Sunday, August 31, 2008

Roll your own lifestream with Sweetcron

Whilst there's certainly no shortage of hosted lifestreaming services to choose from, almost all of them are limited in the degree to which you can customise them. Sweetcron, on the other hand, is self-hosted (i.e. you install it on your own server) and open source, so is fully customisable / extensible. Created by an industrious Tokyo-based freelance web producer, Yongfook, it's an absolute joy to use. My current job means I don't get the opportunity to get my hands dirty with code anymore, so I've been enjoying tinkering around with Sweetcron's PHP and CSS to create my own lifestream and modules (the module in the above screengrab is of my own composition). The only limitation of Sweetcron versus the current market leaders (apart from the barrier to entry created by self-hosting) is that it doesn't enable you to follow other users' lifestreams (although every instance of Sweetcron produces an RSS feed you can subscribe to). It's actually closer to microblogging service Tumblr in functionality and is likely to appeal to users who would otherwise have downloaded Wordpress.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Paying for paper: the great magazine mystery

I spend so much time reading text on a screen these days that it's been both a novelty and a pleasure to have a couple of decent length train journeys this weekend to give my eyes a break and do some old-school magazine reading. After some prevaricating in Smiths, prompted by the bewildering array of titles now on offer (Media UK lists 1,956), I plumped for Wired, EDGE, T3 and Retro Gamer with my subscription copy of Empire tucked away in my bag for good measure. The total cover price? £21.88 (an average of £4.38 per title).

What struck me about this (apart from how readily I seem to part with money at train stations) is how much of the content I am paying for in dead-tree format is available for free on the net. (all the Wired articles, all the EDGE and Empire reviews, much of T3's news and features). And I'm seemingly not the only one shelling out in this way. According to a recent PPA Marketing overview, consumer expenditure on magazines has increased by almost 50% in the decade since the dawn of the internet (11% in real terms) with more of 'the internet generation' (whatever that means) reading consumer magazines than any other age group.

So, why do we do it and will this behaviour change once high-speed wireless internet access becomes ubiquitous and eMagazine readers become affordable (or, more likely, their functionality starts being adequately replicated on entry-level mobile phones / other multi-function devices)? I suspect it's a mixture of habit, convenience and a well-established relationship with the physical product which keeps us buying and which wireless devices and electronic ink cannot yet match and may never totally supplant. I also wonder if there's something reassuringly finite about a magazine in this era of unlimited information; a bound and curated volume of stuff that an editorial team has deemed worthy of my attention versus an increasingly unwieldy feedreader with hundreds of unread items...

Do you still buy magazines which offer some or all of the same content online for free? If so, why?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

True Knowledge: a search engine which shows its workings

Whilst Cuil has hoovered up a great deal more press attention (one news cycle hyping it up, the next knocking it down), the lower-profile True Knowledge strikes me as a far more interesting and innovative new search product. Currently in invite-only beta, it starts from a fundamentally different premise to most search engines; that by assembling a library of verifiable facts, which can then be combined using logic rules, in can answer a wide variety of questions from its own knowledge database.

Whilst the majority of queries won't yet return a result (it is currently drawing on a database of just over 100 million facts about 4 million things) those that do give an exciting glimpse of what the product could become. For example, asking 'Who was president of the US when Barack Obama was a teenager?' shows how eleven facts have been combined to give four correct answers (pasted below, along with a couple of other examples which illustrate how True Knowledge handles ambiguity in the question by providing multiple possible answers and explaining the logic). Impressive stuff.

I have 20 True Knowledge beta invites to give away - email me (the name of this blog at if you'd like one.

The devil in the detail: small but significant interface touches

They say that God / the devil is in the details and, when it comes to user interface design, I think they may just be right. The difference between a functional but uninspiring product and a product which is a joy to use is so often in the smallest, sometime almost imperceptible, touches - something which Apple understands only too well and has built much of its recent success on. Below are five example of tiny interfaces touches which make all the difference in the user experience of a product. Anyone got any other favourites?

Dynamic iCal icon

This definitely falls into the 'so subtle you might miss it' category. So used was I to the dumb/static icons of the Windows desktop that I initially failed to notice that the Calendar icon on my iPhone was updating every day to show the correct date. Such a simple thing but once I'd spotted it, I no longer had to open the app to check the current date - a real time-saver. I then spotted that the same functionality was present in the iCal dock icon in Leopard (but not, alas, in previous versions of OS X). Microsoft take note.

iPhone real-world physics

The discrete application of real-world physics to the iPhone interface is one of the things which makes it such a joy to use; pages bounce, icons wobble, emails fold up and disappear into the trash can. It's the visual design equivalent of haptic technology (e.g. force feedback) which reassures the users that their actions are having an effect on the objects they're interacting with; something the PC desktop has historically been so terrible at (e.g. "I think I clicked on it but nothing seems to be happening. I'll click on it again. Oh shit, now two of the things have opened...")

Blippr 'characters remaining' progress bar

The 'characters remaining' countdown is, in and of itself, a neat interface innovation and has now become a standard on mobile phones and microblogging services. However, it is Blippr's visual representation of this by means of a lowly progress bar which recently caught my eye on the basis that it's easier for the brain to absorb this information in peripheral vision when it's visually represented.

Wisia image suggest from Google Images

The thing that impressed me most about new Q&A service Wisia was not the wisdom of their particular crowd (who seem about as wise as most internet communities do in aggregate - i.e. not very), but the feature which automatically pulls in images from Google Image Search for you to associate with your answer. They offer the same functionality when choosing your profile picture so, in my instance, my avatar was automatically suggested as one of the top Google Image results for my chosen username (fabricoffolly).

TripSay profile completion ranking

Incentivising users to complete profile information is a perennial challenge for site owners keen to glean as much demographic data as possible. Many opt for a progress bar which reassures users they're nearly done, others promise greater functionality for those with completed profiles. TripSay has come up with a simple but ingenious approach to this problem which is to show your profile completion status relative to other users (i.e. as a ranking), informing me that "8360 people have rated more places than you" and tempting me to rate more with the knowledge that I could "Rate just one more place to advance to #7810".

Monday, August 18, 2008

Catching up / BBC short-form video nuggets

Just back from a week's media-free* holiday (*excepting the Saturday Guardian, Gavin & Stacey and Season 5 of The Wire) and spent much of yesterday catching up with inbox, feed reader and iPlayer. On the assumption that you're probably not that interested in the highlights of my inbox, below are a few tasty nuggets from my TV/video viewing; Britain From Above, Maestro, Kermode Uncut and the Olympics TV trail - all great examples of short-form video, made sharable thanks to the BBC's rather splendid Embedded Media Player (EMP), the unsung hero of the iPlayer story. More great short-form video on the BBC YouTube channel and each of the above sites (Britain From Above is especially worth a visit - it took me ages to decide which clip to share there are so many gems). Right, back to work...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Facespook & Liberty News

The above screengrab and below video embed are both from Facespook; a neat little viral campaign to promote Spooks Code 9, which premieres on BBC THREE this Sunday. It uses technology from Oddcast to enable users to upload a mug shot of themselves which is then rendered onto the protagonist in the video; a neat fulfillment of a prediction I made last September having seen the Dexter campaign and the Facebook Bob Dylan app:

"Whilst neither implementation is perfect (both suffer from problems with word wrapping), they're both impressive and an interesting indicator of a likely future direction for promotional videos, which will no doubt soon incorporate user-submitted photos and videos, as well as text, to further personalise the marketing message"
Also worth checking out is Six to Start's accompanying alternate reality experience, Liberty News and Adrian Lobb's Guardian blog post which asks whether the Spooks Code 9 website is better than the show and, more significantly, whether the future of television drama is actually on the web. I, unfortunately, won't be able to pass judgement as I'm off on holiday in about 9 hours to a land where the iPlayer doesn't stream. See you in a week.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

BBC Vision's internet portfolio / My elliptical job title explained

'Senior Portfolio Executive, Internet - BBC Vision Multiplatform' - there's no denying that I have fairly incomprehensible job title. All of the words kind of make sense on their own but when strung together, not so much. So, mostly for the benefit of my parents and girlfriend (who frequently have to try and explain what I do), here's an attempt to break it down into some semblance of meaning...

First, the easy bit. BBC Vision is the "the biggest integrated multimedia broadcast and production group of its kind in the world" which officially launched in November 2006 with "a mission to create great [content] for audiences in the rapidly changing digital world". In other words, television but without the 'tele' bit being a foregone conclusion - any form of visual media which delivers the BBC's public purposes is potentially on the cards. The Multiplatform department within BBC Vision is tasked with leading the group into the shiny multiplatform future, on the web, on mobile, on interactive TV and on other 'new platforms' (games consoles for example).

So, what does that BBC Vision's internet portfolio comprise? Well, there's the TV component of BBC Programmes, which automatically generates a page for every episode of every BBC TV and radio programme (176,000 pages and counting). There's also a constellation of enhanced or '360' programme sites which build on the foundation of the automated episode pages to provide more immersive and interactive brand experiences. These span all genres: Drama (e.g. Doctor Who, Heroes, Torchwood), Entertainment (e.g. The Apprentice, Last Choir Standing, Dragon's Den), Comedy (e.g. Have I Got News For You, The Mighty Boosh), Documentary (e.g. Bruce Parry's Amazon, Britain From Above), Science and Nature (e.g. Springwatch, Oceans), Arts & Culture (e.g. The Culture Show, Liverpool 08), Music (e.g. Maestro, T in the Park, Pop on Trial), Food (e.g. Chinese Food Made Easy), Gardening (e.g. Garderners' World, Chelsea Flower Show), Religion (e.g. The Passion), Childrens (e.g. M.I. High, Funky Fables) and no doubt a few others I've forgotten.

The portfolio also includes a growing number of properties made specially for the web, such as Mark Kermode's new video blog, Kermode Uncut (see earlier post) or Bloom which promises "smart choices for the carbon conscious". For children there are products like Me and My Movie, MyCBBC and Adventure Rock, whilst for teens there's the BBC Switch offer, which includes the innovative Sound Index and interactive online dramas Signs of Life and Meta4orce. In the Learning domain there are evergreen products like Languages, Blast, Bitesize and Ouch! and shorter-term campaigns such as Thread, Headroom and Bare Facts.

As well as content destinations, the portfolio also comprises a range of navigational/discovery aides such as the TV homepage and sites for the main TV channels: BBC ONE, BBC TWO, BBC THREE, BBC FOUR, BBC HD, CBBC and CBeebies (BBC Parliament and the BBC News channel are looked after by BBC Journalism). It also encompasses a suite of genre portals (Arts and Culture, Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Ethics, Family History, Film, Food, Gardening, Health, History, Lifestyle, Parenting, Religion, Science and Nature), modules on relevant Topics pages (see earlier post), as well as aggregations around seasons (e.g. White Season, Beauty Season).

And last but not least, there's a small product you might have heard of called BBC iPlayer (although this is currently managed by the BBC's central Future Media & Technology team).

So that's the portfolio. As for the Senior Executive bit of my job title, I'm still working that out... ;-)

It's worth noting that every site mentioned above has/will have launched/relaunched in the 12 months since my boss, Simon Nelson, unveiled Vision's new multiplatform strategy in September of last year. Not a bad year's work imho...