Extant: quite good, actually

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ExtantCBS’s Extant turned out to be better than I expected.

After Almost Human got whacked due to low ratings I don’t expect science fiction series to survive long, but Extant might have a chance. Even though it gives me this mixed feeling of familiarity and compote made out of all the tropes they could throw together. I might give away some plot details accidentally, but if you’ve been watching trailers and such you probably know all of this already.

There is space travel and, therefore, aliens of sorts. Because never waste a space trip. In the “Event Horizon” kind of way (but so far less scary).

There is an unexplained pregnancy when “all hope is lost”, so there has to be a creepy pregnancy-related horror moment here and there. In the Prometheus kind of way.

There is an android child, made by the husband, so cue in “robots will kill us all” warning notes. In the A.I. Artificial Intelligence kind of way.

There is a super-powerful mega-corporation, capable of everything and anything, and seemingly deeply involved in everything that’s going on.

Throw in a few pinches of betrayal, add a dash of conspiracy and…. it’s quite nice so far :) I like how they keep adding layers and layers of it all, and so far I am interested in seeing where it goes.

Alas, given that the show already is being moved around the timetable due to fall in ratings and thus it might not survive that long.

Sigh.

Summer madness: branding and social craze

Posted by & filed under Misc, Reviews, Technology.

Wow. I did not expect several companies go bonkers this summer practically at the same time. What worse, in each case it seems to be a long-planned (and horribly executed) move that leaves me scratching my head.
Let’s start with AirBnB and its universal symbol for vagi certain body parts. I understand desire to re-brand from time to time. Usually happens during crisis, as instead of improving product company rushes to slap on some fresh coat of paint because “old logo didn’t represent us”. In some cases, where original logo was really crappy or looks very outdated it kinda makes sense. You get sensible face-lifts and changes that don’t distract from the primary product that company is still making. For example AT&T did a remake on its “death star”, Apple moved to more monochrome sign, or Starbucks moving away from initial boobies and fishtails — it all kinda makes sense.
And then there’s AirBNB.

AirBNBNew logo makes me think of office products store, because it looks like a mutilated paper clip. But worse, they chose to “apply it everywhere”, including that fogged up window which made it look significantly more… questionable. When people started to post reactions, company stomped its feed angry at people not getting this grandiose feeling of “belonging” and putting to question desire of AirBnB hosts to slap this logo on their door.

Guys (and ladies), come on. What is your primary function? To help hosts rent out their rooms/homes. I understand that some of those rentals will be happy to use this rounded-up logo but you probably don’t want to be officially associated with them. How exactly would you explain to someone who lived under a rock and never head of your company what that is? You know what will happen? A dialog like this:

— “This represents the sense of belonging”
— Okay, but what is it that you sell?
— Vacation rentals
— Ah ok.

Your logo doesn’t say “vacation rental”. It says “office supply” or “3 year old’s doodle”. It certainly doesn’t help people think “I should ask this company to provide cleaning services for my rental home”, so the whole thing seems to be pointless and silly. And certainly not tested well enough with regular users.

Users, who love your service because you help them avoid paying a ton of money to hotel. You are trying to play up “experience things like locals do” part of this arrangement, and it’s nice, but primary goal is to find a place to stay when hotel is not an option. And instead of adding such basic function as sorting of search results you’ve spent a ton of time and money on logo that looks like a butt. I hope this falls under “any kind of publicity is a good thing” in the end and things will blow over. But your logo will stay just that, a logo, with nobody in their right mind wanting to brand their home with a corporate identity, especially as they might go for another provider like Home Away, which has problems with dated logo, but improved their site significantly. The whole “belonging” thing is just marketing bullshit, unfortunately.

Now another “logo and more” story, the Foursquare.

Foursquare

That’s a prime example of abandoning primary function completely and chasing after mythical “social component”. Foursquare might have felt a bit stale lately, but it still provided the original fun — people checking in, posting photos, writing comments on places. I even started using the app to find interesting things nearby (the exploring mode) all while feverishly competing with other people for mayorship. Duh, gamification.

But… Gamification is out. And “social” is in. As well as over-gratification. I guess it was kinda sad that some people couldn’t compete for mayorships, so Foursquare created a new app, Swarm, where everyone is a winner because, well, you’re only competing with your friends. I suppose for some people that’d be their whole class or all other students they’ve befriended at the university. But for many people it’s completely irrelevant because most friends are moving around. And by “moving” I mean “took off to another part of town/state/continent and live there”, so you don’t really “compete” as your local grocery store is yours (and everyone else’s, as mayorships are now gone). If application is meant to be for “social planning” (hello, e-vite) then that’s fine, but not many people need one, or we’d have a runaway hit of sorts already. Heck, if someone wants to hang out at the bar, they’ll just snap a photo on Instagram with “come hang out” or something or Facebook it. But for the rest of the time people are sufficiently far away to not care, so “global” competition with strangers is way more fun than non-competing with friends.

Foursquare wasn’t happy with the fact that not all users followed through and downloaded a new app. So it nuked checkins in Foursquare app in addition to never-ending nagging. What the bleeping bleep are they thinking. All of the exploratory functions are secondary. And they kill the primary function instead. And promise some “personalized search”.

Do you know what “personalized search” means? Tracking. It’s okay when you voluntarily check in into some venues and whatnot, and then that’s used to “personalize” some recommendations for you. But how do you get that information if there are no check-ins? I don’t need another app that tracks my every move hoping to use it for something useful later, eating up battery. I don’t like Swarm app, which is slow and buggy and irrelevant (see above). So why would I want to have two apps when they’re not useful without each other? Fine, just rename your app into Swarm, port all users there and have both explore and check-in in one app. It just doesn’t make any sense.
But then you’d lose all those users who already installed Foursquare. For, you know, checking in. Sigh

As a bonus, new logo looks like a sharpened glowing acidic F. Excuse me, “watermelon”-colored F. Here’s a picture of similar super-F for you:

Scene from Fairly Oddparents cartoon

I hope Foursquare still has a chance to stop this madness — allow users to continue to check in from the old app, stop the day-glow colors in “new” version of Foursquare (venue screen looks waaaay better) and just work on improving suggestions via regular app. But something tells me they will be stubborn and watch install-base shrink by about 20%. Not everyone has same amount of guts as Netflix to stop idiotic idea when public tells them how stupid the idea is.

Which is sad.

Mobile App UX: Don’t be a hysterical princess

Posted by & filed under Misc, Technology.

So, Facebook actually decided to improve their mobile application experience after going to Africa. It’s nice of them. Except they didn’t really need to go to Africa, just go to a bad coverage area. Or look at an overage charge from AT&T. And hey, suddenly US mobile life is not that great.

But I digress. I’ll re-iterate the rules of pleasant user experiences that applications should (but probably don’t) follow. It will make the mobile world waaaay better.

1. The most important rule: don’t be a hysterical princess. Crappy connections happen, so you should expect your internet connection to be abruptly yanked out. Or slow down to a crawl. It may disappear at any moment. No, user can’t wave a magic wand and make it re-appear, so don’t ask.

1a. Cache everything. All successful calls should be stashed into a local cache (ideally configurable as to how large it should be, with some reasonable default, say, no more than 1% of available storage). You have internet? Refresh. No internet? No biggie — show last successful data set (with date of refresh, if you’re nice). When nothing is available (first run, for example) show a calm and polite message, saying that data will be right there, as soon as stable internet connection appears and stays on long enough. You can even offer to show a notification when initialization is successful (“Let me know when initialization is complete). It’s nice to think that user is very interested in your app, but if they have something else to do, it’s even nicer when your app is polite and doesn’t make user stare at an empty/broken screen.

1b. No “internet connection lost!!” alerts. User doesn’t care. He/she is probably annoyed as-is at everything dying on the phone and your app having hysterics about lost connection, popup and all, is not going to make their day better. If you want to show that connection is lost, add a status icon? A plug, perhaps, or a tiny indicator light (green solid circle — everything is okay, red square — no connection, yellow triangle — crappy connection, color and shape for users that have color blindness).

1c. All outgoing operations should be stashed into queue and executed whenever connection re-appears. User wants to post? No problem, here’s local copy, once everything is back to normal, re-send the post. You should not do the classical “Can’t post right now, try later!”. No. You “try later”. Save it, send it later. Unless this app controls live-by-wire robot performing surgery, sending data later is not a problem (if you do write robot-controlling medical app, you probably know all this already). It’s okay to show “blah posts pending” somewhere. A good way would be to say “saved, will post as soon as internet is available” when having issues, and “posted successfully” when/if everything is fine.

2. Always make sure you support incremental upload/download. Google Drive suffers from it, for example (probably because engineers live in ever-connected utopia). If something has to be uploaded, we should be able to do it half-way now and half-way later. Because connection could be so unstable, that you can’t push that whole 13 megapixel photo in a single setting. Sorry, but that happens. So to avoid updating file over and over and over again, just re-stitch together bits on the server. I know you’re smart enough to do it.

3. If you can limit data amounts — degradable image quality, different amounts of downloads — do it. Things like compression probably should be turned on by default. Whatever the amount of energy required to unzip things is probably going to be well compensated by running active data transmission 30% less.

4. Please respect user’s privacy. I know your marketing department demands to have email right now, as well as all user’s contacts, mandatory right to post onto Facebook and all other totally “essential” (and completely irrelevant from the user’s point of view) things. Resist. If you do require a registration, allow it to be delayed? User probably trying out your app in a not very convenient location and forcing a total profile write-up at the moment of installation is a bad idea. Ask one question at a time, allow delayed answers. And please allow user to edit/enter stuff via desktop — tiny phones are tiny. And you won’t believe what auto-correct does to some fields :P

5. If you are writing operating system, please keep in mind that “free/open” WiFi can be a fake internet connection. Phone sees it, grabs onto it and… everything is dying because that provider demands you to click “I agree!” on a page of legalize nobody ever reads. But until that happens you’re in a limbo — WiFi is present but it’s not working. So resilience is very important, and ideally until WiFi interface is up and running reliably everything should be still using wireless data. Android was very good at showing if WiFi was connected and if it was actually working (different color of indicator).

6. Ideally your app should allow turning on and off background sync (with frequency of synchronization). Even better if you also allow option to sync more over WiFi or when connected to a charger.

7. If you do allow signing up for some sort of an account via “third party authentication”, such as Google or Facebook, or Twitter do not require additional info. You allowed Twitter auth? That’s it. No, you should not show “okay, and now also enter an email and password” because why the hell would I want to give you a twitter auth if I still need to enter an email. And a password. If your marketing department demands email, just don’t use email-less auth.

And that should be enough for data/connectivity experience to be much better :)

Amazon Fire: Um… no.

Posted by & filed under Technology.

fire phoneSo, the Amazon has now introduced its very own kinda-Android Fire Phone. Neat. Except I keep wondering, why?

One of the primary differentiating function is, apparently, the Dynamic Perspective. Which requires several cameras and lets you “look” at kinda-3D things in your phone. It’s interesting but not really ground-breaking. Remember all those apps for iPad from 2010? Yeah, just like that:

Okay, maybe it’s a new thing for Android phones? Well, not really. Looky here:

So you don’t really need all those cameras, it just adds expense (though some of those parallax live wallpapers do cost a dollar on Play Store).

Tilting and twitching to get menus is not for me — I sometimes use my phone on the go so accidental page flips and menu toggling would be rampant. I don’t even use auto-rotate because of that.

Firefly is a very interesting app — like Google Goggles on steroids, plus insta-buy ability. But the question is — will they really never release it for regular Android, or incorporate the functionality into regular Amazon app for Android or iPhone? Remember, the idea is to help Amazon customers to buy something they’ve found in the real world. Forcing them to buy a phone to do that is a bit silly, so I expect this app to go Android-wide in a few months at most.

Mayday is a good service, and that could entice some people not familiar with technology to buy the phone. Or they could get an iPhone and get help from Apple — not in real-time over the video chat, but in person instead. I can’t objectively judge if this would be crucial for non-tech-savvy users, as from my perspective you only need such service a few times at the beginning when you are learning how to do something on your phone. It’s a crutch for weird and non-intuitive interfaces, mostly — users can’t figure out how to find music, or disable ringer or something so they are forced to ask online assistant — that’s a total UX failure right there.

Good camera and a dedicated camera button is great, and I hope we’ll see f/2.0 camera in other phones. Dedicated button is common on Sony phones, but that’s about it.

So hardware-wise I don’t see any significant reason to buy new Amazon phone. A year worth of Prime service is enticing, but $650 for an unlocked version of the phone? No way. And it’s just on AT&T — I thought we were past that ever since Facebook Phone? If it’s a GSM (+ LTE) device, it has to go on T-Mobile too. I can imagine all those wonderful sync services and FireFly (and even Mayday) sucking up data at an alarming rate, so users that have no chance of buying unlimited data from AT&T might get a very unpleasant surprise.

Ideally, I hope Amazon will have a fire sale on Fire phone soon, where the price will be dropped to more reasonable Nexus-like levels (after all, we get castrated version of Android, with full Amazon lock-in on services and apps). Then it might make some sense. But for now — no. Either a Samsung or LG flagman would be a better choice.

Too bad, though, I had high hopes for Amazon device.

Straight Talk: slight trouble in MMS paradise

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Straight TalkSo, after months of good service, Straight Talk / TracFone suddenly sent me “Please restart your phone to apply settings” type of message. Looks like they have modified their APN settings (used to be AT&T MVNO and now it’s more “TracFone”-like “tfdata”). I rebooted my phone, and everything seemed to be fine. Except my MMS is now somewhat wonky.

Specifically, looks like there are problems with larger image sizes — service refuses to download picture MMS for whatever reason and everything was consistently failing. I saw some people claim that “resetting their billing cycle” helped, but I don’t think this is relevant.

So far the shamanic way to make MMS work again is:
1. Make sure your APN is set to “new” stuff (APN: tfdata, MMSC: http://mms-tf.net, MMS PROXY: mms3.tracfone.com,
MMS PORT: 80, MMS_APN: tfdata)
2. Turn off WiFi
3. Send yourself a small MMS message. Tiny picture. A short audio file. Something that would still make an MMS but also would be small
4. Wait for it to be received by your phone

At this time phone should be able to successfully retrieve the picture. After that you can re-connect to WiFi and it will still work, plus you can download all previously failed messages too.

Hopefully this will help you too :)

Frankly, I’d rather then fix their finicky MMS service center :P Come on, it’s almost 2014. Having weird issues like that is inexcusable. We used to have to send MMS to ourself to indicate to service center that phone is MMS capable, but these days it shouldn’t be necessary.

Now, on a good side, data is still quite fast, albeit in the middle of the night. Almost 20Mbps down and 2Mbps up on AT&T’s LTE network for same price…
speed_dec_6

Still worth it :)

p.s. the other thing I’ve noticed was that from time to time browser gets redirected to some IP address but then goes back to original page. I am not yet sure if this is related, but just opening a web page could be one of those “magically helps to resolve non-downloading of MMS” thing. I wonder if they are trying to clamp down on people trying to tether “unofficially” via their sim cards, and in the process broke MMS delivery (which is incapable of downloading content unless APN is happy with the device)