A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Monday, January 31, 2005

I recently created a list of usability guidelines for business users, developers, and designers to use when they kick off new web-based projects. These guidelines promote industry best practices along with my own personal experiences of what works. I believe its an effective way to get people thinking about concepts of usable design without getting too caught up in the details or implementation. Let me know what you think.

No flowcharts? You surprise me.
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Thursday, January 27, 2005

GPS and kids

As a parent of two grade school children, I believe that one of the worst nightmares you have is your child missing. My wife and I always take about
Lo-Jack for kids. For those who are unfamiliar with Lo-Jack it’s a car recovery system. If someone steals your car the police are able to track it. Now being a former Merchant Mariner I have used GPS a lot sailing around the world, so I thought they should incorporate GPS in a device for your child. Well low and behold a company out in California had the same idea as me. The product they came up with is Wherify Wireless Personal Locator. Basically it’s a watch that you put on your child wrist and it has GPS tracking. You are able to track them through a website or in an emergency 800 number. These watches are cut resistant and need a key to take off the wrist. Talk about big brother watching. ‘I need to know if Johnny is at school today’…..BAM…just check the website.
Pretty cool but expensive, but will this give you a better piece of mind.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The screen on my mobile has just broken so I’ve had to order a replacement. Talking to various people a few recommended the Sony Ericsson P910I as they know I’m also a Palm user. The P901I seems to be the answer to carrying around two devices as it is also a PDA, email, internet, etc, etc. Checking it out it does seem to be rated very highly see: http://www.mobile-phones-uk.org.uk/sony-ericsson-p910i.htm
One feature that isn’t mentioned in the review above is that it can also be a Blackberry client (or as a friend of mine calls them a Gooseberry – for the amount of times they appear, unwanted, in meetings, etc).
I know Mike hasn’t had a lot of luck with his Treo but the guys I know have had theirs for quite a while with no complaints. Should we be thinking of something like the P901I as "standard" issue for us instead of a mobile and a Palm?
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Friday, January 21, 2005

Easter Eggs

I set a competition in To Computing Heroes last week and was a bit dissappointed at the lack of application Easter Eggs that were reported. One that I like is that in Mozilla's Firebird. Enter "about:mozilla" (without the quotes) into the address bar to see a dig at Microsoft (Mammon). Microsoft respond in IE with a blue screen. I have mixed feelings about these indulgences, however. I remember an old version of Excel that had a complete video game embedded in the Help..About area. Initially Easter Egss were a list of credits, but even then the code is wasting your CPU cycles in scanning for trigger keystrokes....
I remember when entering about:mozilla in old versions of Netscape (v3.x I think) used to change the animated N in the top corner to a fire breathing dragon, as well as displaying the "biblical verse" page.
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Thursday, January 20, 2005

When I'm up in Manchester and need to work I have to find an Internet connection so that I can get on the VPN. Usually, I go to Starbucks, where they have T-Mobile hotspots that cost £5 for an hour.

As I'm running Windows Firewall and my connection, once I'm on the VPN, is stronger than 128 bit encryption, I never really worried about security, and I hadn't heard of any hotspot scams. But reports are coming out about people using packet sniffing tools like dsniff to intercept unencrypted data.

Someone far too creative to be writing about technology coined the term "hotspot vampires" to describe hackers who sit around in cafés trying to read other people's information.

In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised. For the types of people who steal credit card details from ATM's, open wireless networks are irresistably juicy targets. So the next time you bring your laptop, mobile or PDA to your favorite hotspot, make sure you don't send any sensitive data to unencrypted sites.
Jerem makes a good point here illustrating the dangers of using open wireless hotspots. Just to make hesitant hotpot users even more uncertain, yesterday I read a report about another new term 'Evil Twins' guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of hotspot users everywhere.

Putting my "Group IT Security 'Expert'" hat on, I should point out that when you are connected to our VPN, only traffic that is destined for our internal network is actually encrypted by the VPN client, general browsing traffic is not encrypted and may be vulnerable to Dracula and his friends.

There are a number of solutions to keep your hotspot web browsing safe from vampires - most rely on setting up an SSL connection to one website and then proxying your browsing from that site. Anonymizer is the one of the most well known.

Cloves of garlic can also help if you're still worried!
It's actually much easier for hackers than these two exploits suggest. At a tech. conference some time ago (can't remember when) free hotspots were set up by a team who wanted to know whether a tech-savvy crowd would balk at using an untrusted hotspot. Guess what their results were?
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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ipod’s too much Hype bout Nutting

Several years ago I decided to purchase a MP3 player cause living on Long Island and commuting into Manhattan every day for about 1hr I need to listen to something before I went crazy. After much research I decided to purchase a Creative Labs Nomad IIMG. It had 64MB built in with a slot for an extra card and a FM tuner. After two and ½ years of great sound I decided to upgrade. Now every where I look in NY I see people with white headphones…..Ipods everywhere. Now even one of my favorite bands jumped on the band wagon (pun intended due to the filming of their next video that was on a flat bed truck through the streets of NY) U2. What is there to like about this Ipod. Let’s see you can rip your own CD’s on to it and you can download music for ITunes to it. Pretty much that’s it. You can’t play those songs on Windows Media Player or burn them on a new CD. When the battery dies you have to send it back, come on this product sucks. I guess they have the money so they spent it well on the advertising. There are many Ipod killers on the market now that surpass it. Dell has the new Dell DJ in 20 and 5GB drives. Creative has the whole ZEN line which sounds so much better then the Ipod. So after much too due I purchased a Creative MuVu Slim. It holds 256MB and has a built in FM tuner. I decide 256 is more then enough I can easily delete songs and add as I like. I don’t need 20GB for all my MP3’s. Plus if I drop it when I’m jogging I won’t crash the HD. So just say no to the Ipod, think out side the box.

Next week I’ll be taking about GPS for your kids.
In Defense of iPod

I recently got a 20GB iPod, courtesy of Renault, and I have to admit that I love it.

I think the choice has to come down to the way you listen to music. I used to spend a few minutes each morning staring at my CD rack, wondering what I was in the mood to listen to. Now I just turn on my iPod, which is plugged into speakers on my desk, and hit shuffle.

Whenever I have time I copy a few more albums to iTunes on my Dell. If I had to add and delete songs every few days I just wouldn't use the thing.

As for iTunes, I'd like to see someone try to prove that MediaPlayer is better when it comes to music. iTunes rips CD's in less than half the time. The sound quality is better and you can burn albums or playlists to CD at the click of a button.

What are the downsides to iPod? The hard disk. Yes, Flash memory is better. It doesn't skip. It uses less power. Once it can reach a comparable size to spinning media it will be the standard but that's still a year or more away. Apple have already moved in that direction with iPod Shuffle.

The head phones. I swear if I just look at them funny they get completely tangled up.

And the hype. I read somewhere that the only way Apple could sell more iPods in New York is if people started carrying two of them. Well, just like Sony who sold 30 million PS2's, a good product will capture the market.

iPod does what it says on the box and it's easier to use than my toaster. Now that I've got one I understand what all the fuss is about.
Usability. Usability. Usability. I own Ipod and love the single control for it. It's an attractive device that does not look like a 3rd year woodwork project, unlike many of it's competitors. Attacking the Ipod is futile, attacking hard disk based mp3 players has good ground but the Ipod has both Flash and disk based players. I am pro choice. When I rip CD's in Itunes, I have an mp3 encoder selected, which was available in the preferences and windows media player can play the mp3 format. Of course it can burn cd's. The IPod is king of usability and what I want when I'm on the move is easy access to Sade's Greatest Hits with easy switchbackability to a bit of Kenny G and anything else that tickles my easy listening fancy.
I have a Creative 512MB MuVo with a FM Tuner, and it is great for all my needs. I get 8 albums on it at any one time, of which I manage to listen to all of them on my weekly commute, and then at the weekend I can put on new albums. I find that this is really quite manageable since having a 20GB Ipod would really do me no justice when searching for all the songs I want to listen to. Also, the smaller the choice I have for the music I wish to listen to, the more I am likely to listen to all the albums on my MP3 player. FWIW.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Walking into Comet (Electrical superstore whose 3 year insurance policies sometimes cost more than the items themselves) this weekend to pick up a broken tv remote after the kids decided to play tonka toy with it on the wooden floors , I was amazed to see 42 inch plasma screens come down so much in price. A LG plasma 42 inch was retailing at £1599, and for much the same I saw a Sony 42 inch plasma for £2699. Two things struck me
(1) How cheap plasma has become, and how the Korean companies like LG and Samsung are really driving down the prices for them
(2) The price differential between the 2 sets I describe above. (Almost £1100 difference).

My initial thought was "am I paying £1100 extra for the Sony brand or is there a real techincal difference between the 2 sets". After some investigation I realised that though the Sony did have some cool features I would never use them in my family home. In fact, turning the tv on and then watching it on a big screen with some great clarity and refresh rates is all one needs unless they are in the video editing or film production industry. To that effect, the LG 42 inch plasma is sufficient and to boot you save yourself £1100.

I think brand premium is possibly going to die a death in the consumer electronics word, as the manufacturers are all outsourcing the production of most of the items and thus the same components could be found in most products. The consumers are becoming more savvy in choosing "appropriate" electronics for their needs rather than going all out for the best that they can buy.

What I think is happening is that as product prices are coming down we are going to see an increase in prices for "services". As John Brennan (colleague) says "wait until they start giving away DVD players when you buy a DVD.

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I'm not sure that brand premium will die a death, but hitherto less well known brands are certainly making an impression. LG have had a big marketing push of the past few years and they are now a pretty well known brand. There's an article in The Economist this week about this with reference to Samsung.
Does anyone know why post was removed ?? It was just factual about my own TV ??? Weird !
Are we being censored???
Paranoia reigns.
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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Microsoft Giant

Microsoft have released a beta version of their AntiSpyware program. This uses technology from Giant who were acquired by Microsoft in December. Fast work. Co-incidentally, the first reported exploit targeted at Firefox has surfaced. A vulnerability allows the url for a downloaded file to be masked. This in the week that Firefox is reported to have grown in use to 7.4% of the market. Also this week, eBay announced that they will roll out their own messaging service to get round phishing scams targeted at eBay users. The My Messages inbox for eBay users is similar to that used by online banks, such as smile.
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