O'Really?

August 3, 2012

July 19, 2012

Is word play friendly branding the key to successful technology?

βατόμουρο / Raspberries by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The Raspberry Pi (not pictured above) is currently blowing raspberries at its competitors at an impressive rate of four thousand per day. Creative Commons licensed picture of Rasberries by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos on wikipedia.

The key to successful technology is not just the tricky combination of innovation, determination and investment but also word play friendly branding.

Consider two technology companies, Google and Raspberry Pi:

So is word play really the key to technological success? Successful technologies often encourage word play, but word play does not make technology successful. Correlation does not imply causation and the examples above are very anecdotal.

Still, word play is fun and probably helps brands without doing them any harm [2]. Raspberry Pi is a particularly ripe brand for punning, are there any other #TechnoWordPlay examples?

References

  1. Rory Cellan-Jones (2012). Raspberry Ripples from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, BBC News
  2. Guy Swillingham (2005). Shop Horror: The Best of the Worst in British Shop Names, Harper Collins ISBN:0007198132

July 13, 2012

Animation 2012: Computer Science for Schools

Animation 2012 at the University of Manchester

Computer Science as a subject in mainstream UK secondary education is in a pretty sorry state [1,2,3] but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many long suffering school children are being force-fed a nauseating diet of Excel, PowerPoint and Access others are enjoying a nutritious platter of Raspberry Pi, Hack to the Future and Animated fun.

Here’s a brief report on one of these tasty appetisers: Animation 2012, a UK schools animation competition now in its fifth year.

The day kicked off with prizes being awarded for the animation competition. To get a flavour of the creativity and skill involved, you can see winning examples online.

Following the prize giving there was a carousel of activities which included:

Animation 2012 was great fun for all involved, congratulations to all this years winners, hope to see you again next year. There were 526 Schools involved from across the UK, with 914 entries. 58 students were involved in the 35 winning entries from 31 different schools. Thanks to Toby Howard, all the organisers, supporters (Google, Electronic Arts and NESTA) and associates (Computing at School, CS4FN and BAFTA young game designers) for putting on an impressive show.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
  2. James Robinson (2011). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system: criticising division between science and arts, The Guardian
  3. Keith Stuart (2011). Michael Gove admits schools should teach computer science: education secretary recognises the failings of ICT courses, The Guardian

June 22, 2012

The Silicon Valley Meme: Coming to a Technology Cluster Near You …

Oracle by (nz)dave

Oracle Inc. Headquarters, Silicon Valley, California. CC-licensed Picture by (nz)dave on Flickr.

… if it hasn’t done already

In California the streets aren’t paved with Gold, they are paved with Silicon. Many a Californian has made their fame and fortune from Silicon-based commerce. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Oracle, Apple the list goes on and on. Silicon paves the streets of Silicon Valley.

Silly Valley is often imitated but rarely bettered. Here is a small selection of imitators from a fully blown stamp collection of silicon valley places in wikipedia:

  • Silicon Alley, New York
  • Silicon Fen, Cambridge UK
  • Silicon Roundabout, London
  • Silicon Glen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Bonnie Scotland
  • Silicon Gorge,  M4 Corridor-ish (Bristol, Swindon, Oxford etc)
  • Silicon Mill, Manchester and North West England
  • Silicon Shipyard, Newcastle, Middlesborough etc

If you don’t have a Silicon Valley cluster near where you live, there’s an easy part and a hard part to creating one. The easy part is, just prefix the name of your local area with the magic S word Silicon. Easy. The hard part is building the universities, businesses, technology, communities, start-ups and investment that makes a technology cluster like Silicon Valley successful [1,2,3]. How can it be done?

Refererences

  1. Mietek Jaroniec (2009). Silicon beyond the valley Nature Chemistry, 1 (2), 166-166 DOI: 10.1038/nchem.173
  2. Paul Graham (2006). How to be Silicon Valley paulgraham.com
  3. Chris Vallance (2012). Silicon Britain: Inside the country’s tech clusters BBC News

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.

References

  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

May 23, 2012

Who is the World’s Largest Advertising Agency?

Massive Golf Sale!

The British Monarchy are preparing to exploit new advertising opportunities and boost royal revenue during the 2012 Olympics in London. Photo credit: gokart.co.uk.

Advertising agencies are everywhere, there is no escaping them. But who’s the daddy of the advertising world? The mother of all ad agencies?

According to wikipedia, WPP is the “world’s largest advertising group by revenues”. This is hogwash. Some of the world’s largest ad agences are technology companies. For example, in descending order of revenue:

So Google Inc. is currently the world’s largest advertising agency by revenues, followed by WPP then possibly Facebook. It will be interesting to see if the “best minds” [1,2] on Planet Facebook can catch up with WPP and Google by encouraging it’s user’s to click on ads more and buy more stuff in their store.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads. That sucks.” — Jeff Hammerbacher [1]

References

  1. Ashlee Vance (2011) This Tech Bubble Is Different Bloomberg Business Week
  2. Bruce Robinson (1989) How to Get Ahead in Advertising Handmade Films

* Revenue figures from wikipedia. Can’t really vouch for their accuracy but they look reasonable.

May 18, 2012

Web analytics: Numbers speak louder than words

Two hundo! by B. Rosen

Two hundred light painting by B. Rosen, via  Flickr available by Creative Commons license

According to the software which runs this site, this is the 200th post here at O’Really To mark the occasion, here are some stats via WordPress with thoughts and general navel-gazing analysis paralysis [1] on web analytics. It all started just over six years ago at nodalpoint with help from Greg Tyrelle, the last four years have been WordPressed with help from Matt Mullenweg. WordPress stats are unfortunately very primitive compared to the likes of Google Analytics and don’t give you access to the server log files either. WordPress probably flatters to deceive by exaggerating page views and encouraging users to post more content, but it doesn’t count self-visits to the blog. Despite all the usual limitations of the murky underworld of web analytics and SEO, here are the stats, warts and all.

As of May 2012, this blog is just shy of 200,000 page views in total with 500+ comments (genuine) comments and 100,000+ spam comments nuked by the Akismet filter. The busiest day so far was the 15th February 2012 with 931 views of a post in a single day which got linked to by the Wall Street Journal. The regular traffic is pretty steady around the 1,000 views per week (~4000 views per month) mark. Most readers come from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany (jawohl! in that order) which breaks down as follows:

Top posts: What people read when they get here

The most popular pages here are as follows:

Page Views
Home page / Archives 33,977
Impact Factor Boxing 2010 17,267
Impact Factor Boxing 2009 10,652
How many journal articles have been published? 7,181
Impact Factor Boxing 2011 6,635

Are we obsessed with dodgy performance metrics like journal impact factors? I’m not, honest guv’, but lots of people on t’interwebs clearly are.

Top search terms: How people get here

The search engines send traffic here through the following search terms:

Search terms Views
plos biology impact factor 2010 3,175
impact factor 2010 1,631
impact factor 1,589
plos biology impact factor 1,566
impact factor 2009 1,333

Is there a correlation between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Impact Factor (IF)? Probably. Will it ever stop? Probably not.

Referrals: Spread the link love

It’s not just search engines that send you traffic…

Referrer Views
Search Engines 16,339
cs.man.ac.uk 4,654
Twitter 2,334
friendfeed.com 2,262
flickr.com 2,077
researchblogging.org 1,904
en.wordpress.com 1.037

… social media (twitter, friendfeed, flickr, researchblogging and wordpress etc) refers nearly as much traffic as the search engines do. I fit the demographic of bloggers previously described [1]: male, educated and a life scientist.

Top five clicks: How people leave

This is what people are clicking on:

URL Clicks
isiknowledge.com/JCR 914
feeds2.feedburner.com/oreally 407
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_on_arrival 396
aps.org/publications/apsnews/200811/zero-gravity.cfm 363
plosbiology.org 305

Dear Thomson Reuters, you should have an associates scheme like Amazon. I’m advertising your commercial product (Journal Citation Reports) for free! I’m far too kind, please send me a generous cheque immediately for my troubles or I will remove all links to your product.

Lots of people looking for the lyrics of the Friends sitcom jingle don’t know what “Your love life’s D.O.A.” means. Glad to be of service.

Conclusions

Traffic here is fairly modest compared to some blogs, but is still significant and to my mind justifies the time spent blogging. It is great fun to blog, and like most things in life, it can be very time consuming to do well. There is a long way to go before reaching the 10,000 hours milestone, maybe one day.

What people are actually interested in reading, and what you think they will be interested in reading are often two completely different things. Solo blogging has disadvantages and it’s been very tempting to try and join one of the many excellent blogging collectives like PLoS Blogs, Occam’s Typewriter or the Guardian science blogs. For the meantime though, going it alone on a personal domain name has it’s advantages too.

So, if you’ve read, commented or linked to this site, thank you very much. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy writing them. Like smartphones and wifi, it’s hard to imagine life without blogs and bloggers.

References

  1. Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., & Thelwall, M. (2012). Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035869

May 3, 2012

Need to re-invent the Web (badly)? There’s an App for that!

The Mobile App Trap

The App Trap: Why have just one Web App when you can have hundreds of mobile Apps? A selection of popular Android apps from Google Play, also available for iPad and iPhone from the Apple App Store

I love the convenience of mobile applications but hate the way they re-invent the wheel and are killing the Web. What can be done about it?

I’m in love with the mobile Web

I’ve been smitten with the Web since first venturing out on the information superhighway back in the nineties. This love affair is taken to a new level with the advent of the mobile Web. As an incurable information junkie, having access to news is on the move is great. Using location based services like Google Maps is fantastic, on foot, bike or in the car. I love nerdily scanning barcodes to read Amazon book reviews while browsing the shelves in bookshops, much to Tim Waterstone’s annoyance. And it can be great to have wikipedia in your pocket to settle arguments down the pub.

I hate the mobile Web too

But there’s a big problem with all this appy clappy mobile fun, it’s killing the Web through fragmentation, both for producers and consumers of information. Let me explain.

One of the great things about the Web is that you there is one app to rule them all; a “killer app” called a Web browser. There are several flavours, but they all basically do the same thing using similar technology: they let you surf the Web. One software application (a browser), gives you access to an almost infinite number of Web applications. Wonderfully simple, wonderfully powerful – we’ve got so used to it we sometimes take it for granted.

Now compare this to the mobile Web where each page you visit on a mobile suggests that you download an app to read it. Where there used to be just one application, now there are thousands of glorified “me too” Web browsers apps many of which have re-invented the Web, badly.

Consider the applications in the table below and illustrated on the right. They are all accessible from a Web browser on one of the “four screens ”:  desktop, mobile, tablet and smart-TV:

Native mobile app Purpose Web app
Amazon mobile Online retailer Amazon.com
BBC News mobile News and propaganda news.bbc.co.uk
The Economist mobile More news and propaganda economist.com
eBay mobile online garage sale ebay.com
Flickr mobile photo sharing flickr.com
Guardian mobile Even more news and propaganda guardian.co.uk
Google Reader mobile Feed reader reader.google.com
Google Maps mobile Maps and navigation maps.google.com
MetOffice mobile UK Weather metoffice.gov.uk
PostOffice mobile Postcode / Address finder royalmail.com/postcode-finder
Google Search mobile Search engine google.com
Google Translate mobile Language translator translate.google.com
Twitter mobile Entertaining time-wasting application twitter.com
Wikipedia mobile Encyclopædia en.wikipedia.org/wiki
WordPress mobile Blogging tool wordpress.com
YouTube mobile Videos youtube.com

As you can see, users are encouraged to download, install, understand and maintain sixteen different apps to enjoy this small part of the mobile Web. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s bucket-loads more apps like this in Google Play and the App Store. As a user, you could just use a mobile Web browser on your phone, but you’ll be discouraged from doing so. We’ll return to this later.

Producers and consumers both suffer

As well as being a pain for users who have to manage hundreds of apps on their phones and tablets, the pain is magnified for producers of data too. Instead of designing, building and maintaining one Web application to work across a range of different screens (a challenging but not impossible task), many have chosen to develop lots of different apps. Take twitter for example, in addition to the desktop and Web apps, twitter currently makes no fewer than five different applications just for tablets and phones:

    1. twitter.com/download/ipad (for iPad)
    2. twitter.com/download/blackberry (for Blackberry)
    3. twitter.com/download/wp7 (for Windows phones)
    4. twitter.com/download/android (for Android)
    5. twitter.com/download/iphone (for iPhones)

So a challenging task of delivering content onto a range of different devices has now been transformed into an almost impossible task of building and managing many different apps. It’s not just Twitter, Inc. that chooses to play this game. Potentially any company or organisation putting data on the mobile Web might consider doing this by employing an army of android, blackberry, iPhone and windows developers on top of the existing Web developers already on the payroll. That’s good news for software engineers, but bad news for the organisations that have to pay them. Managing all this complexity isn’t cheap.

Not Appy: How do we get out of this mess?

In the rush to get mobile, many seem to have forgotten why the Web is so successful and turned their back on it. We’ve re-invented the wheel and the Web browser. I’m not the first [1] and certainly not the last [2] to notice this. Jonathan Zittrain even predicted it would happen [3,4] with what he calls “tethered devices”. One solution to this problem, as suggested at last months International World Wide Web conference in Lyon by some bloke called Tim, is to develop mobile Web apps rather than native mobile apps:

There are lots of examples of this. Sites like trains.im provide train times via a simple Web-based interface, no app required. Many Web sites have  two versions, a desktop one and a mobile one. Wikipedia has a mobile site at en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki, Flickr at m.flickr.com, The Economist at m.economist.com, BBC at m.bbc.co.uk/news and so on. But in many cases these sites are poor cousins of the native mobile apps that software developers have focused their efforts on, diluting their work across multiple apps and platforms.

Maybe it’s too late, maybe I’m suffering from the suspicious of change” syndrome described by Douglas Adams like this:

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The mobile Web makes me suspicous because many apps re-invent the wheel. I’ve argued here that it is against the natural order of the Web, we’ve waved goodbye to the good old Web [5] and its the beginning of the end. I really hope not, it would be a tragedy to carry on killing the Web as it’s given us so much and was designed specifically to solve the problems described above. Let’s hope native mobile apps gradually turn out to be alright really.

References

  1. Gary Marshall (2011). Could smartphone apps be taking us back to the days of “best viewed with … ”? Net Magazine
  2. Jason Pontin (2012). Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps: The future of media on mobile devices isn’t with Apps but with the Web Technology Review
  3. Jonathan Zittrain (2007). Saving the internet. Harvard Business Review, 85 (6) PMID: 17580647
  4. Jonathan Zittrain (2009). The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It Penguin, ISBN:014103159X
  5. Hamish MacKenzie (2012) Web 2.0 Is Over, All Hail the Age of Mobile, Pandodaily

April 25, 2012

Bicycle sharing with a twist: Brompton Dock launches at UK railway stations

Brompton, Brompton, Straight Outta Brompton. New Brompton dock launches in in Manchester.

Bicycle sharing is becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world. London has Boris Bikes, Paris has Vélo Liberté: Vélib’ and New York should soon have thousands of new Bixi-bikes this summer. There are scores of public cycle hire schemes in other cities. With the health benefits of cycling well documented [1] and with the potential reduction of traffic congestion which blight many of our cities, it’s not difficult to see why sharing schemes are gaining popularity.

An interesting new cycle sharing scheme launched in the UK last month, Brompton Dock, which hires out Brompton folding bicycles from railway stations around the UK. By the end of 2012 there will be 17 of these docks around the country. The twist (or fold) with Brompton Dock is that these bikes neatly fold away into secure lockers and also under your office desk or in a cupboard at home. Here are some quick thoughts from a trial spin earlier this month:

Brompton Dock Pros Brompton Dock Cons
They are beautifully designed and built bicycles, folding is very simple and ingenious (once you’ve worked it out). The bikes have high quality components (hub dynamo), shimano gears etc Quality comes at a price and Brompton bikes aren’t cheap. Although hiring is cheap (see below), you’re liable to a ~£700 replacement charge if it gets stolen. Ouch!
You can take this bike anywhere (train, office, cupboard, boot of your car etc). Handy if you live in a flat with no outdoor cycle storage. No lock provided to secure the bike. You can just fold it away but this isn’t handy if you’re just popping into the shop. It’s probably not a great idea to lock it up for long because these expensive bikes will be a target for theft.
Bromptons have a pretty sturdy construction, which is just as well because hire bikes have to take a fair amount of abuse. Bromptons are quite heavy, weighing around 12 kilos. You’ll notice the weight when you try to carry the bike with one hand onto a train. On the road, they’re not as zippy as a lighter machine and the small wheels give a different handling to larger wheeled bikes.
Brompton dock is a nation-wide scheme which allows you to hire from one city and drop off in a completely different one, something you can’t do with Boris Bikes. Most cities have only one or just a small handful of these docks so city-wide hop-on, hop-off is more limited than other cycle sharing schemes
No luggage carrying equipment comes as standard, there is no pannier rack to put things on.
Secure lockers mean that vandalism will be less of an issue than with other schemes. The lockers have a very nifty keyless system where you send a text message and receive a unique code to release a bike (once you’ve registered)
Comes with a pump, neatly tucked away on the frame. A minor point, but I found the pump can fall off easily and be tricky to get back on.
A great way of “try-before-you-buy” a Brompton of your own. Prices look reasonable to me and there are a wide range of pricing options starting from just one week hire and membership for a mere ten quid. You might be reluctant to return it to the dock, and may even want to buy one of your own!

Personally I think Brompton Dock is a great idea and it will be interesting to see how successful it is. If Brompton Dock, and  other bicycle sharing schemes, get more people out of cars and onto bicycles and trains then it can only be a good thing. Try for yourself, you can hire one from a UK station near you in 2012.

(Disclaimer, I’m not being paid by Brompton Dock or Brompton Bicycles to write this review, but they did give me a free T-shirt for being their first (!) customer).

References

  1. Kremers, S., de Bruijn, G., Visscher, T., Deeg, D., Thomése, G., Visser, M., van Mechelen, W., & Brug, J. (2012). Associations between Safety from Crime, Cycling, and Obesity in a Dutch Elderly Population: Results from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-6 DOI: 10.1155/2012/127857

April 2, 2012

Open Data Manchester: Twenty Four Hour Data People

Sean Ryder at the Hacienda by Tangerine Dream on flickr

Sean Ryder, the original twenty-four hour Manchester party person of the Happy Mondays, spins the discs at the Wickerman festival in 2008. Creative commons licensed image via Tangerine Dream on flickr.com

According to Francis Maude, Open Data is the raw material for “next industrial revolution”. Now you should obviously take everything politicians say with a large pinch of salt (especially Maude) but despite the political hyperbole, when it comes to data he is onto something.

According to wikipedia, which is considerably more reliable than politicians, Open Data is:

“the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.”

Open Data is slowly having an impact in the world of science [1] and also in wider society. Initiatives like data.gov in the U.S. and data.gov.uk in England, also known as e-government or government 2.0, have put huge amounts of data in the public domain and there is plenty more data in the pipeline. All of this data makes novel applications possible, like cycling injury maps showing accident black spots, and many others just like it.

To discuss the current status of Open Data in Greater Manchester there were two events last week:

  1. The Open Data Manchester meetup “24 hour data people” [2] at the the Manchester Digital Laboratory (“madlab”), which recently made BBC headlines with the DIY bio project
  2. The Discover Open Data event at the Cornerhouse cinema
Here is a brief and incomplete summary of what went on at these events:

(more…)

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