Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Crash 'n' Burn: The 11th hour for Flash

Adobe's rhetoric continues after the curve ball Apple threw. The whining continues with this post: On Adobe, Flash CS5 and iPhone Applications.

Sadly, the whining doesn't change anything, and Adobe's argument would have been more valid if they didn't trying to lock developers into Flash/Flex and if it -Flash- were really open. Also, I think Adobe's Flash/Flex tools favor developing using Cold Fusion on the server side... you can use other server-side technologies however I believe the tools "play" better with Cold Fusion.

Apple's decision makes 100% business sense to me. They're advocating for their own platform, or open standards. Just like Adobe advocates for their own platforms, or open standards. What's wrong with that?

Flash filled a void in the 90s, but where is that void today? Is it even still needed? Yes its far superior technology, but its a closed technology. And to think that Android will succeed because it has Flash is just absurd. Android could be the iPhone's real challenger ONLY because it is open. The above post also seems to confuse "open" with "cross-platform". They're very different. Flash is cross-platform because its not open.

Flash needs something different right now, we don't need Flash to deliver rich content online anymore. We don't need flash to deliver sexy fonts. We don't need Flash to scroll and fade text. Soon we won't need Flash to play video - my Youtube embed below is still in Flash- . We don't need navigation built in Flash. So much stuff we needed Flash for (right or wrong) , that are just not needed today.

On to Flex, Flash's younger cousin. We - the majority - don't need that as well. Slowly but surely applications will move to the web. They may have some Flash components that could now just be as easily done in HTML5 or even HTML and some nifty JavaScript. Where I can see Flex fitting, is for these extremely specialized software, such as CAD or medical imaging. Such software is expensive and time-consuming to write, and would be a pain to translate into different operating systems. Such software also comes with heavy visualization, so its a good fit with Flash. Maybe thats where Flash will head, who knows? But there is definitely hardly any room today for Flash on the web.

This song is dedicated to Adobe Flash, I don't know who your savior will be, but you really need one right now...bad.

How to throw usability out the window - Part 1

Sometime between when I paid my Rogers bill last month, and when I tried to look it up this month, the Rogers site was "upgraded" to portal. I'm not sure what it used to be before, but I think now it sits squats on top of the BEA Weblogic portal - now owned by Oracle.

Note: This is only part I, the Rogers Portal went offline while I am writing this. To be continued when its live again...

The Loading Dial Syndrome

Who hasn't seen one before? its a great little technique to let the user know something may take some time to come up - note the keyword is "something" not "time". If in your site's case "something" is replaced by "everything" then something is definitely wrong. Sometimes you just can't make things any faster, especially today when portals by nature provide seamless integration between different internal and external applications. At some point, its just out of your control. However, if your site suffers from the Loading Dial Syndrome you are definitely doing it wrong, and its just not out of your control.

By the way, when the loading dial in the middle disappears - after a minute or so-, nothing actually loads. I end up with all this blank space in the middle of my screen. Obviously a bug of some sort, but hey I'm trying to pay my bills here, not QA your application. For the record I wouldn't mind doing it if it was optional (i.e. I choose to jump to the Beta version) plus I receive a reduced bill.


So after going to the "Bills & Payments" tab I see a list of my previous bills and I can dive into any of them by clicking the "Bill" link next to each. I then see the screen below:

Whats the problem? How do I go back to seeing all my bills again? I can't even click on the same tab again. The only way I found is to click on another tab, and then click back on to "Bills & Payments" and then the view is reset to the initial state. Almost like driving a car that can't be put into reverse.

The other thing about this screen, is that effort was spent on meaningless details, such as the red dropdowns with the white gradient background.

The thing about usability is that when you get too deep into something, you miss these obvious issues. I'm sure they looked like non-issues during develeopment, but take a step back and Don't Make Me Think. Sure, there's rounded corners, pretty shadows and loading dials, but none of that will make me login more often if its too darn slow. Now I have two things to dread about the end of the month, finding out how much $ I am about to spend, and trying to use this PoC. - and that doesn't stand for Proof of Concept.

Monday, April 19, 2010

there will always be someone who can do it cheaper

For most companies offering professional services, the business model is based on cost plus billing. This includes people like lawyers, consultants, accountants, marketing agencies, etc.
This is fine for starting up and getting the $ rolling to keep the lights on. However at some point you realize that that was fine for starting out and that it is completely flawed and doesn't make any economic sense in the long run.

I'll start with one issue with this model, basically you are capping yourself - I cannot generate anymore revenue than:
Number Of Hours I can reasonable work per year X my hourly billing rate

You work an hour, you earn an hour. Growth is extremely tough because for professional services, you end up doing two things:
  1. Hire more people to effectively generate more hours per day to sell (ex. just like a manufacturing company would build more and bigger factories)
  2. Improve and automate certain processes so that you focus on tasks that add the most value. (ex. just like a manufacturing company invests in better technology like robotics to increase throughput)
Number 1 is bad. Number 2 is great.

But the biggest problem is that you are now distracted. You are doing everything you can to generate more hours because that is what your business model is telling you need to do to make money. You are now faced with a dilemma with your customer because your business model has put you in a position to choose quantity over quality in order to be profitable. You then get into the argument of convincing your customer some task will take that many hours, while they try to convince you it will take less. This wouldn't happen if you focused on selling and delivering value.

Nobody gets into the professional services business to sell time. They want to sell value. Not hours. A salesperson can talk you into buying a Hyundai. They can't talk you into buying a Ferrari. People who buy Ferraris say "I'm buying that". People who buy Hyundais say "I need a car". There are many providers for the Hyundai class of cars, you don't want to be in that ruthless, volatile, price based market. Just like the whole Mac vs. PCs. Apple isn't in the $500 computer market for a very very good reason. You don't want your competitive advantage to be your price or hourly rate. Just like driving on the highway there is always someone behind you driving faster; there will always be someone who can do it cheaper or quicker. And with a global economy that is a fact.

So what is one to do? Don't tie your price to effort - easier said than done of course. Its hard because you are selling something mostly invisible, something customers will not see until "it" has been delivered. But people usually like to see what they are getting for their investment. I don't want to just give money away, but since I can't see "it" I'll settle for seeing hours. Then you fall into the trap of believing that more hours equals more of "it" or better of "it" - which we all know is not the case.

You can't stop tying your price to effort if you are delivering the Hyundais . You need to have the Ferraris of whatever service you are providing. Take an accountant. At first you'll charge an hourly rate. After some time you realize you are consistently providing your customers a better tax return than other accountants in the area. Now you can step out of that ruthless, price based market and start charging a premium or a percentage around a service that kind of looks like a product. Now if customers want cheap, they can go to Joe Blow and Co for their tax needs. Why? because you don't deliver cheap. You deliver value, and you have the numbers to prove it.

So now you got rid of your hourly rate, and are focused on delivering value. What can go wrong? You could still get distracted about what value is. Your perception of value may not be shared by the customer. Here's an example. I did my taxes an H&R Block when I was a student. I loved it because I got my tax return right there, and it only cost me $50 or so. Why wouldn't I love it, I pay them $50, and they give me a cheque for a $1,000 on the spot. A couple of years ago, I went to do my taxes there, and their printer was broken; they couldn't print the cheque. They then sold me on taking my return on their H&R Block debit disaster card. They thought it was an added value, I can use it just like a debit card; and it will charge me a fee per transaction just like a debit card. I was livid. But it didn't end there. The bank that sponsored this debit card, wasn't the bank I use. That bank also stopped issuing bank drafts to non-customers, so I couldn't easily transfer my return to my own bank account. I was left with one option, go to my bank's ATM machine, withdraw the limit I can withdraw, walk to the teller, and deposit it. Rinse and repeat until my tax return was in my account. So here we have a typical case were one's "value add" idea wrecked havoc on a customer of at least five years.

Understand your customers' needs. Understand how to add value. Don't confuse value with effort, then learn how to charge for that value add. Don't be the "cheaper" or "quicker" service, its only a matter of time before someone else figures out how to do it for less or faster.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Google Maps Mashup Turns 5 Years

Last Thursday the Google Maps mashup turned 5. Paul Rademacher posted this on Craigslist announcing a Google map mashup of housing properties. That post started it all. Back then, there wasn't even an official API for Google Maps. That mashup now lives at housingmaps.com.

Congrats to Paul on this milestone. That experiment started the whole mashup building community, and the reason why Google Maps has an API today and why we have sites like zoocasa, University of Ottawa Campus map, twittervision, and many more mashups built on top of the Google Maps API.

If you are interested in building a Google Maps mashup, get in touch with ThinkWrap's Google Maps Gurus.