An Un-Evil Web Photo Album

WebAlbumsWhen I first saw Google’s interface for search a few years ago it was like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t cluttered with crap like every other major search engine seemed to be at the time. Yahoo! and whatever other search engines were around back then took a portal approach and jammed as much stuff on the screen as they could fit, whereas Google’s search tool was elegant in its simplicity. I’m sure this elegance is a major reason behind its ongoing success. That, and the fact that it would actually find what you wanted 99% of the time, and sites couldn’t buy their way into the top rankings.

For much the same reason I’ve not been a big fan of web photo storage sites like Photobucket or even Flickr, because of the amount of clutter and crap that goes along with them. I have a Flickr account but rarely use it because it’s just too, I dunno, inelegant…

So I was very pleased to have just discovered Google’s Picasa Web Albums, a free photo storage and web album service that benefits from Google’s same approach to simplicity and elegance. I’ve just been having a quick play with it, and it looks great. I especially like the way they have provided upload tools in the form of either a standalone application for uploading from your computer, or, my favourite, direct integration with iPhoto. Yep, just click on the photos you want to upload, choose Export from the File menu and you are presented with the Google upload dialog. A couple of clicks to choose quality settings, etc, and the job is done. You can make photos public or private, have large or small image views, get automatic slideshows, download individual photos, and it even comes complete with an RSS feed.

Full of useful features while still being easy and intuitive; just the way it should be.

This product will be great… one day

Just as a follow on to that last post, it’s interesting to compare the marketing strategies of Microsoft and Apple, especially when it comes to the release of new products.

Microsoft takes the hype-it-up-early approach – witness such products as Origami, Vista and Zune. Apple on the other hand are very tight-lipped about new products and essentially say nothing until a new product is announced by His Steveness at an event like MacWorld or WWDC. This latter approach by Apple always seems to cause the rumour mills to work overtime with speculation and guessing at just what might emerge, but the actual product releases often exceed consumer expectation, or at least are still full of surprises. On the other hand, Microsoft’s hype-in-advance approach seems to build enormous consumer expectation around their products but it is often dissapointingly not met when the crunch comes.

With both Vista and Zune still out on the horizon somewhere, it will be interesting to watch and see just how they manage to meet the expectation they have created for themselves. It appears that in Vista’s case the only way they will be meeting their long-overdue launch date will be to water down or eliminate features… and many of those features are ones that OS X Tiger already has.

Zune is still a ways off and is being touted as an iPod killer, but with over 75% of the portable music player market it will have a lot of catching up to do. And now Sandisk is talking about having an 8Gb flash memory based player, filled to the brim with features at a competitive price.

I can’t help but think that the key differentiator is not just about features but rather usability, and the others have a long way to go to catch the iPod in that regard. Not only that, but it’s only a matter of time before Apple (and others) have access to 8Gb flash memory, and with the profit Apple makes on iPods, they can still afford to compete.

Bring it on…

Destined for Extinction

Acer C100I read an interesting, albeit quite old, post by a guy called kstaken called “Has Microsoft lost its Marketing Touch?” about Microsoft’s track record of failure to capitalise on its own marketing hype. I found it interesting because it talks particularly about the Tablet PC.

Back in the day, I was actually quite involved with the marketing of the Tablet PC when I was working with Microsoft Australia’s case study program. As a technical writer it was my job to write business case studies on how Microsoft technologies were being implemented for success in the corporate and educational arenas. Just before the tablets were released I had the job of getting all the rapid deployment program (pre-release) stories together, writing all the case studies, and even travelling with the film crew as they made short promo pieces about the tablet technology. When the day arrived for the release it was with much fanfare, a big press event in Sydney, and then… nothing.

Well very little anyway. The technology was promising, so much so that I bought a Tablet PC myself. As it turns out, the build quality was crap and, despite having a couple of years of use out of the machine, it was a reasonable concept executed in a mediocre way and marketed even more poorly. As a teacher, I saw great potential for tablet technology, in lots of really interesting ways, but thanks to an almost total lack of promotion by one of the world’s biggest companies, there are still very few people who have even heard of tablets. Even among schoolage kids, usually a pretty switched on bunch when it comes to technology and gadgets; most of my students are amazed when I show them my tablet PC and usually have the same response… “I want one!”… but of course nobody actually gets one, because the marketing is so abysmally poor. It always starts out big and bold, but then just dribbles into nothing.

Where do these much hyped products go? What DID happen to the Tablet PC, the PocketPC phone, SmartDisplays, Windows XP Media Center, the “top secret” Origami Project? What about Sharepoint or, heaven forbid, .NET? Why do they always amount to 4/5’s of bugger all? Already it seems that future products such as Vista are running out of steam before they even get off the ground. What on earth is Microsoft doing wrong? Surely a cashed up company like Bill’s can afford to get some of their marketing right?

I met a lot of bright, well meaning people at Microsoft who believe that the products they market are good stuff, and who genuinely want those products to be a success. They must get incredibly frustrated by the failure of the marketing machine to follow through.

I don’t much care for Microsoft’s products these days, and have abandoned Windows in favour of another more mature (dare I say, real) operating system. But I just can’t figure out why Microsoft has so much trouble following up on those products that it goes to so much trouble to develop.

It just doesn’t make sense.

The Natural Law of Blogging

I just finished reading an interesting book about blogging, titled Who Let the Blogs Out, but a guy called Biz Stone. I’m still wondering what the name Biz might be short for, but regardless, I did find it quite an engaging read. Biz Stone was a very early blogger, was involved in created Xanga, has written a couple of books on the subject and now works at Google helping run Blogger. I guess that makes his opinions worth hearing, purely just based on his credentials.

The overriding message I took from his book was that the true worth of blogging cannot be appreciated on a small scale. A single blog post, or even a single blog, is not what it’s all about. Blogging gets it’s power from becoming a large scale ecosystem, a thriving community of people all cross linking to each other, creating connections and networks of ideas. The power of blogging is way more than the sum of its individual parts, and to gauge the power of this new medium it needs to be seen in the light of the much bigger picture that it creates.

He draws some good analogies, some of which coincidentally come from the last book I read before this one, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. The point made in that book, in fact both books, is that groups of people can be collectively smarter than the brightest individuals within the group, if the group is made up of diverse individuals with a broad range of views, supported by a medium that allows them to communicate freely.

Sounds like blogging to me.

Adding my Voice

I figured that since I was enjoying the whole blogging experience during our teaching exchange to Canada, I would start another blog, this time focussed on matters educational/technological. I plan to use it mainly to air my thoughts and ideas about the uses of technology, especially with regard to education, but pretty much about whatever I feel like writing about.

I can see a lot of potential for the uses of blogs, wikis and podcasts in the educational environment, but it will be interesting to see exactly how it all pans out. I did convert a largely textbook task into a podcast project last semester, and I think it worked out ok, but this semester I am going to try to push things a bit further.

If you have any ideas about interesting uses of Web 2.0 technology in the classroom it would be great to hear about them…