Timed comments and a call for blog side notes

The most impressive thing about social media site SoundCloud is its signature feature: to graphically represent in spatial terms what is usually experienced non-graphically in time, the waveform1 of an uploaded audio clip. By laying out the amplitude of the audio recording, SoundCloud emphasizes duration of experience, pointing to its peaks and valleys, and, most important for my purposes here, allows for the insertion of time-coded feedback.

As consumption of web-based media has evolved over the past decade+, we’ve grown accustomed to eating whole this or that bit and then, when offered the opportunity, provide feedback at the end and participate in a comment thread. Granted, one can excerpt the relevant content (or time stamp in the case of audio or video) for which the comment is addressed but this localization is still displaced temporally. With SoundCloud, we are given the opportunity to attach one’s commentary to a specific moment within the audio stream so that it can be part of the initial experience, as one is “reading” the audio stream. The site provides a visual representation of the referenced clip time stamp, a feature called “timed comments”2. It seems pretty simple and obvious in hindsight but I haven’t encountered a precedent.

One risk of this approach is fragmentation, a letting go of the way in which a comment thread as it exists today coheres disparate voices into a kind of dialogue. Perhaps localizing commentary also runs the risk of losing context, of misinterpreting an argument by pressing too hard at the sentence or word level. It also isn’t immediately obvious how best to encapsulate visually a myriad of localized comments within the current blogging paradigm. A blog post could easily be overwhelmed with side notes demanding equal attention. Perhaps for this reason especially, we’ve not yet seen its adoption, SoundCloud notwithstanding. Still, I find the prospect compelling, a means to engage web writing with greater specificity and intimacy.

 

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Day has come

Transient

First, let me say, I hope that Steve Jobs’s no doubt difficult decision to resign as CEO of Apple allows him to focus his energy and strength on a speedy recovery from illness and return to good health. That is job number one. Yesterday’s announcement, delivered by personal letter to the Apple Board and Apple community at large, has generated considerable reaction in the tech and media communities, for good reason I think. Even though we’ve all known about Jobs’s health issues,  I think we’ve held out hope that it wouldn’t have to come to this, that it was something that could be willed and managed into permanent remission, part-time. Acknowledging this is not the case, that Steve is human, we all are, is difficult but also liberating. 

Much of the talk has circulated around the fate of Apple. After the initial flutter, I think most folks are concluding that the company has a “deep bench” and with Tim Cook at the helm in particular, there is little risk of execution flagging in the wake of Jobs’s transition to Chairman. Cook appears to be cut from the same cloth when it comes to restraint, quality, and attention to detail. We will have to wait and see how cultivated a sense of whimsy and invention he has, the “hacker” pedigree which has also been an important strand of Apple’s DNA under Jobs.

Transient

I basically grew up with Apple gear: Apple II in high school, original Mac 128K in college (nicknamed the MacMelt due to a faulty power supply), my first laptop the Powerbook 140, a Performa(!) desktop during my (lean) days in graduate school, and of course numerous devices over the incredible run during the past decade after a brief Apple-free stint in the late 90s. These things have helped shape my thinking, have helped me express who I am. And for most of that history, Jobs has been a significant part of the buy-in, especially when Macs were dismissed as toys at best. There has been a trust in his vision, his passion, his origins, and a reassurance in knowing that he is dreaming in California of the next thing and sweating the details too. I can try to convince myself that nothing changes much with this announcement, and maybe that is largely true in the immediate day-to-day, but, naturally, I will also have to adjust my attitude about Apple. It isn’t business as usual on a gut level.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is no question that Apple is in the best position it has ever been, and it is a testament to Jobs on down the line that they’ve created a nice cushion to weather this transition. And it just might be a wonderful opportunity, a time to double down on the team that Jobs has assembled and now trusts with his baby. Those same reasons that have kept me loyal, the memories of wonder and amazement when first using Apple computers, have also framed my expectations to some extent. Those are big shoes to fill and a tremendous responsibility, no doubt, but what a prize Cook has been handed! I welcome getting to know him better and seeing where he and the rest of the management team take the company next.

And in the meantime, get well Steve and keep us posted.

 

Happy birthday Miriam

Miriam Hansen would have celebrated her 62nd birthday today. It was a happy coincidence that we shared birthdays, which served as a reminder each year to stay in touch long after I left graduate school. News of her death this past February, despite her long struggle with cancer, came as a shock. She was an incredible force of a person—so much so that you expected if anyone could beat this, she would. She was tirelessly driven and unfailingly generous, of her time, her intellect and throw-what-you-thought-you-knew-out-the-window unique insights, and her disarming sense of humor. We all relied on Miriam… to provide guidance and unblinking but fair critique and to courageously, especially in the face of serious illness, set the standard for academic rigor among her colleagues and lay the groundwork for the next generation of scholars, not least with the founding of the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of Chicago, of which I know she was very proud and I am personally thankful to have played a part in its early days. Yes, a rare, beautiful force. One of those people that truly inspire others to achieve their best. I feel very fortunate to have known her and I miss her, especially today.

Launch

Hello world! I’ve decided to return joecarey.com to its roots as a personal website, a place to share and promote my photography, recommend articles and other items of interest, and sketch ideas.

It’s been an interesting journey since I shuttered the site three years ago. I tried various hosted, sometimes social, venues (e.g., Facebook notes, MobileMe, Flickr, Posterous, and, most recently, Tumblr) to publish my photos and infrequent notes. In each case, over time these services fell a bit short of my particular requirements, which is not to say they all don’t excel at what they do for their target audience(s). So, I’ve turned to a relative newcomer, Squarespace, in hopes that their approach will strike the right balance between convenience and flexibility. So far, I’ve been impressed with the features and speed of the platform, the company’s close attention to detail, and the obvious thought that has gone into the design of their UI/dashboard. All good stuff.

In migrating the blog archive from previous incarnations (for a good stretch, managed using Movable Type), I’ve spent some time tidying things up (not least, link rot), excising a few entries, and adding or updating supporting material where it seemed useful. The availability of new software tools and APIs, the mass of content available online, and the pervasiveness of the web now in the guise of social media and mobile devices have changed the landscape of options available to experiment with here. Happy to be back.

What makes a great portrait?

With the recent arrival of my now 2 1/2 month old son, I’ve been struggling with this very question, especially a “portrait” of someone that is just figuring out who he is, at best, and who is changing so dramatically from week to week. It’s as if the metamorphosis itself is what I am trying to capture when I press the shutter. It’s really made me rethink my approach to taking pictures, and the results thus far have been more the product of sheer chance than any kind of skill. The experience has led me to appreciate portraiture all the more.

Trying to really pinpoint what makes a great portrait is almost like trying to figure out why it feels good when someone smiles at you or why it is disturbing when someone yells at you.
Timothy Archibald

Jörg Colberg posed the question to various photographers, curators and bloggers. Their responses, including example portraits, are definitely worth a read (via JK).


If you ask it, pass it

It’s not fair — all the United bashing going on around here — but the recent post titled “Don’t Make Me Scream” over at SvN struck a chord, especially since designing and writing speech applications for large enterprises like United is what we do at Versay

I couldn’t agree more with Matt’s rant. Many speech IVR applications out there are terrible, not just United. Too often I find myself walking down a street on my mobile phone trying to get information, only to be greeted by a cheerful voice asking way too many questions and getting seriously confused by the sounds of trucks and cars and other random background noise. Knowing how these systems are designed makes me an even more demanding user. I know they can do better and it is frustrating that best practices are so infrequently used.

A particular pet peeve is the situation where I navigate through an application, patiently providing things like account information, reservation information, and the like… and then when I am transferred to an agent… yep… I am asked the same questions all over again. Unacceptable. As a client of ours once remarked (when describing our shared golden rule about the hand-off between automated and live customer service): “If you ask it, pass it.” Granted it’s not always the easiest feature to implement, but for my money it is essential.

So, Matt, I hear you loud and clear and I can assure you that we are working with our clients every day to improve their UIs and to re-think high-quality, yet cost-effective customer service.

800-GOOG-411 (466-4411)

Update (4/11/07): Two Tellme executives head for Y!.

It’s been a Google kind of week here. Google Labs has just released their much-anticipated and long-speculated speech-enabled free 411 service. This comes on the heels of Tellme’s recent Business Search beta, offered behind their 800-555-TELL (8355) service.

Some early and incomplete observations:

  • Tellme’s Business Search is very… well… Tellme, including the usual navigational audio clicks and swooshes to mark list items and returning to the beginning, as well as transitional music and service announcements. These things when not used judiciously tend to slow down the call unnecessarily and also betray Tellme’s entertainment industry pedigree.
  • Google’s service has tell-tale old school Nuance VUI elements for things like error handling, contextual help, and offering options like “details” just before the call is transferred.
  • Unlike Tellme, the Google app appears to be music-free and lacks earcons, although they do play a humorous “thinking” sound no doubt mocking the typical cue for system processing. This is in keeping with Google’s overall stripped down approach to interface design.
  • Tellme entertains and then optionally texts you a listing but does not connect the call (yet). Google connects you (and optionally texts if that is preferred). Which do you think is the better experience?
  • Google has an interesting back-off strategy and allows callers to enter requests using their dial pad. This is a nice feature for noisy environments or simply when speech recognition is having a tough go of it.
  • Google’s text-to-speech sounds signficantly better to these ears, although this improvement creates another interesting challenge. The synthesized speech at times is almost too close but not close enough to recorded human speech, evoking an uncanny valley experience. It’s creepy at times.

Overall, I’d say the services do a fairly good job of locating what you want as long as you steer clear of uncommon requests. For example, Tellme sent me to a post office in response to my “postcards” request (not really what I wanted) while Google was sure I needed to talk to the coast guard. (To its credit, Google kinda got it right the second time around, recognizing the request properly but then offering to connect me to the Pleasure Chest in Chicago, citing it as a… um… “related listing.”)

I was much more successful asking for “stationary” on 800-GOOG-411. I was quickly connected with The Paper Source on Armitage Avenue. I’m sorry to report this request was equally perplexing for Tellme though. Granted, I am being a bit unfair, and by no means am I arguing that these systems don’t work well. In most cases, things went smoothly. But with these limit cases, it was interesting to see how each service reacted. It’s one of the most important aspects of the work we do at Versay—designing applications to get callers back on track when things go wrong. These factors are amplified dramatically when you are working with the large number of options required by automated directory assistance.

As Om Malik points out, Google’s entry into this space, while no great surprise (do I sense a bit of a yawn, Om?), certainly spells trouble for pure-play providers like 800-FREE-411 (373-3411) and 800-411-SAVE (411-7283). And no doubt Yahoo is just around the corner. On the other hand, it is a definitive vote of confidence in the viability of large-scale speech application deployments and one hopes a sign of further innovation to come.

The next Google revisited

Last year, I posted about the “next Google” phenomenon sweeping the nation, specifically comparisons between 37signals and the search giant. This year, the landscape hasn’t changed all that much. Companies are still hotly competing to get a piece of the search market, start-ups and established technology firms (e.g., Microsoft and Yahoo) alike.

37signals are still going strong and have released their CRM-lite application, newly named Highrise. I personally think it is their best release yet and could potentially absorb/cannibalize some of their other offerings. While I get why they prefer to keep project management separate from contact management, there is enough overlap between services so that some core data elements should be shared. Just as Apple engineers have resisted the all-in-one approach of Microsoft Outlook, instead offering siloed apps like Address Book, Mail and iCal, they nonetheless enable sharing of elements common between these applications. It’s proven to be a successful strategy in balancing usability and functionality.

Interestingly, if one were to ignore the numerous and obvious differences between the two companies, it could be argued that Google and 37signals have actually moved closer to one another in terms of service offering over the past year. With the Google Apps launch, they too want to provide the tools to help you manage your business in a hosted, web-based model. And why not? Google already provides services for email (Gmail), calendaring (Google Calendar), and instant messaging and VoIP (Google Talk) not to mention “Microsoft Office killers” Docs & Spreadsheets and Page Creator. The Google Apps offering rolls these services up into a complete package in three flavors— small business, enterprise and education. And from a technical perspective, most importantly both companies have embraced APIs, enabling third-parties to deliver “mash-ups” of theirs and other services. This is almost a given in today’s 2.0 world and arguably one of the key drivers behind the success of hosted services.

Google’s move signals a couple of things.

First, hosted application services for business and not just the consumer space have arrived in a very big way and definitely threaten Microsoft’s desktop dominance. If nothing else, both the live.com initiative and recent Tellme acquisition confirm this. This is not to say that hurdles don’t still exist. While bandwidth and availability concerns have largely been overcome by large capital investments in infrastructure, other factors such as data portability, privacy policies, and security still remain stubborn obstacles for hosted solutions. With Google in particular, given its transparent goal and not-so-transparent methods to index the world, there is still a strong distrust of the company’s motivations and a nagging fear around the vulnerability of hosted (implicitly shared) corporate data.

Second, as Miquel Helft points out in his January 1st New York Times article, in its effort to go after communication and collaboration, be it for small to medium-sized businesses or large enterprises, Google risks losing ground in the search arena. No doubt just as AltaVista and Webcrawler were once default, now abandoned search options, so too Google’s reign is constantly threatened by innovation just a click and a bookmark away. That is, of course, unless the search business has changed so dramatically in the past seven years so that new barriers to entry will thwart a dramatic shift in market share.

Given the current climate, one wonders how steep of a climb a start-up like Powerset (one of the latest entrants in the “next Google” sweepstakes) will have, or if search is in fact the fastest way to claim the title for keeps, as last year’s front-runner, Wikipedia, seems to believe.