Thursday, 22 November 2007

iPhone - Smartphone for the Normob?

I've had plenty of people wanting to have a look and a play and everyone has been

  1. amazed at it's beauty
  2. able to use just about anything on the phone without much guidance
  3. grinning from ear to ear while they've had it in their hands

Which makes me wonder if perhaps the iPhone is actually the perfect phone for the Normob. Obviously I'm ignoring the hefty price tag and big old data plan.

A friend of mine who has a phone for calls and texts and that's it, and like any true Normob has no idea what model of phone she has, took one look at the iPhone and declared her immediate desire for one.

Because it was so intuitive, she could actually see herself using most of it's features. Photo's of her children, emails as she moves about, a bit of web browsing if she needed to check something out and of course all with a phone attached, perfect.

I reckon I must use 80% of the features of the iPhone, I probably used about 20% of my N95. I've passed it on to Kate in the office, who was very excited and has spent lots of time fiddling around, loading music and getting it just so. She was however a little daunted by the encyclopedia, masquerading as an user manual that I passed to her shortly afterwards.

Julian has been quite dismissive of my purchase. He believes (correct me if I'm misrepresenting you Julian) that Apple have missed a trick by not making the iPhone exclusive enough. He feels it is too easily attainable and therefore will lose it's caché. I'm not so sure.

Apple revolutionised the MP3 market with the iPod by giving people music on the move rather than just a feature rich MP3 player. They've sold and continue to sell bucket loads of devices that are still the most desirable on the market.

I believe that the iPhone could have the same revolutionary impact in bring the mobile Internet to the masses. The feature laden, geek friendly smartphone alternatives are very similar to the original MP3 players. Ghastly user experience, tricky to setup, awkward to use, tiny screens. Enter the iPhone and you just touch and stroke a few times and you have access to the Internet wherever you are.

I really want the iPhone to succeed and by success I don't necessarily mean commercially for Apple. It's more that I hope that it's a catalyst for a revolution in mobile Internet devices. I hope that other device manufacturers step up to the plate, competition like this breeds innovation and BiP (Before iPhone) things were starting to look a little bleak IMHO.

If the net result is Normobs wanting to and being able to use the Internet on the move then that can only benefit us all.

Sarin to Jobs: your sneakers stink and your GUI sucks | The Register

Saw this on The Register today.

Sarin to Jobs: your sneakers stink and your GUI sucks | The Register

Very funny, with some interesting thoughts about inebriated Europeans being unable use the touch screen during the Christmas Season.

Given that when one is inebriated a phone can very easily transform from a device for communication to a method of menace, this probably isn't such a bad thing.

It's what computers have become

I seem to remember this being the slogan for the N95 when it first came out. It was perhaps stretching the capabilities a little but it really has an impressive set of features.

I posted last month in To iPhone or Not To iPhone about how I was besotted with having a 5MP camera sitting on the platform of a 'proper' phone. Seems I was a little hasty.

If the N95 truly is what PCs have become then it's lineage should be traced back through the Wintel family. Features are king, the more the better, cram them in, it's what sells.

The mobile phone according to Apple however is a wholly different story. The interface truly is exceptional. There is something about touching and stroking the glorious screen that has engaged me with it like no other before it.

The camera, despite being 2MP is good and is a damn sight quicker to use than the Nokia. I've been using it to photograph slides in presentations and am forever missing them while the camera application starts up. That said, without a flash it's pants for indoor shots.

The iPod functionality is great, the mail application is really easy to use and the visual voice mail is excellent. Who needs SpinVox when you've got that application shipping for free.

The web browsing experience, when you have data coverage, is truly awesome. It's replaced my laptop for a lot of my casual browsing, blog reading, research etc. Sat in the lounge at home, in a hotel bar, etc it's far less cumbersome. Starts up a lot quicker and I can read the content just as well.

So that just leaves the infamous touchscreen keyboard. It''s OK. It's pretty accurate, you do get better at it and the intelligent correction is pretty accurate. It is a bit irritating to use, but I find typing on a standard numeric keyboard irritating as well.

This also means when I'm browsing I tend to browse and read rather than use forms or other mechanics that require text entry. I think I'm slightly more prepared to do it knowing there's a Qwerty there should I need it. Though that could also be the novelty factor.

There is one problem and I have to admit it has irritated me no end. It's probably out of all proportion, and it's probably because the other aspects set the usability bar so high, but I hate it.

It's that awful, recessed headphone socket. It's either downright ignorant or downright arrogant. Why on earth force people to use the headphones that ship with the device? I personally have two problems with this

  1. I must have funny shaped/small ears. I can't get most ear phones to stay in if I'm in any way energetic when I'm using them. How people run with them in I will never know.
  2. I do a fair bit of flying and have bought myself some rather lovely Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones (birthday present to myself when I lost the actual day in the air to Australia, thank goodness for the electrical shops in Singapore airport). I can't plug them in!

So my iPhone now has a tail in the shape of a Griffin headphone adaptor.

Defaced but compatible.

So in conclusion, a truly wonderful device with a revolutionary new interface that sets a new standard for personal communication devices. Yes the data coverage is a bit of a pain but most of the time I can get WiFi of EDGE so it's pretty much fit for purpose. And when the 3G version comes to the UK, whenever that might be, and if they can keep the battery going long enough, it could just be perfect.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Not thinking, on a budget

One of my post Web 2.0 Expo book purchases was Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. I obviously missed the boat as this is now the second edition published in 2005 but it cropped up on one of James Kalbach's slides so I thought I'd check it out. 48 reviews on Amazon with an average 5 star rating was enough for me.

It's everything a business book should be. Short, I've read it in two evenings, and with all of its points clearly made.

There is some really valuable material in here, especially the chapters on how to do useability testing on a budget. I'll definitely be getting the video camera out when I get back to the office.

Having just gone through the process of designing and developing the new Esendex web site I feel that perhaps we've missed a trick.

In reality however we've made some massive improvements and web site design and development should be an iterative process, the trees really do get in the way after a while.

Eating in Barcelona

I've posted about it before but Cerveseria Catalana really is a top place to eat. It's a fantastically social place and a great place to go with a few friends, lot's of people chatting, rubbing shoulders, waiting for a table or a perch at the bar.

It's also a great place to eat on your own. The large oak bars provide a great place to sample the multitude of tapas options without feeling lonely. The staff are really helpful with any confusions and of course the food is fantastic. I always eat too much.

In particular the solomillo de ternera (below) are to die for darling.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Is Pair Programming really working for us?

Nicholas and I are having some misgivings at the moment about whether Pair Programming is all it's cracked up to be. We're not sure whether we're in danger of becoming dogmatic about enforcing it.

One problem is that in our environment requirements and demands on time can be quite fluid, especially as the development team also help our SMS API customers with their integration. This inevitably leads to pairs splitting and less optimal work sessions.

Another is that people are not created equal, there is inevitably a leader in any pair. This can be down to having more development experience, more experience of the part of the system being worked on or just having a more forceful personality.

This translates into a less than optimal contribution from one member of the pair. Especially in the latter case, the less forceful person is likely not to be contributing anyway near to their potential if they're being 'bulldozed' by the stronger party. This isn't necessarily down to arrogance or any malcious intent, it's just they way people are.

So what's the alternative?

We're going to trial working in pairs but on coding two tasks, ideally related to each other, individually. That way you have someone available, on your wavelength to discuss design decisions, patterns, tests, etc but you can knuckle down and get some tests written and functionality produced at your own pace. When you're ready, then you bring in your pair for a review.

This stays true to the concepts of discussion, collaboration and while the code reviews are notquite inline, they are very close to it.

We're running this as an experiment until Christmas. We'll report back

Web 2.0 Expo - Berlin

Last week was a refreshing change. I realised that it had been a long time since I'd been to a web/development conference rather than one with a mobile industry focus.

That said the conference venue was dreadful. It was a cold, souless place in the middle of nowhere. The session rooms were a long way from the keynote hall which in turn was a long way from the exhbition hall.

During one of the keynote session (held at lunchtime which was very civilised) the organisers asked for a show of hands for next years venue. Barcelona seemed to get most votes, so here's hoping.

The quality of speakers and sessions was generally good. Highlights include:

Ajit Joakar (while he wasn't fondling or looking at his BlackBerry during is presentation!) delivered his view on the Mobile world. There wasn't a lot new in it for me, but judging by the size of the audience and the positive feedback he received the web world is definitely trying to understand the mobile world.

James Kalbrach delivered a interesting review and recommendations around Tag navigation. As the concept of self categorisation with tags is gaining ground on more and more sites, this is going to become more and more relavent. Not just in the UGC world either.

The session on getting UCD (User Centred Design) to play nicely with Agile development given by Leisa Reichelt was another session worthy of note. It was a bit heavy on the introduction to Agile methodologies for me but the 'meat' about how to integrate user interaction designers into the agile development process definitely stirred some thoughts. In fact it was probably this session that generated the most items on my post-conference book order.

So it was worth going. It was the first time this conference had been run so there were bound to be some teething problems. It was a bit also pricey but subject to the agenda and them changing the venue I'd expect to be going next year.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


It's a joy to use, so intiutive. Could this mean goodbye N95?

Friday, 9 November 2007

Everything is OK

Just as I hit publish on the last post Kirsty from iPhone/O2 support called.

Gave her some more details,driving licence, etc, and apparently I'll be activated in an hour.


Well I bought one

Waiting for it to be activated, seems O2 do not want to welcome me with open arms.

The signup process really is alien to a simple European like me. I'm used to waiting a couple of hours and it just working. Not quite sure why Carphone Warehouse couldn't activate it for me while I was instore. Surely I could enter my iTunes details at the counter rather than waiting until I get home and then spend the evening frustrated.

The Bay Area Buzz

One of the keynote sessions included an interview with Tariq Karim, founder and CEO of NetVibes, who talked about the Bay Area buzz. He tries to make sure he get's out to San Francisco every couple of months to get is entrepreneurial and createive mojo recharged.

Having experienced it myself on my recent visit, I was good to hear that someone else also found it infectious.

Europe does seem to be difference, there is some fantastic stuff happening but it's a lot harder to find. I wonder if because so much is happening around San Francisco the good stuff has something to rise up above and gets prominence very quickly.

It just goes to show that despite all this virtual interaction and location independet collaboration. Actually meeting and interacting with people face to face is what really makes things happen.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The Space Tag Continuum

I've been at Web2Expo the last couple of days and at a session on Designing Tag based Navigation I got involved in a discussion about multi-word tags and how they should be input.

There are many sites out there, Flikr,tag cloud shown below, being a prime example, where they only support multi-word tags if you enclose in double quotes. Surely this is just poor design. It's a requirement enforced by a development decision rather than actually giving thought to how a user thinks.

Tags are used to categorise artificts, be they pictures, blog posts, documents or whatever. When you want to categorise something, often a phrase is best, eg: New York, New Years Party 2007, or Dan's Birthday.

Amazingly, to me anyway, people in the audience thought it was perfectly reasonable for the user to be required to either remove the spaces: NewYearsParty2007; or use double quotes: "News Years Party 2007". You'll notice above New and York appear has separate tags while some people have adapted their entry to remove the spaces for newyork.

To the first one I say there is no such word as NewYearsParty2007 and to the second one I'm not quoting anyone. We forcing the users to adapt their natural behaviour to fit a system that could just be designed better.

When we write lists, in English at any rate, we delineate with commas. What's wrong with doing that when inputing tags? Even better make it culture specifc.

I've posted previously about Normobs, I wonder if we need the concept of Norwebs (Normal Web Users). For those in the UK, I know it's also the name of a utility company but I don't think there's a trademark collision.

While it's easy to get excited about the possibilities of the latest web applications for them to realise their true potentional, we must remember the Norweb, for they are many and they are right ;-)

Facebook for BlackBerry, the problem is...

None of my friends have it.

So I'm ready to interact whenever and use Facebook to communicate with my friends about friends stuff while I'm out and about, they have to be sitting down. And not just sitting down, but sitting down in a place or time that is Facebook friendly.

With organisations increasingly blocking access to sites like Facebook or restricting access to lunchtimes, etc, I wonder if my prediction of Facebook participating in a new paradigm in communication is really going to be realised.

While the service is delivered as a web site it's easily blocked by corporate IT. A mobile device interface allows people to interact when they're not sitting down.

On the way to and from work I would say is the time when most friends would want/need to communicate, reviewing the day, last night's TV or planning the night ahead. They could access the Facebook mobile site but the problem with that is the synchronous nature of the interaction.

Navigating a mobile web site requires a consistent data connection, not always possible on the commute. The beauty of the device based applications is that they can work asynchronously, masking network availability fluctuations from the user.

They can also provide a responsive and functional user experience, another area where mobile web apps suffer, flying on PC browser style interactions with servers that we designed with a reliable data connection in mind.

So we need, Symbian, Java, BREW and I guess Android versions of these applications. Someone like Facebook, with a lump of Microsoft's cash, probably have the resources to do it and to drive this forward but is that really going to really going to be the answer?

From a purely technical point of view, it comes back to opening up the OS on phones and standardising the APIs, something that Google's Open Mobile Alliance is purtaining to be about. The problem is that some rather large companies stand to have the business models that made them what they are today destroyed if this happens, so it probably won't.

While innovation and adoption happens at light-speed on the Internet, in mobile it can't while these interests remain protected.

I'm not naive enough to beat a drum and say this must change irrespective of the outcome. These companies employee huge numbers of people and contribute greatly to economies all over the world.

So I guess we'll just have to see where the chinks in the armour open up. There are enough developers and entrepreneurs working in and watching the mobile space to work out how to make these things happen, me included, so when it does happen, you can bet it'll happen quickly.

Friday, 2 November 2007

I was on the radio today

I was interviewed along on with BBC Radio Nottingham with Huw Hilditch Roberts of the National Farmers Union about the way they are using our Web SMS to keep farmers up to date on the latest about Bluetongue and Foot and Mouth disease.

It was my first time live on the radio, slightly nerve wracking but kinda fun at the same time. Alan Clifford was very kind, he certainly didn't take a John Humphries or Jeremy Paxman approach.

If you want to check it out go to BBC Radio Nottingham listen again and choose DriveTime on Friday and fast forward to 40 mins in.

Next stop Newsnight ;-)

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Mission Log, star date 28-10-07

I encountered a strange new world...

It was a success.

This was always more of a market research exercise for us than a customer acquisition drive or partner sourcing exercise. I have to admit I was a little sceptical about the value we would get from being part of the mission. We were planning to go to CTIA Wireless anyway, why did I need the help of the British Consulate?

Josianne Gros-Louis, Vice Consul for Communications, and her team put me straight. Thanks to the various events they put together, I met everyone I needed to meet and learnt loads about the market.

Meeting the industry analysts was the big success story of my mission. Mike Sigal of the Guidewire Group and Derek Kerton of the Derek Kerton really allowed me to pick their brains.

Mike also gave me a real taste for the bay-area entrepreneurial approach. Do it, don't mess around, if you're going to launch, launch big. A company in stealth mode is not interesting, it has nothing to say. Try not, do or do not, there is no try.

Actually that last one was Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but you get the idea.

The approach is infectious. I left San Francisco pumped full of entrepreneurial vigour, with a head overflowing with ideas and the knowledge that the market was ready for us.

I call that a successful trip.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Enhanced Mobile Messaging: What’s Beyond SMS?

Summary of the panel session I mentioned over. First up were T-Mobile giving a carrier's perspective. The crux of their vision was a standards lead, interoperable messaging service that would embrace availability and group sending.

VeriSign must take the tenacity plaudits for continuing to beat the MMS drum. Their view is that what people want to do is Point - Shoot – Share and that is what MMS is all about. Interoperability is here, growth rates are higher than SMS, though this is with far lower numbers.

The representative from OZ talked at great length and clarity about mobile IM blurring boundaries between PC and phone. In his view the phone would become the laptop and the PC would be a research and media station.

Another interesting observation was that social networking sites are really just one-to-many IM. Email use is dropping in preference to networking services like Facebook, Bebo, et al. People will be members of multiple communities and will interact with them based on their context.

Kirusa talked about the success their having in the emerging markets with Voice SMS. You dial * followed by the number and record a voice message. The recipient receives an SMS with instructions to pick it up.

In their opinion, this fills the void in the communication matrix for asynch voice between voice calls and voice mail in the same way SMS sits between IM and Email.

This was a theme extended on by Pinger, a bay area start-up providing voice messaging services. You send someone a voice message, they receive the call and can then reply straight away. That way you get the personality and mood of voice without the hassle of navigating a voice mail system.

So what do I think?

Voice messaging is interesting and the guys at Pinger seem to be making it very simple. I'm not sure it will ever surpass textual messaging. That is definately here to stay, whether we record on the phone using speech recognition (not covered in the session) or type it in it's the most efficient way to send a message as well as to receive one.

For me what is really going to change is context. The context of a message is going to alter how we receive and respond it. I believe that people will want their communications organised around context. This will require a move away from pure messaging clients to tools that are designed for the type of communication we undertake depending on whether we're talking to friends, family or work.

The Facebook for BlackBerry app is a good example of this. This is great for communicating with friends but I wouldn't use it to communicate with family or work colleagues.

This is a step towards the bearer becoming less important ie SMS, Email, MMS, SIP, etc. As one person put it during the session:

We rely on people to be human routers

This is a recurring theme of visions of the the future of messagimg but one thing is standing in the way it becoming a reality, pricing.

While different messaging bearers are priced differently, people are going to have to be able to make a decision. However, ff the carriers decided to make it all the same rate, or even flat rate, this is a very different story. Applications or the networks could then make the decision for us, we don't care we just want the message delivered.

So, as usual, the carriers hold the key. If they decide, messaging utopia could well be within our grasp.

Americans don’t get mobile like we do. Yeah right!

Attended a great panel session about the future of mobile messaging titled Enhanced Mobile Messaging: What’s Beyond SMS? I’m going to post separately about the services discussed but in writing it I realised the session had crystallised some feelings I had about what I’d been seeing here.

I really got the impression that feeling a bit disgruntled about being left behind in the whole SMS thing and being seen as laggards by us in Europe, the Americans are determined to be at the forefront of the next wave.

Similar sessions I’ve attend at the couple of Global Messaging Congresses have come up with some similar ideas, but none of these had the clarity of vision or left me with the impression that they were going to happen anytime soon.

Innovation just seems to ooze out of everything IT in the San Francisco Bay area. I found the whole visit quite inspiring for that reason. There is a buzz around, an assumption that the status quo is there challenged.

A key aspect of the approach is to just go out and do it, it might just work. Do it without the carriers first, get traction with real customers and if you get enough of them then it’s a no-brainer for the carriers.

While the US carriers are generally lambasted for their control-freakery and protectionist approach I think they’re in a far better position to make some of these things happen than in Europe. They have complete control over the handsets so if they want to ship a new feature they can make sure it get’s everywhere.

I think we’re in danger of being a bit complacent, viewing our US cousins and their clunky handsets with a misplaced superiority while we stroke our shiny new Nokias.

People use mobile services that help them run their lives. Shiny new handsets quickly lose their lustre.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Facebook for BlackBerry, my view

I think it's really well done.

It seems to use the standard email notification system but intercepts the messages before they get into the main BlackBerry inbox. You then get a little facebook icon in the alert are on the BlackBerry home screen.

It doesn't have applications it's really about seeing the status of your friends, poking them, writing on walls and exchanging messages with them.

There's been a lot of talk at CTIA Wireless about mobile device applications just focusing on what the mobile user needs. This follows those principles.

When I'm out and about, the most important functionality to me is communication. Zombies, film quizzes and all the other stuff that you do when you're a bit bored is a lot less important.

Actually what this does for me is change facebook into a powerful, realtime, communication service, rather than something I do when I'm looking for a diversion from whatever I'm working on.

Take this thought forward and email is no longer a communication application but it becomes just a transport layer for a richer, contextual communication paradigm. If I want to communicate with my friends I use facebook, for work I use Outlook.

Crazy valuations or not they are shaking things up. I was a little sceptical about facebook before but the more I get familiar with what they're doing and how they're doing it, I'm becoming more and more impressed.

It's also made me want a BlackBerry Curve, the photo tagging feature looked very cool and my trusty old 8707 just 'aint gonna cut it in the new era.

BTW, BlackBerry screenshot created using BBScreenShooter. You have to also download the BlackBerry JDE (90MB+ which you have to register for) but the application worked a treat, very simple.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Facebook app for BlackBerry - looking very cool indeed

At the keynote from Duncan Moskovitz, co-founder of facebook, and have just downloaded the BlackBerry app they've announce and it looks very good, very well implemented.

Proper review later.

Steve Ballmer, professional pit-bull

The keynote today was from Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. The first thing that came into my head as he strode out and launched into his speech was that he was one scary man. You could almost see the veins in his temples pumping as he delivered the wireless world according to Microsoft.

This was taken to a new level when he brought out his senior product managers to demonstrate some key software. The only way I can describe their demeanour was petrified.

Forget the jocular atmosphere they were trying to portray. The heavily scripted nature of their exchanges with Steve merely emphasised the terror that was looming, umistakeably behind their eyes.

One of the demos actually went wrong, Live search not returning any results. It must have been expected because quick as a flash a new mobile device appeared with the search results pre-loaded. Odds on that guy being moved to the dull end of the Microsoft product portfolio.

Even Steve Largent president of the CTIA who was chairing this event got in on the act. Apparently he was 'very pumped' about some of the stuff Steve was taking about. If you don't believe me check out the full transcript of the keynote.

As you probably tell there was nothing new, inspirational or earth shattering about this keynote. Facebook man is up tomorrow, let's hope he's going to be disruptive.

Something simple, small and nice on the hip

This is a quote from today from one of the panelists (from Sprint) at a educational session I went to today at the CTIA conference.

What was he talking about?

He was describing a BlackBerry and it was said as he flicked his hip towards his hand.

I was on stitches, until I realised everyone else was nodding sagely. 'Yes', the rest of the audience agreed, 'I can see the new Curve looking great on my hip'.

It's a very different mobile world over here and not just because they keep their mobile phones in belt mounted pouches. The carriers are king, everything goes through them.

People buy their phones from them. Not from intermediary like Carphone Warehose but from the network. In the UK we often choose a handset then choose the network (carrier) that offers the best deal to get that handset, complete reverse here.

The networks also control access to their customers with absolute ruthlessness. All SMS services have to be run through shortcodes, period. Virtual mobile numbers, dynamic sender not a chance, or as I was told by one of the networks tonight.

We're not even listening to business cases, it just 'aint gonna happen.

From a European perspective this is astounding, completely alien. But hey, these are very successful businesses serving the most demanding consumers in the world, right?

Time will show whether the Rest of the World model will eventually prevail. In the meantime while we talk of a global economy, culture really is everything.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A example of great KISS'ing

Don't necessarily want to labour this KISS thing but...

I was chatting tonight to Stuart Godfree of mkodo tonight at the UKTI Mission reception at the British Consulate here and we got onto the subject of SpinVox. It occured to me that it's a fantastic example of a mobile service that has embraced KISS in spades.

It's so simple to use, you just have to be able to talk into a phone to leave a message and receive a text to get the message. Everyone can use it. Perfect.

Hats off to them.

I've touched an iPhone

I know it's not exactly news, but I hadn't had a play with one until today.

I'm in San Francisco for CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment and on my wander round to get my bearings, I happened to find myself in an Apple shop.

It is lovely. Size wize it's bang on. The UI is pretty easy to navigate, made a few mistakes but that's probably more hangups from the Windows and Nokia interfaces I'm used to. The slidy finger thing with pictures, the auto rotating when you move the device around, all very cool.

The feature I was really keen to try was the keyboard, to see how good the iPhone would be as a messaging device. So I clicked on the SMS icon (top-left on the main menu, the most prominent position) and attempted to write a message.

It would appear I don't know where the ends of my thumbs are. I very quickly got very frustrated, constantly having to correct what I was attempting to type. I gave it a few goes but wasn't really improving.

Without any tactile feedback, it's very hard to be accurate. Protuding buttons give your thumbs something to home in on, allowing you to slighty correct before you press the button. With the flat screen approach you don't get that.

I understand that there are trials being undertaken with tactile response from touchscreens. Interesting, but it's going to need to allow you to feel that your in the right place before you press, rather than just letting you know that you've pressed something that you may or may not have wanted to press.

So for me the jury is out. In the European market I feel it my struggle if other people have a similar experience. I would imagine texting is far more important to the target segment in UK, Germany, France, etc. than in the US. Couple with that with the lack of 3G support and my money is on most people waiting for version 2.

But then again, it is lovely.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Just KISS and it'll happen

It’s a maxim we try and keep at the forefront of our minds when developing our services, it’s core to the XP methodology we live by. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is something that is often overlooked in the technology industry.

In the presentation I saw from Avaya at IP07, they were demonstrating how to get your employees to make their mobile calls through the corporate PBX. The overwhelming message was make it simple, that’s what will make users adopt it.

Their two recommendations were

  • Avoid dual mode like the plague, it’s too difficult and therefore people work around it
  • Do a deal with you network operator whereby all calls to and from your company’s PBX are at flat rate

Taking point 1 initially, this is signals to me that the traditional FMC (Fixed Mobile Convergence) approach of WiFi or Bluetooth while in the home zone and then traditional GSM/3G when out of range is being accepted as not viable.

While there may be some cost benefit, it’s not significant to overcome the user experience hurdles that the current dual-mode handsets put in front of users. People just want to make calls, and in actual fact are prepared to pay more to make them more conveniently.

In the business context the question of cost is even less of an issue to the end-user. Generally their company’s paying, which leads nicely onto point 2.

If a company can negotiate a fixed cost deal for any calls made from employee mobile phones back to the PBX it becomes economic to route all calls through it. Suddenly full routing, tracking and recording is under the control of the company. Calls outside the company can take advantage of fixed line pricing instead of costly mobile agreements, especially when calls are made internationally.

However there is a problem. In order for this to work, the user has to download, and use an application on their phone. The application then accepts the number dialled, calls the company’s PBX and requests that it establishes the call to the destination.

Suddenly it’s no longer simple.

This does get round the call quality and coverage issues presented by offerings from companies like Truphone. Using the existing mobile network, with 99+% population coverage means people should be able to make the calls pretty much where they want.

The problem is, users don’t want to use applications; they want to use their phone. They are Normobs, why would they want to navigate the applications menu on their phone to make a call when they can just key in the numbers.

A company may be able to convince/incentivise some hardened road-warriors to use an application like this, but the whole workforce, IMHO not a chance.

The mobile operators could technically provide this service to their corporate customers but I don’t see the economics stacking up for them. Fixed rate deals are just something else that’s turning them into a dumb pipe, not something they’ve spent billions of pounds over the last decade or so to achieve.

I do find the many approaches to try and circumvent the mobile network operators intriguing, many are very innovative but I don’t believe any yet will be adopted by the Normob (Normal Mobile User).

Therein lies the strength of the mobile network operators position. Unless you KISS people are not prepared to change.

Mobile service on trains rant

Can someone explain to me why I cannot, in this day and age, maintain a phone signal on a train? Specifically the train line from London to Nottingham.

I understand the physical issues around radio signals, fast moving receivers and static cells but surely technology exists to surmount that. I’m sure I remember hearing about a project to establish high quality phone signals to all train lines at a Vodafone wholesale conference once, what happened? In the Metro today they reported that mobile cells are being installed on aeroplanes, surely that’s harder/more expensive than a train.

The network operators have a captive audience on the train. People stuck in one place for an extended period are going to want to communicate, work, consume content, browse the web, anything to counteract the boredom.

I’m pretty sure Vodafone were advertising mobile TV as something you could do on the train. Maybe it’s possible on the train line from London to their Newbury HQ but not on the routes I use.

To me, it seems like a recipe for a collection of perfect consumers corralled into one location ready to devour as many minutes, texts or bytes that the network can support.

So if there is something I’m not understanding about the business model or the technology then please let me know.

Otherwise, Vodafone and all the other operators please get it sorted. I, and the train users of Britain, want to spend some more money with you.

Friday, 19 October 2007

IP07 - Please call someone

Popped into IP07 this week, the annual exhibition covering the convergence of voice data and video over IP networks. This produced a pretty eclectic mix of exhibitors. To give you a flavour:

  • BT and Thus with their managed network services,
  • Dialogic with their telephony cards,
  • Microsoft of course (what it must be like to have a marketing budget for attending every show almost irrespective of relevance).
  • Symantec and IPSwitch offering network monitoring management tools (we use WhatsUp)
  • Nokia with all sorts of device management offerings as well their obligatory sexy handsets in glass case
  • eFax with the internet faxing service
  • Coms, a hosted VoIP provider
  • Nortel, Mitel and Avaya offering their particular take on the next generation PBX.

It is to this last group I turn for an interesting insight.

I attended presentations by both Mitel (about Presence) and Avaya (about connecting mobile devices with the corporate PBX) and both had a recurring theme:

Please make voice calls.

People are increasingly using email and text messaging to communicate rather than picking up the phone. If you sell voice systems, this is bad news.

There was talk of the scourge of email trails and how organisations are becoming paralysed as people covered their backsides and cc’d the world. People are using email to hide but are being increasingly overwhelmed by more and more messages. If everyone just picked up the phone, they claimed, life would be better and things would get done.

Picking up the point about hiding, the man from Avaya did have the decency to mention voice mail, the original communication avoidance tool.

There will always be people who want to avoid direct communication but this can be for a number of reasons, not necessarily just because their work-shy.

I use a mix voice calls, email and text to better manage my communications. The choice is a function of the information to be exchanged, my availability and location as well as that of the other party.

Voice calls are if I want to discuss something now or just want to make the communication more personal

Emails are if it’s something that I don’t need an answer to straight away or I’m expecting the other person to consider or research a response

Text is when I’m mobile or I know the other person is, or I don’t know where they are. If it get’s complex or drawn out I’ll generally move over to a voice call or email from my BlackBerry

Receiving and answering a voice call is incredibly interrupting. It stops you dead in your tracks, preventing you from completing what you are doing. Interrupting someone while they’re mind is elsewhere forces them to readjust their thinking and as the caller, you have to negotiate the preamble while this happens before you can have an efficient conversation with the other party.

Email and text on the other hand allow the recipient to complete the task they are currently undertaking. This is far more efficient for both parties.

Send them an email or text and you give them a chance to respond coherently. I’m not saying they will, I’ve fired off far too many reactive emails and texts in my time, but they can.

Whether they do or not is a function of them not the communication method. Impromptu voice calls promote this kind of behaviour.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Beware the Normob, for they are many and they are right

Normobs, normal mobile users, are everywhere. They make calls, they text, that's it. They're not interested in mobile browsing, watching TV on the go or anything else the product managers at the network operators believe is the next big thing.

Ewan at SMSTextNews posted about the standard of handsets he was seeing people using while he was in LA : Welcome to LA, home of the crap handset.

While I to have concerns over the sartorial crimes committed in the name of mobile phone protection I also think this observation is an important one for the mobile industry.

I am not a Normob. I have 2 phones, an N95 and a Blackberry. I change them when I want. I am technically savvy. I don’t pay my own phone bill. I should be a product manager’s dream. However, I’m not a big mobile Internet user, I’m not interested watching TV on my phone and I find mobile applications irritating.

It’s easy to get carried away with sexy new services but these services are generally used by early adopters who actually enjoy that they are difficult to use or that the experience is sub-standard. The problems provide a barrier which in turn makes these services exclusive.

Only if you can surmount the hurdles, understand the technology and have the patience of a saint can you be part of the select group who can experience this latest new thing. These are not the attributes of the Normob.

What the Normob wants are services that are useful and that fit in with their daily lives.

I don’t have a problem with early adopters. They are a key group in the development of any technology. Without them testing, trialling and reporting, new services would never get off the ground.

The problem I have is with the crazy valuations and exponential business plans that accompany them. As if somehow getting adopted by the majority is the easy bit, a given if you’ve tapped into this geeky niche.

I’m sure some of these applications are excellent and that they fulfil a need, however temporary, in their target audience. But until the Normob is using them, they remain interesting rather than ground-breaking.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

I'm on a mission

I'm taking part in a UKTI trade mission to CTIA Wireless in San Francisco in a couple of weeks time. Three days of networking, talking and meeting, including a 07:30AM networking breakfast organised by the Canadian Consulate.

I would never consider myself a champion networker, I'm not even sure what would constitute one. However, I'm really looking forward to it.

Steve Ballmer of Microsoft is giving one of the keynotes and I understand he's an entertaining speaker. I saw Bill Gates speak a few years ago and he seemed more other-worldly. Though it was in London so he could have been jet-lagged.

It's not all good news mind you. Seems I'm going to miss the keynote from Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of FaceBook as well as the mBlox party because I'm flying home on Wednesday night after the mission program finishes.

The real focus of the trip is to find out what the US and Canadian markets would make of business messaging, Esendex style. There is a lot of talk in the press and blogs at the moment about people in the US embracing text messaging, be that SMS or other, thanks to American Idol and other media embracement of this communication channel. However, the vast majority of the commentary focuses on the consumer.

It's the same in the other markets we operated in. I think the MDA in the UK are the only body that I've come across who have consistently talked about, and researched, business messaging.

Are US businesses ready?

We have a reasonable number of US customers already, especially given we've never really promoted ourselves across the pond, so I'm confident. But, there's nothing like talking to people and that's what my trip is about, to find out.

The problem of dependency

Regular readers will know that we've just launched our new web site. There are some teething issues, in certain, thankfully infrequently, situations the CMS system we're using doesn't like presenting the page to the site visitor.

My team are in close contact with EPiServer to get it sorted but it's leaving us feeling a little out of control. It doesn't sit well with the control freakery I've cultivated.

One of the key tenets of the Esendex Messaging Systems that has developed over the years is doing it ourselves. We've developed, much to the surprise of many people we interconnect with, our own protocol implementations to interact with their systems. On top of that are our own messaging systems, underpinning our customer applications. Our mantra has become:

DIY to get it right

I appreciate this might sound a little like I'm blowing our own trumpet and you're probably right. We're actually very proud of what we've done and it's given us a strong reliable platform that our customers can rely on.

Enter the third party CMS system. We're using it because it is very functional, does far more than our in house system we had built, and gives us the control we need. However when there is a problem we're paralysed. Frantically trying to debug the problem on behalf the supplier to try and sort the problem. It just doesn't sit right with us.

I have no doubt this was the right decision. The EPiServer platform is a cut above anything else we evaluated and gives us so many more features. We've just got to accept that sometimes we can't fix it.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Customer Service - BT this time.

I've had a fantastic week of customer service rounded off nicely by BT.

Currently setting up BT Business Broadband at home on a new phone line. There were some issues at the exchange which prevented them from activating the ADSL straight away. I received this text message on Friday, twice.

BT Business Broadband Order xxxxxxx Please contact us regarding your order on 08002346553, access PIN xxx by 09/10/07 to prevent the order being cancelled

Cancelled! What was going on?

I phoned the number and the lady at the call centre told me it was just the standard message and nothing to worry about. They just wanted to tell me that the ADSL would be enabled on the 11th October.

So plus marks to BT for using SMS to keep me updated about the order. Minus marks for:

  1. Sending it too me twice
  2. Using a standard template which made me think there was a problem
  3. Not using the text message to tell me the information and save me a call

Time and time again companies implement customer service systems with apparently little thought to the implementation. Julian had a similarly frustrating experience with the Easyjet SMS updates : EasyJetText Alerts from StreamThru - First Encounter.

Frustratingly it seems that companies feel they just have to deliver some, any, information via SMS and they've ticked off that feature. It's a different channel with it's own vagaries that must be respected if these features are to be useful.

The good news is that when I got home, the broadband was already live.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

I have a new homepage

No, not our rather sexy new web site, but this totally mesmerising service in our EPiServer CMS system called EPiTrace.

It tracks people as they interact with your web site in near real time. The results are displayed on a flash animation which comprises a drag and clickable site map with little spheres orbiting the pages. Each of these spheres represents a person visting your site and the bounce around each page very agreeably. You can even setup audio alerts to ping whenever someone visits certain pages.

EPiServer very bravely have a live demo running showing what's happening on their web site.

Not sure of the commercial value of seeing this info live, Google Analytics is probably better for overall trend analysis.

Still it looked fantastic on the 40" flat screen TV we've got in the office.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

BlackBerry Free Island Offer

Came across a very funny bit of marketing from Sprint for the new BlackBerry 8830.

A limited time offer of a free island with every purchase for only $10.5M.

Private Island Offer.

Another fantastic example of third party support

I came in this morning to another fantastic example of support. This was from the company who provide one of our systems management tools. We contacted them after we found a problem while testing an upgrade. Bear in mind we pay for this software and for support as well.

I wanted to let you know that this issue has been escalated to development, who are working on a fix for a release in the near future. When this release is made available, I’ll be happy to update you with download information.

Lucky we don't want to use it anytime soon then.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

New Ecommerce Payment Processor Required


We use HSBC for payment processing on our website. It has made sense from a commercial point of view to use the service provided by our bank. We have so many bank accounts in different countries and currencies, anything to keep it simple.

Tonight I've had enough.

The support has always been atrocious, a non-technical helpdesk trying to support an integration product by script rather than getting access to people who know what they're talking about. If it goes down, we just have to lump it.

This evening the PAS processing, for Visa and Mastercard secondary validation, was broken.

We phoned the helpdesk.

After holding for an half an hour we got through to someone to be be told:

The technical department has gone home, could we email in detail of the problem so someone could look at it in the morning.

So sorry customers, especially in Australia, you can't charge up your accounts because our payment provider can't be arsed to sort the problem.

So that's been the final straw, time to search for someone else to provide our payment processing.

I'll keep you posted on our search.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Presence, it's pretty binary - well not quite

I posted back in June from Global Messaging 2007 about a point Mathieu Saccharin of Bouyges Telecom made about presence.

He left a great comment on the post over the weekend so I thought I should bring it front and centre. Do have another look : Presence, it's pretty binary.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Protocol Therapy

An entrepreneur is required to wear many hats. In my case that can be anything from reviewing operational performance, developing new marketing channels, discussing finances with the rest of the board, to even sometimes sales.

For me this is part of the appeal of what I do. I'm better at starting things than I am at finishing so moving between different demands on my time keeps my work fresh and exciting. Though like everyone, I have to make sure there aren't too many plates spinning.

Recently however, I've been making a bit more time for the technician in me and doing some development. I've been investigating various services and protocols, building test systems to assess their potential to be offered as new services for our clients.

I've discovered that I find protocol implementation quite therapeutic. Give me an RFC, Visual Studio and a copy of NUnit and I can zone out for several hours.

Unit testing was made for this kind of development. I get lost in the mesmeric cycle of

  1. Identify requirement in RFC
  2. Write test for requirement
  3. Write code to make test pass
  4. repeat

The outcome is a robust implementation that meets the spec. as well as a general sense of well being.

Obviously I have to ration this kind of therapy, I have got a company to run, but it shows that relaxation can be found in the most unlikely of places as entirely personal.

To find mine, I just had to embrace my inner geek.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Making a profit

I ended up watching a documentary on BBC Four last night about Factory Records, the epoch defining Manchester record label that brought the world Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays.

It was headed up by Tony Wilson, local TV presenter and champion of the local music scene. He was notorious for grand gestures, not pulling any punches and just making stuff happened irrespective of the consequences.

Factory was never a big commercial success, lurching from one financial crisis to another. Profit was sacrificed at the alter of style. For example New Order released the biggest selling EP of all time, Blue Monday, unfortunately they lost money on every sale because the packaging was so expensive to produce.

At one point in the program he was asked if he ever did anything in order to make a profit. He bombastically replied that of course they hadn't it was all about the vision.

From a commercial point of view this sounds ludicrous and the Blue Monday production was commercial suicide. However this struck me as one end of an entreprenurial spectrum rather than sheer stupidity.

Any entrepeneurial adventure starts with a vision. Some will immediately analyse the commercial opportunity, assess the market, predict sales and production costs and kill or feed the project at that point. Others will carry on regardless confident in the vision and will beg and borrow to keep the dream alive.

It's the latter kind of visions that change our world, from hydro-cyclone vacuum cleaners to clockwork radios to the Internet to the regeneration of a city.

Without a bit of blind faith the world would be very boring.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Hotxt fizzle out

Well it seems that Hotxt are closing the doors on their service as of 30th September.

Seems even with the mighty Doug Richard backing them they couldn't compete with good old fashioned SMS. It may cost more, but it sure as dammit works more reliably and everyone, and that's 2.5 BILLION subscribers, can use it.

The team behind it are not giving up mind you, they're releasing a new service trutap which on casual first inspection seems to be a social networking, blogging, communication type thingy.

Ah the joy of using free services where providers can pull the plug when they feel like doing something else.

The franchise approach and the dangers of not being in control

Had an joyful customer service experience from a couple of franchise operations today that, as well as infuriating me, are very relevant to a book I'm reading at the moment. E-myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, has as it's central tenet that to make truly successful business one should view it as a franchise prototype.

His view is that if you build the business as if you're going to replicate it, even if you have no plans to franchise, then it will make the business able to operate without the involvement of the principal and therefore be far stronger.

Being a 'new man' of the nineties, I can share with you that I was shopping for face wash. My wife convinced me to try several varieties and the one I settled on, ie it didn't feel like several layers of skin had been stripped from my face, was from Clarins. So off I went to the local franchise at Debenhams in the city centre.

No one was behind the counter. Eventually someone arrived, she proceeded to tell me she was dealing with another customer, it wasn't her stall and that anyway the other person was at lunch. Needless to say I didn't stick around.

Off to the John Lewis franchise next and a totally different experience. Someone was there, in fact someone came over from a different franchise to help me because another customer was being dealt with.

I noticed that they had a 30ml version of the wash in a travel pack so I asked about buying one of those separately. Annoyingly the standard size is 125ml so too big to take in hand luggage on a plane currently. They couldn't sell me one but did find me several testers for my next trip.

So confidence restored, but it could so easily have not been. What if I had been a new customer, recommended to try out their products, or buying something for a friend? A customer lost, the Clarins brand tarnished.

One of the things we pride ourselves on at Esendex, and something we receive plaudits for, is the quality of our customer service. It's going to be one of the key challenges we face as we continue our rapid growth.

Back to the book, it's a good easy read but I've only just started the section on how you do it. Will let you know.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

To iPhone or Not To iPhone

The launch date and network have been announced but the real question is should I get one?

I like my iPod and I like what I'm hearing about the iPhone user interface, except the virtual keyboard. Perfect you'd think.

For all their user interface foibles, Nokia know how to make mobile phones. Ewan at SMSTextNews has posted at length about the end of his love-affair with Nokia: Help I'm Shunning Nokia. In many ways I'm inclined to agree with him.

The N95 is a gratuitous phone that offers a fantastic range of features but with total disregard for battery consumption. But it does make and receive calls and I bet typing text messages is easier than the iPhone.

I find the music features a bit limiting. Why oh why are album tracks played alphabetically rather than in album order. But I can't fit many albums on my 512MB card so I use it on random and change the tracks relatively frequently.

The killer feature for me is the camera. The 5MP one sported by the N95 is fantastic and overshadows the paltry 2MP in the iPhone. I've got so used to having a decent camera with me wherever I am I'm not ready to give it up.

My ideal scenario, iTunes for Nokia to replace the truly terrible Nokia Music Manager and allow me to play tracks in their destined order.

With Nokia's reinvention as a mobile services and content provider I suspect this is probably not on the cards. But I'll certainly be checking out their music offerings.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Esendex 2.0

I realised over the weekend that I'd been a bit quiet on the blog front of late. We're going through some big changes here at Esendex towers and it's been more a symptom of focusing on those.

We're a profitable, successful organisation with an ever growing customer base in 5 countries around the world. This gives a fantastic platform to develop the business further into new markets and new levels of service. Esendex 2.0.

We're currently focusing our efforts in 3 areas:

Web Site

We are launching a new web site very soon. We've integrated with the Episerver CMS to enable rapid updates and changes to the content.

We've always been praised on the quality of our customer service and support and as we grow we're looking at more scalable ways of offering that same level of service. One of the main improvements will be the inclusion of blogs run by the Development team and Support team as well as a broaded corporate blog.

Both the Developer and Support sites are being managed directly by the relevant teams and the blogs will be their way of the keeping our customers up to date with everything they need to know.

In the case of the Development this will be posts on using the SDK, new features we're adding to support developers and a more in depth explanation of the approach, rationale, etc.

The Support bog will be broader in it's appeal, giving customers information on releases, new features, how tos. planned outages and anything else the team feels would assist customers.

System Architecture

A lot of work has been going on to develop our system architecture to support a new range of services as well as our forecasted growth over the next 5 years. While the system is more than capable of coping with our current levels of traffic, the last thing we want is technology to be the constraint on our aspirations.

I will be posting about some specific developments over the coming weeks. Essentially we are moving our platform from an Enterprise to a Mobile Operator architecture. The two key challenges we face:

  • Introduce an order of magnitude improvement in our capacity
  • Maintain our availability and reliability levels

It has been a real challenge but the results are looking very exciting in a nerdy, check out that performance graph, kind of way.

New Services

Over the coming months you'll be seeing a range of new services. Can't go into too much detail but a new era is dawning.

Fittest Director - The Result

I didn't come last.

Monday, 10 September 2007

UK Numbering Activation via Yahoo?

We have recently been assigned a number range by Ofcom and part of the process of setting this up involves activating the number range across all communication providers in the UK.

I was amazed to discover that this process is all driven by a Yahoo Group.

I guess in the same way that businesses have come to rely on free telephony through Skype, it makes sense for Ofcom to use a free service if it proves robust enough. Indeed, if you consider the timescales that the various providers work, carrier pigeon would probably work just as well.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Seems I have a skill

Had my assessment for Britain's Fittest Director yesterday and I made a surprising discovery.

One of the test was a balance test which involved standing on one leg while blindfolded. I managed well over a minute.

Sean the assessor told me I wiped the floor with the opposition on that one, though he wasn't at liberty to tell by how much. Not sure whether that will make up for the "pretty good for someone who doesn't normally bench press" performance in that exercise and the "you're not the worst" feedback on the pull-ups.

Fortunately my legs came to my rescue on the other assessments so while I won't be troubling the leader board, I didn't embarrass myself either. Results out soon.

While I'm here, Sean McIntosh the assessor was excellent. Professional, knowledgeable and I bet as a personal trainer he'd be very motivational. He gave me a card so if you are looking for training in the region surrounding Coventry drop me a line and I'll forward you his details.

Don't break the interface

Ian and Jonathon have been paired up on resolving a long standing omission from our system, aggregating inbound long messages.

Currently when a subscriber sends a long message to one of our SMS long numbers or short codes, each part of that message arrives in the inbox, or is pushed to our customers web service, individually. Aggregating the messages for multiple accounts while maintaining performance was a reasonably significant architectural problem to resolve.

We had looked at it before but were never quite happy with the solution. I finally committed the development time to do it as a result of the a case being raised by a very patient and reasonable customer. This time we were ready.

One of the constraints on any changes we make to our systems is preserving the interface to customers who use our API. In our initial plans we were going to potentially break it for some people.

Ian describes it in more detail in his post: Esendex Inbound Multipart Messaging Update. While we weren't strictly breaking the interface, if our customers had made reasonable assumptions about the length strings being passed it could break their application.

Not happy with this, the three of us sat down and we did come up with a solution that satisfied the internal architecture of our system while still supporting our existing customers.

We are going to provide an API option on an account to aggregate long messages. While we'll be storing messages in their aggregated form in our system. For those accounts with that option switched off, the API will re-split the messages before delivering them.

All existing accounts will have the option turned off by default and all new accounts will have the option turned on.

It makes the Options page a little more complicated but it keeps everyone working, which is what it's all about.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Buzzing the Purple Cow

Been reading a few marketing books of late. Quick, easy to comprehend, page turners to stimulate a bit of creative thinking about raising the profile of Esendex. Couple worthy of note.

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkableby Seth Godin is essentially a list of brainstorming prompts and examples to get you thinking. The premise is that to stand out, a business needs to be different. A purple cow in a field of brown ones.

I enjoyed it, it didn't take me long to read and it got me thinking. Some of the reviews of this book have been quite dismissive and probably as a pure marketing book they're right. As brainstorming aid however I think it hits the mark.

Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuffby Mark Hughes on the other hand was a probably a bit too long. It played heavily on his achievement while working for to convince a small town to change their name from Halfway to The publicity gained from this catapulted into the public eye and ultimately under eBay's wing.

There are some interesting case studies but I struggled really to find anything that was relevant to me and my business.

End of the summer Business SMS slump?

Summer is traditionally a quite time in many businesses, especially in France and Spain. Phones ring less frequently, inboxes are manageable, Out of Office replies are more prevalent and desks are empty as people enjoy holidays.

Normally this would be accompanied by a drop in traffic. Less people working, less to send. Not so this year, in the UK and Ireland at any rate, our traffic has barely dropped off.

I've excluded Australia from these observations because of the seasonal dfferences. They're deep in winter so must be getting loads done.

As Julian posted in Bad News is Good For Business!, we've had our fair share of extreme circumstance in the UK this summer which does drive usage for our customers. But the general base load of traffic is pretty consistent with previous months perhaps with just a slight reduction in the growth rate we normally experience.

I wonder if this is another indication of how entrenched SMS is becoming in the business communication mix. Business continues through the summer so communication continues. Where previously certain sectors were early adopters of the technology, a broader profile of business types now use SMS, ironing out those seasonal differences.

Alternatively, we've experienced such stellar growth in the lead up to the summer that this has swamped any seasonal variations we would expect to see. I guess we'll find out in September.

The Oldest Swinger In Town is looking for another partner

Seems the Oldest Swinger in Town is looking for another network connection which would, if my information is correct, double their network links.

Unfortunately for them the network they approached passed them on to us. This can happen if the network doesn't feel the request justifies, for a variety of reasons, a direct connection.

They decided not to interconnect with us.

Premium Rate SMS Abuse

One of the downsides of running Premium SMS services for customers is having to deal with irate subscribers who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been charged for services that they didn't subscribe to.

When a subscriber has an issue, they generally call their network operator who calls up the details of the service provider who run services on a given shortcode. If they get this right, not always by any means, the subscriber calls us.

We, as a service provider, have a dedicated number for these and can quickly cancel any subscriptions and give the subscriber the details of our customer so they can approach them for a refund.

All this is fine if the subscriber acts reasonably, this isn't always the case.

It never ceases to amaze me how people deem it acceptable to scream abuse at people over the phone as if that is going to help expediate matters.

My team are on the front line and no matter how much I reassure them that's it's perfectly acceptable to hang-up on people who act this way, they are still affected by it.

It's grossly unfair that some reactionary little prat with anger management issues can upset and offend people at will with no comeback on them.

It does come with the territory but I wish these people would learn to act like adults. The world would be a better place for them and the rest of us.

SMSTextNews Unlimited Drinks Event

Went along to the SMSTextNews Unlimited Drinks Event. Was a well attended, well organised event that was well worth attending. Seems my attire was appreciated.

Ewan has done a great job building SMSTextNews into one of the main hubs for information in the industry. Probably taking over from 160 Characters as the place to go for UK focused mobile news.

Being in Nottingham I don't get to many of these events but it tied in quite conveniently with a meeting with our non-exec's in London. So the intensity of a focused morning review and justifying budgets was cushioned by a nice lunch followed by an evening of drinking and networking. I've had worse days at work.

The only negative was having to leave relatively early to make sure I got back to Nottingham the right side of midnight.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Telegraph Fittest Director - uh-oh

Received the assessment programme for the Fittest Director today:

The assessment will measure strength, power, cardio respiratory ability, balance and flexibility and will consist of the following tests:
Strength - This will be assessed in the upper, lower & core area of the body; which will not only test muscular strength and endurance but also their core functioning. There are 4 mains exercises, bench press with barbell weighted to half body weight, reps to failure, pull-ups to failure and the plank to target core strength. Finally, for the lower body, half body leg press, as many repetitions to failure.
Muscular Power - Vertical jump, quick and easy assessment that gives a great indication of lower body power.
Cardio-respiratory functioning - assessed by completing the cooper 12min run - how far you can run in 12mins. From this we measure VO2 Max.
Balance - Single leg stork stance, this can be performed blind or with vision. Blind is much harder. This will test your proprioception (the ability to sense whether or not you are going to fall over!).
Flexibility - Straight forward sit & reach test, assessing the flexibility of the trunk and hamstrings.

Not exactly playing to my strengths. Given I stopped going to the gym and the last time I looked at a weight machine was sometime last year.

Anyway, being able to bench press doesn't make you fit, endurance events are where it's at. Where's the swimming/cycling/running for an extended duration assessment? 12 mins running, tosh. Give those buffed up gym monkeys a real event to participate in and we'll see how fit they are.

Maybe ;-)

Friday, 24 August 2007

Telegraph Fittest Director

In a story that started with being at parental home on a Sunday with only the Telegraph to read (what is it about retirement that turns people into Telegraph readers?) I ended up entering Britain's Fittest Director.

It seemed like a good idea. No doubt there would be a chance of a bit of exposure for Esendex. So sacrificing my self-respect for the cause I signed up.

I've been shortlisted.

This would be fine if I hadn't embellished slightly how much training I really do. It was more along the lines of what I hope to be able to do in a week rather than what I really end up doing.

It would also be fine if I had a few weeks to get myself back in the swing of things. Unfortunately the evaluation session is on Friday.

So the challenge now,

Not to be Britain's Least-Fit Fittest Director.

Will let you know.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Has the age of spin really ended?

I came across VoIP Watch recently and this post, Grand Central Numbers Post about Grand Central's post Number Changes caught my attention. He's made a number of posts about the 'Great Skype Out' as he described it.

Andy waxes lyrical about the founders of Grand Central and their open and honest approach to the issues they were facing with certain numbers they were providing to customers. He compares this unfavourably to the Skype's recent announcements concerning the sign-in issue they experienced. As he makes quite clear in his post, the principals of Grand Central are friends and clients, but was their post really that open an honest? Is it part of a new wave in customer communication?

GrandCentral basically seem to have passed the blame quite conveniently onto a supplier. In my book that's not necessarily open and honest about internal issues but more passing the buck. How do we know this wasn't spin, stretching the truth, or otherwise dressing up the situation?

Skype on the other hand, did it would seem, have an internal issue. The like of which, as a developer and service provider myself, do indeed materialise from time to time. Sometimes they're irritating, othertimes they can be terminal. That's the nature of complex systems.

I suspect that Skype's honesty issue was more around protecting their IP. I can imagine the technology that running a telephony service supporting millions of users on top of a network infrastructure you don't control requires some pretty intelligent programming. Something worth fiercely protecting.

Grand Central are also guilty of slapping a BETA tag on their service. This seems to be not only very fashionable of late but has the added benefit of allowing companies to absolve all responsibility for reliability. Should Grand Central come out of BETA, I wonder if the tone and delivery would be the same.

When it comes down to it, customers just want systems and services that work. Whether you adopt an honest John approach or spin the issues to the hilt, the customer will only remember whether the service was there when they wanted to use it.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Oldest Swinger In Town wants to dance alone

A mobile company, let's call them the The Oldest Swinger in Town, have decided they don't want to interconnect with the rest of us. They're putting up some big commercial barriers. One could speculate that they're feeling threatened.

Regular readers may remember my post Interconnecting for Minnows where I suggest letting the customers decide based on service rather than taking a protectionist approach.

I guess time will tell, but The Oldest Swinger has chosen their tune, it just remains to be seen whether their customers want to continue dancing.

Friday, 17 August 2007

In an Extreme Programming world don't forget the value of traditional QA testing

When Extreme Programming is embraced, it is tempting to get carried away with the power of unit-testing.

If you're unit-testing everything across the whole build then surely everything should work. It is important to remember that unit-testing, when done properly, is just that. Testing units of code for compliance against a known set of outcomes. It doesn't necessarily test system wide interactions.

The development team here have recently spent a lot of time migrating our existing transaction management from the EnterpriseComponent, COM+ based, system to the TransactionScope framework provided in .Net 2.0.

Nicholas, Development Manager, as described the detail of the issues we've faced in his post: Transaction Scope - Hopes dashed. It has been horribly dissappointing, the performance profiling we did showed a big improvement, the deployment process was simplified. Everything seemed perfect.

The key to writing effective unit-tests are focusing on the unit itself and the logic in that unit and nothing else. This makes the test very quick to run, meaning you can run a full build, with tests in a short enough time to make you prepared to do it regularly.

But proper Quality Assurance testing picked up these issues. It wasn't until we ran these system wide test that the issues materialised. Generally this leads to further unit-test to ensure the issues don't materialise. Although in this case we decided to back-out this set of changes.

So unit-tests are an integral part of what we do, but good old grunt work testing is still the last, and most important, line of defence.

Two-Way SMS with Long Numbers

Talking to one of our network account managers recently, they told me that we were their best customer of SMS Long Numbers. I was a initially surprised but a quick search of other SMS providers sites reveals very few companies are promoting these heavily to their customers.

We've always believed that for SMS to be adopted as a business communication tool it had to provide a reply path. You can reply to emails, phone calls, faxes why not SMS. It's a core part of our offering. So much so in fact if you sign up for a trial, we'll give you one to try out.

The conventional approach is to use short-codes for this. Short, memorable numbers that are great for one time responses to ads or other marketing efforts. The problems with short-codes however are:

  • The subscriber is charged a 'standard network charge' to send in so the messages do not come out of their SMS plan or bundle
  • They are in limited supply and are thus have a premium cost associated with them.
  • You have to set them up on each network individually, making it even more costly
  • They do not work internationally

Now we've got round some of those issues by use of keywords to allow routing of inbound messages to the correct account holder. While this is great for single response channels, it's un-workable for conversational communication. You can't expect users to remember to prefix every message in a conversation with a keyword.

Enter the long number:

  • it looks like a normal mobile number
  • receives SMS like a normal mobile number
  • there are lots of them
  • there is no premium charge so the cost of sending comes out of your bundle/plan, well you need to be careful on this one

When it comes to charging not all numbers are created equal. Network providers in the Channel Islands (Cable & Wireless, Jersey Telecom) and on the Isle of Man (Manx Telecom) have numbers that are in the standard UK range, ie starting +44 (0)7.

Unfortunately however, the interconnection rates between these companies and the mainland UK operators (Vodafone, Orange, etc) is not regulated by Ofcom. This means that they can charge what they like and in T-Mobile's case they do.

T-Mobile regard messages to these providers as travelling to Europe Zone 1 and therefore treat them as an international messages rather than national. Which means, if you're a T-mobile subscriber, it doesn't come out of your plan

A quick peruse of the Ofcom's mobile number range allocations will tell you very quickly if the number your service provider is offering you will be affected.

In short if your number starts with 07786 or 07800 you're going to be OK, otherwise you need to beware.

At Esendex we provide numbers that are in the regulated number range in all of the countries we operate in. In our view there should be no difference between texting into a service or texting someone's mobile. Remove the silly barriers and users will adopt and embrace these services.

Ofcom have started a Wholesale SMS Termination Market Review. I have no doubt it will operate at glacial speeds but it could be just what the industry needs to remove this confusion.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Nokia PC Suite file sync problems - UPDATE

Seems it's a problem that's been acknowledged by Nokia. We've just got to wait for the next release of the PC Suite. No indication as to when unfortunately.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Nokia PC Suite file sync problems

Seems I'm not the only one having problem with synchronising files to my phone with Nokia PC Suite. File Synchronization using Nokia PC Suite 6.84.

Mirroring of my TiddlyWiki is working a treat, now at least only the mirror copy is being overwritten.

Have posted a question on the Nokia forum, will let you know when there is an update.

Create Mirror Copy of TiddlyWiki for Mobile Sync

In an attempt to resolve my synchronisation woes keeping a copy of my TiddlyWiki on my N95 I've added a new option to my TiddlyWiki file. This allows me to specify a path to create a mirror copy of the file. This points to my N95 synchonisation folder.

If I do work out how to enable editing on the phone I'll have to work out another approach but this does mean I can have a copy to read. Another benefit is that I can leave the backup copies accumulating in the folder or sub-folder and not have those copy across automatically as well.

I've created a new version of an empty TiddlyWiki and copied it to : The changes are summarised below.

Ln 571, added a new item to the config.options array:

txtMirrorPath: ""

Ln 791, added a new item to the config.optionsDesc array:

txtMirrorPath: "Path to mirror the file to"

Ln 831, added two new items to config.messages array:

mirrorSaved: "Mirror saved",
mirrorFailed: "Failed to save mirror file"

Ln 6152, added a new method saveMirror. Note this expects a complete path and not a relative folder as in the backup folder option.

function saveMirror(localPath,original)
 var mirrorPath = config.options.txtMirrorPath;
 var saveMirrorFile = mirrorPath != "";
 if (saveMirrorFile)
 // add backslash if not present at end
     var backslashPos = mirrorPath.lastIndexOf("\\");
     var pathLastIndex = mirrorPath.length - 1;
     var backslashEnd = backslashPos == pathLastIndex;
     mirrorPath = mirrorPath + (backslashEnd ? "" : "\\");
 // copy to relevant locations
     var mirror = config.browser.isIE ? ieCopyFile(mirrorPath,localPath) : saveFile(mirrorPath,original);
      displayMessage(config.messages.mirrorSaved,"file://" + mirrorPath);

Ln 6133, added a call to the saveMirror method from the saveChanges method:


Do let me know what you think.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Spinvox - Automatic or Not?

As you know, I'm a SpinVox user and generally love the service, albeit with some reservations as I've posted about before.

Ewan at SMSTextNews met with them recently and is planning a series of posts as a result. The first one prompted some interesting comments. Check out the third one.

SMS Text News meets Spinvox - intro

Now I appreciate it's anonymous but in an industry you get to hear things and this comment corroborates those things. If true it does put some serious question marks over the scalability of their offering.

I'm interested because I've looked at speech recognition technology in a previous life, several times, and it always came up short. Too much training, too specific to a given user and even then not really usable. I was impressed that SpinVox seemed to have cracked it.

I'll be following this one closely.

Esendex SMS API in the wild

I'm completely hooked on Google Analytics or rather the information it gives me about how our web site is being used. One of my favourite information sets is the referring web sites. Where did people click through to our web site from.

This throws up some occasional gems where real people are developing against our API and sharing it with their peers.

One that cropped up recently was a plug-in for Nagios an Open Source host, service and network monitoring program. One of the users as developed a Nagios plug-in: SMS HTTP Gateway - Esendex that sends system alerts using our SMS API.

Another example is EsendexSMS, a plugin for the SugarCRM open source CRM system. We actually managed to track this one down to one of our Australian customers.

The power of Internet service delivery is demonstrated time and time again by these and similar applications. Nice to be a part of it.

The Marque Hotel, St Kilda, Melbourne

Stayed here during my recent visit to our Australian office. Highly recommend it.

The location is fantastic. 5 mins walk from St Kilda Beach and the St Kilda Sea Baths (perfect for a morning constitutional swim). There's a tram stop (Number 96) pretty much outside that'll take you directly into the heart of Melbourne.

A great range of bars and restaurants along Fitzroy Street as well as the hotel restaurant being very good.

Rooms are good quality with all the necessary facilities.

Couple this with a bargain price when I booked this with my flight through Expedia and I was a very happy traveller.

Progammable Web

Discovered Programmable Web recently. Looks like a fantastic resource of web services and mashups that use them.

I've also subscribed to the RSS feed and the quantity and variety of web services available is just stunning.

Obviously I've added a link to our API:

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

TiddlyWiki - mobile synchronisation problems

Hmmmm seems that I'm having issues with the automatic synchronisation. Versions being overwritten, notes getting lost, etc.

Back to the drawing board

Friday, 3 August 2007

TiddlyWiki - browser shortcut

Created a bookmark in my phone browser to the file. It's save on my phone memory, waiting for a big Micro SD card (somehow sounds oxymoronic!) to come. The path I'm using is:


c: - for the phone and the rest is the path.

TiddlyWiki - backup

I'm having a few issues backing up my TiddlyWiki to a different location to the main file. The reason I want to do this is that every save results in a new complete copy of the file being created which is quickly filling up my phone.

In the interim I found this Alternate Backup Method which saves everything to one file.

Outlook SMS - Redmond gets SMS with the Outlook Mobile Service

The Development team put up a beta version of a web service to support the new Outlook Mobile Service that ships in Outlook 2007.

After all the faff of setting up Outlook plug-ins and downloading software, etc this seemes like a great way of SMS enabling Outlook. It's fully integrated and just requires an Internet connection to operate.

If you want to try our service, you create a new email account of type 'Outlook Mobile Service' and set the Web Service Address to:

The username is in the standard Esendex structure for email integration:

<Esendex Account Referrence>\<Esendex Username> 
eg: EX0123456\

I found a full restart of Outlook (by logging off and on to my Windows account) was required to get the service properly configured. But after that, it worked a treat.

Currently this service is Outbound only. Replies will still come back into you Inbox with email forwarding but Outlook won't recognise them as SMS messages until we make some changes to our Email forwarding logic. Due for release at the end of August.

Keen to get feedback on this so please contact or leave comments here with any thoughts, experiences, suggestions.