Apple Watch: My first 48 hours

To relate my first impressions of my Apple Watch (folks keep asking).  I bought the Stainless Steel one with a Classic Black Strap.

The experience in the Apple Store was a bit too focussed on changing the clock face design; the experience of using it, for accepting the default face to start with, and using it for real, is (so far) much more pleasant. But take it off the charger, put it on, and you get:

Apple Watch PIN Challenge

Tap in your pin, then the watch face is there:

Apple Watch Clock Face

There’s actually a small (virtual) red/blue LED just above the “60” atop the clock – red if a notification has come in, turning into a blue padlock if you still need to enter your PIN, but otherwise what you see here. London Time, 9 degrees centigrade, 26th day of the current month, and my next calendar appointment underneath.

For notifications it feels deserving of my attention, it not only lights the LED (which I only get so see if I flick my wrist up to see the watch face), but it also goes tap-tap-tap on my wrist. This optionally also sounds a small warning, but that’s something I switched off pretty early on. The taptic hint is nice, quiet and quite subtle.

Most of the set-up for apps and settings is done on the Apple iPhone you have paired up to the watch. Apps reside on the phone, and ones you already have that can talk to your watch are listed already. You can then select which ones you want to appear on the watches application screen, and a subset you want to have as “glances” for faster access. The structure looks something like this:

Apple Watch No NotificationsApple Watch Clock Face

Apple Watch Heart Rate Apple Watch Local Weather Amazon Stock Quote Apple Watch Dark Sky

 

Hence, swipe down from the top, you see the notification stream, swipe back up, you’re back to the clock face. Swipe up from the bottom, you get the last “glance” you looked at. In my case, I was every now and then seeing how my (long term buy and hold) shares in Amazon were doing after they announced the size of their Web Services division. The currently selected glance stays in place for next time I swipe up unless I leave the screen having moved along that row.

If I swipe from left to right, or right to left, I step over different “glances”. These behave like swiping between icon screens on an iPhone or iPad; if you want more detail, you can click on them to invoke the matching application. I have around 12 of these in place at the moment. Once done, swipe back up, and back to the clock face again. After around 6 seconds, the screen blacks out – until the next time you swing the watch face back into view, at which point it lights up again. Works well.

You’ll see it’s monitoring my heart rate, and measuring my movement. But in the meantime, if I want to call or message someone, I can hit the small button on the side and get a list of 12 commonly called friends:

Apple Watch Friends

Move the crown around, click the picture, and I can call or iMessage them directly. Text or voice clip. Yes, directly on the watch, even if my iPhone is upstairs or atop the cookery books in the kitchen; it has a microphone and a speaker, and works from anywhere over local WiFi. I can even see who is phoning me and take their calls on the watch.

If I need to message anyone else, I can press the crown button in and summon Siri; the accuracy of Siri is remarkable now. One of my sons sent an iMessage to me when I was sitting outside the Pharmacy in Boots, and I gave a full sentence reply (verbally) then told it to send – 100% accurately despite me largely whispering into the watch on my wrist. Must have looked strange.

There are applications on the watch but these are probably a less used edge case; in my case, the view on my watch looks just like the layout i’ve given in the iPhone Watch app:

Apple Watch Applications

So, I can jump in to invoke apps that aren’t set as glances. My only surprise so far was finding that FaceBook haven’t yet released their Watch or Messenger apps, though Instagram (which they also own) is there already. Eh, tap tap on my wrist to tell me Paula Radcliffe had just completed her last London Marathon:

BBC News Paula Radcliffeand a bit later:

Everton 3 Man Utd 0

Oh dear, what a shame, how sad (smirk – Aston Villa fan typing). But if there’s a flurry of notifications, and you just want to clear the lot off in one fell swoop, just hard press the screen and…

Clear All Notificatios

Tap the X and zap, all gone.

There are a myriad of useful apps; I have Dark Sky (which gives you a hyper local forecast of any impending rain), City Mapper (helps direct you around London on all different forms of Transport available), Uber, and several others. They are there in the application icons, but also enabled from the Watch app on my phone (Apps, then the subset selected as Glances):

Ians Watch Apps Ians Watch Glances

With that, tap tap on my wrist:

Apple Watch Stand Up!

Hmmm – i’ve been sitting for too long, so time to get off my arse. It will also assess my exercise in the day and give me some targets to achieve – which it’ll then display for later admiration. Or disgust.

There is more to come. I can already call a Uber taxi directly from the watch. The BBC News Glance rotates the few top stories if selected. Folks in the USA can already use it to pay at any NFC cash terminal with a single click (if the watch comes off your wrist, it senses this and will insist on a PIN then). Twitter gives notifications and has a glance that reports the top trend hashtag when viewed.

So far, the battery is only getting from 100% down to 30% in regular use from 6:00am in the morning until 11:30pm at night, so looking good. Boy, those Amazon shares are going up; that’ll pay for my watch many times over:

Watch on Arm

Overall, impressed so far, very happy with it, and i’m sure the start of a world where software steps submerge into a world of simple notifications and responses to same. And i’m sure Jane (my wife) will want one soon. Just have to wean her out of her desire for the £10,000+ gold one to match her gold coloured MacBook.

Another lucid flurry of Apple thinking it through – unlike everyone else

Apple Watch Home Screen

This happens every time Apple announce a new product category. Audience reaction, and the press, rush off to praise or condemn the new product without standing back and joining the dots. The Kevin Lynch presentation at the Keynote also didn’t have a precursor of a short video on-ramp to help people understand the full impact of what they were being told. With that, the full impact is a little hidden. It’s a lot more than having Facebook, Twitter, Email and notifications on your wrist when you have your phone handset in your pocket.

There were a lot of folks focussing on it’s looks and comparisons to the likely future of the Swiss watch industry. For me, the most balanced summary of the luxury esthetics from someone who’s immersed in that industry can be found at:  http://www.hodinkee.com/blog/hodinkee-apple-watch-review

Having re-watched the keynote, and seen all the lame Androidware, Samsung, LG and Moto 360 comparisons, there are three examples that explode almost all of the “meh” reactions in my view. The story is hidden my what’s on that S1 circuit board inside the watch, and the limited number of admissions of what it can already do. Three scenarios:

1. Returning home at the end of a working day (a lot of people do this).

First thing I do after I come indoors is to place my mobile phone on top of the cookery books in our kitchen. Then for the next few hours i’m usually elsewhere in the house or in the garden. Talking around, that behaviour is typical. Not least as it happens in the office too, where if i’m in a meeting, i’d normally leave my handset on silent on my desk.

With every Android or Tizen Smart Watch I know, the watch loses the connection as soon as I go out of Bluetooth range – around 6-10 meters away from the handset. That smart watch is a timepiece from that point on.

Now, who forgot to notice that the Apple Watch has got b/g WiFi integrated on their S1 module? Or that it it can not only tell me of an incoming call, but allow me to answer it, listen and talk – and indeed to hand control back to my phone handset when I return to it’s current proximity?

2. Sensors

There are a plethora of Low Energy Bluetooth sensors around – and being introduced with great regularity – for virtually every bodily function you can think of. Besides putting your own fitness tracking sensors on at home, there are probably many more that can be used in a hospital setting. With that, a person could be quite a walking network of sensors and wander to different wards or labs during their day, or indeed even be released to recuperate at home.

Apple already has some sensors (heart rate, and probably some more capabilities to be announced in time, using the infrared related ones on the skin side of the Apple watch), but can act as a hub to any collection of external bluetooth sensors at the same time. Or in smart pills you can swallow. Low Energy Bluetooth is already there on the Apple Watch. That, in combination with the processing power, storage and b/g WiFi makes the watch a complete devices hub, virtually out of the box.

If your iPhone is on the same WiFi, everything syncs up with the Health app there and the iCloud based database already – which you can (at your option) permit an external third party to have access to. Now, tell me about the equivalent on any other device or service you can think of.

3. Paying for things.

The iPhone 5S, 6 and 6 Plus all have integrated finger print scanners. Apple have put some functionality into iOS 8 where, if you’re within Bluetooth range (6-10 meters of your handset), you can authenticate (with your fingerprint) the fact your watch is already on your wrist. If the sensors on the back have any suspicion that the watch leaves your wrist, it immediately invalidates the authentication.

So, walk up to a contactless till, see the payment amount appear on the watch display, one press of the watch pays the bill. Done. Now try to do that with any other device you know.

Developers, developers, developers.

There are probably a million other applications that developers will think of, once folks realise there is a full UNIX computer on that SoC (System on a Chip). With WiFi. With Bluetooth. With a Taptic feedback mechanism that feels like someone is tapping your wrist (not loudly vibrating across the table, or flashing LED lights at you). With a GPU driving a high quality, touch sensitive display. Able to not only act as a remote control for your iTunes music collection on another device, but to play it locally when untethered too (you can always add bluetooth earbuds to keep your listening private). I suspect some of the capabilities Apple have shown (like the ability to stream your heartbeat to another Apple Watch user) will evolve into potential remote health visit applications that can work Internet wide.

Meanwhile, the tech press and the discussion boards are full of people lamenting the fact that there is no GPS sensor in the watch itself (like every other Smart Watch I should add – GPS location sensing is something that eats battery power for breakfast; better to rely on what’s in the phone handset, or to wear a dedicated bluetooth GPS band on the other wrist if you really need it).

Don’t be distracted; with the electronics already in the device, the Apple Watch is truly only the beginning. We’re now waiting for the full details of the WatchKit APIs to unleash that ecosystem with full force.

The madness that is Hodor and Yo. Or is it?

Yo LogoOne constant source of bemusement – well, really horror – is the inefficiency of social media to deliver a message to it’s intended recipients. In any company setting, saying “I didn’t receive your message” is the management equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse at school; it is considered a very rare occurrence and the excuse a poor attempt to seek forgiveness.

Sending bulk (but personalised) email to a long list of people who know you is just the start. Routinely, 30% of what you send will end up finishing short of your destination; no matter how many campaigns i’ve seen from anyone, none get higher than 70% delivery to the intended recipients. In practice, the number routinely read by the recipient normally bests at 20-30% of the number sent. Spam filters often over-zealous too. With practice, you get to find out that sending email to arrive in the recipients in-tray at 3:00pm on a Thursday afternoon local time is 7x more likely to be read than the same one sent at 6:00am on a Sunday morning. And that mentioning the recipients name, an indication of what it’s about and what they’ll see when the email is opened – all hooked together in the subject line -vastly improves open rates. But most people are still facing 70-80% wastage rates. I’ve done some work on this, but that experience is available to my consulting clients!

So, thank god for Facebook. Except that the visibility of status updates routinely only gets seen by 16% of your friends on average (the range is 2%-47% depending on all sorts of factors, but 16% is the average). The two ways to improve this is to make your own list that others can subscribe to, and if they remember to access that list name, then they’ll see the works. But few remember to do this. The other method is to pay Facebook for delivery, where you can push your update (or invite to an interest list, aka ‘likes’) to a defined set of demographics in specific geographic areas. But few guarantees that you’ll get >50% viewership even then.

So, thank god for Twitter. Except the chance of some of your followers actually seeing your tweets drops into the sub-1% range; the norm is that you’ll need to be watching your stream as the update is posted. So you’re down to using something like Tweetdeck to follow individual people in their own column, or a specific hashtag in another. You very quickly run out of screen real estate to see everything you actually want to see. This is a particular frustration to me, as I quite often find myself in the middle of a Tweet storm (where a notable person, like @pmarca – Marc Andreessen – will routinely run off 8-12 numbered tweets); the end result is like listening to a group of experts discussing interesting things around a virtual water cooler, and that is fascinating to be part of. The main gotcha is that I get to see his stuff early on a Saturday morning in the UK only because he tweets before folks on the west coast of the USA are headed to bed – otherwise i’d never catch it.

Some of the modern messaging apps (like SnapChat) at least tell you when that picture has been received and read by the recipient(s) you sent it too – and duly deleted on sight. But we’re well short of an application where you can intelligently follow Twitter scale dialogues reliably for people you really want to follow. Twitter themselves just appear happy to keep suggesting all sorts of people for me to follow, probably unconscious that routine acceptance would do little other than further polluting my stream with useless trash.

Parking all this, I saw one company produce a spoof Android custom keyboard, where the only key provided just says “Hodor”. Or if you press it down for longer, it gives you “Hodor” in bold. You can probably imagine the content of the reviews of it on the Google Play Store (mainly long missives that just keep repeating the word).

Then the next madness. Someone writing an application that just lists your friends names, and if you press their name, it just sends through a message to them saying “Yo!”.

Yo! Screenshot

Just like the Facebook Pokes of old. A team of three programmers wrote it in a couple of days, and it’s already been downloaded many thousands of times from the Apple App Store. It did sound to me like a modern variation of the Budweiser “Whats Up” habit a few years back, so I largely shook my head and carried on with other work.

The disbelief set in when I found out that this app had been subject to a $1.5 million VC funding round, which valued the company (this is their only “significant” app) at a $10m valuation. Then found out one of the lead investors was none other than a very respected John Borthwick (who runs Betaworks, an application Studio housed in the old Meat Packing area of New York).

His thing seems to be that this application ushers in a new world, where we quite often want to throw a yes/go-ahead/binary notification reliably to another entity. That may be a person (to say i’ve left work, or i’ve arrived at the restaurant, etc) or indeed a device (say ‘Yo’ to the coffee maker as you approach work, or to turn on the TV). So, there may indeed be some logic in the upcoming world of the “Internet of Things”, hyped to death as it may be.

John’s announcement of his funding can be found here. The challenge will no doubt be to see whether his investment is as prescient as many of his other ones (IFTTT, Bit.lyDots, Digg Deeper, etc) have been to date. In the meantime, back to code my own app – which is slightly more ambitious than that now famous one.

Facebook Mood Research: who’s really not thinking this through?

Facebook Logo

Must admit, i’ve been totally bemused by the reaction of many folks and media outlets I usually respect to this “incident”. As you may recall from other news sources, Facebook did some research to see if posts they deemed as “happier” (or the opposite) had a corresponding effect on the mood of other friends seeing those status posts. From what I can make out, Facebook didn’t inject any changes to any text; they merely prioritised the feed of specific posts based on a sentiment analysis of the words in them. With that came cries of outrage that Facebook should not be meddling with the moods of it’s users.

The piece folks miss is that due to the volume of status updates – and the propensity of your friends to be able to consume that flow of information from their friends – an average of 16% of your status posts get seen by folks in your network (the spread, depending on various other factors, is from 2% to 47% – but the mean is 16% – 1 in 6). This has been progressively stepping down; two years ago, the same average was 25% or so. Facebooks algorithms make a judgement on how pertinent any status makes to each of your friends, and selectively places (or ignores) that in their feed at the time they read their wall.

As an advertiser with Facebook, you can add weight to a posts exposure to show ads in the wall of people with specific demographics or declared interests (aka “likes”). Which can usually be a specific advert, or an invite to “like” a specific interest area or brand – and hence to be more likely to see that content in your wall alongside other posts from friends.

So, Facebook changed their algorithm, based on text sentiment analysis, to slightly prioritise updates with a seemingly positive (or negative) disposition – and to see if that disposition found it’s way downstream into your friends’ own status updates. And in something like 1 in a 1000 cases, it did have an influence.

Bang! Reports everywhere of “How dare Facebook cross the line and start to meddle with the mood swings of their audience”. My initial reaction, and one I still hold, is the surprising naivety of that point of view, totally out of depth with:

  1. the physics of how many people see your Facebook updates
  2. the fact that Facebook did not inject anything into the text – just prioritised based on an automated sentiment analysis of what was written and above all:
  3. have people being living under a rock that they don’t know how editorial decisions get prioritised by *every* media outlet known to man?

There are six Newspaper proprietors in the UK that control virtually all the National Newsprint output, albeit a business that will continue to erode with an ever aging readership demographic. Are people so naive that they don’t think Tabloid headlines, articles and limited right to reply do not follow a carefully orchestrated interest of their owners and associated funding sources? Likewise the Television and Radio networks.

The full horror is seeing output from a Newspaper, relaying stories about foreign benefit cheats, who end up hiring a Russian model to act as a Latvian immigrant, inject alleged comments from her to incite a “how dare you” reaction, add text of a government ministerial condemnation, and then heavily moderate the resulting forum posts to keep a sense of “Nationalistic” outrage at the manufactured fiction. That I find appalling and beneath any sense of moral decency. That is the land of the Tabloid Press; to never let facts get in the way of a good story. That is a part of society actively fiddling with the mood swings of their customers. By any measure, Facebook don’t even get on the same playing field.

In that context, folks getting their knickers in a twist about this Facebook research are, I fear, losing all sense of perspective. Time to engage brain, and think things through, before imitating Mr Angry. They should know better.

Help available to keep malicious users away from your good work

Picture of a Stack of Tins of Spam Meat

One thing that still routinely shocks me is the shear quantity of malicious activity that goes on behind the scenes of any web site i’ve put up. When we were building Internet Vulnerability Testing Services at BT, around 7 new exploits or attack vectors were emerging every 24 hours. Fortunately, for those of us who use Open Source software, the protections have usually been inherent in the good design of the code, and most (OpenSSL heartbleed excepted) have had no real impact with good planning. All starting with closing off ports, and restricting access to some key ones from only known fixed IP addresses (that’s the first thing I did when I first provisioned our servers in Digital Ocean Amsterdam – just surprised they don’t give a template for you to work from – fortunately I keep my own default rules to apply immediately).

With WordPress, it’s required an investment in a number of plugins to stem the tide. Basic ones like Comment Control, that  can lock down pages, posts, images and attachments from having comments added to them (by default, spammers paradise). Where you do allow comments, you install the WordPress provided Akismet, which at least classifies 99% of the SPAM attempts and sticks them in the spam folder straight away. For me, I choose to moderate any comment from someone i’ve not approved content from before, and am totally ruthless with any attempt at social engineering; the latter because if they post something successfully with approval a couple of times, their later comment spam with unwanted links get onto the web site immediately until I later notice and take them down. I prefer to never let them get to that stage in the first place.

I’ve been setting up a web site in our network for my daughter in law to allow her to blog abound Mental Health issues for Children, including ADHD, Aspergers and related afflictions. For that, I installed BuddyPress to give her user community a discussion forum, and went to bed knowing I hadn’t even put her domain name up – it was just another set of deep links into my WordPress network at the time.

By the morning, 4 user registrations, 3 of them with spoof addresses. Duly removed, and the ability to register usernames then turned off completely while I fix things. I’m going into install WP-FB-Connect to allow Facebook users to work on the site based on their Facebook login credentials, and to install WangGuard to stop the “Splogger” bots. That is free for us for the volume of usage we expect (and the commercial dimensions of the site – namely non-profit and charitable), and appears to do a great job  sharing data on who and where these attempts come from. Just got to check that turning these on doesn’t throw up a request to login if users touch any of the other sites in the WordPress network we run on our servers, whose user communities don’t need to logon at any time, at all.

Unfortunately, progress was rather slowed down over the weekend by a reviewer from Kenya who published a list of best 10 add-ins to BuddyPress, #1 of which was a Social Network login product that could authenticate with Facebook or Twitter. Lots of “Great Article, thanks” replies. In reality, it didn’t work with BuddyPress at all! Duly posted back to warn others, if indeed he lets that news of his incompetence in that instance back to his readers.

As it is, a lot of WordPress Plugins (there are circa 157 of them to do social site authentication alone) are of variable quality. I tend to judge them by the number of support requests received that have been resolved quickly in the previous few weeks – one nice feature of the plugin listings provided. I also have formal support contracts in with Cyberchimps (for some of their themes) and with WPMU Dev (for some of their excellent Multisite add-ons).

That aside, we now have the network running with all the right tools and things seem to be working reliably. I’ve just added all the page hooks for Google Analytics and Bing Web Tools to feed from, and all is okay at this stage. The only thing i’d like to invest in is something to watch all the various log files on the server and to give me notifications if anything awry is happening (like MySQL claiming an inability to connect to the WordPress database, or Apache spawning multiple instances and running out of memory – something I had in the early days when the Google bot was touching specific web pages, since fixed).

Just a shame that there are still so many malicious link spammers out there; they waste 30 minutes of my day every day just clearing their useless gunk out. But thank god that Google are now penalising these very effectively; long may that continue, and hopefully the realisation of the error of their ways will lead to being a more useful member of the worldwide community going forward.

Focus on End Users: a flash of the bleeding obvious

Lightbulb

I’ve been re-reading Terry Leahy’s “Management in 10 Words”; Sir Terry was the CEO of Tesco until recently. I think the piece in the book introduction relating to sitting in front of some Government officials was quite funny – if it weren’t a blinding dose of the obvious that most IT organisations miss:

He was asked “What was it that turned Tesco from being a struggling supermarket, number three retail chain in the UK, into the third largest retailer in the World?”. He said: “It’s quite simple. We focussed on delivering for customers. We set ourselves some simple aims, and some basic values to live by. And we then created a process to achieve them, making sure that everyone knew what they were responsible for”.

Silence. Polite coughing. Someone poured out some water. More silence. “Was that it?” an official finally asked. And the answer to that was ‘yes’.

The book is a good read and one we can all learn from. Not least as many vendors in the IT and associated services industry and going in exactly the opposite direction compared to what he did.

I was listening to a discussion contrasting the different business models of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple a few days back. The piece I hadn’t rationalised before is that of this list, only Apple have a sole focus on the end user of their products. Google and Facebook’s current revenue streams are in monetising purchase intents to advertisers, while trying to not dissuade end users from feeding them the attention and activity/interest/location signals to feed their business engines. Microsoft’s business volumes are heavily skewed towards selling software to Enterprise IT departments, and not the end users of their products.

One side effect of this is an insatiable need focus on competition rather than on the user of your products or services. In times of old, it became something of a relentless joke that no marketing plan would be complete without the customary “IBM”, “HP” or “Sun” attack campaign in play. And they all did it to each other. You could ask where the users needs made it into these efforts, but of the many I saw, I don’t remember a single one of those featured doing so at all. Every IT vendor was playing “follow the leader” (and ignoring the cliffs they may drive over while doing so), where all focus should have been on your customers instead.

The first object lesson I had was with the original IBM PC. One of the biggest assets IBM had was the late Philip “Don” Estridge, who went into the job running IBM’s first foray into selling PCs having had personal experience of running an Apple ][ personal computer at home. The rest of the industry was an outgrowth of a hobbyist movement trying to sell to businesses, and business owners craved “sorting their business problems” simply and without unnecessary surprises. Their use of Charlie Chaplin ads in their early years was a masterstroke. As an example, spot the competitive knockoff in this:

There isn’t one! It’s a focus on the needs of any overworked small business owner, where the precious asset is time and business survival. Trading blows trying to sell one computer over another completely missing.

I still see this everywhere. I’m a subscriber to “Seeking Alpha“, which has a collection of both buy-side and sell-side analysts commentating on the shares of companies i’ve chosen to watch. More often than not, it’s a bit like sitting in an umpires chair during a tennis match; lots of noise, lots of to-and-fro, discussions on each move and never far away from comparing companies against each other.

One of the most prescient things i’ve heard a technology CEO say was from Steve Jobs, when he told an audience in 1997 that “We have to get away from the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft have to lose”. Certainly, from the time the first iPhone shipped onwards, Apple have had a relentless focus on the end user of their products.

Enterprise IT is still driven largely by vendor inspired fads and with little reference to end user results (one silly data point I carry in my head is waiting to hear someone at a Big Data conference mention a compelling business impact of one of their Hadoop deployments that isn’t related to log file or Twitter sentiment analyses. I’ve seen the same software vendor platform folks float into Big Data conferences for around 3 years now, and have not heard one yet).

One of the best courses I ever went on was given to us by Citrix, specifically on selling to CxO/board level in large organisations. A lot of it is being able to relate small snippets of things you discover around the industry (or in other industries) that may help influence their business success. One example that I unashamedly stole from Martin Clarkson was that of a new Tesco store in South Korea that he once showed to me:

I passed this onto to the team in my last company that sold to big retailers. At least four board level teams in large UK retailers got to see that video and to agonise if they could replicate Tesco’s work in their own local operations. And I dare say the salespeople bringing it to their attention gained a good reputation for delivering interesting ideas that may help their client organisations future. That’s a great position to be in.

With that, i’ve come full circle from and back to Tesco. Consultative Selling is a good thing to do, and that folks like IBM are complete masters at it; if you’re ever in an IBM facility, be sure to steal one of their current “Institute for Business Value” booklets (or visit their associated group on LinkedIn). Normally brim full of surveys and ideas to stimulate the thought processes of the most senior users running businesses.

We’d do a better job in the IT industry if we could replicate that focus on our end users from top to bottom – and not to spend time elbowing competitors instead. In the meantime, I suspect those rare places that do focus on end users will continue to reap a disproportionate share of the future business out there.

A modern take on peoples valiant attempts to get attention

Facebook Newsfeed Algorithm Equation

A really well written story in Techcrunch today, which relates the ever increasing difficulty of getting a message you publish in front of people you know. Well worth a read if you have a spare 5 minutes: http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/03/the-filtered-feed-problem/

The main surprise for me is that if you “Like” a particular vendors Facebook page, the best historical chance (from Feb 2012) of seeing one individual post from them was around 1 in 6 – 16%. With an increase in potential traffic to go into your personal news feed, it is (in March 2014) now down to 1 in 15 – 6.51%. So, businesses are facing the same challenges to that of the Advertising industry in general, even on these new platforms.

Despite the sheer amount of signal data available to them, even folks like Facebook (and I guess the same is true of Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc) have a big challenge to separate what we value seeing, and what we skip by. Even why we look at these social media sites can be interpreted in many different ways from the get go. One of my ex-work colleagues, at a s Senior Management program at Harvard, had a professor saying that males were on Facebook for the eye candy, and females to one-plus their looks and social life among their social circle (and had a habit of publishing less flattering pictures of other women in the same!).

The challenge of these sites is one of the few true need for “big data” analyses that isn’t just IT industry hype to sell more kit. Their own future depends on getting a rich vein of signals from users they act as a content platform for, while feeding paid content into the stream that advertisers are willing to subvert in their favo(u)r  – which is a centuries old pursuit and nothing remarkable, nor new.

Over the past few weeks, i’ve increased the number of times per week I go out for a walk with my wife. This week, Google Now on my Nexus 5 flashed this up:

Google Now Walking Stats Screenshot

 

So, it knows i’m walking, and how far! I guess this isn’t unusual. I know that the complete stock of photographs people upload also contain location data (deduced from GPS or the SSID of Wireless routers close by), date/time and readily admit the make and model of the device that it was taken on. And if you have a professional DSLR camera, often with the serial number of the camera and lens on board (hence some organisations offering to trace stolen cameras by looking at the EXIF data in uploaded photographs).

Individually identifiable data like that is not inserted by any of the popular mobile phones (to the best of my knowledge), and besides, most social media sites strip the EXIF data out of pictures they display publicly anyway. You’d need a warrant to request a search of that sort of data from the social media company, case by case. That said, Facebook and their ilk do have access to the data, and also a fair guess at your social circle given who gets tagged in your pictures!

Traditional media will instead trot out statistics on OTS (aka “Opportunities to see” an advert) and be able to supply some basic demographics – gleaned from subscriptions and competition entries – to work out the typical demographics of their audience you can pay to address. Getting “likely purchase intent” signals is much, much more difficult.

Love At First Website Demon Ad

When doing advertising for Demon Internet, we used to ask the person calling up for a trial CD some basic questions about where they’d seen the advert that led them to contact us. Knowing the media used, and it’s placement cost, we could in time measure the cost per customer acquired and work to keep that as low as possible. We routinely shared that data every week with our external media buyers, who used the data as part of their advertising space buying negotiation patter, and could relate back which positions and advert sizes in each publication pulled the best response.

The main gotcha is that if you ask, you may not get an accurate answer from the customer, or you can be undone by your own staff misattributing the call. We noticed this when we were planning to do a small trial some TV advertising, so had “TV” put on the response systems menu – as it happens, it appeared as the first option on the list. We were somewhat bemused after a week that TV was our best source of new customers – but before any of our ads had been aired. So, a little nudge to our phone staff to please be more accurate, while we changed every ad, for each different media title we used, to different 0800 numbers – and could hence take the response readings off the switch, cutting out the question and generally making the initial customer experience a bit more friction free.

With that, our cost per acquired customer stayed around the £20 each mark, and cost per long term retained customer kept at around £30 (we found, along the way, some publications had high response rates, but high churn rates to go with them).

Demon Trial Postmark

The best response rates of all were getting the Royal Mail franking machines to cancel stamps on half of all stamped letters in the UK for two two-week periods – which came out at £7 per acquired customer; a great result for Michelle Laufer, who followed up when she noticed letters arriving at home cancelled with “Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat”. Unfortunately, the Royal Mail stopped allowing ads to be done in this way, probably in the knowledge that seeing “Demon Internet” on letters resulted in a few complaints from people and places with a nervous disposition (one Mental Hospital as a case in point).

The main challenge for people carrying a Marketing job title these days is to be relentless on their testing, so they can measure – with whatever signals they can collect – what works, what doesn’t and what (from two alternative different treatments) pulls better. Unfortunately, many such departments are littered with people with no wherewithal beyond “please get this mailer out”. Poorest of Amateur behaviour, and wasting money unnecessarily for their shareholders.

As in most walks in life, those that try slightly harder get a much greater proportion of the resulting spoils for their organisation. And that is why seminal books like “Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing“, and indeed folks like Google, Facebook et al, are anal about the thoroughness of testing everything they do.

The rise & rise of A1 (internet fuelled) Journalism

Newspaper Industry RIPThere’s been a bit of to and fro about the future of Newspapers and Journalism in the last week, where both bundling of advertising and editorial content is being disaggregated by Internet dynamics. Readership of newspapers is increasingly a preserve of the old. Like many other folks I know, we increasingly derive a lot of our inbound content from online newsletters, blogs, podcasts and social media feeds. Usually in much smaller chunks than we’d find in mainstream media of old.

Ben Thompson (@monkbent) wrote a great series of pieces on Journalist “winner takes all” dynamics, where people tend to hook primarily onto personalities or journalists they respect:

I think he’s absolutely correct, but the gotcha is that they all publish in different places and among different colleagues, so it’s difficult (or at the very least time consuming) for a lot of us to pick them out systematically. A few examples of the ones I think are brilliant are folks like:

  • John Lanchester – usually on the London Review of Books and talking about the state of the UK economy (“Let’s Call it Failure“), the behaviour of our post-crash Banking Industry (“Let’s consider Kate“), and about the PPI scandal (“Are we having fun yet?“)
  • Douglas Adams – now RIP – on how people always resist new things as they age or where things work differently to what they’re used to – in “Stop worrying and Learn to Love the Internet
  • Tim Harford – mainly in books, but this corker of an Article about “Big Data: are we making a big mistake“. There is a hidden elephant in the room, given “Big Data” is one of the keystone fads to drive equipment sales in the IT Industry right now. Most companies have a Timely Data Presentation problem in most scenarios i’ve seen; there’s only so much you can derive from Twitter Sentiment Analysis (which typically only derives stats from single percentage figure portions of your customer/prospect base), or from working out how to throw log file data at a Hadoop cluster (where Splunk can do a “good enough” job already).
  • The occasional random article on Medium, such as a probably emotive one to the usual calls of the UK press: “How we were fooled into thinking that sexual predators lurk everywhere” – suggesting that Creating a moral panic about social media didn’t protect teens – it left them vulnerable. There are many other, very readable, articles on there every week across a whole spectrum of subjects.
  • The Monday Note (www.mondaynote.com), edited by Frederic Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassee (JLG used to be CTO of Apple). The neat thing here is that Jean-Louis Gassee never shirks from putting some numbers up on the wall before framing his opinions – a characteristic common to many senior managers i’ve had the privilege to work for.
  • There’s a variety of other newsletter sources I feed from, but subject for another day!

The common thread through what appears to run here is that each other can speak authoritatively, backed by statistically valid proof points, rather than fast trips to the areas of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are unduly influenced by fear alone. I know from reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions book that folks will, to a greater or lesser extent, listen to what they want to hear, but I do nevertheless value opinions with some statistically valid meat behind them.

There was another piece by Ken McCarthy (@kenmccarthy), who did a piece shovelling doubt on the existence of Journalism as a historical trade; more as a side effect of needing to keep printing presses occupied – here. He cites:

Frank Luther Mott who won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for “A History of American Magazines” described the content of the newspapers from this era thusly:

  • 1. Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  • 2. Lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  • 3. Use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  • 4. Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  • 5. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system

Besides the fact that this sounds an awful like like TV news today, where in this listing of the characteristics of turn-of-the-last-century newspapers is there any mention of journalism? There isn’t because there wasn’t any.

I’d probably add a sixth, which is as a platform to push a political agenda to the more gullible souls in the population – most of whom are opinionated, loud and/or old – or all three – but have a tendency to not spend time fact checking. And amongst the section of the population who still buy printed newspapers and who have a tendency to turn out on election day to vote in large numbers, which is an ever aging phenomenon. Very susceptible to “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story”, rather than the younger audience that relies instead on a more varied news feed from the Internet at large.

We were treated to a classic example last year. The Sun reported news of the latest “Eastern European Benefits Scrounger”, milking the UK economy for all it’s worth while those who’ve worked hard for years suffer. The responsible government minister, Ian Duncan-Smith, weighs in with a paragraph to be appalled by the injustice. This is followed by over 800 replies, the tone of which (post moderation) is heavily “Nationalistic”:

The Sun - Headline "You're a soft touch"

So, who is this single Mum from the Baltics? She was, in fact, a Russian model hired for the role:

Natalia - Russian Model for Hire

Meanwhile, all comments pointing out the hypocrisy of the paper on the associated forums, or to fill in the blanks on the missing facts, got conveniently deleted. Got to stir things up to sell the papers, and to provide a commentary to victimise a large swathe of the population while greater wrongs elsewhere are shovelled under the carpet.

At some point, the readership of the main UK newspaper titles, owned as they are by six organisations, will ebb away into obscurity as their readership progressively dies off.

I sincerely hope we can find some way of monetising good quality journalists who are skilled in fact finding, of conveying meaningful statistics and to tell it like it is without side; then to give them the reach and exposure in order to fill the void. A little difficult, but eminently possible in a world where you don’t have to fill a fixed number of pages, or minutes of TV news, with superfluous “filler”.

A consolidated result, tuned to your interest areas (personal, local, national and beyond) would probably be the greatest gift to the UK population at large. I wonder if Facebook will be the first to get there.

The Stupidity – then Brilliance – of Twitter

People talking by a Water Cooler

I often find Twitter frustrating. I get regular emails from them coercing me to follow all sorts of people who happen to hook into the feeds of people I already follow. For some time, I diligently added these in, thinking I would see some extra value that Twitter felt I would derive from doing so. Instead, I get all manner of folks promoting their skills to help businesses engage “Social Media” and general daily tittle tattle that pollutes my feed with rubbish content.

You get to start to comprehend the awful statistic that after getting over 1 Billion people to register, only 1/8 of that total still use the service regularly. Something of a clue stick that many people don’t feel they are getting sufficient value to stay engaged.

Beep! Notification on my Nexus 5 from Twitter: @MyHandyInfos, @GiraffeSM, and 4 more just followed @NevillMedia. None of whom i’ve ever heard about nor follow. WTF! I’m certainly not going to start now.

Over the weekend I put a post up about Facebook acquiring Virtual Reality headset maker Oculus VR (see it here), a move that completely threw me. At which point I started wondering if Mark Zuckerberg had a moment of sheer brilliance, or had spent $2 Billion rather unwisely. I couldn’t map it onto what I perceived to be a long term future for Facebook, but largely reserved judgement for another day.

When I got up this morning, I noticed a couple of the folks I follow – and respect – having one or two tweets flying between them on this very subject. Click as close as I could get to what seemed to be the early stages of the conversation, and got this (from the Twitter app on my iPad Mini):

Conversation Stream in Twitter

Absolute Gold! I was able to sidle up to the water cooler when all these folks I respect (plus some I didn’t know before) were having a to-and-fro conversation about this Facebook acquisition and what it meant. By the look of it, some time after they’d been active, but all there. Then a brief trip around some of the links cited, which included a good discussion on Reddit on Games, and mention of a very impressive “Immersive” demo in LA (I guess Los Angeles); there is a video of this on the Oculus VR web site, though it was down for maintenance when I tried first thing UK time today.

The gateway to that slither of gold is on a feed that would have flowed past me an hour later and gone completely out of sight. My first thought was how, if I was Twitter, I could bottle this sort of exchange, and how i’d be able to correctly delineate both the start and the end of that water cooler session – and make this available to me next time I had some reading time. That, I think, would increase engagement on Twitter no end. That’s the sort of journalism you can’t get from any other single source.

With that, my head started spinning around working out the data structures needed to hold each authors component parts of the conversation, and how to program in the links to join them all together. And indeed how to assign sufficient identifiers or tags on the resulting lump of dialogue, and to rank the resulting entities into some sort of personalised, prioritised news feed. Probably a mix of who was in the conversation stream (out of folks I mark as usually interesting to listen to) and the subject being discussed.

Ian’s brain starts wondering

From that, my brain started meandering into extended use cases (within the context of a single Organisation or Interest Group) of this. In some companies, the water cooler conversation may need to be limited to the folks participating, or within their departments, or within the company, at their option. Or to drag selected people from outside to participate in that discussion. Or indeed to allow someone outside to initiate a conversation, and other people (inside only, or everyone worldwide) able to join in. And to mark the resulting slither as done, issued resolved, or to bin it.

A worked example of what could be replaced

My wife received a mothers day gift yesterday – a Scented Fragrance Kit that needed 2/3 the bottle of Fragrance supplied poured into the main burner unit. Try as much as we could, we couldn’t remove the top from the bottle, and could find no instructions that told us how to do this (no amount of pressing, squeezing, turning or pulling did anything else but click over a ratchet). Fortunately, the company had a web site and discussion forum.

In order to use that, I had to register a name and password into their namespace, confirm by email, and then request assistance on the forum. Another person said the tops were often difficult, a moderator posted a link to online illustrated instructions on how to remove the top, and Customer Services offered to send us another. On finding the top still wouldn’t come off, I removed the outer top cover with a hacksaw, reported back the two root causes (teeth in cap very shallow, inside screwed on far too tight, necessitating removal using pliers), thanked everyone and left. I think unlikely that i’ll return there – but a slither of conversation that may be useful to them and maybe fellow customers.

A sort of Twitter type water cooler, where i’ve already established an identity (and reputation), would have achieved the same effect, without me having to build, and never return to, another online persona.

Ian’s brain goes off on another tangent

With that, my mind started wondering again, thinking sales transaction flows through an ERP system, and the selection of “who’s allowed to see or do what”, could be replicated in this sort of superset of record types in this virtual Twitter Water Cooler. At long last, something that could look modern and totally disrupt SAP. And I probably need to go lie down to think some more.

Back to the Oculus VR discussion – and demos it cited

With that in mind (or now forgotten), the missing Immersive demos of the Oculus VR can be found in the blog post here. One example of a future of storytelling journalism there is a scene around a Food Bank queue in Los Angeles, which plays back the real soundtrack but lets you walk around – and see – events as they unfold:

Now, can you imagine a future for Facebook and your News Feed like that? Or would it look more like this:

Trying to decode Facebooks future vision – and failing so far

Sergey Orlovsky wearing an Oculus Rift

This threw me. Facebook last week paid $2 Billion (mainly in Facebook stock) to buy Oculus VR, the designers of the Virtual Reality “Oculus Rift” headset.

A few weeks ago, Facebook paid $19 Billion for mobile SMS app producer “WhatsApp“, produced by a 50 head company of the same name and who have accumulated 400 million users worldwide, 70% of whom use their service daily. Traditionally, Facebook have derived their income from posting advertising in and around your personalised news feed. WhatsApp instead ask for an annual $1 subscription to use their service – which friends (or I guess brands) can afford to contribute to in the future. They also have a future aim to facilitate mobile payments using this messaging platform – a big asset to Facebook if they pull it off.

The big departure for Facebook is that the CEO of WhatsApp – Jan Koum – is legendary for being anti-advertising. I have sympathy with his view given mobile phone use experiences when you’re trying to do a specific simple task, and smack in the middle of the process flow, up jumps an advert. Complete pain in the butt, much like a kiddy at home jumping up and down in front of the telly when you’re trying to watch something.

For me, the impressive thing was that Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) put Jan Koum straight onto his Board of Directors. Someone willing to disrupt the very business model on which the company has so far been based, and to avoid the malaise of many other organisations who otherwise cling onto a way of working doggedly, long after a decline of fortunes sets in. I thought it was such an impressive thing to do, I went and bought a stack of Facebook shares at $69 each for my “long term buy and hold” self invested pension fund, joining the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple and Tableau Software there. At least alongside the other 70% of the fund sitting in index tracker funds.

Then, the $2Bn bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, the “person to person” comms path (which I thought they had mapped toward their future self) headed straight into heavy fog. The current chief demographic of users of these headsets is to gamers, in my mind teen to 25 year olds who spend many hours every week in play; it is not the sort of hardware I can imagine someone older playing Candy Crush Saga or conventional board games on. Maybe Minecraft – but oops, Notch (the original author of Minecraft and an earlier contributor to the Kickstarter fund that bought Oculus to life) downed tools the second he heard Facebook had bought the company. With that, I started looking to what Mark Zuckerberg’s articulated thought process was, and to what the various industry commentators (who I respect) thought.

I think it would be fair to say that they are as confused as I am. The more outlandish claims related to his thirst to be the destination of eyeballs everywhere, and hence the ultimate future media mogul; helping deliver immersive experiences that finally send the already dismembering newspaper industry into it’s ultimate oblivion. Since the dawn of the Internet, the readership of newspapers has been heading towards OAP land relentlessly, and ads/classified revenue depleting, for many years now.

Journalistic endeavour is also already showing signs of radical all-or-nothing network effects. My own media consumption is a based on a collection of famous subject experts or specific writers, aided and abetted by a weekly diet of specific newsletters, podcasts and feeds from five social media streams. And the latter are getting progressively worse at communicating “signal” effectively, while throwing up increasing volumes of useless “noise”.

Of the five social feeds I get, it no longer surprises me that Twitter only has 1/8 of the number of registrants once recruited still using it’s service. Or that I miss updates from people I know who change employers on LinkedIn, lost in a deluge of an amateur attempt to become a business persons Huffington Post. Facebook selects it’s own subset of what it thinks I want to hear, and Google Plus has no way to restrict viewing to what i’ve not seen before. Even VAX Notes got that right with it’s SINCE key (you could skip between forum posts – onto replies on the next post you hadn’t seen yet – with a single button press). Likewise on Reddit.

So, while the Newspaper industry meanders, promoting the interests in the UK of six owners above all else – and doing little else than keeping printing presses employed with high volumes of useless twaddle, Political Party PR ruses and manufactured scare propaganda, plus visual “click bait” – I don’t see Oculus Virtual Reality headsets as the thing that will finally put them out of their own misery.

It’s a different contrast to Google with Google Now. If I move around in the real world, I can walk past a bus stop and it will flash up the matching bus timetable, plus next due bus eta. If it knows I need to get to a meeting elsewhere and the traffic conditions worsen, it’ll advise me to leave earlier, or to plan to take me via a different route. It tells me if a package is on it’s way to my work or home. The experiences are to supplement my travel and locations as I move around in the real world.

With this acquisition, Facebook, in contrast, send me in this case into a closed, virtual world. While the screen hardware is very impressive and a gaming experience very immersive, i’ve still not worked out how it translates to an effective new use case of Facebook – or a component of it – for a future me. More a return to the world of Linden Labs, and that of Second Life.

All that said, Mark Zuckerberg has so far pulled rabbits out of the hat to keep proving doubters wrong. This latest move is quite a challenge to join the dots on, and to convince everyone that it’s instead a prescient and visionary move. Or have I missed something fundamental? Comments most welcome.