2008 Technology Retrospective

This is a personal retrospective on technologies that had a significant impact on my life over the last 12 months, that is to say they are not necessarily new technologies, or even new to me, but the way that I use them has dramatically changed or had a significant impact that wasn't there before.

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Podcasts

In 2008 I've got into downloading and listening to podcasts. The main barrier to entry for me had been finding the quality content, but I found the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast interesting enough that I made the effort to download it regularly. After getting an iPod it became a great deal easier to find interesting and useful content thanks to the iTunes store and for all its flaws it offers a nice hands off way of maintaining my subscriptions. While Juice can offer the subscription management for other players, it lacks a resource to plug into as a way of finding interesting content. The whole thing is disappointingly hardware centric.

Impact:

It makes better use of my commute time, and offers an additional way to take in useful information that can be easier to multi task than keeping on top of my RSS reader. However it is still very much about finding the right content and for me that is mostly covered off by the Guardian Tech Weekly, TED talks and Channel Flip Games (sadly this website fails to acknowledge their female audience).

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Twitter

This one is another late one for me, although I registered over a year ago I didn't have enough friends using the service and I didn't know how to find the interesting conversations. Two things changed over the course of the year; my brother became very active and offered me friendly face of whom I could ask the stupid questions (Twitter is not newbie friendly). Secondly I attended the #foct08 conference that actively encouraged participation through Twitter, by simultaneously projecting a live Twitter stream, thus offering me a reason to twitter and contribute whilst also finding those much needed contacts and conversations that make Twitter so engaging.

Impact:

It has already had a rather profound influence, since some of my usual bloggersphere haunts have become Twitter contacts, enabling me to have a much more direct conversation with those individuals than blog comments normally afford. Because of the very linear and immediate nature of Twitter I often use it instead of my RSS reader, I then get a direct link to the site, rather than seeing the content in sub-par experience of a reader. It has definitely altered my surfing habits and I am still finding new ways of hunting down other interesting people to follow, hashtags, MrTweet and Twitter Grader are proving quite useful.It has to be said this also offers the ambient intimacy (kudos Leisa) that appealed about Facebook, which is now neglected in lieu of Twitter.

Gaming

I got a Wii for my birthday this year and this was really the introduction of third generation console gaming into my home. Although there is a lot written about how the Wii has attracted casual gamers, the really interesting thing for me is the new way you can interact with the console and the new sorts of games that are being developed as a result. The most interesting games in my mind take advantage of these new kinds of interactions, without this the Wii is a poor relative to the other consoles, even with Nintendo's development powerhouse behind it. The other thing I like that Nintendo did was to explore mixing play with other tasks we would don't traditionally associate with gaming, such as learning or exercise, but it is interesting since as kids we learn through play.

Impact:

There have been a couple of games that although released across platforms have created a specific Wii version that utilises the controller, for me this is essential and can be the deciding factor in buying a game I would of skipped over on another console. The types of games I play has widened too.

Mobile Internet

At last thanks to the iPod and my HTC touch the mobile internet is mostly usable. It's not ready to replace my laptop yet, but on those occasions when I want internet access and I don't have access to my PC it fills the gap and works well for most sites. It has been increasingly useful when at work with restricted internet access, I can use my phone to check my email and sites like Facebook.

Impact:

Closer to ubiquitous computing. I can feed my internet addiction almost anywhere 🙂

Banking as a Service

Managing our money is dull, so it is only when the situation is dire that it becomes important enough that most of us are actually willing to do it. Usually it sits on that long list of good intentions, somewhere under painting the bedroom.

Unfortunately in a recession we need to manage our finances and anything that can make that task easier is fantastic. I have already talked about services that can help us manage our finances. But none of these services are offered by the banks themselves. Egg and First Direct offer a limited aggregation service, but with none of the additional functionality of Wesabe or Mint.

So if I start using a third party tool to help me manage my money what does this mean for the banks? Now I no longer need to visit my bank's website to check my balance, my relationship with my bank becomes increasingly filtered through my money management tool of choice, which is a one stop shop for my financial information, currently needing only to visit my bank's website inorder to perform a transaction.

To my mind the banks have a choice; they can either decide they want to retain their direct customer engagement on-line and compete to keep customers engaging with them directly, or alternatively they can outsource the customer experience to third party services and consider the approach of offering Banking as a Service.

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Essentially banks offer services to store and move money securely. If we consider the concept of Banking as a Service, like other Web Services it would allow third parties to transact and store money, using appropriate protocols over the Internet.

Currently there are several existing Web Services that enable money transfer, including Amazon Flexible Payment System and Google Checkout, but both these systems still need a bank to actually support the service. PayPal is probably one of the largest on-line money services but it is deliberately set up so that it isn't a bank and as such it doesn't come under the same regulation as banks, so there is less protection for its customers increasingly retailers are becoming unhappy with its service, but there are few alternatives.

If a bank were to offer BaaS, concentrating on the core business and enabling features such as Faster Payments would create a competitive advantage over existing services. It could also offer better connectivity for third party sites such as Wesabe, enabling them to access the financial data in more robust fashion, for example using OAuth.

If banks are not willing or capable of improving their customer engagement, but would rather concentrate on their core business, then they should do so, but they are wreckless to do so while remaining blind to the context and opportunities of the Internet as it stands now and in the future.

Seadragon on the iPhone

Microsoft has released it's first iPhone application and its a good one. Some of the more interesting things that are coming out of Microsoft labs are Photosynth and Seadragon, you can see an excellent demo of this at a TED talk from 2007:

In brief Seadragon allows you to zoom quickly and smoothly through a great deal of visual information, so much information infact that when I originally saw the demo I assumed it was a little bit of demo magic being worked on a very high end computer. The zoom interface of Seadragon would seem like a natural fit with the multi-touch interface of the iPhone, but I had always thought that the iPhone did not have the necessary computing power to run such an application, thankfully I was wrong.If you are lucky enough to have an iPhone or iPod check Seadragon out and let me know what you think.

Role of Social Media in the Credit Crunch

The one good thing about this recession is that I can actually walk around and get my Christmas shopping done in relative peace. But it is a little alarming to see most shops offering 20% off and yet still find shopping centres quiet.

As a strange form of torture at work, Sky News is broadcast all over the place and offer repeated and constant coverage of the financial crisis (NB: Why CNN find it hard to cover – can also be applied to Sky News). In fact the press has been doom and gloom about the economy for some time now, with some making comments about the Web 2.0 bubble bursting. We all know that between the rising fuel and food costs and the house prices sinking things are pretty gloomy right now.

Financial Tracking charts from Wesabe

Wesabe charts personal finances.

However I am interested in what role the web will have in helping us deal with this. We’ve had recessions before, but like American elections I don’t think we’ve had one where the web will play such a significant role, especially in how we cope with it. Firstly there is our connection to the internet both emotively and economically; while fuel bills sore the cost of broadband costs continue to fall, also we feel the internet is essential and not a luxury we can cut to save costs. So we aren’t going to us the web less now.

We already know that the internet has made us more informed consumers, thanks to price comparison sites and communities offering advice. But now most of us are feeling the pressure to have more control over our finances, so what tools can the web offer us to help us manage our financial affairs? There are some good free tools that offer some helpful budgeting and financial management services, here are some for the UK:

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Wesabe / money.telegraph

Wesabe has been around for a few years now and offers support for most major UK institutions. They offer an aggregation service, allowing you to see all your financial data in one place. There is an active community around the service, as well anonymous data aggregation, allowing Wesabe to offer advice based to you based on your particular spending trends in the context of the wider community. Other functionality includes putting statements in “plain English” and aggregating this information across the community; so if a user identifies retailer TSC1238934 as Tescos, then if you were to shop there you will automatically see Tescos in your statement.

Wesabe have released an API and offer automated tools for downloading statements as well as various widgets to make your information more accessible. Recently the Daily Telegraph has partnered with Wesabe in the UK, further adding to its credibility.

Kublax

Kublax is new to the UK market, however it is powered by Yodlee, who is one of the biggest service providers in account aggregation, having partnered with large corporate banks too. Plus because it is UK specific it supports most of the UK financial institutions. It has similar functionality to Wesabe allowing you to compare spending and to get advice based on your own spending habits, with a focus on localisation. But it doesn’t offer an API for developers to create more tools. It has some inbuilt fraud detection and alerting.

Buxfer

Buxfer’s functionality is limited in comparison, but offers budgeting tools that are particularly good at managing money between people and can automate splitting costs and tracking debt, which can be useful and relieve social tension when finances are tight.

Wigadoo

Wigadoo is a UK service for sorting out events with a group of friends. Although it is not directly about managing your own personal finances, it is a useful tool for when you have to sort out the money for a trip with a group of mates and it avoids one person having to shell out for the cost for the whole group and they then take all the risk that someone will cancel or not pay their share. You no longer have to nag friends for the money they owe you, or have to feel guilty about not paying them back yet. Making these social money situations easier is always helpful when money is short and it is easy for it to become a source of tension.

In addition to better tools to help us manage our finances, the web offers alternative ways of borrowing money to the traditional bank loans; at a time when banks are reducing risks and lending far less, peer to peer lending continue to loan money and offer a way of raising necessary cash.

Zopa

Zopa is peer to peer lending that started in the UK and has spread globally. The principle is that you can borrow or lend money from other individuals rather than from institutions. As a borrower you make a pitch about what you want the money for and how much you need, and as a lender you decide who you want to lend to, how much and at what rate. The borrower can choose the best rate from the offers made.

Although technology will be hit by the financial climate too, you need only look at the staff cuts going on across the board in tech companies to see that, I think that through these Web 2.0 offerings we can better empower ourselves with the tools to help us weather this storm.

Services like Wesabe and Kublux enable us to gather advice from a community as well as from our own actual spending data. By having all your information in one place you get a complete picture of your financial situation. However this isn’t without any risk; since your data is aggregated it is important to be considerate of where you are storing your financial information, but there are huge advantages to be had by participating, both in convenience and in access to information otherwise unavailable. There are plenty of good services out there, but I have tried to look at ones I know will work for the UK, if you know others or have any experiences with any please let me know how you have found them.

Next generation wishlists for Christmas

Writing letters to Santa has changed over the years… normally about this time of year I have to vet my Amazon wishlist and co-ordinate with my family via http://www.alliwantforchristmas.com/ to swap wishlists. The site works, but it's done nothing new in the four years I've been using it, at best it offers some possible sites you might find the item you are looking for. The advantage it offers over Amazon's service is that you aren't tied to one retailer and you can offer a link to the best place to buy an item.

There is a new site in town with appropriate Web 2.0 name too; Wishli.st is a site created for the UK market. It has some great unique features, but also some critical downfalls. It breaks the mold by allowing micro-payments towards gifts on your wishlist, so you can pick the things you really want and allow your friends and family to chip in until you have the funds to buy the item outright. The shortfall is that items have to be chosen fromand puchased at a limited list of retailers, meaning you can't find the cheapest on the market and you are restricted on the items you can actually choose.

The existing retail partnerships are predominantly with the websites like Firebox and I want one of those, sites that are aimed at people buying presents, the problem is the stuff they sell tends to be lowcost or at least fun and frivolous with a wide target audience, rather than the kind of items you want to add to a wishlist i.e. specific and specialist items that often relate to a hobby or an interest – where you need that expert existing knowledge to know which item is appropriate. I don't see the point in adding stuff from Firebox; pretty much all their stock is passable and fun, thats the point, but none of it is stuff I really want – it's the stuff i'd buy someone if they didn't have a wishlist.

The micro-payments concept is a good one, but for the idea to succeed they need remove the dependancy on retailers to allow it's use for niche markets. A Web 2.0 app that ignores the Long Tail needs to reconsider it's approach.

Future of Creative Technology Conference

Today I made a trip to DeMontford University to attend their one day conference on the Future of Creative Technology. The morning kicked off with a technology workshop with Jerry Fishenden from Microsoft. He seemed to have a bit of an agenda to push Surface, which seemed unnecessary given the audience, but he did demonstrate something I hadn't seen from Microsoft Research, that allowed 2D space to be plotted into navigable 3D space, in this case Modern art works. But there was no information given on how the data was extrapolated or an envisioned uses of it were. It lacked the crowd computing factor of Photosynth as it used a single image source.

There was a discussion around institutions versus individuals; with the idea of individuals walking away from luddite institutions to setup their own businesses. However I felt this view was rather na

Game City 3

Although it was over a fortnight ago I still want to write about the Game City 3 event that occurred in Nottingham. It was a three day event, but I was only able to attend on the last day. It is great to events like this organised outside of London.

While I enjoyed the event and I’m glad I attended, overall I’m not sure the event was as well organised as last years. The website made it hard to find some of the important information regarding the event and emails of inquiry were not replied to. The pricing structure changed from last year, previously tickets were bought for individual events, so you picked and chose which of the events that cost you were interested in and filled the gaps with the free stuff, of which there was plenty. This year is was like a more conventional conference in that you bought a ticket for the whole day, and this gave you access to all the events. The advantage of this is that there was a more consistent audience for all the events, but it wasn’t clear which events needed to be paid for and when events were cancelled there was no compensation or even notification. Thankfully the students that were there helping to run the event were helpful and friendly to make up for the lack of organisation.

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However there were some real highlights for me, including Little Big Planet developers showing the proof of concepts they used to sell the idea of Big Little Planet to Sony.

Little Big Planet proof of concept

It was nice to see the simplicity of the original concept and how it had developed.

I also really enjoyed the Guardian Games Blog Curry Night Games Quiz. Keith did a stand up job, and fun was had by all. There was a great atmosphere and plenty of friendly faces so I really enjoyed myself, even if I was useless.

Our entry into the playdo round of the quiz

Indiecade was brilliant, and despite the awkward location I think this was better than last year. It was great to see the next creation from the developer of Samorost. I really enjoyed that game as it reminds a bit a Terry Gilliam sketch. There was also an interesting Counter Strike mod based on the two factions in Northern Ireland and also documenting the graffiti and murals.

The lunchtime talk from Tom Armitage struck a nerve with me when he talked about what gaming had taught this generation, and more interestingly how the lessons learnt from gaming can be applied to other areas, such as interface design.

Tom Armitage

The other nice side effect of having a large group of gamers together was getting my ass kicked at a networked game of Mario Kart DS and making some new friends on the way. Thanks to the organisers and to all the friendly people I met.

See more of my photos on Flickr

Power of Recommendation

Recommendation has always played a significant role in purchasing decisions. This is why customer service is so important; because you knew if someone had an exceptionally good/bad experience that they would be in the pub that evening telling all their friends. So along comes the internet and suddenly that highly vocal individual can be shouting your praises/damnation to a much wider audience and much quicker. Even if the individual involved doesn’t contribute to a blog, the internet and technology means we are much more connected through means such as text message, instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook etc; meaning we have a much wider circle of influence.

Circle of Friends application on Facebook

It is much easier to maintain relationships with people over greater distances in time and space than ever before, as we aggregate our relationships and syndicate our own personal status. So now we can share with a much wider circle our opinions, as they relate to a product or service, or politics. Facebook is particularly interesting in this context because it is viral by design, pushing out your actions across your network and vice versa.

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So currently we can maintain very wide networks, but we have very little control over the depth of the network. Everyone is blanket labelled a ‘friend’ and it doesn’t reflect that there are some people with whom I’d be willing to share far more information than perhaps I would want to share with the more casual acquaintances on my network. We are just beginning to be able to start adding this depth through services like Plaxo; where we can aggregate our online presences and push them out to filtered groups. Currently the groups are very restricted to just Family, Friends, Work Colleagues. This is a gross simplification of our real very complex relationships. However as we see our ability to connect online develop we are sure to see more complex dynamics reflected. We have already seen some Facebook apps try and make a start at this e.g. Cirlce of Friends and Facebook recently introduced the feature where you can filter your news feed, weighting it more heavily towards certain people and reducing the amount of news you get from others.

Once we have this meta-data layer defined against our network, any recommendations that come out of our network can be weighted appropriately. So if a close friend says she has found a fabulous new product, this will naturally carry more weight with you. Also if a friend who works in a particular field recommends a something related to it then they are already an established voice on the matter and their reputation gives this recommendation more value. We have already seen companies paying individuals with good reputations and networks to recommend their products. However this can be detrimental to reputation as the individual is no longer seen as offering impartial advice, but rather being a walking talking advert.

This dimension of reputation occurs in a tangible way in e-commerce websites like e-Bay . but being able to define a value to a relationship, either through individual and pro-active choice, or through a passive analysis of meta-data then we can add further value to these interactions. This is quite an unusual concept to us currently – to give our relationships a value; it is something we tend to do in a subconscious way and it may seem harsh to us now, but our attention is increasingly valuable and as such I think it is inevitable that we will want to filter the information from our network.

Purchasing decisions need no longer be based on anonymous reviews of third party websites, but by drawing on the knowledge of your network. In some ways we have come full circle from when we were in the pub getting advice from our friends, only now the network we can draw on is much larger and much faster.