usability

The Future of Video Entertainment

Much ado has been made recently about the end of the format war between Blu-Ray and HD DVD. Sony finally won a format war, much to my (and many other people’s) surprise. After losing Beta vs. VHS, Memory Stick vs. SD, and MiniDisc vs. who-knows-what, it’s hard to fault everybody (including me) for predicting the demise of Blu-Ray.

Sadly for Sony, I’m not sure it’s that much of a victory. They finally win one and it turns out the battle has changed. Given my recent track record on predictions in this battle, I’m not sure I should be making others, but here’s my new prediction: neither HD DVD nor Sony Blu-Ray win the format battle. Instead, downloads direct to some (really any) media device will win. Sure TiVo/Amazon have allowed people to download movies for a while now, but they charge anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99, allowing 30-60 minutes before starting to watch is wise, and they limit viewing time to 24-hours once you start watching it.

Last night, I finally got around to trying the Netflix download service. First, it’s “free”. Since I already have the service, I can download any one of about 8,000 movies instantly at no additional cost. While 8,000 certainly doesn’t cover all movies, it’s way more than are available on pay-per-view, more than are available at my local Blockbuster, and more than were available on the TiVo/Amazon partnership. Next, I was able to start watching within about 5 seconds. I’m sure it varies based on the hardware, but I tried it on a slower laptop over a wireless network and had no issues. Sure, watching video on a laptop isn’t that much fun especially for a group, but all the new HD TV’s have a computer input, making that connection simple. The quality was as good as any regular DVD I’ve rented (though not yet HD quality). When I didn’t like the movie, I felt like I could stop the movie. I hadn’t paid for it. I didn’t have to wait another 30-60 minutes for the next download to start. I didn’t have to take the DVD back to the store or even put it in the Netflix mailer. I could move on with little or no penalty. Sure other software, not the least of which is iTunes, offers some of the same capabilities, but none (that I’m aware of) offer it on a fixed price, all-you-can-eat model, and none that I’ve seen that allow viewing almost instantly at full quality.

Now that’s the future of video entertainment!


Very cool comic creator

I know, I know, I’m so far behind in my personal blog. I’ve been posting over on the VizThink blog (http://www.vizthink.com/blog). How people do multiple blogs with multiples posts a day, I’ll never know. Anyway, this one was good enough to break my silence with.
Check out this very cool, very easy, very powerful web-based comic creator: http://www.bitstrips.com/

It was in Beta for the ever-popular SxSW (south by southwest) conference. Be sure to try it out!


Rebutting the Rebuttle

So, in my Kindle…the Single Function Device post, I took Mark to task a little bit for his overly-amibitious praise of Amazon’s new e-book reader. You can also find his return comments both as a comment on my post and in an additional set on his blog.

His first rebuttle is on capacity. To do that, he leverages the image of over-filled book bags breaking the back of his son on his walk to school and of other kids using roller bags to avoid the back strain. Sure, no one wants to see kids injured, but I think it’s going to be a long time before we see grade school text books available on the Kindle. It wasn’t designed for kids. It’s not kid-proof or done with a kid sensibility. If they were going for that market, then they missed the boat even more than I thought they did.

Then he get’s to form factor and says “Its not pretty. Its also first generation.” First generation is no excuse for poor product design. There are plenty of great products out there they could have based it on. They learned a little from previous e-book attempts, but clearly not enough. The main navigation buttons (back and forward) are right where you place your hands causing pages to turn when you don’t want them too. The shape of the device is so large, you have to place the device on your lap to type on it, yet the keys are designed for thumb typing. Sure, the iPhone wasn’t perfect out of the gate either, but it was a whole lot better version 1.0 than this is. They would have been better to take the time to get the design right. It’s not like anyone else was rushing to get out another failed e-book reader.

Finally for my rebutting the rebuttle, he talks about the $400 price by saying that the price of textbooks for a semester would justify the purchase. That might be true, if the books were discounted for being e-books. However, not only do you have to purchase a $400 reader, you also have to still purchase the books…at full price! That doesn’t sound like a savings to me. There are two general business models here…use the Kindle as a loss leader by giving it away or heavily discounting it and make the money off the e-books…or sell the hardware and discount the books heavily. Pick one business model, not both if you want this plan to succeed.

For even more discussion and a link to a great paper on the topic, check out Mark’s follow-up post.


Kindle…The Single Purpose Device

In Mark’s recent post on the Kindle from Amazon. Now normally, I find myself agreeing with Mark which probably scares both of us. However, this time, I don’t think he could be more off base.

First, out of the many eBook attempts over the last 5 years, none of them have been even partially successful. In fact, calling them miserable failures is probably being generous. So, expecting this one to succeed is a gross over-expectation at best. Sure, it solves a few of the earlier problems…lighter, longer battery life, simpler technology. However it still misses the whole point. For it to be successful it needs to fulfill a market demand or unmet need of some sort.

Capacity: I don’t need to carry 500 books with me. I’ve already got a stack that I can’t seem to find time to get to. I don’t think I’m alone here, but carrying books with me wasn’t a problem that needed solving. It actually works quite fine right now.

Form Factor: Look at the thing. It’s ugly. The technology _appears_ old school. (Yes, I know they’re using the fancy ink/paper thing). At 10 ounces, it’s still to heavy and way too little of the interface is used for the actual book. Sure, the integrated keyboard makes it so that a computer isn’t required, but they could have taken a lesson from Apple here and spent a few more dollars on design. Additionally, it’s not a standard size (either paper back or sheet of paper) so it won’t fit securely in the regular places during transportation.

Price: $400??? Are you kidding me? Plus I still have to pay the regular $10 for the book? Maybe if they worked it like the heavily subsidized razor/blade or cellphone/subscription models it might be more attractive, but please…at $400 the switching cost is way too high. Of course, I did hear one report (on Cranky Geeks) saying that at $400 it probably was already subsidized…which makes you wonder how much it really costs.

Single Function: When was anything anymore a single function device? For $400, it should have a scanner or a printer built in. Maybe I should be able to display and edit other documents. Hey wait, that’s a PDA or a laptop and I can do a lot more with those. In fact, I could even by a decent laptop for less than $200 more and it could do a lot more than read books.

Location: I often read when I’m in a spot where electronics aren’t allowed (like an airplane). So, with this, I’d still need to carry print with me. Great, now I have to carry both? How does that make sense?

Mark’s final point was that companies should by these for employees and put the manuals on them? Really? Mark? Come on now. First, who’s writing manuals anymore? Second, shouldn’t we really be talking about wikis, blogs, help systems, knowledge management, search, or any one of a dozen other approaches to organize structured and unstructured information rather than converting print manuals to an e-book form factor?

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Visual DNA

For many people, art seems to be a completely subjective medium. What works for some is completely strange for others. Imagini uses those preferences to compare you to others and see what that says about you. Here’s the results from mine:

While I’m not convinced of the validity of the interpretive descriptions they do, the selection of the visuals definitely communicate a bit more about me. For more about the use of the visual arts for communication, be sure to check out VizThink and register for our upcoming conference.

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Yet Another New TiVo Feature

OK, I know, enough already, I love TiVo. I’ve mentioned it before on the blog, and over and over, ad nauseum I’m sure, to my friends.

What’s the new feature? I really nice mash up between Amazon and TiVo. Yes, they’ve had the Unbox going for a few months now…go to Amazon.com, “rent” a movie, and a little while later it magically appears on your TiVo box. In the last few months they’ve increased the available movies to over 1,500 which is no Blockbuster or NetFlix, but they’re certainly making progress. However, none of that is what’s cool. Instead, you can now rent from Amazon directly on TiVo. No going to a separate place to download movies. It works just like the Now Playing list (where you get the recordings you made off live TV). Simply make your choice and the download begins. Movies in the list are automatically updated from Amazon. Now that’s easy. They say it takes between 1 to 5 hours to download a movie depending on available bandwidth at home. So it’s not quite as fast as a drive to Blockbuster, but it’s close.

Of course, with all of these upgrades and enhancements, TiVo’s menu is starting to get a bit crowded (and therefore less simple). I wish they’d add a feature to let me manage my own menu items…turning some off and changing the order of others. Maybe I can’t change the default screen, but can they give me the option to create my own “home page” on my TiVo box. Now that would be cool.

Another free whiteboard tool…

While this one from Thinkature has some of the same features (collaborative space, free form writing, etc) as the one from GE, they’ve clearly focused this one on the PostIt Note set. I couldn’t figure out how to add images and other icons, but apparently it can be done which also makes this a possible tool for mind mapping. I just wish there were a better selection of shapes than the default PostIt note.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Cool, Free Collaborative Whiteboard

I found this tool today while searching for Visual Thinking stuff (more on that in a few weeks). In the meantime, GE has created this cool little Flash-based, collaborative whiteboard application. No install required. It works pretty well with a couple limitations. I think it only allows 3 people in the same document and there is a limit to the amount of “ink” that can be on the page at one time. However, the page had to be almost 50% color to hit that limit, so I’m not sure it matters much. I don’t understand what they get out of it…no fee, no advertising…just branding I guess.

Anyway, enjoy! Let me know what you think.

Update: I’ve had a few problems with it on one of my machines. I think it’s actually in the Javascript on the page not in the file itself. It may not work with certain versions of Flash.


Cool Audience Response Technology

I just got back from the Society for Pharma and Biotech Trainers (SPBT) annual conference in Miami. They decided to implement an audience response system (ARS) for the first time this year. For those that don’t know, ARS allows the audience to vote during presentations much like the “Ask the Audience” lifeline in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

SPBT chose Turning Technologies as the vendor for this event. While there are certainly dozens of providers out there including Quizdom which I’ve used quite a bit, Turning Tech has a few advantages over their competitors including the most obvious…size, or lack of size to be more precise. At about the size of a stack of 5 or 6 credit cards, their devices are the smallest on the market, as far as I know. (The USB part in the picture is the receiver. Even that’s tiny). Unlike other providers, they also have the option to rent them so that a company could keep a base set for normal sized classes and the rent a few extras when the occasional bigger meeting comes along.

Over the last few years, several conferences have implemented this technology for the general sessions, but SPBT took it a step further and offered it to all of the presenters in the breakout sessions. Thanks to the small size, it’s pretty easy to just keep it in the normal conference name badge. About 25% of the sessions (including Karl Kapp’s), took them up on the offer. Having been involved in running several conferences, it’s always risky to add new technology like this for the general sessions more or less offering it to 90 other presenters. However, with a brief bit of training from the on site support staff, presenters seemed to gravitate to it pretty easily. Interestingly, Steven Levitt (keynote and author of Freakinomics) didn’t know it was available until he walked in the room about 5 minutes before his session where he added 3 polls on the fly which were incredibly helpful in getting the audience involved.

The software has advanced a lot since the last time I looked at it which was only 8 months ago or so. One of the best new features was the ability to slice and dice the information. In Karl’s session, he asked a basic question near the beginning to gage the audience’s opinion on a topic. The result was a pretty standard normal curve. However, he then used the software to display the same data broken down by role. The normal distribution went away and there was a clear difference between the roles. Had he not been able to dive a little deeper, the audience would have missed an important story. Another cool new feature is to compare the results from one question to the results of the next question on the same slide. One idea would be to include an opinion slide at the beginning and end of a meeting and see how perceptions change.

All in all, I’m really impressed with how far they’ve come and how fast they’re growing. Look forward to a new feature that lets remote attendees to participate by voting over the web allowing for a mixed in person and remote user ARS. Now that’s pretty cool.

New Favorite Toy…Ooops, I Mean Tool

I’ve been meaning to replace my MP3 player for at least 9 months now. My old 256 meg player was limited in space, functionality, and was a bit bulky. While buying an MP3 player usually wouldn’t warrant a post, the Zen VPlus from Creative Labs has already become more than just a player. On the market for about 8 months now, it does all of the things an MP3 player should, but it’s the “extras” where I think it really shines. My favorite feature is it’s recording capabilities. I’ve already used it to help remember a few brainstorms while I was out, but I was most impressed with it during my interview with the founders of ZingTrain. The cafe was active and noisy, but the recording using the built in microphone still picked up the 3 of us clearly, and for an hour and 10 minutes the file only took up 15 meg of the 4 gig drive. With a regular size headphone jack, I was able to plug it into the auxiliary port on my car stereo and checkout the highlights.

At only 1.5 ounces and 2.6″H x 1.7″W x 0.6″D, it’s easily transportable, but not quite as forgettable as the iPod Shuffle which is about an inch shorter. What’s more amazing though is that with the small size, it still has a full screen including video playback (and the Shuffle is missing a screen completely). While I probably wouldn’t want to watch a major movie with it, for basic news or talking heads, it’s more than capable, and actually quite easy to use. My only real complaint is that the software doesn’t share the devices usability. Clearly they had different design teams on the related products. With a relatively similar size, 4x the capacity, less Digital Rights Management restrictions, and a slew more features like recording, FM radio, and recording, I’m not sure why anyone would every buy the iPod Shuffle or even the iPod Nano.

Whichever toy…um, I mean tool…you buy, the features have become quite amazing. There are a number applications for learning, communications, and performance support. Considering things like the weekly message from the CEO, daily quick tips, portable storage for files, books on tape, and performance support, inexpensive tools like this could easily be deployed through a sales team or even a broader organization.

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