Oh, Vienna! One example of good tech, three of (very) bad.

Tech. You really can have enough of it.

I spent this weekend ambling around the (surprisingly large) streets of Vienna. My girlfriend had just come out of the tail-end of the Sibos conference so she extended her stay and I flew out on Friday. Oh, the jet-set lifestyle of an international blogger…

As I’ve noted before, I often spot things coming in little clusters that I mentally register as blogworthy, and I noticed this in Vienna. Tech seems to be a fairly new toy there, which surprised me. In fact, a lot about Vienna surprised me. It’s a strange place, not quite Western European in its attitudes but not quite Eastern either.

So, not only was I unable to get my cultural bearings, I tended to get lost physically too. I have a truly dreadful sense of direction and so my Google Maps download was a revelation. It actually worked! In no time at all I was in Stefansplatz, eagerly showing off the fact you can see my old Mini’s rooftop on the map showing my flat in London. My girlfriend was impressed.*

So, good tech there. Now for the bad. Over the course of three days I witnessed the following:

  • Digital video cameras at a classical music concert. I’m not a particular classical music buff, but I was looking forward to it – right up till the moment they started playing. At that precise moment my attention was distracted from Eine Kleine Nachtmusic to Eine Kleine LCD screen a few rows ahead of me, complete with little Zwei Kleinen Flashing LED lights either side. A few people shook their heads disapprovingly, but it continued. Then another one appeared. And another. Perhaps Mozart had similar difficulty with candles, but I doubt it somehow. And it wasn’t just that the cameras were stationary. Occasionally people would shift to get a better view, or zoom in (you could see it on their viewfinders), or even lift the cameras in the air. Did they actually hear any of the music? It certainly didn’t help me, or anyone else there. Bad tech – or, to be more exact, bad use of it. Bleugh.
  • Automated check-in. Austrian Airlines laughably called it ‘Quick Check-in’ and you had to use it (you couldn’t just walk up to the desk and talk to people in the traditional fashion – I asked). None of the screen prompts matched any of the terminology on any of the many different forms of documentation people had printed out from various online booking systems. Staff were enrolled to help them key in their details, often several times over when mistakes were inevitably made. Machines kept breaking, to the extent that they had to be opened, like huge server disk bays, and crumpled boarding tickets picked out from within. Everyone was frustrated. Tempers frayed. I asked the very patient young man who helped me how this could be ‘quick’, and explained that I’m fairly used to handling computer systems generally and yet this one baffled me. “Yeah, I know, it’s always like this, but I don’t make the decisions,” he explained. The only advantage was that passport checks were a breeze, simply because everyone else was still trying to get their boarding cards at the machines. Meh.
  • Taxi drivers watching telly. As I got into the taxi to Vienna Airport, the driver placed a laptop on his dashboard. “Must be some sort of mega-Tomtom,” I thought to myself. No. He’d rigged up a mobile Freeview receiver, and proceeded to multi-task between watching the road, and watching some weird Austrian “How Do They Do That” programme which kept flaking out when we went through tunnels. That is, he was watching TV while driving. At one point he even started texting on his mobile as well. Not so much bleugh or meh, as waaaah, we’re all going to die…

I’m generally a tech fan and I’m a believer that it can help us all in so many ways. I thought Google Maps was magic, or virtually indistinguishable from magic, as the old adage goes.

But it can’t help everyone all the time. Not at classical music concerts where you should be listening to music; at airports where you should be able to get a boarding pass without the hassle of badly designed and malfunctioning equipment; and certainly not as alternative entertainment while driving a taxi, when the safety of your passengers and the events on the road take secondary consideration to a cute Austrian girl explaining how the inner-ear’s balancing system works.

* not.

Gotta love those visualisations

Sometimes things come in twos, threes or even more. This is why I occasionally grab interesting stuff from the web and chuck it into my Google Notes as future collateral for this blog, and then eventually notice I’ve got enough for a (half) decent post.

This time, it’s visualisation. Diagrams. Infomatics. Pictures.

There have been several doing the rounds recently. Now, I know people say “Oh, I’m very visual, me” and that this is usually tacit code for admitting to a child’s attention span and difficulty reading, but Visuals Can Be Fun.

First up is Gartner’s Hype Cycle which shows how technologies are faring according to expectation. Techcrunch explains the Gartner Hype Cycle best:

New technologies tend to follow different trajectories of hype, hope, and despair as they are discovered by different groups of people and finally adopted (or ignored) by consumers. Gartner actually goes ahead and charts this hype cycle for different technologies… According to Gartner’s view of the world, the visibility of new technologies peaks early as initial excitement gains steam. This phase is followed by a “trough of disillusionment” in which inflated expectations hit reality. But as technologies prove themselves, their visibility begins to grow again at a more measured pace.

The ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ strikes me as akin to the ‘chasm’ that high-tech companies need to cross between early and mass adoption, that is, everything is in its right place but someone somewhere needs to find a killer use for it, whether through canny marketing on the behalf of the company, or clever-dickery on the part of a user.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin’, here’s the diagram/infomatic/picture:

The Gartner Hype Cycle for Technologies

The Gartner Hype Cycle for Technologies

Nice.

Some of this I can absolutely relate to. I dipped a toe into Second Life when it was hitting the headlines, even considered it for some campaigns, but it wasn’t until seeing this diagram that I thought “Whatever happened to public virtual worlds.” You can go back four or so years to when I first came across wikis, and they’re just about crawling out of the trough. And I’m fairly certain they’re right about cloud computing. As per my previous post, I’m not sure cloud computing is quite there yet and I foresee a particularly long, deep trough ahead of it.

Now, two diagrams courtesy of Brian Solis. First the ‘Social Media Starfish’ from Scoble and Barefoot:

The Social Media Starfish

The Social Media Starfish

This is a fairly neat way of showing the major platforms and tools that enable them. OK, so it’s a list, but I like the slightly oddball way they choose to call it a starfish. Personally I think they could have gone further and christened it The Gliding – Not Actually Flying – Hogfish of Online Conversation.

However, Solis has himself produced a neat graphic called the Conversation Prism:

The Conversation Prism

The Conversation Prism

This does something similar, I guess. But it’s more detailed, has nice colours, and somehow reminds me of the bp logo.

What I’d like to see is a combination of the Conversation Prism, the Brown Starfish and the Gartner Hype Cycle. That is, a little fractal zoom-in for social media alone, showing how each of the social media platforms are doing along the cycle. Perhaps I should do this one day.

Finally, two graphics that are just a bit of fun. If you’ve ever been a web designer, spoken to one, or kind of lived a liminal life between being and not_being, then you’ll like this from buzzfeed:

Small talk with a web designer

Small talk with a web designer

And, last but not least, in case you were wondering, this is what Web 2.0 is all about, according to Jessica Hagy:

This is what Web 2.0 means

This is what Web 2.0 means

You know she’s right.

Automation’s great – but I trust humans more

Repeatedly I’ve found myself being let down by the latest and greatest RSS tools.

I’m not really sure how I can get around this problem, other than by being constantly vigilant – to the extent that it’s almost easier to forget RSS altogether and just monitor ‘by hand’.

This is how it should work

I’m currently working on the best way to use the various RSS tools out there to create a flexible yet powerful monitoring system. To my mind a good solution is:

  • Yahoo Pipes for processing. Yahoo Pipes is an RSS mash-up service, so you can do stuff like take feeds and bring them together, split them apart and filter them, all through a nice graphical interface. It is so flexible and powerful, and you can create really nice modular pipes that slot together like Lego. Want to search for blogs? Insert your ‘blog search engine’ pipe. News? Same. Microblogging? No problem. One of these days I’m going to put a quick tutorial about Pipes on this blog. But not for a while yet. I explain why below.
  • Feedburner for future-proofing. Feedburner is an RSS ‘add-on’ service, enabling you to add titles and descriptions to feeds but, for my money, its most important feature is the feed renaming service. So if you have a feed with the URL http://x.y.com/feeds/asdhJAH72jjaaSS99.xml, just plug that into Feedburner at one end, tell it you want it to be called ‘My lovely feed’ instead, and from then on it also has the URL http://x.y.com/mylovelyfeed. So whatever RSS feed is coming in, it retains the same address. This means that, if you have to use different feeds coming in, you don’t then have to scratch around looking for whatever you had those feeds plugged into. If you know they’re going into Feedburner then you just have to change it there. Everything else stays the same.
  • Google Reader for archive and analysis. Google Reader is an online RSS aggregator, so all you need is a Google account and you can use Google Reader’s very powerful features with no installs or upgrades needed. So, you’ve got a cool RSS feed created from Yahoo Pipes, going into Feedburner and retaining the same lovely name. You’re now ready to plug that lovely feed into any other RSS-enabled tool. The next thing you want to do is analyse it, so plug it into Google Reader and suddenly you can filter for ad-hoc queries, star or share items, go through archives, even produce web pages for clients and extra feeds.
  • Netvibes for display. Netvibes is an online RSS aggregator too, but while Google Reader’s good if you like lists, sometimes people like columns. So take your lovely RSS feed and this time use Netvibes to create a ‘front end’ for your feeds. So, you monitor the Google Reader stuff, while the client gets to see a really neat dashboard type display. You can add charts and all sorts of bells and whistles.

There just one problem: it doesn’t

I know this can work. I’ve seen it work. But there are frustrations along the way and recently I’m starting to wonder whether these services can be relied upon to work.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that some critical Feedburner feeds had ‘died’. I was relying on them for data to come through for some important monitoring work. On further inspection I noticed one of the feeds had gone above the 512KB limit for Feedburner, but, while annoying, that didn’t explain the other problems I was having. Other people were commenting on Twitter about similar problems, and about the same time I noticed my Feedburner-enabled subscriptions had halved.

The solution was to bypass Feedburner altogether and just use the Yahoo Pipes addresses instead. But this was far from ideal. I want to use Feedburner for control over the address. I want to feel I can rely on it.

But the real culprit in all this is turning out to be Yahoo Pipes. I have invested considerable time and effort into getting to know it. I’ve got a system that builds queries from keywords, goes out to just about every RSS-enabled social media source I can find, grabs those feeds, filters for them, appends information to the titles and spits them out in virtually any configuration needed. I’ve tested it all, and I know it works.

But about two weeks ago I noticed Yahoo Pipes getting sluggish. It didn’t matter what I was using to access it – my PC at home, my laptop at work, IE, Firefox, whatever.

And this weekend, I can’t do anything with it. I need to add some tweaks to the system, but it either times out, or refuses to save my changes.

I mean, as I said earlier, I’d love to pass on some of what I’ve learned on this blog. But I cannot. Even when the system is working it’s just too slow. I find I’m wandering off to stroke the cat or do the crossword while Yahoo Pipes churns away.

So again, I have to ask: can I rely on it?

I can’t see the silver lining for the cloud

This is, of course, a criticism of cloud computing. While I absolutely love the idea of harnessing the power afforded me by Yahoo’s server farms to do weird and wonderful things with RSS, I hate, detest and loathe the notion that I’m totally dependent on them to be able to do so.

If, as has been happening for the past few months, I continue to creep into the cloud, I know that one day I’ll have really seriously important stuff in, say, a spreadsheet on Google Docs, that I cannot access when it’s critical that I can access it. Or I’ll get into trouble with a client because they’ll blame me for not making sure their RSS feeds are working properly.

Is the answer that I just don’t put all my trust in these services? Do I keep local versions of docs, just in case? In which case, what do I do for RSS monitoring? I mean, can I pay someone money to give me a better service? Is that the real issue here?

Perhaps the Luddites are right

So, to get back to my original point: at what point do I totally lose faith in these services?

I’ve spent enough time testing my systems to know that they work. The problem is, the services themselves don’t seem to work properly.

So do I monitor constantly and vigilantly to make sure everything is tickety-boo? Do I just hope that, come the day I’m dependent on Yahoo Pipes to work, and it doesn’t, I can quickly think of a workaround as I did the other day?

Or do I eventually decide that actually, it’s more reliable and in the long run more cost-effective simply to monitor individual blogs by visiting them on a daily basis? I mean, there’s something to be said for this. I would certainly get to know those bloggers more intimately. But this solution just doesn’t scale up. It’s not workable.

No. We need services like Feedburner and Yahoo Pipes to provide the service they say they will. I know they’re not bound by the kind of service level agreements that would be in place if we were actually paying them, but they surely have to operate within the bounds of, well, operability.

Because if they don’t, someone else will. I’ve already been checking out Microsoft’s Popfly mashup creator today to see if it can do what Yahoo Pipes should. And it’s already looking promising. We’ll see.