who wasn’t there (traditional communications service providers and mobile carriers, for instance). A LOT of startups. And quite a few incumbents, too. A few impressive show cases of what’s going to be possible, but even more “me-too’s”.

It became obvious at the Expo that there clearly is a correlation between the maturity of a market and the ability of conference speakers to handle the microphone. Speakers at the WebRTC Expo were exceptionally bad with the microphone – showing that WebRTC is still predominantly a techie play, not yet a solutions play. Otherwise we would have seen more marketers speak, who know that you are supposed to speak INTO a microphone, not wave it around as you’re gesticulating to try to make your point.

However, for something that is a techie play, and – even more importantly – NOT a mobile-first initiative, the interest in WebRTC is surprising. But don’t get me wrong – it entirely makes sense (for Google, above anyone…) and will definitely happen. The question is just when, and how.

To get to the topic of my blog post: I want to provide a classification of current vendors that deal with WebRTC, hoping that it can help you get an idea of who’s playing what.

I see 5 main categories of vendors in the WebRTC realm. The companies I will be listing as examples are only those that had a presence at the WebRTC Expo.

1) Media Engine and Gateway vendors
These are companies that offer gateways and engines for transcoding, trans-rating, trans-sizing of video/audio codecs, whether at small(ish) scale or largest possible scale (carrier-level). VB8 is new, H.264 the incumbent. No agreement on codec = their business model. No startups here, unsurprisingly. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Examples:

  • Audiocodes
  • Dialogic
  • Radisys

2) API and SDK vendors
These are companies that primarily provide APIs and SDKs to help developers implement WebRTC solutions. They all offer a hosted infrastructure (mostly on the shoulders of existing PaaS/IaaS vendors such as Amazon), and some provide their packages for on-premise deployments as well. This category shows a good mix of startups and established companies.

Examples:

  • Apidaze
  • Bistri
  • Crocodile
  • Quobis
  • Voxeo Labs

3) Full Stack Platform vendors
These are either hosting providers (PaaS) or software/hardware providers offering the full stack of technology needed for running WebRTC solutions incl. STUN/TURN, media engines, gateways, presence, etc. These companies typically sell to service providers (B2B). Again, no surprise: almost no startups. These vendors have a legacy of VoIP and networking expertise and technology.

Examples:

  • Genband
  • Ingate Systems
  • Mavenir
  • Oracle/ACME Packets
  • Sansay
  • Temasys Communications
  • TokBox
  • Xirsys

4) Solution Providers
These are (primarily) cloud vendors that provide specific solutions or applications (horizontal and vertical) around WebRTC. Most startups are to be found in this category. Use cases primarily group around the contact center/customer service, and video conferencing.

Examples

  • Avaya (as it relates to customer service and contact center)
  • Bistri (hosted Click-to-talk-to-me service)
  • Bolder Thinking (click-to-talk solution embedded in a hosted contact center)
  • CDE/Browsetel (click-to-talk solution embedded in a hosted contact center)
  • Genesys (click-to-talk solution embedded in a hosted contact center)
  • popexpert (expert finding and connecting service)
  • Presence Technology (click-to-talk solution embedded in a hosted contact center)
  • Priologic Software/tawk.com (free video conferencing service)
  • Requestec (video conferencing service, collaboration service, video contact center)
  • Solaborate (social networking and collaboration platform)
  • vLine (video conferencing service)
  • Weemo (video conferencing service)

5) Professional Services companies
These companies primarily provide app dev and SI expertise around WebRTC deployments

Examples:

  • Daitan Group
  • Priologic Software
  • Quobis
  • Requestec

For most incumbents, adding WebRTC to their portfolio is a natural, logical, and easy move. None of them have to change their business model to support it. WebRTC is an evolution after all, not a revolution – it doesn’t really enable applications that weren’t possible before. Which of the startups will survive of course depends on a multitude of factors, among them differentiation and … what Apple will do. Total number of users will be more important for the social network-type solutions (like Solaborate).

Where will it go? We will see. See you at the next expo to find out…

Apple, Bring the WOW Factor Back!

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Apple is immensely successful. As you might know, I have the deepest respect for a company that TRULY revolutionized 2 markets (the music industry through iPod, and the telephony and mobile communications industry through iPhone), and created an entirely new one with the iPad. (They didn’t invent any of these 3 product categories, though. They just made them perfect.) They are so great because they understand the importance of usability. They further understand that only by owning both the hardware and the software stack can they create products that exceed anybody else’s when it comes to usability. While that necessarily results in what the industry calls “vendor lock-in”, I do believe that it is a necessary evil you can’t get around if you want products that not only work but also leave no room for frustration.

But does Apple really own both the hardware and the software stack? They own the hardware and the operating system, and contribute a little bit of software themselves through some pre-installed apps (things like calendar, mail, basic messaging, a very week Reminder app, a weather app that works but doesn’t do much beyond that, etc.) and functionality such as Siri. The rest they leave to the developer community, while holding a tight regiment when it comes to releasing their apps in the App Store. But why?

People say Apple hasn’t innovated for three years now. I’m inclined to still call that a rather short period of time, given how immensely successful they still are with sales. But yes, I am becoming increasingly impatient as well. The latest quarterly results were breathtaking, but since people expected even more (what the hell were they thinking?), the Apple stock dropped and Apple lost their leading position as the most valuable company in the world. I don’t want to discuss the ludicrous market reaction to Apple’s latest fantastic quarterly results here, but instead focus on how Apple could innovate next within the existing product portfolio (on the same topic, also read this fantastic post by Huffington Post’s CTO: Apple, RIM, Google, Microsoft: Where Is the Big Bang?).

Google innovates by throwing tons of service ideas out there and seeing which ones survive – or actually work great. They risk lots of failures while doing that (Wave, now Apache Wave, and Buzz have probably been among the more prominent ones). One of the most promising recent contributions is Google Now, a personal assistant that is proactive, rather than simply reactive. Siri, the equivalent in the Appleverse, is nothing like Google Now. Furthermore, Siri has severe shortcomings to Google Voice, the voice search feature. It is Google’s immense knowledge database and their Knowledge Graph feature that allows them more and more to actually answer questions vs just showing search results.

I believe that in order to truly innovate again, Apple needs to dramatically increase their efforts around their software ecosystem. Instead of waiting for startups to come up with cool ideas for apps that make our lives easier, Apple should lead here: take things into their own hands, as they have done with the decision to control both hardware and the OS. I, personally, use apps like GroupMe for communication, Instapaper and Flipboard for reading, GoodReader for PDFs, Clear for notes, the Google app for QR code scanning (why the heck does Apple’s camera app not do that?), etc. Instead of leaving the field (of actually making the iPhone useful) to the developer community ALONE, Apple could create huge innovation by taking each of these fantastic app ideas and doing what Apple is best at: adding their usability magic to make all of them truly beautiful, fast, and convenient. Or even better: come up with their own imaginative ideas for new apps. Software makes the world go round!

Shame on you Apple for releasing crap like Camera, Reminders, Notes, or Weather, and leaving these pretty much untouched for generations of your iOS! Bring the WOW factor back to your next releases and surprise us again! It’s about time.

Spoiled by Apple

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I am spoiled by Apple. Steve Jobs, with his tight regiment and focus on product usability, has made Apple one of the highest valued companies in the world (recently overtaken by Exxon again, after a totally inexplicable drop of stock quote). My employer equipped me with my first two Apple products about four years ago: a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone. While it took me some time to adjust, having been a Windows user all my life, I have quickly adapted and do not want to go back. The iPhone, a revolution in the smartphone market 6 years ago, has not ceased to set the standard for usability and product design until today.

I am spoiled by Apple, as it made me expect no less now than functioning, fast, intuitive electronics from ANY vendor now. When I bought Samsung’s Smart TV, I was disappointed by its voice control feature. Even though I do use it, it could be so much more than what it currently is. And I use almost none of the other features (the “apps”), as they work much better and faster on my iPad, which I can mirror to the TV screen via my Apple TV.

When I bought the Nexus 7 from Asus, I had somewhat high expectations based on the reviews. Again, I was disappointed. Compared to the iPad it is slow, i.e. the UI not as responsive, relatively unstable, the screen is not as accurate, and quite a few of the common apps I use seem less well thought through in terms of their implementation. It does have some nice GUI features, such as the cross-app back button, the predictive keyboard, or the notifications. But overall, it has nothing that would make me go “wow”, or miss something on the iPad, with its rich multi-touch gestures and attention to detail overall. I do like its form factor, but I can get that with the iPad mini, too, which I’ll probably own once it has the resolution called “Retina” that the iPad 3 introduced.

Apple has set the standards, and they continue to impress me with that. However, they do make mistakes (see my post here), and they do have competition. But if they stick to what made them great, which is taking an existing product and making it usable, they will continue to lead.

HTML5 or Native? HTML5 *and* Native! A comparison of desktop and mobile software

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In the mobile application space, the question of whether HTML5-based or native apps will prevail is a rather open one, the resolution of which will either “never” come (note that never hardly ever means never, though, right?), or at least accompany us for years. I believe it will not come in the foreseeable future, and I’d like to argue by comparing the “mobile” to the “desktop” world, or the “small screen” to the “big screen”. I will also list several factors I see as critical for deciding for one over the other approach.

 

Desktop Software

Consider the “big” screen first. We today have 3 major OS competing: Windows, Mac OS, and Linux distributions. I’d say these systems base their success on the ecosystem of software built for them – the very same criterion for the success of a mobile OS, if you think about it. Windows, e.g., has been drawing its success from the Office suite for a long time – and still does in the enterprise. On the Mac, a lot of software commonly used under Windows did not exist for quite some time, which made Mac more of a special-purpose environment, something from which Apple has emancipated by now. Users today can achieve pretty much the same on a Mac as they can on a PC, with less and less compatibility issues. Linux is not relevant in the consumer space. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_operating_systems).

Developers choose which OS they implement their software based on the Reach (marketshare) of the OS, which constitutes my first decisive factor.

Detour: While we have been happily using the terms “software”,”programs”, or “applications” in the past, for some reason the term “app” has been established for software running on “mobile” devices (smartphones and tablets; laptops are also “mobile” to a lesser extent, but you wouldn’t call software running on them “apps”). The term “app” also involves a convenient distribution system, which is completely Web-based: the idea of “app stores”. These didn’t exist before with “traditional” software. You didn’t have one place to go to download software for your OS from, instead you either downloaded software from the vendor’s website with their own payment system, or you bought it physically as a CD or DVD. (Apple started to establish the online App Store idea with their “big screen” OS two years ago this month, with some success but also some skepticism attached to it, as described here:  http://www.macstories.net/stories/mac-app-store-year-two/).

On the “big screen”, software has to be released for each OS individually, in order to function. Only if software is offered “as a Service” (“SaaS”) does it usually get “consumed” via a Web browser (acting as a dumb terminal, as in the old days). It then has to be built only once: as an implementation involving HTML and complex Javascript (at least as far as the front-end is concerned; the backend and control logic live on the application server in whatever language and for whichever OS you program that).

There is a difference in the type of software that you use through a browser and that has been built specifically for an OS. Typically, the Web-based software is used for “simpler” tasks. It usually lacks features, functionality and speed (in terms of execution) as compared to desktop software. I will call these the factors Complexity and Speed (usability).

Why is the Web-based version of software usually a little restricted in comparison to native? Mainly because it requires an intermediate interpreter, the browser, which is native software that has to be developed and maintained for the OS of choice. New features and functionality of a device/computer is first made available to the developer of the browser, only then for the developer of browser-based software that runs in the browser. Native software, however, is written directly for the OS. By skipping this intermediate software layer, native software is, by definition, always one step ahead and quicker to provide enhancements, which (should) result in usability improvements for the user.

You don’t have to “install” Web-based software on your OS – you only download its front-end, which happens automatically in your browser. It therefore has less of a Footprint on your machine. (However, on a desktop or laptop computer with big hard drives, this is less of an issue).

As an example, consider Office. If your job is to write whitepapers, you will have no issue to install proper software for doing so. Whitepapers often embed complex graphics, page layout, tables, etc.; you will not be able to do that properly in a Web-based system such as Google Docs (now available via Google Drive). This version of a text processing software simply is too restricted in terms of functionality for your job. However, if all you want to do is maintain a simple spreadsheet for travel expenses with your buddy you went on vacation with (where the collaboration feature of online systems comes into play, too), or write an essay like this blog post, then you’ll be fine with a Web-based version.

The factor of how often you will use the software (and thus how “relevant” it is to you), I like to call Relevance:

Consider software for managing your insurance policies and claims. This is something you don’t need to do that often, and it usually only involves looking at some numbers and text and changing a few values here and there. Would you want to buy software for that, install it, have it sit on your system permanently? Probably not. It is just not that relevant to your daily life. If you need to file a claim, you would probably prefer going to your insurer’s website once, provide your input in your browser, and be done with it, not leaving anything behind on your machine.

If you look at all this together, I believe it is obvious why on the “big screen” both approaches have been living happily together for quite a while, and probably will be for quite some time more. Google’s Chrome OS, one that is based entirely on running the front-end of software as “HTML+Javascript” in a browser, has not really taken off yet, and I believe it only can once bandwidth and reach of wireless Internet technology is truly ubiquitous.

Depending on the factors Reach, Speed, Relevance, Footprint, and Complexity. one approach or the other will make sense for you as a developer, or a business. The mobile world introduces one more factor: Maintenance, or release requirements, which I will describe in the next section.

 

Mobile Software

Native mobile apps are nothing but software programmed for a specific OS and installed via a centralized app store (as opposed to independent downloads/installs predominant with desktop software). With mobile, we today also have 3 major competing OS: iOS (Apple), Android (Google), and Blackberry OS (RIM), with Windows Phone/8 lurking around the corner, and Symbian being on the decline. Samsung, Firefox, and Ubuntu have also announced proprietary OS. With mobile, software also has to be released for each OS individually, in order to function. But in the mobile world you can also program the front-end of your software as “HTML+Javascript”, with the backend and control logic living on your servers. So, developers will have to consider the Reach they like to accomplish – same as with desktop software.

The factor of Footprint is a much more important one in mobile: you have rather limited capacity on your mobile devices, compared to hard-drives of your desktop or laptop computer. Footprint therefore is, in my opinion, quite a decisive factor for Web vs native. It is closely coupled to Relevance: if you want to check your car insurance policy or review health claims, do you really want to download an app for that, which uses space on both your device’s memory and on your home screen? I, personally, do not. I’d prefer a Web app that I can browse to when I need it. (I have, however, noticed that I like to have a “proper app” for services that are important to me, even if I don’t use them often. Loyalty apps for retailers I use often fall under this. But do not forget that even those could technically be a Web app, while still living on your home screen: as a simple bookmark, as opposed to software stored locally on the device. The online/offline argument does not apply here, as I always need an update anyway; I would not know what to do with my Starbucks app, e.g., while being offline. I can neither search for stores, nor see my current balance…)

Mark Zuckerberg made this infamous statement in September 2012 that choosing HTML5 over native for the Facebook mobile app was the biggest mistake they have made to date. Concluding that therefore native apps will prevail is, while tempting, very wrong though. Facebook is for many the app most frequently used on their smartphones. UI speed or usability is, above anything else, therefore the most decisive factor. Nothing is more annoying than having to wait for the app to respond if you quickly want to check for an update or look at a picture someone has posted. Even fractions of seconds matter here. And which approach do you take if speed is so important? Native. Does that mean that HTML5 is the worse choice for all mobile apps? Definitely not. Again, it depends on Reach, Speed, Relevance, Footprint, and Complexity.

One final factor exists only in the mobile world today: that of Maintenance. Native mobile apps can today only be released through the app stores of the respective OS’s. Desktop software does not have that restriction today, even though Apple introduced the same mechanism 2 years ago with their Mac App Store – maybe we will see this to be the predominant, if not only, way to install new software on any OS in a few years time.

Web apps, whether they run on desktop computers or mobile devices, do not have this restriction either. You can update a Web app/site live, without having to involve the maker of the end device’s OS. If frequent and timely deployment of changes to your apps is important for your business, native might not be the best choice. The following post describes the drawbacks of native deployment well, with the most annoying being delays: http://blog.mightbuy.it/2012/12/26/table-applications-for-businesses/.

 

Conclusion

So, to come to a conclusion here: I have tried to argue that mobile software pretty much follows the same rules as desktop software, albeit with a few obvious differences. The desktop world has seen the battle of Web vs native for much longer than the mobile world (the latter only really having come into being since the 2nd generation iPhone in 2008, which introduced the App Store). With the desktop, the battle is not over yet; or you could maybe even say: there is no battle. Both approaches coexist peacefully. Much like fish and human beings do. I believe the same is true for mobile apps. There will always be use cases for Web apps vs native apps. It totally depends on the six factors: Maintenance, Reach, Speed, Relevance, FootprintComplexity. If anything, the number of OS and their marketshare will determine which approach is used more often. If we end up having 5 or more OS and ecosystems competing, companies will have to think twice whether they want to (or can) afford developing the same application that many times.

To finish up, here’s a decision graph helping to determine which approach is best for you, depending on the following factor hierarchy:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Reach
  3. Speed
  4. Relevance
  5. Footprint
  6. Complexity

(The last factor, complexity, stands out a little, as you might have cases where a Web app simply cannot implement a feature you need. You will then have no choice but to go native.)