Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I was doing some research for a prospective client's website this morning and stumbled upon a "Live Chat" software provider, aptly named livechatnow!

After reading through the terms and condition and figuring out how to download and use the software, one question remained unanswered. What happens when your live operator needs to take a potty break?

The thought then came to me. Surely this company eats its own dog food? So I looked around the web page and found a very understated button, apologetically tucked away in a corner, almost begging to be ignored.

I clicked the button and was immediately presented with this pop-up window:

To my dismay, no operators were available to answer my question, which had now been fully answered anyway! It just made me wonder about livechatnow! and its capability to support its customer after the credit card has been swiped ....

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Episode II - Baby Steps

In 1985, the US Government issued me a green card authorizing me to live and work in the United States of America on a permanent basis. Oddly enough the card wasn't green ... and it wasn't the first green card I had ever owned. Here's a picture of my first .... and this one was green!

I came to own it quite by accident. In 1969 I was still busily pursuing my bean-counting career and has passed the first part of the A.I.M.T.A. examinations. One morning in July, we were handed a flyer (the sixties equivalent of e-mail) from IBM inviting any and all interested parties to participate in an 'aptitude' test. The test was administered during the lunch hour in the Council Chambers and a whopping 1,800+ people turned up to try their hand at what turned out to be a speed test of logic and simple math and featured questions like: "A firm buys two typewriters: A and B. If A costs 1/4 more than 4/5 of B and the total comes to £21-10-6 then what is the cost of A" [decimalization didn't happen in the UK until 1971, so we were stuck trying to figure out pounds, shillings and pence - 3-column ledgers made your head spin!]. It wasn't until a few days later that we really understood the significance of the test and its aftermath.

Pre-Decimalization Currency

The County had contracted with IBM (not ICL!) to provide a new super-computer for use in the Treasury Department. Initially, it was going to be used to process payroll for the tens of thousands of local government employees. In fact, they had secretly been building an air-conditioned basement computer room to house this shining beast.

IBM 360 Model 20

When the results of the aptitude test were released and my name was 2nd on the list, I was flabbergasted! The only person ahead of me was a guy named Arthur whose only claim to fame at that point was that he sometimes brought his Salvation Army uniform and his tuba to work and was seen resplendently leaving after 5pm destined, no doubt, for some local temperance event.

My transition to the world of computers was almost complete. A pat on the back from the County Treasurer himself and a transfer (with no extra pay!) to the newly formed "Computer Department" - and it was done! I can remember sitting in a room one Monday morning with 5 other guinea pigs thinking "So what do we do now?". Luckily, IBM was on hand to begin the indoctrination, handing out Green Cards and Flow-charting Templates and telling us that we'd be up to speed in no time at all.

IBM Flowchart Template

The trouble was that - even with our green cards, templates and pencils in hand - no-one still had a clue what being a programmer really entailed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Episode I - The Early Years

In 1967 - at the ripe young age of 18 - I began working at the DMV in my local County Council offices. I was hired under the guise of becoming a Municipal Accountant, the training for which would be supplied by the County in the form of 1 day and 2 nights a week at a local college - plus Saturdays - which really cramped my style in those days! The objective: to pass the examinations of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers & Accountants and be a career government bean counter.

It was at Sunderland Polytechnic that I was first introduced to a computer - the Elliott 803.

The Elliott Model 803

The Elliott 803 was a small computer manufactured by the British company Elliott Brothers in the 1960s. About 250 were built and most British universities and colleges bought one. It was a transistorized, bit-serial beast of a machine using about 32K of ferrite core memory. It had operator's control console, a Creed teleprinter and a high-speed paper tape reader and punch for input/output, using 5-track Elliott telecode code.

Punched Paper Tape

I learned how to create simple programs in a language called Algol - and I mean simple! I typed the program on the tape punch console and fed it back into the same machine in read mode. Making a mistake meant that I had to retype the incorrect section of code correctly and then physically splice it into the roll of tape, replacing the incorrect code. The program needed a batch of data to process, so this too was created on the tape punch machine. I remember being thrilled when my first program added a list of numbers and printed the total on the teleprinter.

ALGOL Programmers Guide

Even in my euphoria, however, I hadn't the first idea what practical use this computer could be put to. After all, I had been using a snazzy (pre-LED) TI calculator that weighed just a few ounces - so why would one need a 5ft tall, half-ton behemoth to do the same thing?

1967 Texas Instruments Calculator

Late in 1968, the college was all abuzz with talk of a new computer being constructed somewhere in the basement. They were calling it a "mainframe" and it was supposedly going to change the face of computing!

The ICL Series 1900

ICL (International Computers Ltd) was formed in 1968 as a part of the Industrial Expansion Act of Harold Wilson's Labor Government. Tony Benn, the Minister of Technology, and his cronies were hell bent on creating a British computer industry that could compete with IBM. Although popular in government, ICL never enjoyed great success in the private sector, and was eventually acquired by Fujitsu. I never did see the ICL 1900 in person, for it wasn't long before I was to transfer from Sunderland Polytechnic to Durham University to begin my hardcore training in computer science. But that's an entirely different story ...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Foursquare meals a day ...

I’ve used Foursquare for over a week now and I’ve read several articles about why it’s going to be the next big thing but I have to confess that I still don’t get it. I can, however, see how it works for small groups of very social people who find a thrill in being able to know which club or restaurant their friends are hanging out at. It works equally well if you want to join or avoid them! I’m not one of these people.

There must be way more of these people that I had imagined since Foursquare now boasts over two million users. Impressive, yes - but feeble in comparison to facebook’s half a billion throng. Other than the one individual who introduced me to it and my sister-in-law’s sympathy ‘friending’, I don’t see any other friends, acquaintances or colleagues giving it a try. For someone with 702 LinkedIn connections, 156 facebook friends, a bunch of blog and Twitter followers – things don’t look too good for Foursquare in my cyber portfolio.

But in spite of Marc Andreessen’s backing, I still think the only viable Foursquare model is one that requires less activity to participate. I’m already at the mall, so why do I have to go on my phone, start up Foursquare, find the mall and check in? I should be able to preset the app on my phone to do certain ‘frictionless’ things based on my location – which it seems to know already. But that’s a very slippery slope to travel!

The incentive to participate is also weak. Who cares about a cheesy badge or two? If I’m going to let a business know that I’m in its vicinity, I want discounts! I want rewards! It’s why I take the time to always add my frequent flier number to my airline reservations – even if I know that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever meet even the minimum requirements for a flight reward. The least I will get is an offer for a magazine or two in return for Air Nippon wiping out those 3,956 miles that have been hanging out there for eons.

In the years to come, I believe that location-based services (LBS) will play a much more substantial role in our lives. I'm just not convinced that Foursquare and its imitators provide a clear path to the mainstream. We’re in the 1995 Classmates.com days of social networking, but there’s some light at the end of the tunnel - The Wall Street Journal and a few other newspapers have already added the Foursquare button to allow people, when reading a restaurant review or other cultural coverage on WSJ.com, to click a button to add the venue(s) mentioned in the article to a ‘Foursquare to-do list’, along with a tip written by a WSJ editor and a link back to the original article. This to-do list idea has got to have a place in the future of LBS.

So even though I’m not yet a true believer, I have no desire be a detractor and will continue to check in from time to time in the hope that someone will offer me the deal of the century.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hey - Four Eyes!

This four-eyed guy appears in an aptly entitled book by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), a native of Nuremberg.

The book is called the Nuremberg Chronicle and is probably the most sophisticated printed book published before the year 1500 because of its use of different graphic layouts that integrate text and image in more varied ways than anything that had previously been attempted. You can check it out here.

Some marketing dude at Acer must believe that there are a bunch more four-eyed consumers out there, since today they unveiled the Iconia at a press conference in New York. It features two - yes two! - 14" touch-screens protected by ultra-tough "Gorilla Glass". The device can be used like a traditional laptop, with the second screen doubling as a virtual keyboard, or it can double as a tablet-style computer.

It runs the Windows 7 operating system and goes on sale in the UK on Jan 8 for £1,499 - about $2,350. With a minimum of 4GB of memory and up to 750GB hard drive space it's one mighty tablet PC! The device features palm sensors to detect the position of the user’s hands, and automatically launch a virtual keyboard when needed.

The success of the iPad (and even Samsung's Galaxy) has prompted scores of consumer electronics manufacturers to launch their own rival devices. This one takes it to the next level!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Twitter: A Whole Lot of Tweeting Going On

When LSB Designs (gratuitous plug here) started putting our new website together a couple of weeks back, they suggested that I should include links to the major social networks. I've always been an active participant on LinkedIn and facebook, so that wasn't a problem. My previous experience with Twitter had been creating an account in 2007 and then wondering what to do with it. It was several years later when I learned that Jack Dorsey invented Twitter on a notepad while sitting on a children's slide in a park:

Dorsey's Blueprint for an SMS-based Social Network

I tweeted what I thought to be a couple of clever but mundane comments and realized that, without followers, my words were falling on the deaf ears of cyberspace. So, like Digg and Squidoo before it, I was the proud owner of another set of dust-gathering login credentials to a website of whose purpose I was unsure. Perhaps I'm just too anti-social to appreciate these things?

Even now - when over 65 million tweets are posted each day - I still have a feeling of embarrassment whenever I look at Twitter .... as if I'm some sort of tawdry voyeur peeking into the personal lives of others. In spite of this, I set up a new Twitter account; inked a quid pro quo 'follower' deal with a couple of my more erudite pals; and proceeded to visit a few of my favorite business websites to see what they were tweeting. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found!

The business-vs-social use of Twitter suddenly became apparent to me. I had always struggled with the concept that anyone could write anything of substance in 140 words or less - even @alberteistein has trouble making himself clear with such a small blackboard. The following picture epitomizes what I previously thought of Twitter:

With Twitter, it's not what you write
but what you link. I've always taken pride in my browser bookmarks - consummately organized and frequently updated. Now, there are millions of webnuts out there scouring the Internet and effectively doing my browsing for me. I just read their tweets; click on their links and retain/discard the content accordingly. The RT (Re-Tweet) feature allows me to pass on this same information to my (slowly) growing list of followers.

No more blushing when I open Twitter on my Blackberry. My next project - figure out what the heck foursquare does!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SEO your SaaS SOA

'A consultant is someone who takes a subject you understand and makes it sound confusing.'

I tried to find someone to whom to attribute this saying - but came up empty! It is, however, a frequent public perception of management consultants, who are often portrayed as being highly paid to spew forth words like “pushback” and “paradigm”; like “sniff test” and “takeaway”. And that's before they baffle you with a series of acronyms that belong on a Jeopardy! category, not in an introductory meeting. This list could well contain gems like SaaS, SOA, PIOUTA, MECE and CAGR.

The British understanding of 'takeaway'.

The American understanding of 'pushback'.

Smart consulting groups won't baffle you with gobbledygook, but if you (the client) want to talk about Data Center Virtualization or Smart-sourcing - they should be willing and able to see beyond the conversation and add value to the outcome!