7.25.2011

Speling misteaks mattter

When my friends and family visit restaurants, one of our favorite games is, “spot the typos on the menu.” Now, I don’t claim to be the best proofreader in the world, but spelling and grammar errors jump out at me. And while I make tons of typos in my own writing and emails, it’s because I’m often rushing and careless, not because I don’t know how to spell the word.

A typo on a restaurant menu elicits a chuckle or two — and that’s all. However, one study has shown that spelling errors on e-commerce websites can drive away business.

Similarly, nothing makes a commercial email scream “scam!” than typos in emails. Are you going to trust a half-off offer from your favorite coupon purveyor or an important notice from your bank if something is obviously spelled wrong?

In a recent BBC News story, “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales,” the reporter said that “sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website's credibility.”

One source claimed that typos on one site cut sales in half.

The BBC story quotes William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, as saying, "In these instances, when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

Okay, I’m sure that we all agree that customer-facing websites and email messages should have good grammar and spelling. What’s the process for ensuring that? Does your development team have one? Who writes all the web copy, and who checks and proofreads your websites and email messages to make sure that the copy is clean? What about database entries, such as product names or descriptions?

The BBC story blames poor education for the proliferation of typos on websites, as well as an increased informality on the Internet. Maybe that’s part of it. Certainly not all programmers are good spellers, and when a coder is in coding mode, he or she may not be in proofreading mode.

However, my belief is that most of the typos and spelling errors are created by busy programmers who know how to spell – but are typing too fast and who aren’t paying attention. It’s also caused by copying/pasting text that hasn’t been written by a professional copywriter, and by a lack of serious proofreading.

Everyone needs a proofreader. Everything should be proofread before it goes live. (“Spellcheck” is not a proofreader.)

We recently had a small error on one of our websites. A mailto link was set up with a prepopulated subject line – but nobody had specified what the subject line should be, and so the programmer simply wrote one. Unfortunately, what he wrote had a very minor typo – instead of describing our company as BZ Media, he typed BZ MEdia by mistake. Whoops. A small mistake, but one that a customer called out to our attention. How embarrassing.

Look at your processes. Do you have competent proofreaders? Are they seeing everything that a customer or partner might see before it goes live? If not… well, you know what do to.

7.21.2011

Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" is not iOS

Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” began shipping on Wednesday, July 20. I use the term “shipping” advisedly – for now, the only way to get Lion is to download it from Apple’s Mac App Store for $29.99. It was a 3.7GB file, which fortunately transferred in under an hour. I feel bad for those who don’t have a lot of bandwidth.

The word on the street is that Lion is a hybrid. It's supposedly half Mac OS X and half iOS – the operating system found on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. I don’t see it. There are only three things that are somewhat iOS-like in appearance:

• There is a new program launcher called Launchpad which displays the icons for all your installed applications in a grid. Yeah, it’s kinda like the iPad. However, that's a secondary way to start programs. In fact, Launchpad is an application itself, not a built-part part of the user interface. You can still start programs the way you always did: by pressing their icons on the Dock, by finding the apps in the Applications folder, or by double-clicking a file. The Launchpad is merely a new way to find the program you want to run.

• The Mail client has been redesigned and does look like the iPad version.Messages in a mailbox are listed on the left, while the contents of a selected message is shown on the right. Previously, the list of messages was on the top, and the selected message was shown on the bottom. There’s a setting to switch back to the old layout. Oh, and you can view messages organized by thread. Big deal.

• The Address Book contact database has an interface that looks more like an old-fashioned contact notebook, which is definitely more like on the iPad. However, it behaves the same way as the Mac version always did, only with a slightly changed skin.

Beyond that, I don’t see much that's iPad-like in the Lion user interface. And it's a pretty incremental upgrade; an hour after installing Lion I forgot that it was a new operating system.

There are tons of new features and changes with Mac OS X 10.7 – and I’m slowly exploring them. Overall, it's a real improvement. But is it iOS on a MacBook Air? Nope, not even close.

Apple’s Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” is a good evolutionary upgrade over the previous Snow Leopard version. Unless you have software that’s not compatible with the new operating system (like anything requiring Rosetta, which is no longer supported), you should consider the upgrade.

My take on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook

Let’s talk about the Samsung Series 5 3G Chromebook. Google generously promised to send a Samsung Chromebook to everyone who attended its Google I/O conference a few months ago, and mine arrived this week. (So, full disclosure: I didn’t pay for the $499 device.)

What’s a Chromebook? It’s a notebook that boots into a browser window. If you have a Google account, which I already do, you log into it, and can then use the browser to access your email, calendar, social networking, edit documents and so-on. You can browse to any other website you want - you're not locked into Google's sites or applications.

The Samsung hardware is nice. The notebook is small and thin, like my aluminum MacBook Air, but is made out of a high-quality plastic. The size (0.8 inches thick) and weight (3.3 pounds) compare favorably to the 13.3-inch MacBook Air. The screen, at 12.1 inches, is smaller than the Air's but is very sharp. Samsung claims 8.5 hours of battery life, which is certainly acceptable.

If you spend most of your time working in a browser, you’ll be at home using the Chromebook. It’s snappy and responsive, as long as your Internet connection is good. The 3G cellular wireless connectivity is a huge huge huge plus – if you're not connected to the Internet, the Chromebook is a 3.3-pound paperweight. (I wish Apple would offer a version of the MacBook Air with embedded cellular wireless. I’d pay for the service.)

The idea of a computer without local storage is appealing. No files to clean up, no applications to upgrade, no viruses to guard against. You can log out of your Chromebook and give it to a friend. If you lose your Chromebook, it doesn’t matter, no files are at risk. Everything is in the cloud.

That's the key point. For the Chromebook to be effective, you must become one with the cloud. There is no local storage. Documents, photographs, spreadsheets, source code, email archives, music collections – everything must be in the cloud. It doesn’t have to be in Google’s cloud – you can use any cloud service – but the applications and data cannot reside locally on the device.

That’s why the Chromebook isn’t for me. I don’t live in the cloud, at least not today; my applications and data live on my hard drive. So, while I could use a Chromebook as a secondary computer, perhaps to take to a meeting, it’s not a computer I can live in.

But then again, I’m a power user – not the target audience for the Chromebook. It’s ideal for casual users, or for students, or for corporate employees (easy to enforce security policies!).

Bottom line: Google and Samsung have done a wonderful job with the Chromebook. The hardware is solid, the software is fast, and the system appears to be well-engineered. It’s recommended for any workers whose data resides in the cloud, and who can find 100% of the software functionality they require from browser-based applications.

7.17.2011

Media Scandals

Like many of you, I’ve been riveted by the expanding drama with News Corp.’s flagship British newspaper, News of the World. What started as an apparently straight-forward phone-hacking scandal (where journalists guessed voicemail passwords and listened to a murdered girl’s phone messages) got worse. Rapidly.

We learned that the reporters from News of the World allegedly went far beyond listening to messages from desperate relatives in order to get “scoops.” The reporters also deleted the voicemail messages to clear space in the mailbox and deny them to competitors. This give the young girl’s parents false hope that she was alive, and also potentially hampered the search for her.

We learned that reporters allegedly hacked into messages from lots of people. They target hundreds, it seems, of celebrities, politicians, the Royal family, even British police investigators.

We learned that that the News Corp. is too close to politicians in the United Kingdom’s two largest parties, Labor and Conservative. (We already knew that News Corp.’s Fox News subsidiary is tight with the United States’ Republican party, and even has many of that party’s most influential figures on its payroll.)

We learned that News Corp. is now in full spin mode. The company closed News of the World and sacked hundreds of workers, dropped a high-profile bid for full ownership of British cable TV provider BSkyB, and hired the top-shelf public relations company Edelman to help them spin the crisis.

We learned that several of the company’s top U.K. and U.S. executives have fallen on their swords (and have since been arrested). The company’s CEO, Rupert Murdoch, has offered profuse apologies to the slain girl’s family and to the public.

I was in the United Kingdom over the past two weeks. Watching this story unfold on that side of the pond gave me a deep appreciation of how disgusted ordinary British citizens are at the shameless, self-serving antics of journalists, publishers and the media as a whole. (When people asked what I do for a living, I usually responded, “I’m a journalist.” The reaction was rarely positive.)

While I’m appalled by this scandal, I’m not na├»ve. The deep-seated problems with the media go far beyond News Corp., which merely happens to be the most brazen of the media companies. Many, if not most, if not all, of the major media companies routinely cross the line in order to get “scoops.” Publishers across the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere influence government by pushing their own agendas. Publishers support parties or politicians who will help their business or ideology, and ruthlessly retaliate against anyone who steps out of line.

We see slanted editorial in our newspapers, on television and on the Web every day. Events are filtered by the publisher’s self-serving view of who should win or who should lose – which means that everything good done by the publisher’s enemies is twisted and distorted to resemble evil, while misdeeds done by the publisher’s friends are covered up or spun into a positive.

It’s not only politics, of course, where the media fall down. Reporters and publishers suck up to major influencers – and those influencers, in turn, suck up to reporters. For too many reporters, analysts, commentators and editors, the job is simply to drive the publisher’s bottom line, which means writing dumb-downed sensational stories that get lots of Web hits, fawning over influencers and pushing the publisher’s political agenda.

That’s not what journalism is supposed to be. Yet that’s what we see in the unfolding News Corp. scandal, and it’s symptomatic of the entire media world.

It’s a vicious cycle. I fear that nothing is going to change.

7.04.2011

Summer reading: The Clean Coder

It’s a short book you can read at the beach. And like being on vacation at the seashore, Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin’s newest book is quite refreshing, if a bit pricey.

Bob Martin, one of the key figures behind agile software development, thinks a lot about software craftsmanship. He has spoken many times about software development as a profession. It’s not just a job, something where you put in the hours and collect money, or complete the project and send in an invoice. It’s bigger than that, with a thread of ethics and big-picture behavior such as you’d find with other professionals like doctors, lawyers and engineers.

(In my opinion, one reason why many programmers fail to get the respect they think they deserve as “software engineers” is that they don’t behave like professional engineers. But that’s a post for another day.)

“The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers” which arrived on my desk in May, is a distillation of Bob’s thinking on craftsmanship and professionalism. The book is idealistic, and in many ways is not realistic: Managers and executives want the programmers in the IT department to crank out code, integrate silos, deliver mobile apps, build website, just get the job done as fast as possible, and as cheaply as possible — often with no appreciation for how great software gets created.

In Bob Martin’s aspirational world, developers will have intelligent conversations with stakeholders about costs, about requirements, about tradeoffs, about testing, about healthy collaboration.

Developers will learn how to say yes, and will also learn how to say no. Presumably, the folks who write the checks (managers, customers, whatever) will listen. If they don’t listen, developers will pull up their stakes and move on.

Idealistic. But Bob Martin’s vision is beautiful.

Pick up one copy of “The Clean Coder,” read it, and then route it around your department. This is a “read once” sort of book; unlike a coding reference, it’s not a voluminous tome that everyone on your dev team should own. Also, given its $39.99 cover price, it’s too expensive to justify purchasing multiple copies. Will all due respect to Bob, this should be a $15 book.

If more of us understand Bob Martin’s vision of what software professionalism should be… together, we can build that better world.

About Me

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.