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05 Oct 03:58

Apple – Ghost in the machine

by windsorr

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VocalIQ helps but Siri remains miles behind Google Now.

  • Apple has acquired a small company in Cambridge, UK which specialises in the voice machine interface indicating both the weaknesses of Siri and where Apple is looking to improve the user experience.
  • Apple has confirmed the acquisition, but as has become customary, no details of the transaction were announced.
  • VocalIQ specialises in making machines more capable of understanding normal speech and working out what it is that the user is actually asking for.
  • This is something that is very important in the overall user experience but is only one factor in how Google always scores much better than its rivals in this area.
  • When Google Now is tested against Siri, Cortana and Alexa (Amazon) it consistently outperforms all of its rivals by a wide margin.
  • This is true for both its ability to understand natural speech and its ability to return the correct and most relevant answer to an inquiry or request.
  • This is an area in which Apple has struggled for some time and it is hoping that the inclusion of VocalIQ across all of its products will move it closer into contention.
  • The Apple Car aficionados are viewing VocalIQ’s partnership with General Motors announced in 2014 as another sign of Apple’s entrance into the car market but I think that this is a co-incidence.
  • In fact, I would not be surprised if this acquisition spells the end of this partnership as the automotive industry is worried that Apple and Google intend to turn them into commodity hardware makers.
  • This acquisition will certainly help but artificial intelligence has to be able to return the right answer and fulfil the request in a way that is relevant, easy and delightful for the user.
  • This requires machine learning, and it is here where Google really makes its strength felt.
  • I have long believed that Google’s machine learning is far better than anyone else’s which combined with its best in class search and reference is really what sets Google Now apart from its competitors.
  • Hence, this acquisition moves Apple along the road in terms of improving Siri and putting it into all of its devices but there remains a very long way to go before Siri can catch Google Now.
  • Google remains the leader in this field and I see nothing in the medium term that comes close to challenging that position.
  • However, RFM research indicates that Google’s grip on Android may be beginning to weaken, threatening its ability to continue growing Android revenues in the medium term.
  • This combined with its fair valuation in the market continues to leave me preferring Microsoft of which very little is expected.
05 Oct 05:41

"It’s sad, it’s another problem. We’re trying to fix it and we’re making a little bit of progress but..."

“It’s sad, it’s another problem. We’re trying to fix it and we’re making a little bit of progress but you’ve got to convince a lot of people.”

- Eddy Cue, on the topic of international roaming charges for smartphones.
04 Oct 18:35

Minimum Viable Ed-Tech: The VR Edition

An excerpt from this week’s Hack Education Weekly Newsletter

Highly recommended: tweet something trollish before you get on a plane for 10+ hours. (e.g. this tweet.) How many people will take advantage of your Internet silence to mansplain ed-tech to you?

Anyway, Mattel has a new View-Master that uses Google Cardboard. The history of the future of toys, or something. That Google Cardboard = View-Master should perhaps maybe possibly give you pause about how AMAZING Google Cardboard is. But nope. Hype and revolution. Same as it ever was…

Next person who tells me Google Cardboard is innovative gets punched in the view master

— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) October 2, 2015

More thoughts…

See, here’s the thing. I realize that Mattel’s new View-Master is appealing for the sake of nostalgia. My grandparents had an early stereoscope at their house, and it was always one of my favorite toys – the slides were fascinating because, unlike the content of the classic red View-Master I had myself, these were not full-color images of Disneyland or Disney movies. They were black-and-white scenes from from the early 1900s – I was utterly fascinated by the furniture, the costumes, the poses.

I suppose I spent a fair number of hours with one or other of these pressed to my face. But I would never call the View-Master “VR.” Yes, there’s a distortion that makes the images appear to be three-dimensional. But I’ve always imagined that “VR” meant a more immersive experience than that. The emphasis, if you will, should be on the “reality” not simply on the “virtual.”

Seriously, can you imagine if a teacher said “my students looked at pictures of Verona through the View-Master and now they have a better understanding of Romeo and Juliet”? We’d scoff, wouldn’t we? Yet that’s precisely the crap I’m hearing about Google Cardboard.

Oh, I realize that Google Cardboard seems to have impressed a lot of folks in ed-tech. But that’s a low bar. Look at Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets, for example: their big selling point – besides being free – is that they don’t have all the bells and whistles of the more bloated Microsoft Office. It’s “minimum viable productivity software.” Looks at the Google Chromebook. It’s a “minimum viable laptop.” (Let's pause and consider here what we really mean by "viable" - what gets lost.)

Similarly, you could call Google Cardboard “minimum viable virtual reality.” Here are the necessary components, which Google boasts you can assemble yourself for about $20: a piece of cardboard, 45 mm focal length lenses, magnets, Velcro, a rubber band, an optional NFC tag, and an Android phone.

The “virtual reality” offered by Google Cardboard comes via the display of a smartphone phone, distorted by those 45 mm lenses. The “virtual reality” offered by Google Expeditions, the special field trip lessons created by Google, are “panoramas,” according to the Google blog: “360° photo spheres, 3D images and video, ambient sounds – annotated with details, points of interest, and questions that make them easy to integrate into curriculum already used in schools.”

They’re videos, people. They’re photographs. The view is just held up to each student’s face rather than projected at the front of the screen. Yes, some special VR apps are being developed for Android, but the limitations of this system are pretty clear. This is no Oculus Rift, which is rumored to retail for around $350 when it eventually hits the market. Google Cardboard runs on a smartphone.

I’ve already written about how I think Google Expeditions will be just another example of how ed-tech furthers inequality. Actual, real field trips are already on decline, particularly for low-income students. And actual, real field trips really do have a lasting educational impact – one that watching a film via a device strapped on your face just can’t rival.

I’ve heard a lot lately that “no one is arguing that virtual field trips will replace field trips.” Yeah. Bullshit. Field trips have already been excised from the school day to make way for other things – more test-prep, more testing via computer, for starters. But there’s something else that Google Cardboard is going to replace too: these cheap Google Expeditions – and this flawed argument that that counts as “virtual reality” – are likely going to prevent (or at least slow) more immersive VR experiences from ever entering schools too. Why pay for that when you can convince yourself that the 21st century version of the View-Master count as VR?

04 Oct 19:00

Ingress in 2015

Yes, we’re coming up for the third anniversary of Ingress, the game; I’m one of the few from the first late-2012 wave who are still on-board.


Well, I’ve walked 1,017km playing this game. I am at real risk of dying from boredom; in that I find most forms of exercise crushingly tedious and just won’t. Ingress is excellent as a defense against sinking into an entirely sedentary lifestyle.

Also, I’ve met a ton of interesting people, done a chase scene and park sprint in San Fran, hoisted a few beers, braved howling waterfront windstorms, and found interesting places in Tokyo and Hawai’i.

How’s the game going?

A lot of people are playing. The game operators are ridiculously tight-lipped about exactly how many, but here’s a little photo-essay. Let’s start in, say, Bordeaux, France, just another city in just another country. A pretty busy Ingress scene!

Ingress in Bordeax

Now, let’s zoom out and look at all of France; at this resolution, you can only see links at least 10km in length. The big triangles are major efforts involving dozens of people working together, usually after weeks of planning.

The fact that those triangles are opaque mean they’re not just one field, they are lots and lots of stacked layers — which adds complexity to the organization.

Ingress in France

Notice that big blue wedge heading off to the Northwest? Well, it turns out that on this particular day, some Ingress players had got seriously ambitious and went transcontinental:

Trans-Atlantic Ingress

Links 200km and up.

And I don’t want to give an impression that this is all just a honkey Western-hemisphere thing; check out East Asia.

Ingress in East Asia

60km and up.

I’m impressed by the links from southeast Russia right across Mongolia into northern China, right across North Korea to Shanghai, and also over to Japan.

Everywhere, then?

Not quite. There is no Ingress being played in Syria or Libya, so I guess it doesn’t mix with war. But there are links all over Eastern Ukraine, into and out of Russia. In Pyongyang, there are a total of two occupied portals and one link between them. In that big Asian map, there’s a link right over Mongolia; zoom in on Ulaan Baatar and there’s lots of Ingress being played there. There are no links between Israel and any of its neighbors. But, unlike a year ago, there are links popping up in Sub-Saharan Africa; Mozambique, Kenya, Ghana, and so on.

Two weekends ago

There was a big “op” on; a bunch of us organized to cover Vancouver in 50 or so layers of blue. Katanashi and I took my old Audi up an abandoned logging road, then hiked a couple of km further up its undriveable part to a green portal that really had to be blue. (Bonus link, only usable by logged-in Ingress players.)

By the time we’d done our bit, it was raining sideways into gathering dusk; we were a pair of wet puppies as we inched the car round the boulders on the road downhill.

But we were smiling; Ingress will do that to you.

05 Oct 00:09

Why I'm Voting NDP

by Stephen Downes
I am voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election and I think you should too. In this post I'd like to offer some reasons why.

Why I support the NDP?  

Because the NDP stands for something, and it mostly stands for the things I stand for. The NDP, when it's at its best, offers a blend of support for personal freedom and empowerment alongside social support and public infrastructure.

The niqab issue is a case in point. The NDP stands for the right of women to choose to wear the niqab if they wish when swearing their Canadian citizenship oath. The Conservatives have declared their opposition, and are in court arguing women must be forced to bare their faces when swearing the oath. The issue is apparently costing the NDP support in Quebec.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair knew the position was unpopular and took it anyways. Quebeckers should take note of his willingness to take a principled stance in order to support the rights and personal freedoms of a minority. Mulcair has already taken stances in support of Quebec that were unpopular in the rest of Canada. He won't sell out a minority just to pander to a population's baser instincts, not even yours.

The NDP is supports personal freedom in other areas. Again taking a stand that was unpopular at the time, Tom Mulcair opposed the Conservatives' Bill C-51, which greatly extended the powers of surveillance and enforcement of Canada secret services. The NDP voted against the bill, while the Liberals and Conservatives voted in favour.

It is important to understand the sweeping nature of Bill C-51. It allows the government to monitor all aspects of a person's life and share this information with a wide range of security agencies, including those in the United States, revealing personal income tax details, credit histories, travel and vacation plans,  and more. The government can monitor and act against 'terrorist propaganda', which is anything that disrupts the normal functioning of the state - effectively lumping in environmental activists and labour unions with al Qaeda and ISIL. The bill removes most requirements for CSIS to obtain warrants and grants it "'disruptive' powers, meaning it would allow the spy agency to do things above and beyond mere observation."

Of the three major parties, only the NDP was willing to stand up and oppose this legislation when it was politically unpopular to do so.

The NDP is well-known for its stance on personal empowerment. Again, this isn't always popular; as my own brother pointed out, the NDP's support for students caters to a demographic that doesn't really vote. Maybe not. But when Rachel Notley took over in Alberta, students and universities there noted her immediate action to reverse cuts to the education system and to freeze tuition fees. This is because education is important to society as a whole, even if students don't vote.

Personal empowerment also means a living wage. True, people living on the minimum wage are also not very likely to vote (or they may be blocked from voting by one of the new voter registration laws) but the NDP has nonetheless advocated a federal minimum wage increase to $15/hour. This directly affects a hundred thousand people, and puts pressure on the provincial governments to increase their own minimum wage.

The Liberals have criticized the minimum wage promise, arguing that it only supports 135,000 people. This is true. That's all the NDP can change directly; provincial governments must do the rest. But 135,000 people is still a lot of people, and it's way better than zero, which is how many people the Liberals would help. 

And personal empowerment extends to basic respect for people. The NDP will protect pensions and roll back the retirement age to its original setting (it was extended from 65 to 67 under the Conservatives).

 It will restore benefits to veterans. It will restore the money looted from Employment Insurance, and pass on the benefits of the EI surplus back to the people who paid into it, freezing EI rates and restoring eligibility for EI benefits to people cut under the Harper government.

The NDP is also noted for its support for social programs. Though there are many, there are three that I would highlight: first, its longstanding support for public health care, with support for a national pharmacare plan. Second, it will restore funding to the CBC, which has been starved for decades. And third, it will restore funding to the network of environmental and scientific organizations that have been denuded by the Tories.

The NDP position on the environment is of significant importance. Canada's environmental agencies were slashed to the bone by the Harper government, and independent agencies called "terrorists" and subject to harassment. This will change under an NDP government, with a return to stringent emission standards and support for renewable energy.

This matters to me. And I see the impact of an NDP government every time I drive to Sackville. On the Nova Scotia side or the border, under an NDP government, dozens of windmills have taken root. On the New Brunswick side, in the same windy area, neither the Conservative nor Liberal governments have built even one windmill. It's one thing to express support for alternative energy. It's quite another to actually do something about it.

I could actually go on for some while describing the positive measures the NDP will undertake, but you get the idea.

Why I Do Not Support the Liberals

In a word, I don't trust them. The Liberals have a long history of adopting politically expedient positions during an election campaign, and then reneging on their promises once elected

For example, just days after being elected in New Brunswick, the Liberal Party reneged on two key planks in its election platform, including daycare subsidies and child care tax credits. It also announced plans to tax seniors' assets despite a campaign pledge not to tax seniors assets (it has since rescinded the tax).

This is the norm for the Liberal Party. It's an approach that dates back as far back as Pierre Trudeau's stance against wage and price controls in the 1970s. "Zap, you're frozen," said Trudeau, mockingly. Once in power, however, he very quickly instituted wage and price controls.

More recently, after Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney introduced the hated Goods and Services Tax (GST), Liberal Jean Chretien campaigned saying he would eliminate the tax if elected. Of course, he did no such thing, and we have the tax to this day.

This time around, we have Justin Trudeau suggesting the party will introduce a national child care program. They attack the NDP plan.  We know that if it's at all possible, he NDP will do it. The Liberals? Well, they've made this promise before, and never followed through. Why should we think this time is any different?

It's the same story for pharmacare. Canadians have heard this promise many times before, especially from Liberals, in successive campaigns dating back to the 1990s. And although Liberals have been in power for most of that time, they've never implemented such a plan.

Historically, the Liberals talk a good game on pharmacare, but when push comes to shove, they side with the pharmaceutical companies. That's why the extended patent [protections granted to the companies by the Mulroney conservatives were never rescinded by the Liberals, despite their vocal criticism of them while they were in opposition.
Why should we trust Justin Trudeau?

For example, he says he would legalize marijuana. Fine - I support that. But I don't trust the person who voted to impose mandatory sentences for marijuana possession to actually legalize it.

And Trudeau is announcing that he will fundd his spending promises with a series of deficits. I can understand this, and I imagine most people would respect his honesty. But back in July, when the word 'deficit' was risky politically, Trudueau was announcing that he supported a balanced budget. So after the October election, which version of Trudeau would we see making budget decisions?

If history is any indication, the Liberals will promise to support education, health care, the CBC, and all the rest of it, and dramatically decrease funding to all of these programs. We see this provincially. We see it federally.

Why should we believe him when he says he will "amend" Bill C-51? 

The Liberals sound like change, and oh! I would be so happy to see it. But the Liberal record is very clear on this point. No change. More of the same. And all the regressive measures implemented by the Conservatives over the last eight years left in place.

You can see this in action if you look in the right places. For example, in The Norther Miner, we see the Liberals attacking "the New Democratic Party’s job-killing corporate tax hike" and saying "A Liberal government will maintain the current corporate tax rates." But the Liberals know full well that there is no evidence whatsoever that lower corporate tax rates result in more jobs.

The Liberals are counting on disaffected Conservatives to remember this, and to keep the status quo by voting Liberal in this election. People seeking change should take note that they are in alliance with Conservatives opposing change should they vote Liberal. 

Why I Do Not Support the Conservatives

It turns out that when the Conservatives said they did not have a "hidden agenda" for Canada, they in fact had a hidden agenda for Canada. And over the last eight years they've destroyed much of what Canada stands for and much of what made it such a great place to live and call home.

There are so many reasons to oppose Harper it's hard to know where to start.

He's not a particularly good financial manager, having run a series of deficits during his tenure, despite not spending money on various programs that he had promised to spend (indeed, he has made the fake spending announcement a new art).

And he is an incompetent manager. This becomes especially clear in the botched military procurements, from the multi-billion dollar F-35 account, which is essentially a series of lies from beginning to end, to the botched replacement of Canada's naval forces.

He shows contempt for Parliament, for elections, for the courts, and for the people of Canada in general. His new 'fair elections act' seeks to disenfranchise voters, while his operatives have actually been found guilty of election fraud in previous elections. His current candidates won't respond to media enquiries or appear in candidates' forums. Harper himself refused to debate the other leaders in a national forum.

He is anti-data. As the Post notes, he "defunded medical and scientific research; the muzzling of government scientists; a bizarre, almost universally decried debasement of Canada’s census."

He ran on a campaign to reform the Senate and eliminate corruption, but his slew of Senate appointments have set a new standard for political corruption in Canada. And he continues to defend a position of innocence in the whole matter that defies belief and insults Canadians.

He continues to run a war in Syria that makes no sense whatsoever, believing somehow that Canada's bombing raids will somehow stop ISIL and bring peace to the Middle East. His response to the refugee crisis is not the traditionally Canadian open arms - indeed, he has basically blocked any Syrians from entering Canada at all - and instead has called on more war to solve what he says are the 'root causes'.

But this anti-refugee stance reflects a deep dislike and distrust of people who are not (as he says) "old stock" Canadians. We know what he means. It's the same distrust of brown people that causes him to impose visa requirements on people traveling to Canada from places like Brazil and Mexico. It's what led him to destroy CIDA and turn it into a branch of Business Development.

Harper's government is essentially designed to transfer wealth into multi-national corporations and to stay in power through the politics of race and division, and where necessary, media and voter manipulation.

It is a sad state of affairs that we have such a government in this country, and I sincerely hope the Liberals and NDP can agree on a system of proportional representation so that it never happens again (I'm sure the NDP will do this, but as for the Liberals, well, see above).

Why I Will Not Support the Greens

I love the Greens, I really do. But they're too small and too easily co-opted.

I don't mind small. I've participated in small campaigns in the past.

But the co-option is serious and never too far from the surface. It was most apparent with Elizabeth May was making deals with Liberal Stephane Dion.

I don't think the party is large enough and has a wide enough base of support to ensure that its candidates are not really operatives from another party seeking to undermine the progressive vote. Proportional representation will help address this, as it will ensure that the Greens obtain a fair representation in Parliament and a proper degree of funding support. Until then, I think people who are voting Green are often actually hurting their own cause.

A Note on the Balanced Budget

Frankly, I don't care whether the budget is $10 billion over or under. It's a rounding error on a spreadsheet that totals almost $300 billion. So a lot of the discussion about Trudeau's deficit or Mulcair's balanced budget is political posturing.

But I will say this:

When Harper said he balanced the budget, he lied. We're of course used to this from the Conservatives. And it is sad that he had to raid the premiums paid by Canadian workers into EI to sustain this lie.

More to the point, the record on fiscal responsibility in Canada is clear. The New Democratic Party is far more likely to be fiscally responsible, based on the evidence of federal and provincial governments over the years. The Liberals are better than the Conservatives (which isn't hard, frankly) but not as good as the NDP.

I think it is unfortunate that Mulcair has to say he will balance the budget in order to counter a deluge of misleading and downright false reporting about the so-called "tax and spend" NDP.

In the end, if you are looking for the government that will produce the best fiscal results - if the economy is your thing, if profits are what get you going, if take-home pay matters to you - then the NDP is head and shoulders your party of choice.

Right now, after decades of Liberal and Conservative governments, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This doesn't change no matter which of them is in power. The only time this ever changes is when the NDP are able to exert their influence.

These days Mulcair is attacking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's not nearly as headline-grabbing as Trudeau's attacks on Harper. But it matters a lot more to your wallet. The deal is being kept secret, and for very good reason:

"'[C]ompanies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings -- federal, state or local -- before tribunals....' And they can collect not just for lost property or seized assets; they can collect if laws or regulations interfere with these giant companies' ability to collect what they claim are 'expected future profits.'"

Think about that for a second.

What's the Liberal position on the deal? As usual we don't know - but as this article notes, it's the sort of deal they'd support. It's the sort of deal they've supported in the past.

Think about whether you want corporations to control regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings in Canada. Think hard.

And that - all in all - is why I'm voting NDP.
14 Oct 21:49

glad you asked!

by ninmah

I got a lovely email today from someone who found my visual notes. She had a few questions, and as I started to answer them, I thought, hey, this would make a good blog post, and maybe someone else has the same questions. Does it count as a frequently asked question if someone asks it at least more than once? If so, these are all FAQs, as I’ve been asked them all before. They are so well-posed that I present them to you here exactly as they were written, no editing required. The questioner’s name is omitted to protect her privacy. She prefaced her questions by saying she uses Brushes as her drawing app.

First off, how do you manage to not run out of paper (the page) when taking notes?
Practice, mostly. The screen size is good for about an hour’s worth of a keynote or presentation-style talk. A lecture might take more space, because I’d want to take more detailed notes. A conversation takes less space, because there’s a lot more pausing and back-and-forth. Or, to look at it another way, since the space is the same (one screenful), it’s good for 1 hour of keynote, 45 minutes of lecture, and maybe 2 hours of conversation or meeting. Sometimes I don’t fill up the whole screen, and sometimes I do need to continue on to a second one.

I also break up my notes with larger headers and smaller images and detail text. If you compare my earlier work with some of my later work, you’ll see that it took me a few tries to get control of the sizing so that it’s consistent throughout the page. Sometimes I still don’t nail it ;-)

How do you manage to write the dot above the letter “i”? Every time I try to touch the screen with one finger, the menu shows up.
You’re not the first person with this question. It turns out I didn’t discover it because I don’t usually punctuate, I use all caps most of the time, and even when I use lower case, I don’t dot my i’s. You need to move your finger (or stylus) in a tiny circle, curve, or up-down motion to dot your i’s or make a period. It takes a little practice to break yourself of the tapping habit.

What zoom level do you prefer to take notes in?
I’m all over the map. The first thing I do is to make a sizing mark for my header — a little stroke at 100% zoom to show myself how tall to make the header letters. This varies depending on the number of words I want to write. Then I zoom in so that size is comfortable and I write the header. Then I zoom out to make sure I got it straight and didn’t switch sizes in the middle and so forth. Everything else kind of keys off that — topic headers are the next largest thing, but smaller than the page header, and detail text gets smaller in varying degrees. Sometimes I emphasize something by making it larger than the header. When I’m writing the smallest details I’m often zoomed in all the way. I move my screen a lot while I work. It’s one reason I hesitate to project from my iPad as I work — I’m afraid of making the audience seasick.

How do you color the background (the paper) and the inside of the letters? And do you do that after you’ve finished notetaking or while doing it?
I add a layer, drag it under the text layer, and use a wider brush to put the color where I want it. This way, I’m coloring under the outline of the letters so it looks neater. I usually have one layer for the lettering (the black text and outlines), one for the coloring of letters and objects, and another one at the bottom for the background colors. Sometimes there’s an upper layer with borders, and usually there’s one more layer with miscellaneous stuff that gets added at odd times. Layers are a great way to experiment with different coloring options, too.

I usually go back and forth between coloring and writing. Sometimes, there’s a rambly part of the talk or conversation that doesn’t need to be recorded, and that’s a good time to color. Other times, the speaker is so jazzed and spot-on that I end up doing all the coloring after the talk is over. Both methods work. I usually add the background coloring last.

Do you prefer using the stylus or your fingertip while taking notes (in Brushes)?
My fingertip, by a lot. I have a stylus, but I find that it gets in the way. Zooming, changing colors and brushes, and even writing and drawing come more naturally to me when I’m using my finger. This is very much a personal preference — I know people who are artistic geniuses with the stylus, but can’t do a thing with their fingertips.

Any other tips worth listening to before I try making better notes?
You’re assuming any of these tips are worth listening to :-) The best thing you can do is to practice and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Any time you can, whip out the iPad and take notes, even if you only end up filling part of the screen. Pixels are cheap :-)

If you’re not confident about your lettering, practice that. Just write alphabets or spelling lists or shopping lists or journal entries. I’ve changed my handwriting several times over the course of my life, just because I wanted to see different shapes in my letters. Takes a lot of practice to turn it into habit, but if you’re taking handwritten notes, it’s worth it.

Layers are really handy for experimenting, as I said; if you think something might not work, just pop up a new layer and try it on that. You can always merge it down if you like it, or trash it if you don’t.

To capture a lot of thoughts really quickly, just write enough of the word to remind you what it was and you can go finish it later. For instance, if the speaker is giving a list of five things, and she’s going really quickly, just write the first one or two words (or partial words) and leave space to fill in after she’s done with the list. It’s very unsatisfying to miss things because you’re still writing the first few words.

Thanks for asking, and good luck with your foray into visual practice!

04 Oct 10:26

We Are Watching, and You Will be Counted

by Tony Hirst

Two or three weeks ago, whilst in Cardiff, I noticed one of these things for the first time:

20682320123_203e79367d_o 20682320123_203e79367d_o_jpg

It’s counts the number of cyclists who pass by it and is a great example of the sort of thing that could perhaps be added to a “data walk”, along with several other examples of data revealing street furniture as described by Leigh Dodds in Data and information in the city.

It looks like could be made by a company called Falco – this Falco Cycle Counter CB650 (“[a]lready installed for Cardiff County Council as well as in Copenhagen and Nijmegen”)? (Falco also make another, cheaper one, the CB400.)

From the blurb:

The purpose of the Falco Cycle Counter is to show the number of cyclists on a bicycle path. It shows the number of cyclists per day and year. At the top of the Counter there is a clock indicating time and date. On the reverse it is possible to show city map or other information, alternatively for a two-way bicycle path it is possible to have display on both side of the unit. Already installed for Cardiff County Council as well as in Copenhagen and Nijmegen, three very strong cycling areas, the cycle counter is already proving to be an effective tool in managing cycle traffic.

As with many of these sorts of exhibit, it can phone home:

When configured as a Cycle Counter, the GTC can provide a number of functions depending on the configuration of the Counter. It is equipped with a modem for a SIM card use which provides a platform for mobile data to be exported to a central data collection system.

This makes possible a range of “on-… services”, for example: [g]enerates individual ‘buy-in’ from local people via a website and web feed plus optional Twitter RSS enabling them to follow the progress of their own counter personally.

I was reminded of this appliance (and should really have blogged it sooner) by a post today from Pete Warden – Semantic Sensors – in which he remarked on spotting an article about “people counters” in San Francisco that count passing foot traffic.

In that case, the counters seem to be provided by a company called Springboard who offer a range of counting services using a camera based counting system: a small counting device … mounted on either a building or lighting/CCTV column, a virtual zone is defined and pedestrians and cars who travel through the zone are recorded.

Visitor numbers are recorded using the very latest counting software based on “target specific tracking”. Data is audited each day by Springboard and uploaded daily to an internet server where it is permanently stored.

Target specific tracking software monitors flows by employing a wide range of characteristics to determine a target to identify and track.

Here’s an example of how it works:

As Pete Warden remarked, [t]raditionally we’ve always thought about cameras as devices to capture pictures for humans to watch. People counters only use images as an intermediate stage in their data pipeline, their real output is just the coordinates of nearby pedestrians.

He goes on:

Right now this is a very niche application, because the systems cost $2,100 each. What happens when something similar costs $2, or even 20 cents? And how about combining that price point with rapidly-improving computer vision, allowing far more information to be derived from images?

Those trends are why I think we’re going to see a lot of “Semantic Sensors” emerging. These will be tiny, cheap, all-in-one modules that capture raw noisy data from the real world, have built-in AI for analysis, and only output a few high-level signals.

For all of these applications, the images involved are just an implementation detail, they can be immediately discarded. From a systems view, they’re just black boxes that output data about the local environment.

Using cameras to count footfall appears to be nothing new – for example, the Leeds Data Mill openly publish Leeds City Centre footfall data collected by the council from “8 cameras located at various locations around the city centre [which monitor]numbers of people walking past. These cameras calculate numbers on an hourly basis”. I’ve also briefly mentioned several examples regarding the deployment of related technologies before, for example The Curse of Our Time – Tracking, Tracking Everywhere.

From my own local experience, it seems cameras are also being used (apparently) to gather evidence about possible “bad behaviour” by motorists. Out walking the dog recently, I noticed a camera I hadn’t spotted before:


It’s situated at the start of a hedged both sides footpath that runs along the road, although the mounting suggests that it doesn’t have a field of view down the path. Asking in the local shop, it seems as if the camera was mounted to investigate complaints of traffic accelerating off the mini-roundabout and cutting-up pedestrians about to use the zebra-crossing:


(I haven’t found any public consultations about mounting this camera, and should really ask a question, or even make an FOI request, to clarify by what process the decision was made to install this camera, when it was installed, for how long, for what purpose, and whether it could be used for other ancillary purposes.)

On a slightly different note, I also note from earlier this year that Amazon acquired internet of things platform operator 2lemetry, “an IoT version of Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) middleware solutions, providing device connectivity at scale, cross-communication, data brokering and storage”, apparently. In part, this made me think of an enterprise version of Pachube, as was (now Xively?).

So is Amazon going to pitch against Google (in the form of Nest), or maybe Apple, perhaps building “home things” services around a home hub server? After all, they have listening connected voice for your home already in the form of the voice controlled Amazon Echo (a bit like a standalone Siri, Cortana or Google Now). (Note to self: check out the Amazon Amazon Alexa Voice Services Developer Kit some time…)

As Pete Warden concluded, it seems obvious to me that machine vision is becoming a commodity“. What might we expect as and when listening and voice services also become a commodity?

02 Oct 20:32

How to buy an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus

by Dan Frakes

iPhone 6sIt used to be that almost everyone bought an iPhone the same way: Sign a two-year contract, and you get the phone for a relatively modest up-front cost. The difference between the full retail price of the phone and what you paid was hidden in the cost of your monthly plan.

Things have gotten a bit more complicated in the past couple years, however, as most carriers are abandoning these kinds of contracts (or at least shifting away from them) in favor of selling phones at full price up front or offering financing or leasing programs to spread that cost—transparently—over a year or more. Even Apple has started offering financing plans.

Here’s a look at the various options you have for purchasing a new iPhone in the United States, either directly from Apple or through one of the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon). For the most part, the discussion below assumes that you’re not currently tied to a carrier contract that would prevent you from purchasing a new phone. If you’re on such a contract, or if you live in an area where a particular carrier has especially bad or good service, those factors will of course affect your decision.1

The big takeaways

We get into the details (and costs) of all the options below, but here’s the executive summary:

  • If you want to own your phone immediately so you have the flexibility to sell that phone or upgrade it at any time, buying it outright is the way to go—but of course this option has the highest initial cost ($749 for a 64GB iPhone 6s, for example). The price is the same from Apple or any carrier, but buying from Apple likely means easier (or at least quicker) unlocking.
  • For the simplest way to upgrade yearly, regardless of your carrier, Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is the best bet. This financing plan simply splits the cost of an iPhone and AppleCare+ over 24 months, with no fees. (For example, you’d pay around $37 per month for a 64GB iPhone 6s with AppleCare+.) After 12 months of payments, you can return that phone to get a new one and start a new financing plan. Verizon offers a similar financing plan, but Apple’s is a better option, even for Verizon customers—you save only about $5 per month with Verizon, but you lose AppleCare+. AT&T also offers financing plans, but if you expect to upgrade annually, you’ll pay less each year with Apple’s plan than with AT&T’s.
  • If you want AppleCare+ coverage, Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is especially appealing, because you’ll pay only $64.50 per year if you upgrade annually—when you upgrade to a new phone, the financing plan and the AppleCare+ contract both renew. Purchasing an iPhone from a carrier, or from Apple at full price, requires you to purchase a new $129 AppleCare+ plan each time you change phones, because the plan is not transferable.
  • For the lowest monthly payments, the option to upgrade more frequently than once per year, and the option to buy the iPhone later at less than MSRP, T-Mobile’s current promotional leasing plans are very attractive, especially if you have a recent smartphone to trade in. For example, with a $100 down payment and an iPhone 6 to trade in, you’d pay (after bill credits) only $4 per month for a 64GB iPhone 6s. In addition, if you decide to buy that iPhone 6s, the net cost (again, after bill credits) will be less than buying the phone at list price—and the more monthly payments you make, the more bill credits you receive, so the lower the net cost of the phone. T-Mobile is also attractive if you’re thinking of switching carriers, thanks to other generous incentives. However, first make sure T-Mobile’s cellular coverage is solid in the areas you’ll be using the phone.
  • Sprint has similarly inexpensive leasing plans, but with fewer “switcher” incentives and no savings without a trade-in. We also don’t recommend Sprint as a carrier.

Read on for all the details.

iPhone 6s box

Paying in full up front

Simple, and you can upgrade at any time.

The least complicated way to buy an iPhone is to pay for it outright, at a cost of $649 or more depending on storage capacity (16 GB, 64 GB, or 128 GB) and screen size (iPhone 6s or 6s Plus). All four major US carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) offer the option to pay in full, as does Apple itself.

With this approach, you pay full price for a new phone each time you upgrade, though you can sell your previous phone to help defray the cost. Buying outright obviously has the highest up-front cost, but requires no hoops to jump through and no long-term commitments.

Note that when you buy from a carrier, you get a phone set up for that carrier’s network. However, carriers are obligated to unlock fully paid phones—if not immediately, then within a relatively short time frame (a few months). Similarly, if you buy directly from Apple over the first few months of a new phone’s release, your phone will be tied to your carrier network—this practice is an attempt to reduce the number of phones that scalpers can buy and resell—but you can ask your carrier at any time to unlock the phone. Apple usually starts selling fully unlocked iPhones a few months after their debut.

Using an “upgrade” plan

Spread the cost over monthly payments.

If you don’t want to pay the full cost of the phone up front, all four major US carriers, as well as Apple itself, offer plans that spread the cost over monthly payments. Depending on the plan, you’re either leasing your phone (making payments to use it for a particular length of time, after which you’ll return it to the carrier) or financing its cost (making payments toward full ownership of the phone).

Financing plans are generally (but not always) the better approach if you want to spread the cost of the phone over, say, 24 months and wind up owning the phone at the end of the payment schedule. A lease is a good option if you want to upgrade to a new iPhone every year, trading in this year’s handset. However, making matters more confusing, both leasing and financing plans offer options for upgrading your phone after a given amount of time, and most give you the option to “pay off” the phone to own it—letting you then sell it, if you want. So the distinction between leasing and financing is, for the most part, academic.

We discuss below the different payment plans that Apple, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon offer. Because we highly recommend staying away from 16GB iPhones, our calculations are based on the $749 iPhone 6s with 64 GB of storage; picking a different capacity or opting for the iPhone 6s Plus will of course affect the costs. We also briefly address AppleCare+ and carrier insurance plans.

As mentioned above, an alternative to choosing an upgrade plan is to purchase the phone outright and then sell it the following year to help defray the cost of your next phone. But if you cringe at the idea of paying $650 to $950 up front, note that you could also take this approach using an upgrade plan: You’d make monthly payments until you’re ready to upgrade, at which point you’d pay off the balance of the phone’s price to own it—and thus sell it. This approach might even save you more money than upgrading through the upgrade plan. For example, last year’s 64GB iPhone 6 in good condition is currently selling for $400 to $500 on the used market; applying that amount to the cost of an iPhone 6s would likely save you more, overall, than if you were on an upgrade plan and upgraded to the iPhone 6s through the plan. The downside to this approach is having to deal with the messy process of selling the phone, and the market for selling a phone may of course change over the next year. But it’s still something to keep in mind.

Apple logo

Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program

A simple choice for annual upgraders who want AppleCare+.

Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is simple and straightforward, though it isn’t always the least-expensive option. (It’s also available, at least for now, only in Apple retail stores.) For fixed monthly payments—the only up-front cost is the sales tax on the phone’s full retail price, assuming your state has sales tax—you get an unlocked phone (initially activated on the carrier of your choice) with the AppleCare+ Protection Plan bundled in. Those monthly payments are simply the retail price of the phone plus the price of AppleCare ($129), divided by 24 months.

After 12 months of payments, you can trade the phone in, which cancels that payment plan and starts the whole process over again with a new phone. Alternatively, you can make payments for the full 24 months and own the phone. (When you finance with Apple, you’re actually taking out a 24-month, no-interest loan with Citizens One—Apple isn’t involved with the financial side of the agreement.)

For example, under the iPhone Upgrade Program, a 64GB iPhone 6s costs $36.58 a month ($749 plus $129 divided by 24). If you upgrade to a new phone after 12 months, you will have paid $439. After 24 months, you will have paid $878—the full value of the phone plus $129 for AppleCare+.

Because the phone isn’t tied to a carrier, you can move it to another carrier at your convenience. We also prefer AppleCare+ to carrier insurance plans because of its lower monthly cost and lower per-incident deductible, though unlike most carrier plans, AppleCare+ doesn’t cover loss or theft—only accidental damage and standard warranty issues—and you get only two claims over the plan’s two years. (If you upgrade your phone after the first year, the counter resets—the new phone gets the full two years of coverage.)

AT&T logo


The highest price for annual upgraders.

AT&T offers several financing options, depending on whether you’d rather pay nothing up front or make smaller monthly payments. If you want to be able to upgrade after the first year, either the AT&T Next 12 plan or the AT&T Next Down Payment plan is the best bet—though given the current promotions the other carriers offer and the benefits of Apple’s upgrade program, we recommend against AT&T’s Next plans in general right now.

The Next 12 plan requires $0 down regardless of which phone you choose, with monthly installments of $37.50 for the 64GB iPhone 6s. The Next Down Payment plan requires a 30 percent down payment, but you then pay less each month—for example, for a 64GB iPhone 6s, you’d pay $225 up front, but the subsequent monthly payments would be only $18.75. (For both plans, you pay local sales tax, if applicable, when you get the phone.)

With both plans, you can upgrade to a new phone after a year by turning in the current phone and starting a new plan (at which point you will have paid $450 on a 64GB iPhone 6s).

Alternatively, you can choose to continue making monthly payments until you’ve paid the full retail price of the phone, at which point you’ll own it. (This will take 20 months on the Next 12 plan, or 28 months on the Next Down Payment plan.) Or you can pay the remaining balance of the price of the phone at any time to own it earlier.

For even lower monthly payments, AT&T also offers the Next 18 and Next 24 plans. Next 18 requires lower payments than Next 12, but you can’t upgrade until after 18 months; similarly, Next 24 has even lower monthly payments, but you can’t upgrade until after 24 months. As with Next 12, when you upgrade to a new phone, you have to turn in the old phone—if you want to own a phone, you must pay the remainder of the cost of the phone (a total of 24 months of payments for Next 18, or 30 monthly payments for Next 24). Given how long you must wait to upgrade, and the fact that you’re getting no discount off the price of the phone, neither of these plans is appealing.

If you want to upgrade earlier, the Next plans let you do so at any time after the first two monthly installments. However, you must pay the remainder of the amount it would normally cost you to upgrade after 12 months (Next 12 or Next Down Payment), 18 months (Next 18), or 24 months (Next 24)—and you must turn in the phone. So, for example, the Next 12 plan charges $37.50 per month for a 64GB iPhone 6s; your normal upgrade period is one year, at which point you will have paid $450. So to upgrade after two months, you’d have to pay $375 ($450 minus $37.50 minus $37.50) and turn in your phone. To upgrade after six months, you’d pay $225 and turn in your phone. These are terrible deals on the Next 12 plans, and they’re even worse on the Next 18 and Next 24 plans. (You’d be better off paying off the full value of the phone and then selling it.)

Of AT&T’s options, Next 12 makes the most sense for annual upgraders because it doesn’t lock you into a longer-term commitment; and though you have larger monthly payments than with AT&T’s other plan, you end up paying less of the total cost of the phone before trading it in than with those plans. However, assuming you upgrade your phone every year, you’re paying more over the course of that year ($450 for the aforementioned 64GB iPhone 6s) than you would through Apple’s upgrade program ($439)—and Apple’s program includes the added protection of AppleCare+. If you’re sticking with AT&T, we recommend Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program unless for some reason (credit history or distance from an Apple Store, for example) you can’t take advantage of that program.

(Note that if you use AT&T and subscribe to one of the company’s Mobile Share Value plans for phone/data service, you get a service discount of $15 or $25 per month by bringing your own phone. However, it can be a phone you’ve purchased elsewhere, a phone you’re financing through Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, or even a phone you’re financing through one of AT&T’s own Next plans. So this discount doesn’t affect where or how you should buy your phone.)

Sprint logo


Inexpensive, but recommended only if you’re tied to the network and you never want to own your phone.

If you’re stuck with Sprint for some reason—it’s not a great carrier for most peopleand you have an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus to trade in, Sprint’s monthly prices are crazy competitive thanks to current promotions. The company’s low-cost iPhone Forever plan is essentially designed as a continual lease: Every year, you turn in your phone for a new one. For example, turn in an iPhone 6, and you pay only $5.77 a month for a 64GB iPhone 6s. (You might see a $1 monthly rate advertised, but that’s for the 16GB model, which we don’t recommend.) Over the course of a year, that adds up to $69.24, at which point you can upgrade to next year’s iPhone model, although that phone’s monthly payment will jump to the standard rate of $22 per month.

Trading in an iPhone 5s gets you a promotional rate of $14.77 per month for a 64GB iPhone 6s on the iPhone Forever plan; any other working, unlocked smartphone gets you a $19.77 monthly rate. In these cases, your cost for 12 months would be $177.24 or $237.24, respectively—after which, again, you’ll be able to upgrade to next year’s iPhone. Without trading in a phone, the monthly rate for the plan is $26.77; after 12 months of payments, you will have paid $321.24. These two numbers (for an iPhone 5s trade-in and for no trade-in) are slightly lower than T-Mobile’s promotional prices, below—over the course of 12 months, you’d pay a total of $30.76 less with Sprint if you trade in an iPhone 5s, or $7.76 with no trade-in—but T-Mobile is a much better carrier for most people.

If you’re stuck with Sprint, the way to get the most out of the company’s promotional pricing is to trade in a recent smartphone, make 22 months of monthly payments on a 64GB iPhone 6s, and then pay a final “balloon payment” of $187 to own the phone. This option gets you the iPhone 6s for a total of $313.94 if you trade in a (fully paid) iPhone 6, $511.94 if you trade in a iPhone 5s, or $621.94 if you trade in any other smartphone. You can then keep the phone or sell it.

(If you don’t trade in a phone, and you want to own this one eventually, you’ll end up paying the sticker price of the phone over 22 months—there’s nothing appealing about the Sprint plan in this scenario compared with other carrier’s financing plans.)

Alternatively, Sprint offers a $0-down financing plan called Easy Pay. You pay the full price of the phone over 24 months—resulting in monthly payments of $31.25 for the 64GB iPhone 6s—and you own the phone at the end of the 24-month term. You have no reason to do this with Sprint, however, as opting for the company’s own iPhone Forever plan without a trade-in gets you to the same place a couple months early (after 22 months of lower payments and the aforementioned balloon payment) and also gives you the option to upgrade your phone after 12.

T-Mobile logo


The most complex option, but the lowest monthly payments and the best way to get an iPhone at a discount.

T-Mobile’s current promotional lease plans are quite appealing, though a bit more confusing than the options from other carriers. The company’s Jump On Demand plan divides the price of a 16GB iPhone 6s over 24 months to arrive at a base rate of $27 per month (or divides the price of a 16GB iPhone 6s Plus to get a rate of $31 per month). But instead of paying a higher monthly rate for more capacity, you tack on a down payment of $100 for a 64GB iPhone or $200 for a 128GB model. With the Jump On Demand plan, you can upgrade up to three times a year: Simply order a new phone, return your old one, and start paying the new phone’s monthly rate.

However, thanks to T-Mobile’s current promotion, you don’t actually pay that base rate. For starters, you get an automatic credit toward your T-Mobile service of $7, $8, or $9 per month (for a 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB phone, respectively). But if you trade in a phone, you get additional credit: $15 more per month for an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, or one of this year’s Samsung Galaxy phones; $10 more per month for an iPhone 5s or a Samsung Galaxy S5 or Note 4; or $5 more per month for any other phone. In other words, if you trade an iPhone 6 in to get a 64GB iPhone 6s, you’ll end up paying $100 up front and then $27 per month for the new phone—but you’ll be getting $23 in monthly bill credits, for a net monthly payment (taking into account the cost of your T-Mobile service) of $4. You of course have to own the phone you trade in, but T-Mobile will even cover the remaining balance you owe your current carrier to own the phone and then let you trade in that phone.

After 18 months, you can choose to make a $164 balloon payment to own the iPhone 6s outright (or $192 for an iPhone 6s Plus), bringing the total cost of buying our recommended 64GB iPhone 6s to $336 if you trade in one of last year’s phones, well below the $749 retail price. It’s not quite as inexpensive as Sprint’s current offerings, but T-Mobile is a better carrier, you can trade in an Android phone if you’re a switcher, and with T-Mobile you can upgrade to the next phone earlier.

If you decide you want to own your phone before your 18-month lease is up, rather than trade it in for an upgrade, you can, though figuring out what you’ll have to pay might be a bit confusing. First, you get credit for the “full” amount of your monthly payments so far ($27 per month for the iPhone 6s, or $31 for the iPhone 6s Plus)—you get to “keep” the bill credits you received each month. You then pay however many monthly payments, at the full rate, that remain out of 18, plus the final balloon payment ($164 for the 6s or $192 for the 6s Plus). This may sound like a lot, but as long as you’ve made even a single monthly payment (and thus received the bill credits), it’s still less expensive overall than paying for the phone up front—and the longer you make those monthly payments, the more you’ll save.

However, note that if you opt to upgrade or buy the phone early, the next phone you get on T-Mobile probably won’t be eligible for the same promotional rates. The rates are still likely to be less than what you’d get from other carriers, but they won’t be as crazy low as with the current promotions. (T-Mobile’s strategy appears to be to acquire customers with steeply discounted pricing, hoping that many of those customers will quickly “jump” to another phone at full—or at least less-discounted—price. That would be good for T-Mobile, but probably not for you. If you opt for T-Mobile, you’ll save more by sticking with your promotional plan and upgrading after a year or more.)

Finally, note that if you switch to T-Mobile, the company will reimburse you for your current carrier’s early-termination fees and, as mentioned above, any remaining payments on your current phone—you then trade it in to get whatever tier of promotional pricing you qualify for. Also, T-Mobile’s Lifetime Coverage Guarantee lets you walk away with no fees and an unlocked phone after 30 days if you don’t like T-Mobile’s network coverage. (You must continue to make the monthly phone payments, but you can use the phone on any carrier. The downside is that you’ll lose the promotional pricing—your monthly payments will jump to $27.) Alternatively, you can walk away and turn in your phone, and you’re completely free of T-Mobile.

Though the options from T-Mobile and Sprint are somewhat similar, we think T-Mobile’s current promotion is better for most people: T-Mobile is less expensive over the course of the contract if you have no phone to trade in, the lease period is shorter (18 months compared to 21 or 22 months), the final balloon payment to own the phone is smaller ($164 versus $187 for the 64GB iPhone 6s), you can trade in a wider range of phones, and T-Mobile is a more reliable carrier.

Verizon logo


Roughly comparable to Apple’s financing plan if you know you’re sticking with Verizon and you don’t want AppleCare+.

Our current favorite carrier in terms of coverage offers only a standard financing plan called the Device Payment plan, and it’s the most similar to Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program: The monthly payment is simply the full price of a given iPhone model divided by 24. (You pay sales tax on the full price of the phone up front.) Pay for the full 24 months, and you own the phone; alternatively, you can turn in your iPhone after 12 months and upgrade to the latest model, initiating a new 24-month financing plan. (Verizon offers the Device Payment plan for other phones, too, but only the iPhone currently gets the option for annual upgrades.) You can even upgrade after only six months if you pay off half the sticker price of the phone, or you can pay off the full sticker price at any time to own the iPhone outright.

Under this plan, a 64GB iPhone 6s costs $31.25 per month; after 12 months, you will have paid $375. This is less than with Apple’s plan but, again, it doesn’t include AppleCare+. If you’re sure you’ll be sticking with Verizon, and if you don’t expect to get AppleCare+ (or if you intend to purchase carrier insurance instead—see below), Verizon’s plan is an attractive, straightforward financing option. But going with Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program costs only an additional $5 per month, includes AppleCare+, and gives you the option to change carriers at any time.

AppleCare+ or insurance?

In general, we recommend purchasing some kind of insurance for your smartphone, as it’s a very expensive gadget that you likely use—and potentially abuse—daily. You generally have two options: Apple’s AppleCare+ program or insurance from your carrier. Which to choose depends on what’s more important to you: coverage against loss or theft, or everything else.

AppleCare+ costs $129 for two years of coverage if you buy it for a phone you’ve purchased outright or one you’ve bought (or are financing) from a carrier; as part of Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, it costs $5.38 per month (with that cost incorporated into your monthly phone payment). Carrier insurance plans range from around $7 per month for AT&T and Verizon to $8 for T-Mobile and $11 for Sprint.

However, the plans aren’t equivalent. An AppleCare+ plan includes free technical support, an extended warranty for hardware and software issues, and coverage of accidental damage. Apple will diagnose problems (by phone or at the Genius Bar at any Apple retail store), offer assistance in using the phone and its built-in apps and services, and replace a defective phone, for no additional charge. If you damage the phone accidentally, a $99 deductible gets you a replacement—usually a like-new refurbished unit. (You get two such claims during the two-year life of the plan; if you’re on Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, your plan—and its two-claim limit—renews each time you get a new phone.) This coverage extends to the iPhone’s battery and earphones as well.

Carrier insurance will also replace your phone if it’s damaged or otherwise broken, but the deductible is much higher: $175 for T-Mobile or $200 for the other three carriers. And carrier insurance doesn’t include technical support or hands-on assistance. On the other hand, carrier insurance does cover theft and loss—an appealing advantage.

Overall, we think AppleCare+ is the better option for most people because of the lower replacement deductible, free tech support, and extended warranty. And if you’re paying for your phone through Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, it’s built right into your monthly payments for half the cost of buying AppleCare+ separately every year.

On the other hand, if you’re buying your phone through your carrier and you plan to upgrade every year, you’re essentially paying twice as much for AppleCare+, because you can’t transfer it to the new phone when you upgrade—you’ll pay $129, but you’ll lose the second year of coverage when you turn in your phone for an upgrade. In those situations, you’ll want to determine for yourself what’s more important: quality tech support and lower repair and damage-replacement costs, or loss/theft coverage.

That said, if you really need the coverage, nothing is stopping you from getting AppleCare+ and carrier insurance, with the latter essentially serving as loss/theft protection. However, you should first check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance to see if it includes coverage for smartphone theft or loss.


1. You shouldn’t worry too much about activation fees, which vary slightly from carrier to carrier. These fees will be much smaller than the amount you’re dropping on the phone, and it’s rarely worth leaving a carrier you like for a meager discount on activation fees. Jump back.

04 Oct 00:00

The 'no-tech' school where screens are off limits – even at home


Sally Weale, The Guardian, Oct 05, 2015

Doug Belshaw shared this item this week (in his newly and inappropriately named 'Thought Shrapnel' newsletter). It's a paean from the Guardian to a school that has banned all screens and electronics at home and in the classroom. The parents are concerned about the impact of technology; I would be far more concerned about the lack of it. But don't take my word for it. Belshaw also recommends "this eviscerating takedown by Laura Hilliger." She writes, "Teaching kids how to think about technology and be digital citizens is not going to become outdated. There are literacies to be explored, we have to teach people how to live and participate with new technologies. In 50 years the only thing that’ s going to be outdated is the idea that you can get by in this world without some basic understandings about tech, networks, human communications."

[Link] [Comment]
04 Oct 11:00

What became of Trade Secrets

I did a podcast in 2004 with Adam Curry called Trade Secrets.

The website is archived here.

Originally it was at, a domain which I later gave away. The links to the MP3s on that site are broken.

However, I have a separate zip archive of the MP3s.

And an OPML file with descriptions of each of the episodes.

PS: It's somewhat demonstrative of the archiving problem to note that in 2008 I thought I had rescued these files once and for all, for all posterity, only to find that I remapped the domain, and in doing so broke all the links. This time it's all on That will be the last domain I decommission. But in a couple of years this stuff will probably all be gone, yet again.

04 Oct 17:30

Cars need to become more modular to keep up with pace of mobile

by Ted Kritsonis

It’s common knowledge that buying a car is meant to be a 10-year investment, sometimes even longer. Considering how reliable and efficient vehicle technology has become under the hood, the same can’t be said of the longevity attached to what’s in the dash.

The auto industry doesn’t address it openly, but the people running these companies are likely all too aware of the issue facing them. If they can’t keep up with the rapid pace of mobile — not just in software, but also in hardware — they may have no choice but to cede control of their respective dashboards to outsiders.

For any automaker, this is like giving a complete stranger the keys to a dream car. Since the dawn of the industry over 100 years ago, an elaborate supply chain has sustained it until today, where suppliers produce components adhering to strict guidelines. Vehicles are designed and engineered over about three or four years, including the technology found in the dash. Everything is made to spec, both in hardware and software, with as much proprietary functionality as possible.

As vehicles have become increasingly computerized, complex and integrated technology has made the dashboard more than just a radio and in-car climate control. A widescreen display is now a regular feature, as are steering wheel controls, and sometimes, even backup cameras. The usefulness of many of these new features is easy to understand, and their linear functions maintain without much upkeep. Once you bring the smartphone into the cabin, however, all bets are off.

The conundrum

In-car smartphone integration, for lack of a better term, is a mess. Even high-end vehicles retailing for over $100,000 are not immune, rolling off assembly lines with infotainment systems that are outdated almost as quickly as they’re sold at the dealership. It seems just a little paradoxical that older vehicles, lacking in sophistication, offer a greater opportunity for upgrades.

And yet, that’s where the industry sits today. The dash is now one of the main battlegrounds automakers compete in. Each system has a name — Sync, Uconnect, ConnectedDrive, and on and on. They are marketed as being user-friendly and convenient, some with voice control, others with snazzy layouts meant to evoke the feeling of being in control.

Except technology is moving too fast for all of them, leading to a serious conundrum. Putting SIM cards and Wi-Fi antennas in vehicles is a way to download software updates over the air to improve and augment the existing system. But how do you keep that system current when it was already practically obsolete from the beginning? It’s like updating a Google Nexus One from 2010 to run Android 6.0 Marshmallow with aplomb five years later. The hardware can’t handle it, and so, it either continues slogging as is, or it’s discarded for something newer and better.

That might come off as a false equivalency because it’s comparing what was a $500 device to one that is tens of thousands of dollars. But it’s not. The difference is that most consumers don’t purchase new cars for themselves every year or two. Next to a home, it’s a huge financial commitment that should last a long time. After all, vehicle efficiency isn’t just about mileage and emissions, it’s also about durability and performance.

Dash ripped out_1

Hardware woes

As an example, Ford still offers Sync 1 as a lower-end option for its vehicles, running on the same Microsoft-driven hardware as it did in 2007. Sync 3, which just launched in September, runs on entirely different hardware and software from BlackBerry subsidiary QNX, meaning there is no backward compatibility. If you bought a 2015 model Ford or earlier, you won’t be getting anything Sync 3 has, including Siri and Spotify integration, among other things.

The company offers no modular upgrade for vehicles running the older version of Sync, opting instead to roll out software updates to keep it going. No way to change the components inside. No way to reap the benefits of the latest version of Sync. No chance that a smartphone will be any easier or less dangerous to use while driving.

Ford is merely an example of an industry-wide approach. Consider that Sync 3 is a rare case in that it doesn’t use a resistive touchscreen — the screen technology of the Palm Pilot era. Sit in virtually any vehicle manufactured up to today with a screen in it, and it will either be resistive or offer no touch at all (I’m looking at you, German automakers).

Imagine a scenario where you can go to a dealership for servicing, and pay to upgrade to a newer chip, screen or head unit. So many aspects of a vehicle can be upgraded, so why not the infotainment system? The aftermarket has long serviced those needs, and where that industry seemed destined to die a slow death only a few years ago, in-car connectivity may put it through a renaissance of sorts. Despite the complexity of some vehicles, aftermarket installers are getting better and better at being able to install stereos and head units that are far more capable than the factory units — and for less money than what a fully-loaded system costs at the dealership.

Smartphone usage, and the innate particulars that come with that, demands some sort of modular strategy. Driver distraction is an issue now, not just because drivers hold their phones or text too much, but also because changing music apps and finding a certain playlist or artist can’t be done without tapping on a phone screen. Ditto for searching on a dependable map.

The software route

Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto aren’t hardware solutions, since they can both run on the same head unit, but they are both designed to solve multiple problems at once. They are software platforms projecting to a compatible head unit, meaning the power and performance is largely driven by the phone, not the dash hardware. Developers can tailor their apps to work with them and be more “car-friendly” to offer deeper functionality with safety in mind.

Automakers may appreciate that, except they have no real control over how CarPlay or Android Auto do what they do. The erosion of custodial ownership over their own dashboards is a pill the auto industry is wholly unprepared and unwilling to swallow.

Since automakers rarely ever agree on any standardization or harmonization between them, they are either forced to play ball collectively via regulation or they each go it alone. In the latter case, they have latched onto software as a means to keep a system current.

Tesla has made waves on this by releasing updates that can impact the driving experience entirely. One notable example was adding remote start via the Tesla smartphone app. Another was adding a feature wherein drivers would know if they were moving out of range of the nearest charging station to avoid running out of juice.

Electric cars may have an inherent advantage in how impactful software can be, though it remains to be seen how well that translates to infotainment, specifically. Tesla is not much further ahead in app integration than any other automaker is. Nor is there a hardware modularity program available.

Others are trying. Audi has experimented with swappable tablets in the Q7. Android-based tablets used for rear-seat entertainment can be switched for newer ones as the years go by. The problem is, Audi’s pedigree is in making cars, not electronics and software. Hence, why Audi and the other carmakers are snatching up product designers and developers wherever they can.

Are we there yet?

This is an interesting time to be on either side of a vehicle purchase. The automakers and dealers are selling cars that offer so much, yet so little at the same time. A smooth and comfortable ride, it may be, but interacting with the infotainment system may seem like driving in reverse. It’s a chasm that seems likely to only continue widening, even with software updates playing a bigger role moving forward.

To be fair, the emergence of CarPlay and Android Auto doesn’t necessarily write a chalk outline on what the automakers are doing. Both platforms are still in their infancy and need time to grow. But they do address a number of things factory systems simply don’t, or can’t. Aftermarket head units, with newer models coming to market every year, can make the most of contemporary hardware and the latest software.

If the automakers choose to ignore the hardware side of this equation — either by not shortening the dash’s product cycle, or by not creating a modular program — then their respective dashboards are destined to become foreign territory.

06 Aug 18:13

What Product Managers Can Learn From Hackathons

by Steven Telio

I love this recipe. It’s called Hackathon Stew.

Step 1: Identify a problem that needs to be solved and apply design constraints.

Step 2: Cram hundreds of developers and designers into a pressure cooker of a room.

Step 3: Turn on pressure cooker for anywhere from 4 hours to a few days.

Step 4: Examine the final product and decide if it is edible.

When done well, it’s amazing, like nothing you’ve had before. Problem is that the final product often comes out half-baked, which means most of it gets tossed out. That’s a lot of waste.

Hackathons may not be the most productive way to create new products and features, but Product Managers can still learn many best practices from them, including the benefits of good problem definition, the importance of deadlines, and the strength of a small dedicated team. Couple those best practices with a product manager’s market savvy and that previously  inedible Hackathon Stew can come out consistently appealing.

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is a “contest to pitch, program and present a functioning… application” in a short timeframe, usually in the range of a few hours to a few days. There are hundreds of hackathons each year and they typically serve a few purposes:

1. Create an innovative new business, product or feature

2. Allow rock-star (and wanna-be rock-star) developers and designers to prove their mettle against other talented tech folk

3. Provide a platform through which aspiring (and experienced) developers and designers can learn more about their craft by doing it and learning from their peers.

The truth is that while creating something new is often the main stated goal, most participants find the learning and doing – the process of creating – to be the real draw.

Hackathons have proven to be a versatile construct, a type of contest that can be structured to address any number of problems in an array of industries. It’s no secret that hackathons are embedded in the Facebook and Google mythologies; there are also hackathons run by companies like  LandRover, Major League Hacking, and Purple Monkey Game Jam…to name a few.

What Can a Product Manager Learn from a Hackathon?

Despite how many different domains have appropriated the hackathon approach to innovation, the basic format remains the same. There’s lessons to be learned in them-thar hills!

Tightly Defined Project (and Product) ScopeTwo men with megaphones arguing

Hackathons begin with a discrete goal and concise problem definition (or requirements, if you will). Then they lay out the constraints each team will need to work through. One of those constraints is the timeframe in which each team needs to complete their work – the deadline. Each team is faced with a level playing field at the start in that they are working from the same requirements and under the same constraints. And they are usually starting their project from scratch. Each team has the same starting line. An example might be: all teams have 24 hours to develop a tool which will improve Boston’s streets (and the output might be a mobile app that detects potholes).

Participants do not spend time debating little, menial requirements, they focus on finding the best, actionable solutions given the time constraints and their skills. They may ask questions at the beginning to better understand the competition’s requirements along with the tools and assets at their disposal, but they are most likely not wasting valuable time debating  specific feature specs and requirements. Cases in point: The Dread Pirate Roberts took inventory of his assets when figuring out how to storm the castle (see: Wheelbarrow). MacGyver did not lament his circumstances, he made the best use of what was available, usually under extreme deadlines. (More on deadlines, below.)

The Lesson for PMs: Well-Defined Product Requirements Matter

Well-articulated requirements define the problem and constraints without hemming in the solution. It’s your responsibility as a product manager, customer-expert and market-expert to craft great requirements. Once the “What” or “Why” are defined, give the tech folks room to figure out “How.” Get out of the way as much as possible.

Tight DeadlinesIdea written on chalkboard next to clutter and a clock

Douglas Adams, the patron saint of procrastinators everywhere, said it best: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” The reality is that deadlines are essential, and force us to get stuff done, and the tighter the deadline, the closer it is, the more real and actionable it becomes. It’s hard to take a deadline that is many months (or even years) in the future seriously too much can happen in the intervening time. A nice side effect of the characteristically tight deadlines we see at hackathons: less planning, more doing.

As Parkinson’s law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In reality, some deadlines are more immutable than others: imagine being on a deadline to launch a probe to Pluto knowing that if you’re late, your next window to attempt the project will be in two centuries.

Hackathons amp up the time pressure to an extreme. This forces teams to make all sorts of tradeoffs along the way, mostly because they know that the deadline is real and there is no option for an extension or a delay.

The Lesson for PMs: Deadlines are Critical to Getting Stuff Done.

(And they need to be set within the foreseeable future). Think in small increments vs. massive plans. Deadlines should not be arbitrary, nor should they be flexible and infinitely negotiable. It’s not a suggestion – “Would you please please please have your work done by next Friday at noonish?” A deadline is a commitment. Treat it that way.

Small, Autonomous Teamssmall-product-teams-trust-100x500

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was on to something. Every member of a hackathon team has a direct role in the team’s success or failure, and each individual brings specific skills to the endeavor. No deadwood. No coattail riders. No hangers on. Everyone has a role, and is accountable to their teammates.

Just as important to note as the team’s makeup is the fact that each member is often completely autonomous; they have all the authority they need to self-manage and get their work done. Imagine if teams had to get signoff from some committee during a hackathon? P’shaw.

A small side note: since the team needs to make all of their own decisions, they also need to communicate effectively and collaboratively prioritize and ultimately decide what’s important. They’ll need to work together to decide which approach to take, which features to build, how it will all work together. And given the time constraints, there is no time for endless, pedantic debates. Make a decision and move on. “Code wins.”

The Lesson for PMs: Fewer People, More Skills & More Trust

When possible, keep your team small, and rather than focusing on headcount focus on ensuring the right skills are represented within your team’s members. Trust your team to make whatever decisions need to be made, however they want to make them. Provide guidelines if needed while allowing them to be self-sufficient problem-solvers. (You hired them because you believed they could solve problems; give them the space to do their jobs will show them you believe in their abilities.)

Focused Deliverablesfocused-product-launch-deliverables-1000x500

Given the time, skills and tight requirements, teams will (or, actually, must) produce a focused deliverable. Scope creep? Extra bells and whistles? Sure, but only if time permits. But first, address the core requirements. Do (winning) hackathon teams spend endless hours refining the drop-shadow on a button? Um, not likely.

The Lesson for PMs: Stay Focused

Solve the biggest problem first, then worry about features and shiny objects.

Rapid Prototyping (aka Actually DOING Something with that Idea)arm drawing mock ups of mobile phone application on paper

Ideas are cheap. Product ideas, feature ideas, business ideas. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap. They become much more valuable once they are turned into something. Given the extreme constraints of a hackathon, the focus tends to be on creating a viable prototype which accurately proves out the idea or concept. It can be rough, held together with plywood and duct tape, but it needs to WORK.

“Most of the time, development is focused on stability and scalability, but they can also design for adaptability. So start any new product with a design for adaptability, with the understanding that most of this code will be thrown away. This allows you to decide what to do fast, and then focus on designing how to do it at scale,” says Tom Chi (by way of Martin Eriksson),

The Lesson for PMs: Embrace the MVP

Turn ideas into prototypes to quickly vet them out, but don’t try to make something perfect until you know how it will work and, most importantly, how your customers might want to use it. Take time to validate your ideas.

One Problem, Many Possible Solutionshackathon-feedback-on-ideas-1366x726

When there’s many people working to solve the same problem you’ll ultimately end up exploring a more diverse set of possible solutions than a single person or team would. Very often, we as individuals are quick to converge on a single idea and see if it bears out. By allowing teams to rapidly prototype many ideas, hackathon sponsors get a better sense of the pros and cons of several approaches, and can compare them side by side (not just in theory).

The Lesson for PMs: Your Solution is Not Necessarily the “Right” Solution

Explore different approaches before deciding that one is the leading candidate. Solving the “right” problem means nothing if you don’t solve it the “right way” so solicit different points of view and be open to trying more than one solution.

Transparency (e.g. Prototyping in Public) & Collab-atitionTeam bringing hands together over desk

Like all of my favorite reality-TV competitions (Top Chef, Iron Chef, Project Runway, in case you were wondering), everyone does their work in plain view of the competition during a hackathon. This creates a huge opportunity for teams learn from others, see if their approach is the same as someone else’s, modify designs on the fly, and in some cases, even join forces and collaborate with other teams.

The Lesson for PMs: Don’t Be Afraid of Transparency

Don’t be afraid to share what you are doing early and often, solicit feedback, and learn from what others in your field are doing. “Stealth mode” should be a four-letter word.

Quick Feedback Loops & Small Revealsnotepad with colored writing and arrows between circled 1, 2, and 3.

One of the biggest advantages of a hackathon is its short duration with the promise of real feedback at the end – be it in the form of “You Won” or “Here’s why you lost”. Imagine if you were able to quickly create and build out a working concept and get real, tangible feedback from people that matter. Not political bullshit feedback, but actionable, tangible, constructive feedback. That’s win #1.

Win #2 is that you can only build so much in a short time, so there is no “Big Reveal” at the end of a project. You’ll have made an incremental step, and if you are way off, you’ll still have time to course correct.

The Lesson for PMs: Feedback is Key

Collect feedback and iterate often, when possible aim for the “small reveal” instead of the big reveal. Seek out and listen to feedback, and adjust your approach accordingly. (Sounds kind of like agile development, eh?)

The Learning Culturenever-stop-learning-1000x500

Imagine if it was not only OK but expected to admit you did not know everything. Remove that shame or fear, and imagine just what you could learn. That’s the culture at many hackathons: it’s as much about learning new skills as it is about completing the project. Actually, in many cases it is even more about personal growth than it is about winning. With that attitude, it is possible to approach others and learn from them. It fosters a culture where people learn how best to work with each other.

Winning is a nice side-effect, but for most participants, they will get personal enrichment from learning new skills and approaches. When goals no longer revolve around “winning”  the doors to collaboration are opened. Back to Tom Chi who emphasizes the power of a “culture of learning”: “Most product organisations struggle not because of a lack of technique and tools but because they suffer from the culture of right and wrong, where success is rewarded and failure is punished. This is intrinsically diminishing, as you never focus on learning what made anything successful or unsuccessful.”

The Lesson for PMs: Always be Learning

Retrospectives are a great tool to glean lessons learned from even the most disastrous experiences.

Building Your Personal Brandproduct-management-personal-brand-1000x500

Ultimately, one of the biggest advantages of hackathons, on a personal level, is that they are an opportunity for folks to prove their worth. Resumes matter little in this context; a hackathon allows participants to demonstrate what they are capable of doing. Hackathons are both great platforms and environments for capable doers – don’t tell me what you can do, show me. Loud thinkers, bloviate elsewhere, we’re looking for doers.

The Lesson for PMs: Measure Worth by Experiences

Resumes are a useful shorthand, but what really matters is what you have done and can do. The best Product Managers are doers, marrying vision with execution. Prove yourself everyday by doing.

Failure IS An Optionwinning-vs-learninig-1000x625

The philosophy that underpins all hackathons is that failure IS an option. It’s acceptable to try something big or ambitious or beyond your skills and fail. The consequences of failure at a hackathon are trivial, and in the end if you do fail you likely learned something in the process; you’ve put yourself out there, and by applying and doing, you’ve learned more about yourself, your team, and your capabilities. There is no shame in trying and failing. There is only shame in not trying.

Each year, Facebook engineer Paul Tarjan says he travels to 10 universities, where around 200 students compete in Facebook-sponsored hackathons,  “We once tried to do a collaboration between engineers and MBAs,” Tarjan says. “It was pretty awful. They would build something that’s exactly like a market leader and put a spin on it. Like, a Groupon clone. I much prefer hackathons that just try to throw it at the wall and see what sticks rather than focusing on a cold and calculated ‘What will make money?’”

The Lesson for PMs: Be Okay with Failure

It’s difficult to succeed to the extreme and be novel unless you are willing to fail. There’s safety in the clone wars, but not a lot of innovation.

“And The Winner Is…”culture-of-learning-experience

In the real world, there are winners and there are losers. Everyone does not get a medal or ribbon just for showing up. (Even little kids understand just how contrived the “everyone wins” attitude it.) It’s a competition, and not every end product is worthy. Hackathons are a great way for you to learn and also to see how you measure up to others.

The Lesson for PMs: Not Every Idea is a Winner

Strive to separate the winners from the losers. Fight mediocrity and create a winner.


Product Managers can learn a lot of “product management best practices” and good habits from Hackathons; from the setup, execution, and delivery of a product, to creating an environment in which people can thrive, to dealing with deadlines:

  • When setting up a project or planning a release, craft a well-defined scope, set and adhere to tight deadlines, and give small teams authority and autonomy.
  • From an execution standpoint, spend time up front creating rapid prototypes to help the team converge on a solid approach before over investing in a production-ready system.
  • When delivering a product, focus on the “small reveal” as opposed to the more dramatic “big reveal”.
  • And finally, looking at the culture and personal aspects, hackathons emphasize a culture of learning and allow participants to build their personal brand.
  • Underlying all of the activity around a hackathon is that failure is an option and more importantly the best executed idea wins.


The post What Product Managers Can Learn From Hackathons appeared first on UserVoice Blog.

25 Aug 16:40

How to Measure Product Launch Success

by Heather McCloskey

Pulling off a successful product launch is no easy feat. During the planning and lead up there are lots of things to pay attention to and keep track of, whether it’s scheduling, meeting sprint goals or ticking off items on your sales and marketing launch checklists. Once your product is out the door and released into the world, it’s time to measure your product launch’s effectiveness; you and your management team will start asking much different questions and priorities will shift from “how many days will we slip?” to “what’s our adoption looking like?”

“While running toward a final goal is great, knowing if you are on the right path along the way is just as important,” Chris Ayala, CEO of smartphone breathalyzer tool Alcohoot, tells Business News Daily, “It also means that everyone understands there is accountability — either for success or failure. Without measurements, then after-the-fact analysis is almost impossible.”

Before you start measuring arbitrary items and throwing numbers around, it’s critical that everyone involved cares about the same key metrics. This is why your key metric definition process should take place before you even launch, this means not only setting and agreeing to a specific set of goals, but also determining how you will measure your progress toward them.

In This Article:

“Reporting on the results of your product launch should be a natural outcome of establishing launch goals,” explains Dave Daniels of Launch Clinic on the Pragmatic Marketing Blog, “Define metrics that support the goals and then a meaningful Launch Status Report can be developed.”

In theory, these goals should be relatively obvious, as they would align with the same reasons you created a new product or released a new version of an existing one. You saw a market opportunity with a set of potential customers that are looking to solve a problem or satisfy a need.

Your next step is translating those goals into actual usage behavior:

“No matter what your site is, there are actions you’re hoping visitors will take – from tweeting a link to your post to leaving a comment to buying a product or subscribing to an email list. Whatever those actions might be, you need to record the visits that make them through your analytics tool,” says Rand Fishkin, cofounder of Moz in an article on website launches, “Once action tracking is in place, you can segment traffic sources and visit paths by the actions that were taken and learn more about what predicts a visitor is going to be valuable.”

Start by Measuring Marketing’s Launch Effortsmarketing metrics can be early indicators of a product launch's effectiveness

Your product’s launch success is just as much about attracting users to try the product as it is about the product itself, which means measuring performance of your marketing efforts is a good starting point.

After you launch, “be vigilant about keeping track of what efforts are starting to lose effectiveness so that you can make the appropriate changes,” says Martin Lünendon, founder of Entrepreneurial Insights “In the same manner, keeping track of which media tools were the most successful in converting potential customers into sales will give an indicator of where your efforts should be spent. Dropping the ineffectual methods and replacing them with renewed efforts in the productive methods will help not only generate income by identifying new customers; it will maximize the customer awareness.”

One of the easiest ways to track marketing channel and tactic effectiveness is through liberal usage of landing pages.

“When driving traffic to our website, instead of pointing a link to our main site, we use one of our landing pages based on what we know about that visitor,” Sami Linnanvuo, CEO of Screenful explains a tactic that works to measure results both during and after a launch, “We can compare the effectiveness of different channels on different visitor segments. We’re curious to learn how these alternate landing pages convert and which are the best channels for each page.”

Setting up a landing page for each channel or campaign makes it incredibly simple to see where traffic is coming from, and if you are able to flag those users for future cohort analyses, you’ll be able to see the long-term quality of those visitors as well and track their progress through the sales funnel.

Measure User Engagement

Marketing and PR are just the beginning, so don’t rely solely on marketing metrics to measure your launch’s success.

“A solid, well-executed PR and social media campaign can drive traffic to your website, but they can’t control what happens next. After the media blitz and buzz, the real challenge rests in keeping users around and compelling them to come back. That’s why in the early days, it’s critical to focus on the user’s experience and engagement,” says Boris Wertz of Version One in an article on launch metrics, “It’s far easier to bring in more traffic than it is to create a happy customer.”

An essential tip-off for user engagement and whether your product is meeting its goals is examining specific feature usage instead of just “traffic” and other, less revelatory, statistics.

“Measure the coverage of the products, i.e. which features are being used by users and how much. More often than not, this will throw up many surprises, especially features you thought users will use the most/least,” says Rajat Harlalka, cofounder Bellurbis Technologies. “It will also help prioritize your product backlog.”

Create a User Engagement Pyramid

More than likely there are many different things a user can do with your product – just because they visit your site or open up your app does not mean everyone will do the same thing once they start using it. So, think about what is the most important activity for your product.

If your goal is simply “increase engagement”, what activity shows that they are truly engaged? Is it posting content or a picture? Is it adding items to a shopping cart? This is the activity that goes at the top of your user engagement pyramid.user engagement pyramid

One suggestion for the top of the pyramid is completion of a key workflow, item according to Aaron Severs of Pivotal labs. In an article on startup metrics he explains how to identify a key workflow: “Without doing this, your users will fail.” he writes, “For example, for an email marketing tool, this would be sending your first email campaign.”  

Then, think about all of the other things they could be doing with your product. Place these in descending order of importance until you get to the base of your pyramid. Now, look at your total activity and divide it into the various layers of your pyramid. The most important usage info is from the users completing the activities in the top layers of your pyramid, while users that don’t make it as high represent less engaged users.

“An engagement pyramid grounds your business metrics in something real,” says Angela Tran Kingyens of Version One, “It drives home your ultimate user engagement and helps you develop the right processes to get there.”

An added benefit is being able to visualize the correlation between the various potential actions a user can take. For example, you may have assumed that users will be frequent commenters before posting content, but the data will show whether this is really the case (and therefore whether you should be worried so much about how often people comment if the ultimate goal is getting them to post content).

The Importance of Cohort Analysis Can Not Be Overstated

Your product debuts, your marketing campaigns kick in and WHAM!, you’ve got new users and registrations and all kinds of activity. Then the press gets bored, your AdWords budget runs out, the early adopters are all done adopting and suddenly those metrics that were so fun to look at for the first few weeks start to dwindle and fade.

Don’t panic! This is completely normal. It’s now time to move into the slightly more sophisticated and more useful phase of cohort analysis.

“Your task as a product manager is to figure out what stops less engaged users from committing to your work, writes Evgeny Lazarenko, a data analyst at Paktor. “Looking at time series user actions data for different categories of users can help you with that.”

Cohort analysis isn’t particularly complicated, you simply divide up users based on a commonality (most often when they started using your product). So, for example, you put the users who started using the product in Week 1 into Cohort A, Week 2 into Cohort B and Week 3 into Cohort C.Measuring usage and user engagement metrics after a release

Instead of looking at all of these users as one giant blob of usage data, you can more easily identify trends. So, by Week 6, only 10% of Cohort A users may be using your product three times per week, while 30% of Cohort C are using it three times per week. This kind of segmentation shows you that something is happening around a month in to drastically cut usage (perhaps your free trial ran out). Or, you may find that by Week 6 the length of time the remaining Cohort A users spend with your product is higher than Cohort C, which indicates your product gets more addictive over time.

As you make incremental changes to your product, whether they’re UX tweaks, bug fixes, or implementation of new features, cohort analysis becomes even more important since it is one indicator that these changes are having a positive (or negative affect) on your key measurables.

Of course, cohorts aren’t necessarily limited to start dates; you could also include acquisition channel, industry vertical, demographic data…whatever will help you find a meaningful subset of users to examine.

Lazarenko recommends using the following measures, but these concepts can be adapted for your particular product:

  • Number of sessions per user (cohort of users), over time
  • Session duration for a cohort, over time.
  • Number of user actions per session, for cohort, over time.
  • Action completion rate & differences between different cohorts

Know Which Metrics to Track & Which to Report

Track everything, but report only what is important. If you report every little thing, it all becomes noise, which is why you must limit reporting to metrics that matter. This is not a particularly novel concept, but an important one to keep in mind at product launch.

“While hundreds of performance indicators and thousands of metrics are possible, the phrase “key performance indicators” shows the way,” says Dr. Simone Setiter of Launch Excellence. “By their very description, KPIs focus on only the most important and pertinent metrics. They must be crucial and relevant to the organizational or brand strategy, be actionable for managing brand performance and initiating positive change, and—when measured against specific criteria or thresholds—yield insights towards the desired objective.”

what to track & report after a product launchYou’re a product manager, not a psychic, and no one expects you to nail 100% of your KPIs before your product hits the shelf. So while you may only be actively looking at and reporting on a subset of metrics that seemed important on Day 1, you want to store every possible data point because you never know what is going to ultimately move the needle. This way you can always go back into the logs instead of bemoaning the elusive data point you wish was available.

It’s also a great reason NOT to invest in coding complicated dashboards until you know what’s really worth tracking:

“Although you should track/store as much usage data as you can, don’t waste time creating fancy (or non-fancy) reports just yet,” Dharmesh Shah, Founder of HubSpot, advises in an On Startups post,  “Just capture it. Some simple mechanism to get a sense of usage is fine, but don’t try to build ways to look at all the data you’re tracking. It’s a distraction. Focus on what will make the users happy. You can work on reports later.”

Of course, it’s also important that you establish what’s actually trackable before establishing it as one of your core metrics.

“A trackable metric is something like sales or revenue or subscriptions or newsletter sign ups. An un-trackable metric is something like “usability”. Usability will be very hard to quantify and it makes it hard to quantify,” says Michael Rutledge, Product Manager at in a post on The Product Manager Club. “Another example of a metric that isn’t trackable is any metric that your company literally cannot track. Maybe your site isn’t tagged or there’s some other issue, but if it’s not trackable it’s pretty obviously a poor choice.”

Oftentimes overlooked by engineering teams driving hard toward deadlines, error handling and exception logging are often a treasure trove for identifying problems worth addressing, but if you’re not capturing that data, there’s no way to know if a certain event is happening or how often users are encountering it and abandoning your product out of frustration.

There are Multiple Sources of Data & Feedback

“Great metrics tools allow us to audit their accuracy by tracing reports back to the individual people who generated their data. This improves accuracy, but its more important effect is that it lets us use the same customers for in-depth qualitative research,” says Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup. “Not sure what the numbers mean? Get the customers on the phone and ask them.” 

Yes, talking to customers–the same thing you did when figuring out what to build in the first place–is still an important part of your post-launch analysis.

“Conducting surveys and focus groups is always helpful and something I strongly encourage to gain insight into consumer behavior,” says Devaraj Southworth, CEO and founder of on-demand wine and spirits delivery service Thirstie. “However, a word of caution: The feedback should be used as guidance [instead of] validation.” sources of qualitative feedback after a launch

Customer service volume is also a great source of early stage feedback. If a user took the time to proactively provide feedback it means a) they were really annoyed and b) there are probably far more users experiencing the same thing who didn’t bother to tell you or just quit using your product altogether.

“Nothing irritates customers more than poor quality products, particularly ones they’ve paid for. And they won’t be shy about telling you about those problems,” says Saeed Khan of On Product Management. “This is one category where a deep analytic assessment is possible, and that should factor into how quality is measured. i.e. consider measures such as new customer reported bugs,  bugs addressed, severity of bugs reported, # of customers reporting bugs etc. All of these can be looked at over time to see if the problems are increasing or decreasing. Based on this assessment, additional investigation into specific problem areas can be conducted.” 

Avoid Data Overload

Too much data can be worse than no data at all, and if you have metrics that simply aren’t telling you anything significant, it’s time to stop worrying about them. Focus on the metrics that matter.

“By forcing yourself to have a target for killing metrics you are ensuring that you’ll focus on an important activity once a quarter,” explains Avinash Kaushik, author of Web Analytics 2.0 You’ll re-visit your assumptions and what’s important to the business.”too-much-data

You should also limit your reporting to the metrics you might actually do something with and could inform future actions, vanity metrics are nice to have but are usually not very useful or actionable.

“Avoid the temptation to add “interesting stats” to your list,” says Kerry Rodden of Google in an article on UX metrics, “Will you actually use these numbers to help you make a decision? Do you really need to track them over time, or is a current snapshot sufficient? Stay focused on the metrics that are closely related to your goals to avoid unnecessary implementation effort and dashboard clutter.”

The TL;DR: Define Key Metrics Before Launching

If you want to properly track the success of a product launch (or a feature launch) you’ll want to set goals and identify key metrics and ensure they are being tracked before you launch said product or feature.

The post How to Measure Product Launch Success appeared first on UserVoice Blog.

26 Aug 23:51

Hunting HiPPOs: Tips To Avoid Executive Randomization

by Cliff Gilley

There’s no Product Manager alive who hasn’t spent time dreading a HiPPO attack; the sudden derailing of well-laid plans by a management or executive-level stakeholder who insisted that their direction was the right one simply because it was their idea – regardless of whether or not they’d actually done any research or validation.

This is the HiPPO problem – the moment when the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” is asserted as fact and intended to be directional. Often, these HiPPOs come from the executive level, from the CEO who has a new “vision” for the company or from the CTO who wants to take the company’s technology in a “new direction.” HiPPOs can also pop up in other contexts, such as sales management trying to ram through a hypothetically big sale, development managers asserting that they know the “only” way to solve a problem, or service delivery management teams insisting that the way they use the product is the way all customers use the product.

HiPPOs usually come with good intent – rarely does the HiPPO represent ill intent or a desire to be obstructive; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right or that they should be allowed to dictate product direction without further investigation.


In This Article:


Why are HiPPOs Problematic?

The problem with HiPPOs, as elaborated by Paul Jackson of Newsmart, is that HiPPOs are subjective and unscientific – in fact, they are “emblematic of large, autocratic organizations instead of smaller, more democratic startups.” They are a holdover from classic command-line structured organizations where people did what they were told to do, simply because they had no say in the matter. HiPPOs were once part of the corporate food-chain, primarily because the cost and effort to challenge their decisions simply wasn’t available to others in the organization or to people outside their “chain of command.” This simply isn’t the case in the present day world of Big Data and a culture where data is shared rather than being locked up at the executive level.

HiPPOs can cause problems in organizations for several reasons. First, there are cultural impacts to HiPPO behavior.For example, the people who are executing product efforts on a daily basis may begin feeling micromanaged or a lack of confidence.. When decisions are being made primarily by one or two people, seemingly based on their own whimsy and opinions, others in the organization begin to doubt their own impact on the direction or strategy of the product – especially those who are closest to the customer, such as support, sales, or even product management.

The more often decisions wind up being made by a HiPPO, the less likely customer-facing teams are to engage in planning; and the further afield the company winds up getting from solving the actual problems of their real markets and customers. The HiPPO often used to live among the people that the product serves, but doesn’t realize that they’ve lost that contact and context simply by virtue of their new role in the company they’re working in. So they think they’re representing the best interests of the customer, but in fact may no longer have the context to do so – while actively (if not intentionally) pushing away those who maintain that very context.

hippo-on-ballSecond, there are confidence impacts, where changing plans or direction based on what appears to be the whims of the HiPPO cause massive disruption in strategic planning and tactical execution. HiPPO decisions that don’t cause change are rarely problematic – in fact, if a HiPPO confirms the direction you’re already going, it’s unlikely to even look like a HiPPO. But, when these decisions do make changes, they’re rarely course corrections and often require charting an entirely new direction, out of whole cloth. And, when that happens, it causes others in the organization to question not only the prior path that the company was on, but also the new direction.

People like to see things through once they begin them; they want to know that their work is valued, and that it is valuable. They want to believe that when the company starts something, it is with an intent to finish it, and that the decision is based on some reliable course of thought or discussion. Repeated changes of direction through HiPPO influence can undercut confidence in the product, in the leadership, and even in the company as a whole which can have a disastrous effect on company morale.

Third, there are practical impacts on work-in-progress that often explode when a HiPPO asserts a new and unsubstantiated opinion on what the company should be doing or where the product should be going. HiPPOs often don’t realize that their thoughts and comments have real impacts on the day-to-day work that goes on around them. They sometimes don’t understand that changes in product strategy, work to deliver something to a valuable client, or even changes in technology incur opportunity costs against work that’s already in progress. It’s not uncommon, in fact, for a HiPPO to inquire about why previously-planned work is delayed after having provided new direction or deliverables that cost resources, time, and effort to deliver. The more often this happens to execution teams, the more disillusioned they become in the work that they’re being asked to do on a daily basis.

What Strategies Work When Taming HiPPOs?

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of strategies that can be used to manage around the wants and desires of the HiPPO.

Fight Opinions With Data

Dan Barksdale of Netscape is credited with a famous quote that encapsulates both the problem of a HiPPO and the primary solution: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” This simple quote really tells us all that we need to begin to attack the HiPPO problem – in the absence of data, the HiPPO wins – every time. That’s because without data, all that we have are opinions, and the more experienced voice in the room is often also that of the HiPPO. Thus, the best and easiest way to work to correct for HiPPO behavior in an organization is to either have the data ready when engaging in discussions likely to result in HiPPO decisions, or to defuse the situation so that you can either validate or invalidate the HiPPO’s decisions and desires.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

executive-opinionsAs noted by Dan Pitrowiski in an excellent Medium post on small team product management, it’s important to note that the data that you might want or need doesn’t always have to be quantitative data. While it’s great to test and validate ideas with solid numbers, it’s sometimes expensive to do so. And, if we lack quantitative data, we can always collect, collate, and present qualitative data. As Dan says, “When there are no metrics, gather opinions.” But the opinions that you collect must either be strongly compelling (such as a quick survey of important clients) and/or opinions focused on identifying how the proposed course of action contributes to the important metrics for your organization. It’s about reframing the conversation so that the opinion is not the target of the inquiry, but rather that the goals of the company frame the discussion and the proposed course of action is bounced off of those goals. It ceases to be a battle of opinion and becomes a battle of rationalization.

Lastly, it’s essential that the Product Management team have direct customer contact and market interaction in order to defuse HiPPO situations. As Rich Mironov notes, very often a HiPPO conversation comes from a singular meeting with an important customer or an influential analyst. In those instances, the data that can be used to deflect the HiPPO input is the exposure that the Product Manager has in the market – “I’ve talked to 12 customers in the past 2 weeks, and 8 of the 12 told me [X]; it sounds like what we’re talking about might be an outlier.” It won’t necessarily end the conversation, but it does set the context for the discussion that perhaps the HiPPO’s opinion doesn’t represent a broadly applicable request, but more of a one-off interest.

Prioritize the Work

One of the most entertaining ideas I’ve encountered with regard to product input and prioritization is Rich Mironov’s famous “Idea Train.” As Rich puts it, the idea train “pulls into the product station every day and delivers hundreds of ‘good ideas.’” However, Rich notes, few of these ideas are really as new or earthshaking as those onboard the train would like to believe. And the HiPPO’s input really should be treated as just another piece of cargo carried by that train, one that needs to be validated and prioritized against the current backlog of work that’s already been discussed and agreed upon. After all, the development team can only implement a couple of new ideas this week from among the hundreds proposed.

Aside from having hard data to use in challenging a HiPPO’s directions, the next best thing that a product manager can have is a solid, prioritized, and clearly-elaborated product backlog (or product roadmap). This backlog and the process used to create it need to be transparent and inclusive of the management and executive teams, so that when a new and disruptive proposal comes up, it’s entirely unsurprising for the product manager to simply say, “That’s a great idea, but where does it stack against the top 10 tactical projects that we have going on right now?” It could be that the HiPPO will assert that it’s “obviously” the most important thing, but when faced with the actual list, upon which other groups in the company may have based their own deliverables, it’s very likely that what is important in the moment falls down below the line for consideration when others get involved.

Deflect the Input

Often, however, product managers wind up in a tough situation when a HiPPO shows its true colors, because these decisions or objectives come out of nowhere, with little to no warning. When this happens, you may not have the data, and your attempts to get the HiPPO to prioritize the work against current efforts may be a difficult row to hoe. It is in these situations where Rich recommends a deflection approach:

“That’s a very interesting and smart idea of yours. Let’s take it offline so that I can learn more, write up some requirements, and see what kind of effort we’re looking at.”

managing-hipposThe goal of this approach is to deflect the impact of the HiPPO’s decision and to buy you time as the product manager to…well, do your job. It reinforces the HiPPO’s position of authority, gives their ego just enough polish so that they don’t feel attacked, and buys the team valuable time to actually validate the opinion, confirm the existence of a market problem that it solves, and to size out the effort so that a valid prioritization decision can be made at a later date.

The other important thing that this buys the product manager is time and separation – many times the opinions of a HiPPO change drastically from moment to moment, and what was of the utmost importance yesterday because it was top-of-mind after an analyst call, becomes far less important over the course of a day or two. Deflection is an amazing tool when used properly, as it both allows the HiPPO to assert their opinion and authority, but also reinforces the role of product management in validating, confirming, and prioritizing improvements to the product.

HiPPOs Aren’t Always Evil, Though…

Although many people see HiPPOs as an entirely evil or destructive force, the truth is that’s simply not always the case.

ZEBRA, or zero evidence but really arrogantTristan Kromer wrote a great piece “In Defense of the HiPPO” in which he identifies three situations where bending to the will of a HiPPO is actually productive, and proposes that the HiPPO is far less dangerous to a product company than the “ZEBRA” (Zero Evidence But Really Arrogant). Tristan’s thesis centers around the costs of testing ideas, which can sometimes be far greater than simply executing them and retrospectively confirming their delivery; on the need for Product Managers to choose their battles and to occasionally bend to HiPPOs for purely political reasons (when the impact to the product is negligible); and that a HiPPO decision can simply end debates that had no point in the first place. Even though we often see HiPPOs as a destructive force or source of undue randomization, we should also realize that the HiPPO often is in a role of authority or leadership, and that sometimes just doing what they’re asking is less trouble than it is fighting them.

stubborn-managementIn Tristan’s article, he explains the difference between a HiPPO and a ZEBRA is that the HiPPO can still be swayed by facts – the HiPPO is a Barksdale, in the absence of data, their opinion rules. A ZEBRA, on the other hand, asserts their opinion as fact, and is not only uninterested in debate, but actively shuts it down. Anyone who’s heard an exec tell them, “The customer is just wrong,” or “The customer just doesn’t get it,” was dealing with a ZEBRA and not a HiPPO. HiPPOs can be reasoned with, engaged with in prioritization, and swayed with facts and data – ZEBRAs are stubborn and insist that you do what they say simply because they said it.

As product managers, understanding how to identify a HiPPO (or even a ZEBRA) is something that we should focus on every day. Dealing with the impacts of their decisions, or deflecting those decisions with data-driven decision making is a skill that separates merely good product managers from great ones.

The post Hunting HiPPOs: Tips To Avoid Executive Randomization appeared first on UserVoice Blog.

01 Oct 19:40

How to Get Organizational Alignment with your Product Roadmap

by Cliff Gilley

One of the constant tensions that product managers around the world deal with on a regular basis is creating product roadmaps that align with the expectations and needs of all of their stakeholders – particularly the management or executive team whose understanding and agreement is essential to executing against the plan presented.  Many of the issues related to obtaining alignment with your senior leadership lie in educating them about the reasons why we plan the roadmap the way that we do, the underlying assumptions about how we will execute that roadmap, and ultimately building a culture that is agile in its approach to definition and delivery against the vision and strategy of the company.

What is Your Product Roadmap Anyway?

Roadmaps mean different things to different people:

  • Sales sees the roadmap as a projection of value that they can sell to their customers or use to show renewing customers that the company has plans that they can count on for the future.
  • Marketing sees the roadmap as a tool that they can use to plan when, where, and how to push new feature improvements and to grow the sales funnel by targeting prospects who can benefit from those features.
  • Finance sees the roadmap as a projection of future efforts that will result in some prediction of ROI against the development work that’s being done now to bring about that future.
  • The CEO sees the roadmap as his guide to what the company will look like in 12-24 months, and as a signpost to assess the success of the company in meeting market and customer needs – which leads directly to increased investment or value for existing shareholders.

But for a product manager, a roadmap is more often an exercise in divination – trying to collate and collect all of the available information, all of the tactical goals within the organization, all of the strategic plans discussed among the executive management team, and all of the market intelligence they can get. Out of this hodgepodge of information, data, and opinions is supposed to come this perfectly-constructed prophecy regarding the future of the company and of the product.

But let’s be honest – none of us are the Oracle at Delphi, going into a fugue state while we commune with the Product Gods who imbue us with mystical information about what our customers will want and need in a one- or two-year time horizon.  It just doesn’t work that way, and just as software development has adopted a more effective approach to building product through agile development practices, we need to educate our stakeholders that the bad, old ways of defining product roadmaps as a list of features with specific dates assigned well in advance just doesn’t work in the modern world.

It really can’t be said any better than Marty Cagan does on his Silicon Valley Product Group blog:

“[T]his entire obsession we as an industry have with features is hurting far more than it is helping, and if we want to fix this problem we have to stop it at the source which is typically these feature request driven roadmaps.”

Feature-Based Product Roadmaps Don’t Work

Objects on the horizon may be larger than they appear. Why don’t feature-based roadmaps work?  The answer is really quite simple – we don’t know what we don’t know.  When we engage our product and market ESP to try to predict where we’ll be and what our customers will need in 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, or even 24 months, we’re really doing nothing more than creating an educated guess.  This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem – but the roadmap that comes from this guess is never presented as such outside the product management team.  Customers see it and create expectations; investors see it and form beliefs about how they’ll affect the return; and this continues ad infinitum.

As Rich Mironov observes in one of his several posts on improving roadmaps:

“[C]ustomers should understand…that all projects more than 6 months away are subject to change.  ‘Time-from-now’ is a good measure of speculative risk.”

This applies, however, not only to your customers, but also to your internal stakeholders – from your development team to your services team, from your support team to your marketing team, and throughout the organization.  The most important thing that a product manager can do to establish buy-in and alignment from those within the organization is to educate them on the uncertainties that exist and explain how those uncertainties grow as you move further out in a time horizon – as you move from projection to prediction to soothsaying.

roadmap timing

I generally advise people to use some systemic approach like the following, stated clearly within the roadmap presentation or even directly on the roadmap slide/graphic/visualization itself:

  • 0-1 month = Work in Progress = We know this will be delivered, and can use data-driven projections to provide a high level of certainty on delivery times.  Rough confidence level is 90%.
  • 2-3 months = Committed Work = We know what we currently view as the priorities on the backlog, and have broad estimates that allow us to predict likely delivery, subject to future discoveries.  Rough confidence level is 75%
  • 3-6 months = Tactical Plan = We have a strong idea of the themes that we want to tackle in this time frame and are actively engaged in problem definition and solution proposals that will be estimated and backlogged. Rough confidence level is 50%.
  • 6-12 months = Strategic Plan = We have a set of thematic goals that we believe are likely to be important to delivering on the stated strategies of the company, but have not moved to problem definition or solution proposals.  Rough confidence level is 25%.
  • 12+ months = Vision = We are setting thematic areas that we believe will be valuable to bring our vision of the future into being, but have not engaged in full customer discovery, problem definition, or solution proposals.  Rough confidence level is 10%.

Making it explicitly clear not only what each segment of the roadmap actually means, but what the likely confidence level of any projections based on those items helps others understand and level-set against those themes or features that fall within the category.  And explaining how things become more clearly defined, more certain, and more predictable as you get closer to actually delivering them is essential to moving the culture away from the feature-based roadmap and toward a theme-based view of the future.

Don’t fall into the trap of specifying dates for anything that’s not already a work-in-progress or that isn’t well-defined and well-understood.  Any attempt to set a date for something that’s outside the 1-3 month time horizon is not only a mistake, but is bound to fail.  Even within that 1-3 month time horizon, you’re still taking a risk in doing so – remember the confidence interval, at 3 months you’re still never more than 75% certain of the scope, scale, or timeline for delivery.  Instill this discipline in your teams and in your stakeholders and you’ll be astounded at how much the expectations change for your roadmap in general.

Be Agile: The Plan is the Plan Until It Isn’t Anymoreagile product roadmap

There’s a classic military quote attributed to German field commander, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”  This is just as true for product strategy and planning as it is for military engagements – but for us, we have “enemies” to be found in both time and the market.  Any product manager who’s been in their role for any period of time realizes quickly that all of the vision, all of the strategy, and all of the roadmap work in the world falls apart when you start actually validating and executing against those plans.

One particularly effective tool that I’ve used in the past to encourage management tobecome more agile is to ask them about prior roadmaps and see where things have shifted over time, where a project has been “kicked down the road” multiple times.  When you dig in on this, you’ll likely find that it’s some pet feature or solution that never got started because there was something “more important” in front of it each time – if you hear that, you’ve almost won.  This is exactly what we do in agile planning, and what we want to do in building alignment against roadmaps in the future.  We just want to make it part of the process and not merely a reactive response to some new information.

Because of this, we need to have regular, structured reviews of the vision, strategy, and roadmap for the company.  We need to take some time every month (or quarter, at absolute worst) to critically assess what the company has stated as its goals, its objectives, and its plans for the future.  These sessions need to be interactive, and they need to be data- and customer-oriented.  They should not simply be “head-nodding” sessions where senior management pats themselves on the back for how right they were while ignoring the plans that shifted due to market realities.

As Jenna Bastow at MindTheProduct notes: “If you review your roadmap on a monthly basis, you can add extra granularity to the areas that are more impending, shift around deliverables based on what you’ve learned about your team, the technology and the market in the last month or so, and deliver a roadmap that’s subtly different, but not a massive change from what the team was already bought into.”  Review often, review with purpose, and review with flexibility and scale in mind.

Be Transparent: It’s Not a Plan If Nobody Knows About It

Roadmaps often wind up being the product of back-room negotiations and meetings that involve only the management stakeholders in the organization.  These artifacts sit on the shelf and are discussed during company meetings and team meetings as though they are some kind of stone-etched commandments defining what “thou shalt do” to the teams responsible for execution.

Such a lack of transparency into the process, the discussions, and the outcomes leads to a feeling of powerlessness and lack of input on those teams.  They often feel as though their efforts, their insights, and their opinions, are being entirely disregarded by the people making the “actual” decisions, which leads to morale issues.

There are really two problems to focus on here: (1) ensuring that everyone in the organization has access to the product roadmap, and (2) making certain that everyone in the organization has input into the product roadmap.  Assuming that we ourselves or the management team are the only ones who can represent the customer and can provide input and feedback on what’s important is a mistake that many rookie product managers make – and their products inevitably suffer because of it.

The primary reason we want the product roadmap to be visible to anyone in the organization is that it represents the plan of execution against the company vision and strategy.  This is something that everyone in the company has a stake in, and something that everyone should have a clear insight into – when the roadmap is “hidden,” the narratives about where the product is going, when, and why, are now outside of the control of the product manager and directly in the hands of the rumor mill, office grapevine, and subjective opinions of every employee not “in” on the plan.  As Dan Radigan of Atlassian puts it:

“Post the roadmap online and keep it current so the team has a single source of truth.”  

Having one location that’s managed by the product team provides that single source of truth for all questions, criticisms, and corrective suggestions from anyone in the organization.

However, equally important to the transparency in the outcome is transparency in the process.  Everyone in your organization, from the most junior intern working as an admin assistant to the elder system architect who was there from day one, has insight into your product, your market, and your company as a whole.  Not all of those insights will be genius, and not all of them will be actionable, but by ignoring, obscuring, or implicitly devaluing their input, you and the management team are taking a major risk of missing out on some insight that flips the tables and resets the plan. Often the most interesting, innovative, and creative problems or solutions come from the people you’d least expect.  Be open, be transparent, and be surprised.

Strategies for Achieving Organizational Alignment

Assuming that we have a transparent process, a transparent outcome, a flexible and thematic artifact, and regular reviews, there’s still often a question of how to drive to general consensus on what should be where, when things should become priorities, and how to “manage up” when we’re dealing with our roadmaps.  To this end, there are a few things that we, as product managers, can do as we’re preparing for the reviews and discussions, to leverage our leadership through authority.

Get Commitment Before the Big Meeting

Whether it’s roadmap discussions, strategic planning, or another major decision that’s going to require consensus or a group decision, it’s always important to make sure that you know the likely outcome before you walk into the room.  Meeting and reviewing your plans ahead of time with each major stakeholder allows you to gauge their response, anticipate their objections, and even make modifications before the meeting that will result in their agreement during the meeting. Knowing who the players are and what they want to get out of the discussion before everyone is in the room together is a solid strategy no matter what the discussion – but particularly important for roadmap planning.

Use Your Facilitation Skills

As a product manager involved in roadmap planning, we need to leverage every tool in our belt when engaging in meetings and driving consensus.  The absolute most important skill in these discussions is managing the meetings themselves – keeping people on-topic, keeping to the agenda for timing and topics, and pushing tangential conversations and discussions to other venues.  A roadmap meeting is not the place to bring up a new product feature or goal; that needs to happen before the meeting, so the required research can be done to vet and prioritize it appropriately.  A roadmap meeting is not the place to vent and point fingers at other departments for missing goals or deliverables.  It’s a place to verify the goals, prioritize the efforts, and ensure that as things move from less certain and less defined to more certain and more defined.  Know the goals, and ensure that people are moving toward them.

Educate As You Go

Even in the most nimble startup in the world, not everyone is going to understand the reasons that we as product managers do things the way that we do.  Not everyone is going to “get” why themes are more important than features, why prioritization is something that must be flexible and responsive to the market, and why individual opinions simply aren’t as compelling as actual customer data.  If we, as product managers, want people to agree to the things that we’re proposing, it’s on us to make sure that they understand why we’re doing these things, how we’re reaching our conclusions, and what drives us on a daily basis – and all of these things should center around our actual customers and market.


The post How to Get Organizational Alignment with your Product Roadmap appeared first on UserVoice Blog.

02 Oct 23:28

Twitter Favorites: [neiltyson] In the @MartianMovie, they got crucial science right, while enhancing the story by fictionalizing the science that remained.

Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson
In the @MartianMovie, they got crucial science right, while enhancing the story by fictionalizing the science that remained.
03 Oct 17:07

Twitter Favorites: [dbarefoot] Bought a new laptop. Used to worry most about transferring files, but now it's that precious browser history to keep auto-complete working.

Darren Barefoot @dbarefoot
Bought a new laptop. Used to worry most about transferring files, but now it's that precious browser history to keep auto-complete working.
04 Oct 02:39

Twitter Favorites: [danudey] The new activity tab in Tweetbot 4 is a great way to remind yourself how influential you aren't.

Wile E. Cyrus @danudey
The new activity tab in Tweetbot 4 is a great way to remind yourself how influential you aren't.
04 Oct 16:43

The Joy of Coding – Ep’s 23 – 29

by Mike

Wow! I’ve been a way from this blog for too long. I also haven’t posted any new episodes for The Joy of Coding. I also haven’t been keeping up with my Things I’ve Learned posts.

Time to get back in the saddle. First thing’s first, here are 6 episodes of The Joy of Coding that have aired. Unfortunately, I haven’t put together summaries for any of them, but I’ve put their agendas near the videos so that might give some clues.

Here we go!

Episode 23


Episode 24


Episode 25


Episode 26


Episode 27


Episode 28


Episode 29


30 Sep 09:35

Why and How to run a web app on Android

by Thejesh GN

Why run a web app on Android you might ask.

When I am travelling my second phone is always on and is capturing data (time, gps, ODB via bluetooth etc). Along with mobile I would love to have a couple of ESP8266/Sensor combo devices to capture data on the go. I don’t want them to have any storage. Instead they push data to the network. But while on the go internet is extremely patchy. So best option would be to store on a local server and sync when required.

ESP8266 knows to talk HTTP. So the idea is to create a local network by enabling tethering on Android phone. Also run a simple restful api server on Android. Then all ESP8266s can connect and push data using standard HTTP. Best part is I know how to talk in HTTP. So its easy to code and maintain. Another advantage is Unlike Bluetooth or other protocols, HTTP server can receive/send data from multiple services simultaneously.

So all I need is an android app which would receive http requests and store the data in a database. It would be great if that app exposes the Android sensor api to the script.

So for example when a ESP8266/Temperature sensor sends a temperature data point on a web service to the Android App. App receives it, it also gathers Time-stamp, Location from Android api and stores it in DB. At the end of the trip I just download/export the DB. Makes sense?

Using an Android phone/App combination is easier than building a custom hardware.

The setup structure would be


I am still exploring the options. But the following two options are promising. They aren’t perfect but they are close. If you know any app that does this well. Leave a comment.

Palapa Web Server

Palapa Web Server is a pre-configured single app LMP (Lighttpd, PHP, MySQL) stack for Android. It doesn’t need root access.

It’s a standard LAMP like stack. I did setup a very basic RESTFul API using ArrestDB. ArrestDB is a simple PHP frame-work to create RESTFul APIs based on database tables, in our case MySQL. The setup did survive the load testing.


There are a couple of issues with this setup. Lack of API access to android sensors is a big deal. Also running full stack AMP stack seems like an over kill for the job.

All I need is a long running python/lua script which can access sqlite and android sensors.


QPython – Python on Android. QPython includes Bottle framework as it’s WEB framework. You can install it from QPypi. You can also install any pip package. It comes with sqlite support. It also includes standard SL4A API (Battery, Bluetooth, Camera, Location, Sensor, Media Player, Media Recorder, Wifi, Text To Speech, Speech Recognition etc).

QPython looks like something made for my requirement. For last few days I have run tests. I am quite happy until now. In the coming week I want to run load tests and actually check the life of the web thread. Next Tuesday I will write another post with the details. Until then have fun exploring.

Other Similar Apps

04 Oct 00:42

Apple Working on Universal Search API for Apple TV

by Federico Viticci

John Paczkowski, writing for BuzzFeed:

In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Apple CEO Tim Cook said universal search in Apple TV is not something that the company plans to reserve for key content partners. “At launch we’ll have iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and HBO — so we’ll have five major inputs into universal search initially,” Cook said. “But we’re also opening an API, so that others can join in.”

And Apple’s confident that they will do just that. “I think that many, many people will want to be in that search,” Cook said. “And that’s great for users. Think about your experience today. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have the content you want to watch in an app, you sometimes don’t remember exactly where that show is, so you’re going to Netflix or Hulu or Showtime. You shouldn’t have to do that. It should be very simple.”

It does sound like the technology behind iOS 9 search will be reused to plug into apps on the new Apple TV. Smart move.

03 Oct 23:08

14 Reasons to Get an Electric Bike

by Average Joe Cyclist

Lots of people think about getting an electric bike, but aren’t sure if it is the right choice for them. In case you’re wondering if an electric bike is the right choice for you, consider the following 14 excellent reasons to get an electric bike. (I wanted to make this a list of 10, but […]

The post 14 Reasons to Get an Electric Bike appeared first on Average Joe Cyclist.

04 Oct 01:41

flickofthecode: I had to make a brief and simple “Basic Coding...


I had to make a brief and simple “Basic Coding Guidelines” for the freshman seminar class I help teach, so I figured I might as well as upload it here while I’m at it! 

As a few notes, this is specifically tailored for the freshmen at my school in that basically all of them are taking an intro to MATLAB course that assumes no previous coding knowledge. This presentation is just focused on giving some stylistic guidelines and tips rather than on the subject matter itself. 

I’m also going to be talking through most of my points, so if something doesn’t seem right to you on the slide, there’s a good chance I’ll verbally address it.

That being said, feel free to send me a message at flickofthecode if you have any questions or concerns. :)


03 Oct 20:50

fuckyeahvintage-retro: Living on Mars! 1966 (via James...


Living on Mars! 1966 (via James Vaughan)

Matt Damon had it all wrong…

04 Oct 01:42

franceslviscom: A few more inspirations I found on Pinterest...


A few more inspirations I found on Pinterest (sources in captions) Although the majority of these aren’t to do with tracking peoples actions and are portraying a much larger and varied amount of data I still found them useful for possible inspiration on how to represent movement within our own infographic. I especially love the last data visualisation, I have no idea what it is representing but I like the effect the different sized and gradients of the circles create. It looks really beautiful and the lack of text actually makes it more intriguing and stand alone as a piece of art as well as informative graphic.

02 Oct 00:57

Twitter Favorites: [ken_kilgore1] Hours and hours have passed... No name announced on the shooter in Oregon yet. Hhhmmmm must be a middle eastern name and Muslim.

Ken Kilgore @ken_kilgore1
Hours and hours have passed... No name announced on the shooter in Oregon yet. Hhhmmmm must be a middle eastern name and Muslim.
02 Oct 13:09

Twitter Favorites: [walkah] Read Later Zero

James Walker @walkah
Read Later Zero
02 Oct 17:01

Twitter Favorites: [reneritchie] . @tweetbot isn’t losing any *customers* by charging for an app update. People who won’t pay $5 for sustainable apps aren’t *customers* .

Rene Ritchie @reneritchie
. @tweetbot isn’t losing any *customers* by charging for an app update. People who won’t pay $5 for sustainable apps aren’t *customers* .
03 Oct 03:20

Twitter Favorites: [craignewmark] “The right way to block ads on news sites” @declanm

craignewmark @craignewmark
“The right way to block ads on news sites” @declanm…
04 Oct 04:23

1668 Davie Street

by ChangingCity

1668 Davie

While we’ve been away, looking at the skyscrapers of London and New York, the Vancouver development proposals continue to appear that flow from the West End Plan. Here’s a new rental tower on Davie Street with 158 secured market rental units over an extended retail space that we assume will be occupied by London Drugs.

Currently the site is their parking lot, which will be replaced underground. Designed by D A Architects and Planners (the long-established Downs Archambault practice) for Larco, the 23-storey tower doesn’t require a rezoning; so can proceed through the system reasonably speedily.