The curse of updates

One of the worst things about the ubiquity of the internet is the crutch of automatic updates.  Who cares if our code isn’t feature complete?  So what if there are bugs galore?  It works okay – let’s ship and just put out an update.

And thus we are now stuck in the bane of the update.

The worst offender is easily Adobe with Reader.  PDF – Portable Document Format.  Its name conjures up images of lightweight, portable and universal means of viewing a document.  Sadly since Reader 8 or so we have been cursed with updates every few weeks.  And the worst part is the Adobe Updater is an extremely belligerent piece of software, that INSISTS you update.  The worst part is that in providing ‘flexibility’, Adobe have allowed partial updates to plug-ins and the like, and so any minor change in any part of Reader requires a virtual reinstall of the software.

I still find the most galling aspect of it the fact that they have considered the use case.  Some average Joe gets sent a PDF, tries to open it, and then Adobe Reader suddenly realised “oh wait, you need to update”.  All right you say, let’s just get it out of the way, and you click next.  “Wait a minute, you want me to UPDATE this software while it’s  STILL RUNNING?” cries Reader.  And all of a sudden you have to completely break focus, allow it to close reader, and start again.  The worst is when you’re doing this from within a browser.  How on earth did this make it past user testing?

Tonight I wanted to play some Rock Band with my brother.  It’s been maybe a week since I booted my PS3, and at most 2 weeks since an update.  Before I can do *anything* online, “oh ho ho, what do you think you’re doing?  You need to update! You might be running a hacked firmware and we can’t allow you to do anything online.”  Seriously, how has this become acceptable?  The worst part of this is Sony’s download code for the PS3 is abysmally slow – it took half an hour to download and install the new updates.  In fact, it’s almost twice as fast to just download updates on my laptop, copy them to a memory card, and then go through the hullabaloo that is required to do a non-standard install.  And for what?  A few bug fixes and some unknown feature I’ll never use?  To top it all off, several of my games then required individual updates as well.

Although both of these are obnoxious, at least with Adobe you can reject and disable updates easily, and with the PS3 you are still allowed to play locally.  The truly obnoxious updater is Apple’s “Software Update”.  Hey, here’s an idea – let’s push products people don’t want as part of the update process.  Better yet, let’s set this up so it’s extremely difficult to disable it.  Apple did a fantastic job of obfuscating the disablement of updates, which offered my Windows PC little to no benefit (I leave them enabled for my Macs).  Searching through the registry, start up menu and MSConfig turned up nothing.  Googling the problem turned up this gem – it’s a scheduled action instead.  You need to go to your scheduled tasks (of which I have no others) and delete it from there.

So what rules for design can we take away from this horrendous user experience?

1 – Allow updates to be disabled easily.  Not everyone wants the latest and greatest (indeed, many times it is necessary to stick with an old version as I discovered when Apple updated Quicktime and broke my video camera’s ability to view its own files)

2 – Reduce the schedule of updates.  Updates are important, but make sure they’re *really* important before you foist them upon users.  It’s tempting to be constantly adding new features and pushing them out, but unless you have a seamless update procedure it becomes a major source of user frustration… which leads me to my final point:

3 – Make it seamless and quiet.  Nobody likes to be prompted to update, let alone select updates from a large list and then interrupt everything they’re doing to install something they don’t need.  Find a way to do it quietly and without hassle.  How can Microsoft get this right to a reasonably acceptable level but not Apple?  I dislike Vista with a passion and love OS X, but yet I find myself almost as routinely irritated by Apple because of their update procedure.

Personally, I can’t wait till we’re all back on thin clients and have 100% seamless updates.  Hooray for web 2.0.

The best feature of Firefox

I may be a little late to the party, but in the last 3 months I’ve begun using this feature more and more:

Typing something in the address bar does an I’m Feeling Lucky search on Google.

Sounds simple, and perhaps not that useful all the time.  I was worried I’d get taken to wildly inaccurate sites.  Happily if the top match isn’t as close as you’d like (as defined by some secret sauce which does a great job I must say), you get taken to the Google search results instead.

I started using this feature more when I switched to Firefox 3 (thanks pesky 100% CPU and memory leaks!) and the Google Toolbar broke.  By default I map my search bar to Wikipedia given how often I use it.  Now I find it completely indispensable, and I’m at a loss when using other browsers…

The main benefit is I don’t use bookmarks at all anymore.  For example, I can just type “hacker news” and get taken to  I can type in “download firefox 3” and I get taken to the download page for Firefox 3.  I can only imagine this is a huge boon for those using voice recognition.  There are some other nice side effects.  Try typing a site name and a concept on that site, eg “wikipedia triops” and you don’t need to set up smart bookmarks either.  Although it’s rare for people to use the Google toolbar and a different search, it is handy now having a shortcut key to search (ctrl-L).

Real World Ubiquitous Computing – Skype Video Calls

There are few people who would count Skype as ubiquitous computing.  However I’ve found it is not the technology that defines ubiquitous computing, but how it is applied.

Since I moved to the US I’ve really enjoyed having a Skype phone as my main phone at home.  It has been incredibly cheap, and obviated any of the hassles involved with a regular land line (such as installation and the fact you can only make/receive calls in one place!).  However lately I’ve been enjoying Skype video calls.  The last few weeks I have combined Skype with streaming video to watch the game played in heaven, rugby union, with my friends back home.

First I used my Dell M1330 which has a built-in microphone and webcam.  I picked up this laptop for a measly $530 from Dell on sale which was an amazing deal.  Next I used my Mac Mini hooked up to my HDTV to stream the game.  I paid $4.99 to watch the game live from and then used VMWare Fusion to allow me to watch the DRMed file using Windows Media Player on OS X.

Minor points that made this experience really great:

  • The fullscreen high def video through Skype was excellent quality and not at all choppy.  When the camera was turned towards the game I could see the play perfectly, albeit at 5 frames per second.
  • Skype have really improved their echo cancellation technology in the last few releases.  Using the “speaker phone” mode of Skype was great as it was like a virtual conference call.
  • Foxtel IQ on my brother’s end allowed him to pause the game enough to get it perfectly in sync, again contributing to the feeling I was there
  • Wireless laptops meant the camera could get moved around, and I was able to have individual conversations with people in the room.  If only I had been hooked up via ConnectR… but it was a good approximation

The other great use of Skype video calling was the ability to play Rock Band more collaboratively (the game lacks any method to interact with the other players, not even voice within the game menus!).  Sadly the experience there wasn’t as immersive as there is always a 1 second delay on the audio which is quite distracting.  Otherwise, the future is here!  Who knew when video calling came it would be completely free (aside from equipment)…

Picasa photo tuning

This is a continuation of Part 1 of my Picasa discussion.

I am continually surprised by how powerful the relatively simple photo tuning tools of Picasa are. Take for example this photo my wife snapped while flying from Seattle to San Francisco, and how easily Picasa turns it into a great picture.


Here is the original photo:


First all I do is apply an “I’m Feeling Lucky” pass:


Next I straighten the shot:


Then I crop the photo:


Finally I do another “I’m Feeling Lucky” pass:


And there we have it. Quite an amazing difference compared to the first photo. Here is another example before and after thanks to the I’m feeling lucky button (easily my favourite feature in Picasa):


Some more information is available from the Picasa Team about tuning photos.

Picasa as an example of great design

I’ve been a long-time fan of Picasa, and it ultimately comes down to several reasons:

  1. It’s fast. Very fast.
  2. It has a great UI.
  3. Functionality.
  4. Integration.


Picasa has been optimized to very quickly load, to handle large libraries of photos, and to allow very quick scanning of said large libraries. I have seen some great research into better ways to quickly display large libraries of photos, but nothing has been released in a usable product yet. Nothing comes close in terms of immediately loading the main app, and then allowing quick manipulation of tens of thousands of photos.

User Interface

I’m not sure how much of this is Google and how much is thanks to the original IdeaLab team, but kudos to Google for not breaking what works. The keyboard shortcuts for advanced users are there, and yet the interface is inviting enough for the novice user to jump right in. All my non-computer-savvy family members now use it and love it. It is not only simple to use, but very pretty with its transitions and OS X-esque touches to its interface.


The functionality of Picasa is excellent. It allows you to share photos, manipulate them, organise them and present them. Importantly, it doesn’t try to do too much. The Picasa team seem to have found just the right balance of features to satisfy easily 95% of the users out there without overloading it to the point of bloatware. Happily, they also included some features which I didn’t consider “must have”, yet make the experience all the sweeter. This includes things like creating a Gift CD, comprehensive backups, picture collages and a screensaver. It makes using your photos very easy.

The best functionality I have found though is the photo tuning. See my other article here to see why that is. Aside from the power of the tuning though, the thing I also love is that it leaves your originals untouched. Even once you commit changes, it backs up the original, which for people like me who can’t stand to lose data of any kind, is a godsend.


This is what really sold me on Picasa. Doing so much research into ubiquitous computing and the adaption of systems, I’ve come to realise this is what makes and breaks software. Picasa does several things right in this area:

  • Preserving the file system. I want file portability, and this was a dealbreaker for me with many other products.
  • Email. I mainly disseminate my pictures via email, and the integration here is top-notch.
  • Photo printing is integrated in. Not something I use, but a nice to have.
  • Other services. Picasa supports Picasa Web Albums (of course), FTP, Google Video, and Blogger. My main problem is that it doesn’t support Flickr (for obvious reasons, but this is kind of sad given how many Googlers use Flickr!)

The other nice thing is that the Picasa team seem intent on acting on user feedback. However the real killer part of Picasa is the tuning, which is discussed in part 2.

Tuesdays and Google Reader

I read an interesting article linked from Hacker News to 16th Letter which discussed different productivity on different days.

While both myself and Melissa are both late to the party on productivity on Tuesdays, I was interested to see that she tested it by looking at her Google Reader stats. Myself, I use Google Reader as a procrastination tool, so I don’t know if I would call it a measure of productivity, but regardless here are Melissa’s stats:


Wow, that’s a big jump! Intrigued, I checked my own stats:


Not quite as big a jump, but still very distinct. I then checked my wife’s:


There it is again… fascinating. What do your stats look like?

Real World Ubiquitous Computing – Nike Plus

For all the doom and gloom about the lack of real world ubiquitous computing (even I was guilty of it in my thesis), if you look around there are devices that support ubiquitous computing ideals. And I’m not talking about smartphones and iPods.

My first example is the Nike Plus running kit. How does this fit ubiquitous computing?

  1. Embedded, perceptually invisible computing
  2. Functionally invisible
  3. Accountable
  4. Inexpensive

Perceptually Invisible
The Nike Plus running kit has two parts to it.  The first is the receiver that attaches to your iPod.  It is relatively compact, and many armbands and pouches for the iPod have been designed to accommodate it, so it is not noticeable.  The second part is the sensor for your shoe.  If you buy a pair of Nike Plus shoes, it already has a space in the shoe for you to insert your sensor, where you’ll never think about it again.  If you have other shoes, you can buy a “shoe wallet” that holds the sensor.  Again this is unobtrusive, and I never even think about the fact that I have the sensor in my shoe.

One nice touch with regard to the sensor is that they spent a lot of time building smart energy saving routines into it.  This means that although the battery is not user replaceable, it should last years (a new kit can be had for as little as $15 on eBay anyway).

Functionally invisible
Another clever part of the software Nike developed was calibration routines.  Out of the box, the device is fairly accurate, and after a single calibration session, I found it to be within 2% accuracy of my GPS running watch.  What this means is you don’t even notice the fact it is a pedometer – to the user it just works, and gives you your distance.

Another way in which the Nike Plus kit is functionally invisible is its integration with the iPod and iTunes.  I use my iPod as I normally would while running.  When I sync my songs on iTunes, in the background it uploads and formats my run information to the Nike Plus website.  If I am entered in any competitions it updates those.  I choose when I want to look at my stats, and I never have to think about collating them or accessing them (unlike Garmin’s efforts).

By “accountable” I’m referring to a property of design which I defined in my thesis.  For a design to be accountable, it appropriately presents information about itself and how it works to the user.  One difficulty in ubiquitous computing is providing embedded computing that automagically performs actions, while not obscuring how it works to the user.  Users rarely use designs in the way the designer intended, and by exposing how something functionally works you can assist the user’s understanding of the design, and assist with their appropriation.

The Nike running kit is very open with how it works (an accelerometer and wireless system), provides the data in an easy to read format (it has already been used in many academic projects), and allows for calibration of the sensor (while not requiring it).

This is simply – the kit costs only $30 SRP, but can be had for far cheaper on eBay or sites like Eastbay.  It is amazing how many people I know (I can think of four in my extended family alone!) who have bought the kit after finding out how cheap it is.

But the real question is – is it useful and does it work?  I was talking with a colleague yesterday about his running, and he was saying that after a coming competition was over, he knew his motivation would flag.  Since using the iPod running kit, I found my running increased by a factor of 4 thanks to the competitive motivation.  I get to “go running” with my brother who lives in Australia.  Everyone I know who has one is still using it.  I’m here writing about it on my  blog!  That to me seems like success.