Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts on computers and the IT industry.

Virtual Assistants

Virtual assistants are all the rage now, in the press if not in not people’s lives.

I am not claiming to do a thorough, like for like comparison. What follows is my subjective, personal experience. Your usage patterns, successes and failures may be different to mine, but I think my conclusions should broadly hold. We’ll see.

I’m comparing an Amazon Echo, an iPhone 6S and the Google app on that same iPhone. I know I’m not using Google Now in its native environment. That was unavoidable and may hobble it. You should bare that in mind if you use Android.

So this Sunday we were going to go to IKEA. It’s a Sunday and the opening hours are shorter than the rest of the week, but which ones?

“Alexa, Ikea Croydon opening hours today.”

Two things about this. First, I don’t really use a conversational style with my computers. That works in the adverts but I try to keep my interactions with inanimate objects short.

Second, none of the three systems had any real trouble understanding what I said. They may have difficulty understanding what I meant but the words themselves posed no problem. If you’ve used voice recognition software any time in the last twenty years this is amazing. (This is not to say that any are 100% accurate, just that the standard is very high and fairly consistent.)

Anyway, while Alexa completely understood the words I asked it, it wasn’t able to get an answer. It didn’t even punt it to Google or Bing.

Siri did better. It thought “Ikea Croydon” was ambiguous and asked me to confirm its guess (it had it right) and then spoke the correct answer.

Google Now went straight to the answer, though it only showed it on screen and didn’t speak it.

Of the three responses, I’d put Siri first and Alexa last. I think speaking the responses makes it more useful, even though I had to say exactly which IKEA I was going to and Google guessed correctly. Reasonable people could argue that Google’s response was better.

Next I asked for the weather: “What’s the weather in Croydon in Fahrenheit.” The catch is the ‘in Fahrenheit’ part, since I normally work in metric. Both Siri and Google Now got it right. Apple’s agent remembered my preference for Imperial measures for the current session, so immediately asking for another city gave the answer in Fahrenheit but later in the day it reverted to the correct measure.

Alexa wasn’t quite as good. It got the right weather but kept the default units. I won’t make the argument that this is another reason for people to give up Imperial measures.

Finally I asked all three whether there had been any problems reported on the Northern Line, the nearest line on the London Underground to my house.

Siri and Google both went to a search engine for the answer, just showing a list of sites that might have the answer but not actually showing the results.

Alexa doesn’t natively know the answer but it has an extensive directory of “skills” that you can add. I used one called “Tube Status.”

It can answer the question but you have to talk to it in a specific way. “Alexa, are there any problems reported on the Northern Line” fails. Instead you have to say, “Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern Line.” The “ask Tube Status about” bit is critical; without it, it doesn’t work.

In this case, Alexa comes first but with some caveats. Google and Apple come joint last. This is odd as both companies have the transit data available in their respective Maps app, but they’re currently not surfacing it to their voice assistants.

That experience is actually a pretty good overall summary. Alexa can do a lot, possibly more than either Siri or Google Now, but it’s not so good at understanding what you’re asking without help. Google has its vast trove of data to virtual hand and uses it to make clever inferences about what you mean rather than what you asked. Siri tries to have more of a personality and otherwise falls somewhere between the two. In some areas the fact that it has less data than Google is a feature (privacy!) but that can limit its options.

I have a hard time saying one is better than the other. They’re all flawed, they all got some stuff right and wrong. It’s early days and rather than showing one is better than the others, it really shows differing priorities. Amazon emphasises its API, Apple its privacy, Google its data. They’re all right. An ideal system would have all of those. And in the future they probably will.

Dongles

When I got my new MacBook it wasn’t complete. I sat it down on my desk and nothing would connect.

I tried to plug in my monitor, but I needed a dongle to connect to my DVI monitor. My FireWire external hard-drive needed an adapter. I had to get a card reader as my camera takes CompactFlash cards. Even my USB hub needed replacing because my new computer came with a newer, faster USB standard.

This wasn’t last week and this wasn’t a 2016 MacBook Pro. This was in 2011 when I replaced by Core2 Duo MacBook with a MacBook Pro 15″. Different monitor port. FireWire 800 rather than FireWire 400. The USB ports upgraded to USB 2.

This is why I am mystified that, a week after Apple’s event, people are still complaining that they might have to buy some dongles when they upgrade. I have to buy a few adapters every time I buy a new computer.

Am I saying that I love to carry round a bag of adapters (and lose them)? No, of course not. But I do love carrying around a computer that doesn’t have all the legacy crap that most Windows laptops still have. A colleague got a new laptop last month and it had a VGA port (first launched in 1987) that he’ll almost certainly never use!

In a short time we’ll have Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C peripherals and everything will be much better. This is the price we pay for being trailblazers but I, for one, think it’s worth it.

The Short-Sighted Game

I’m sure that you’ve read Fast Company article about Apple playing the long game. It’s fascinating and, despite the deliberately click-bait title I’ve used here, I think it’s generally true for Apple.

However, there is one area where they don’t get things right. Here’s where I think Cook does it again:

“When you look at most of the solutions, whether it’s devices, or things coming up out of Big Pharma, first and foremost, they are done to get the reimbursement [from an insurance provider]. Not thinking about what helps the patient. So if you don’t care about reimbursement, which we have the privilege of doing, that may even make the smartphone market look small.”

The problem I see here the pure USA-first vision. Big Pharma is big all over the world, but there are only a few places where the insurance providers have such a great stake in heath care.

It’s easy to get stuck in a US, or even Silicon Valley, bubble, not realising that the rest of the world works differently. This time it’s health care. Last time it was thinking that everyone uses swipe credit cards.

These are great markets in America, meanwhile a billion Indians are having a hard time getting an Apple product and the Chinese are putting up obstacles. A company the size of Apple can’t afford to think only in terms of opportunites in the US. Clearly isn’t not going to fail with this attitude but it could limit its future growth.

iOS 10

As I wrote before, iOS 10 is an odd release to talk about before it’s  generally available. Like iOS 8 — but unlike iOS 7 — almost all the good stuff is hidden in APIs, for use by developers. Which means that it’s probably going to be a nice update, but until apps are available it’s difficult to tell.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting visible. Here are a few things that struck me.

  • You get used to the the “lift to show the lock screen” feature on the 6s very quickly. It really is hard to go back to actually pressing a button to see notifications. I know, this is totally a first world problem
  • Visual changes are subtle but mostly an improvement. I’ve not measured it but it feels that some of the animations are quick which helps overall
  • “Share…” button when you long press a link in Mail. This makes sorting through iOS Dev Weekly (among others) so much easier
  • Notifications really are much richer though we’ll only see the full benefit when apps are updated. Messages is almost worth it alone but makes other notifications all the more annoying as they just open the app
  • Updates to the Music app are great. They even fixed the “add to next” / “add to up next” bug
  • The updates to Messages really requires everyone to be on iOS 10. Messages look weird on iOS 9 and lower. For example, if you ‘like’ the message “Hello”, the older OS sees it as “Liked ‘Hello'”. Which, needless to say, is confusing

The final thing that I wanted to mention, is that after using iOS 10 on my main device for a few weeks, work gave my an iPhone SE which came with iOS 9. It immediately felt weird and I missed lots of stuff I’d barely noticed getting used to.

Maybe that’s the best proof of the pudding. It may not be dramatic but I miss it when it’s gone.

Underwhelming by design

There have been lots of articles like “iOS 10 chooses renovation over innovation” since Apple’s WWDC keynote in June.

I think they reflect the fact that when you download the first beta and put it on your old phone — because you’re too cowardly to put it on the handset you use every day — iOS 10 is slightly underwhelming. The first time you look at the home screen you see… pretty much no differences from iOS 9. So you launch Maps and see they moved the search bar to the bottom of the screen. You tap Messages and see some new icons at the bottom. But Mail looks the same. Safari seems to be unchanged.

This isn’t like iOS 7. Not every inch of the screen is different. This is more like iOS 8 where the promise is in the new APIs. And the problem with new APIs? You see nothing with the first beta. There are literally no apps that use them. Most developers don’t even have ideas of how to use them yet.

When I played with the iOS 8 betas, it just appeared to be like iOS 7 with a few fixes and the odd thing moved around. No biggie. As soon as it came out of beta and apps that used extensions became available there was no going back.

So, sure, maybe this isn’t innovation but I’m pretty confident that it’s much more substantial than just rennovation. The new APIs will prompt some interesting new ideas that you’ll be able to see in September. Be patient. Sometimes innovation is in the things you don’t see.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Humane Recruitment

There are many ways that recruitment is broken for both candidates and potential employers, but this time I want to focus on one aspect that I experienced recently as a candidate: how companies and recruiters don’t treat prospective hires with respect. I’ve changed jobs a few times over the years and some of the ways that I’ve been (mis)treated in the last year surprised even me.

Let’s start with something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced: not getting a response back from an initial application.

“We get so many applications that we’re unable to respond to each one individually.” I totally accept that this happens. It sucks and I don’t believe them. Writing a single, bulk email to every candidate saying “Thanks but no thanks” would be better than getting nothing.

It is appalling, but I was prepared for it.

What I was not prepared for was getting the cold shoulder after an interview.

One company I had three interviews with and spent the best part of a day on an exercise they set and got no response for two months afterwards, even after prompting several times. By “no response” I mean literally nothing. Not a call, not a “we’re still considering options.” They were seemingly ignoring my messages. I’m not even sure that I would have had any response had I not kept bugging them.

I assume they found another, marginally preferable candidate but took a long time to convince them to take the job. Did they think I’d wait? (Reminds me of this piece.) Did they think I’d be flattered to be second? Given the cost of a bad hire, when I’ve been recruiting, a “maybe” is always effectively a “no.”

Is this how the recruiters would like to be treated? Even if there are really so many qualified candidates that you can treat people like this, should you? These companies treat you as a commodity. I’ll come back to why this is a mistake.

A quick aside: I’m using the words “recruiter” and “company” more or less interchangeably. I’ve seen the behaviour I’m talking about here both from recruitment companies and internal “talent acquisition” teams.

Even when I wasn’t completely ignored I didn’t feel that I was treated like a human. For example, another interview appeared to go well, at the end the hiring manager said “We’ll get you in for your next interview soon.” The next day I got an automated “no thanks” message, addressed to “Dear candidate.”

Both parts of that feel like a failure. Why tell me good news if there was the possibility of bad? Is it passive-aggressive? Was it just as simple as he didn’t want to give me bad news in person? Why not just say “We’ll get back to you soon”? Similarly, the automated message just felt like cowardice. I don’t expect long and chatty. I’d like to see a reason, but don’t expect it (The reason I don’t expect it is another rant.). But after meeting someone, investing some time into a relationship, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something more personal than a form message.

How do I know it was a form message? I’d had exactly the same message – the same wording, the same punctuation, the same title and job description of the source – from another company using the same recruitment website.

There are two other variations that I want to mention. First, the rejection because of a missing skill that wasn’t mentioned in the job description. And, closely related, a rejection because of a missing skill you never claimed to have. Both, again, show a lack of respect for the candidates time.

I’ve pitched this all from the candidates perspective so far, but it’s bad for this hiring company, too.

Many of these examples are a waste of time for the people conducting the interviews as well as the candidates. And you know the old adage: time is money. A few minutes reading a CV / resume would show that a particular skill is “missing.” If everything else looked good, a quick phone screen would confirm.

But it’s worse than just the immediate effects. It’s also a reputational risk.

When I sat on the other side of the table, I always wanted to portray the company I worked for in a positive light. Just because you don’t get a job doesn’t mean you should end up disliking the company. Almost by definition, we work in the same industry. I may end up in a position where I could recommend your product. Or you. Why give me a reason to find your competitors or communicate your products your flaws? (One project I worked on at an earlier job, I found we won the work because we were nicer people to deal with. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.)

I recognise that I won’t be a good fit for every job I apply for, for a whole host of reasons, both mine and theirs. And I know that recruitment is an expensive and error prone process, but doing it badly could actually take more time and alienate people that you should been keeping on your side. Why not do it right?