The year of real-time web services - the next Big Thing.
Technological innovations are happening at an unprecedented rate, particularly those that have to do with web services. In the last couple of years we’ve seen social networking and location based services as the basis for many new products. This year the focus is on real-time services. Services that deliver information almost as soon as something happened. In other words, instant gratification.
When real-time is applied on top of the social and/or location based layer, it leads to a richer, more compelling interaction. Google Realtime has for instance its real-time search display results not just from traditional sources by trolling the web, but from facebook and twitter feeds, resulting in a more accurate, powerful query.
Groupon, the flash deal site, has started a Groupon Now for mobile users who are displayed deals based on their location and proximity to relevant deals at that moment in time.
Another mobile app, Geoloki, provides a valuable service to users who are looking for prompts in real-time as they go about their daily lives trying to maintain the delicate yet ever fragile work-life balance. The user can enable location based reminders for helping them remember picking the milk from the grocery as they are passing by the store. What sets this app apart from other reminder apps is its execution in reminding us, when we truly could make use of a reminder.
We could use real-time products for several different situations , and we are likely to see several of these being marketed this year and beyond. However, real-time can suffer from being too fast for its own good. Remember Google Wave? What is perhaps needed are Right Time services - real-time, timed right according to the context of the product itself.
As more products get to market, newer technology and fresh ideas meld together to create ever creative and increasingly useful products. Do you think there are other such trends that will emerge this year?
Crowdsourcing - The rise of people powered digital products
It is a well-known fact that computers can handle complex computational tasks very well. Infact, there have been several advances made in recent years to make computers smart, and acquire intelligence as they do tasks. However, there is still at least one area in which they remain unreliable - at understanding human emotions, expressions and the various nuances and inflections used in expressing ourselves. There is really no one better than ourselves at understanding us! This realization has given rise to a phenomenon known in these circles as “crowdsourcing”.
Very simply crowdsourcing is about the realization that there is wisdom in crowds. But crowds are equally famous for causing havoc and anarchy. Can the crowd be tamed to get at their wisdom and help us interpret data where computers give up? Turns out the answer is yes.
Almost two weeks back I attended a talk given by Rob Miller, from CSAIL, MIT who has been researching crowd-computing. Crowd-computing is yet another word for crowdsourcing. Rob pointed out that the most obvious and well-known examples of these are wikis and wikipedia.
Amazon also latched onto this idea several years back when it started a service called Mechanical Turk, the name riffed-off a hoax perpetrated in the 1900s. This service provides a marketplace for buyers of on-demand workers who could be hired for a mere pittance. Not only economical, on-demand workers also have relatively quick turnaround times.
Infact Google caught on to this too, and used the search terms entered by people to power its auto-suggest feature. Auto-suggest as many would know are the terms that come up when users start typing in a word into the search box.
Rob and CSAIL took this a step further and tried out several experiments to see how far the process of human intervention could be applied. Could humans for example help read and transcribe illegible or blurred text? In experiment after experiment they recruited humans without any pre-requisite skills, and saw that over successive incremental passes, the entire passage of text could be transcribed successfully by a human chain. In doing so, they varied testing method by trying both parallel and sequential chains, and both results worked. Their toolkit can be seen at: http://code.google.com/p/turkit-online/
There are several other prototypes in experimental stages which share the same premise. One such is an iPhone app called VizWiz, which helps blind people recruit remote sighted workers to help them with visual problems in near real-time http://hci.cs.rochester.edu/currentprojects.php?proj=vw. Another called Soylent is offered as “an add-in to Microsoft Word that uses crowd contributions to perform interactive document shortening, proofreading, and human-language macros” http://projects.csail.mit.edu/soylent/.
Indeed, this phenonmenon has become so popular that many of the latest iPhone and iPad apps for social and location based services are making use of it. A new entrant unveiled at the recently completed SXSW conference, Localmind, makes interesting use of it. A location based app, it wants you to ask questions of people checked into a particular location, and on the flip side be the expert of a location for the duration you are checked-in and help people by answering questions. Can you imagine the possibilities that exist for such a service at venues like sporting events, concerts or even on crowded highways as the crowds help each other out?
With so many applications of crowd-power, how can journalism be far behind? Here’s an interesting infographic powered by the crowd: http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/03/big_mac_crowdsourcing?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fdc%2Fburgerbill
Computer algorithms are still no match for people power. What other products would you like to see powered by the crowd?
All this talk of social media - what’s for me?
Social Media is quite the buzz these days. No matter which way you look there’s bound to be some talk of it. There’s the rose-tinted view where social media is the latest super-hero in town ready to save the world. And at the complete polar opposites are the “studies” that show that doomsday is fast approaching due to the increasing adoption of social media.
To us ordinary humans, most of this is bewildering to say the least. Who cares a tweet what they do for the world? Tell us, what do they do for me personally and why should I care for any of it?
For most of us the one most obvious benefit has been the emergence of social networks that allow us to keep in touch with friends, family and even business associates. But beyond keeping in touch, what these networks have also provided is a means by which to enrich our relationships. I know more about the people in my network and their interests, than I probably would have known without these means.
We have a great many social tools at our disposable today for creating and sharing content. Sharing of various links, photos, videos, quotes and other types of content also makes me consume them at a greater pace than I did in the many years before these networks existed. And it’s not just the quantity of content consumed, but also the quality - since most of our friends have something in common with us, the information showing up on our news feeds has a better chance of appealing to us. This content has been curated for our interests. Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to get an extended education! To quote Dr. Seuss,
With social media, content that is good, funny or profound quickly becomes the next viral hit - it gets shared so rapidly that soon it becomes “news”. Besides sharing, people also express their opinion by commenting, liking and tweeting. In this way good content is acknowledged, and its creators are encouraged to share their work with a broader audience. In this respect, social media may be good for our self-esteem since people in close groups tend to support each other and social networks ensure that, since we tend to keep only those people in our network with whom we have a rapport, giving the boot to others.
We all know how time-consuming shopping can be if you’re not sure of what you’re purchasing. Sure you can ask your friends, ask your social network even, but now you have the power to find out what the world thinks. Enter the commenting and liking system on most major retail sites in the country today. Powered by the crowd, whether shopping, looking up movie reviews, restaurant or hotel reviews for your next vacation, it is one of the most important reasons online shopping has become so popular - Trust. Trust built by adding a social component to your shopping experience.
And this experience doesn’t just end there. With social media, your voice can be broadcast to a wide group of people. Nobody understands or is fearful of this more than businesses these days. So if you purchase something that didn’t quite turn out to be what was advertised, you can voice your dissatisfaction by commenting online, or tweeting and you can be sure to have a customer service rep contact you. I am planning to do just this on an item that I’ve been charged twice for, and the normal route of getting that charge cancelled hasn’t worked for me as yet.
While we’re still on the topic of shopping, most of you have probably heard of deal sites that are powered by the number of people buying into the deal. Groupon (and SnapDeal in India) and examples of two very popular sites. The deal is available only if a set mimimum number of people buy-in. There are also a few sites experimenting with making the price of the deal go down as proportionately greater numbers purchase the deal. Shopping was never this fun!
Finally, what social media has done, is demonstrate how powerful our social networks are in influencing our own choices. Nobody understands this better than Google, who recently added social as a component to their search algorithm. This is what Google has to say, “Google Social Search helps you discover relevant content from your social connections, a set of your online friends and contacts. Content from your friends and acquaintances is sometimes more relevant and meaningful to you than content from any random person. For example, an online movie review is useful, but a movie review from your best friend can be even better.”
To get this to work, you need to click More Search Tools or Show Search Tools on the left panel of the search results page and select Social to filter your results.
What is your opinion of social media?
The iPad is a wonderful product, but can do better.
* This post was originally written and posted on a social network on Monday, February 28 by the author, and then re-posted here later, which is why the dates referenced may seem back in time.*
I got my iPad last year, on the day known as Black Friday here (Thanksgiving). Having taken a test run once at an Apple store I loved it immediately, and now after months of using it daily, still feel the same way.
However, there are a few things that irk me.
The biggest issue is the fact that this product does not support Flash. Flash has been the technology of choice for most online video, with around 75% market share. With no support for Flash, it means most videos cannot be played on this device. Most of those crazy viral videos shared on Facebook , and those on Youtube, are Flash and end up looking like big empty black holes. How frustrating is it that a technology that is causing a change in our browsing habits, cannot support a video format that is a large part of the type of content we all browse daily!
Apple being Apple used its clout to make a business decision that is impacting every user that buys their product. To users it isn’t important how Apple justifies their decision, what is singularly most important is that despite using a “first-class” device, we still cannot be guaranteed the best experience. Imagine buying a first-class plane ticket and still getting cattle-class treatment!
Over time, newer technologies, such as HTML5, will be able to deliver the same, but it will take time for the newer technologies to ramp up, to be the technology of choice for videos produced going forward. But existing videos still may or may not be converted, and will need Flash to be viewed. There are rumors abuzz in the blogosphere that Apple may be reconsidering this decision to support Flash, but there are no official comments from Apple yet.
My second issue is the proliferation of apps. “Is there an app for that?” is an oft-repeated joke, and with good reason. As of last count there were 3000 apps in the Apple store for iPads alone…and growing by the minute.
The app store has spawned off an app development frenzy by every business under the sun, without due thought given to whether a mobile optimized website would have fitted the bill just as well or even better. Apps for location based services and for games are understandable and required. But apps for browsing news publications are the strangest in my opinion – what did they achieve by not making a mobile site instead?
Updates are necessary and required often. Apps need constant updates. The hardware itself needs constant upgrades – there’s no camera in the current version, but just wait and in a few months the “new, improved” version will have one. No wonder it’s been aptly called the “Wal-martization of the software channel”. Here is something humorous that sums it up well: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/apple
The iPad is a touch sensitive device. For typing, it brings up an onscreen virtual keyboard. While it has been designed well and does offer audible feedback (it emits a sound when a key is pressed) it is not quite as effective as a physical keyboard. The virtual keyboard lacks haptic feedback - a way to produce tactile feedback when a user taps or hovers over a key. If you’ve played the Wii or PS Move, you probably recall the feedback you get for an action.
This device is an example of a revolutionary product whose greatness quotient has been lowered by its own design. There are plenty of badly designed useful products out there, products that can be improved upon, but in this case we are talking of Apple. The company that is supposed to be the holy grail of user experience. Where the experience of the product starts even before it’s officially out in the market by the PR department leaking “rumors” and hosting launch events that anyone with any interest in tech wants in on.
This company designed a product which brought about a sea change in our consumption of online content. Yet it’s pretty obvious there are several aspects of the product that were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as others. Inconsistent quality control or a carefully crafted business plan?
Either way, there are a few items I would love to see improved on the next-gen device. Let’s hope some of these are addressed – There are rumors of an iPad 2 announcement slated for Wednesday, this week. That’s less than 48 hrs away!
I would love to hear your own views of the device and what changes you’d like to see in the future. If you don’t own one and are planning to buy one, tell me why you look forward to it.