Friday, 18 January 2013

The End of the Beginning

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

The news this week that HMV has gone in to administration has sparked much debate as to whether high street music shops have really gone in to terminal decline. The internet has been it's principle destroyer, having helped to popularise the MP3 format and also allow online shops such as and Amazon to massively undercut them through of combination of having fewer overheads and a rather laissez faire attitude to paying tax.

It's certainly a difficult time for the high street chains, with Jessops and Blockbuster having also gone under this week, and it does beg the question as to what they might be able to do about it all. Or even if it matters, I suppose. Musicians have been moving away from HMV's business model for years, with Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails (amongst many others) having been experimenting with selling their music independently of record labels for a long while. Indeed, sites like Bandcamp and PledgeMusic have made it dubious as to what the 'old' system even has to offer.

Something that does spring to mind are the parallels between this stage of the development of the internet and the very earliest era of computer programming, which equally displaced a lot of the old ways of life and brought about massive change in both industry, and even the way that society worked (although not to universal approval). This might sound a bit hyperbolic, but if what's happening now is even half as influential as that era then we are in for a prolonged period of very drastic change in the way that world works - although what that change is would be anyone's guess.

Unfortunately, all of that is scant conciliation to the poor folk who work for HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster. To paraphrase Mark Renton in Trainspotting, it's easy to be philosophical when someone else is losing their job.

Time To Let Go

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

Is it worth bothering to support older versions Internet Explorer?

A poll of just under 18,000 developers on suggests that around 92% of web development projects are required to support IE8 and around 56% require IE7 support. Further down the scale there's IE6 on 10% and IE5.5 on a measly 1%. If StatCounter is to be believed for UK web usage statistics, IE8 accounts for around 9% of users, IE7 for around 0.85% and the much-hated IE6 for a little less than 0.2% of the market. There's no precise figure for IE5.5, but it is less than 0.01%.

The BBC, who are generally on the money when it comes to technology, have a handy web browser support flow chart for their own sites. From this, their current support for web browsers should look like this*:

Browser Version Support
IE 5.5 Level 3 (unsupported)
IE 6.0 Level 3 (unsupported)
IE 7.0 Level 2 (partially supported)
IE 8.0 Level 1 (supported)

Although it should be noted that IE7 is perilously close to becoming unsupported, and going off the usage trends for the past twelve months it would be something of a surprise for it still to be supported in a couple of months time. IE8 will probably linger around for a couple more years, being the newest version of Microsoft's browser available for Windows XP, but it is hard to argue that there is any justification in still supporting IE7, with some websites have even aggressively discouraged it's usage, unless the website is particularly targeting one user group.

The positive side to removing support is that it frees up a lot of time in dealing with the inconsistencies in little-used web browsers and allows more time and effort to be placed in developing new features and making sites look fresh and exciting for the overwhelming majority (over 98%) of web users out there.

Get Ready For A Gold Rush?

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

ICANN announced yesterday that a plethora of new top level domains are to be considered ready for release in May 2013. That's not to say that they'll all see the light of day, but it's certainly a big bonus for the campaigns to make .cymru, .wales and .scot domains available for those companies, organisations and individuals who like to assert their national identity!

Oddly, though, there doesn't seem to be a ".england" proposal on the list. A Scottish friend of mine, now living in England, has said that he finds it quite strange how St.George's Day isn't celebrated in England to anywhere near the same extent as St.Patrick's, St.Andrew's or St.David's Day by their respective countries. My own feelings are that England already enjoys a cultural dominance in the UK and so has far less need to assert it's national identity, although a number of other social and historical factors also come in to play. Anyway, as interesting a subject as it is, this blog's not the place for a long discussion about the nature of nationalism.

Any proposed domains will also have to withstand any objections. The United Arab Emirates and India have already registered their opposition to a .islam domain on the grounds that a private company should not have control over a religious domain name, whilst Australia have objected to overly negative domains such as .sucks.

The big question is how much effect the introduction of a number of new top level domains will have. I'd suspect that it probably won't be all that great - after all, the introduction of .biz, .mobi and .eu has hardly put a dent in the popularity of .com and domains. However, they may well have a larger impact in specialised websites, in a similar manner to how Micronesian (.fm) domain names have become common for internet radio stations.

ICANN's task over the coming months will be to strike a balance between allowing domain names to be less ambiguous (for example, most people could guess the nature of any content of a ".xxx" domain without needing to click on a link, which is clearly beneficial to the user) and maintaining the integrity of the web - one of the domains Australia has objected to is ".wtf", which would almost certainly cause some offence.

The Building Blocks of Success

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

A nice story came out at the end of last week about how an eleven year old boy had spent so long saving up for a Lego set that it'd become discontinued. He wrote to Lego, who managed to track down an Emerald Night Train set and send it to him. It's a fantastic piece of customer service and it will have certainly done no harm for their reputation, as well as making one kid very happy and most likely gaining his loyalty for years, maybe even decades, to come. Likewise, the almost endless stream of negative publicity for Apple Maps has done far more harm than good for Apple - however well they've designed their products in the past, it's their latest products which they're being judged on.

It has made me wonder, though, what customer service is online. A website could, maybe even should, be all about customer service - going the extra mile for each and every person using it. That does mean spending longer on getting a website just right - spending extra time at every stage of the process asking what the user would expect and how to offer them more than that. That's best done at the very start of the project, when you're deciding what the website actually does - things take less time when you know exactly what you're doing!

One example might be to pay attention to the error messages which your site gives. A 404 error page is something that everyone experiences at some point on the web, when the server can't find the page you're looking for. Saying sorry is a start, but the page could offer additional help. A link to the homepage or a search page would be helpful, but having a search box on the error page would be even more useful and relatively cost-free. It would also be possible to offer suggestions of pages the user might've been looking for based on the URL they'd gone to.

A more fun part to it all is to be creative with the services a website offers. As an example, I use Kayak Explore fairly regularly because it's really quite useful. Sometimes I use it because I know what budget I have for a holiday and want to see where my options are for places to go. A few months ago I found I could fly to Tblisi in Georgia from London for about £180 return. It's a trip I'd have thought was completely beyond the realms of reality, at least on my budget, had it not been for that search. I also use it to find out, say, which airports I can fly from to get to Berlin for less than £120 return.

Of course, that feature's something that only really applies to the travel industry, but it is a wonderful piece of creative thought and it just goes to show you that one really well considered feature can allow the user to feel that one website offers something much more than another - the essence of customer service.

Happy Birthday, SMS!

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

The first ever text message was sent twenty years ago yesterday. The message itself was simply "Merry Christmas", sent from a 22-year old British engineer named Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis, of Vodaphone. Since then it's revolutionised communication, cost a few people an awful lot of money and started (and ended) countless relationships. More impressively, it has also been used to great success in improving healthcare in third world countries and even helped to bring about the Arab Spring, perhaps the biggest political change since the fall of the eastern bloc.

Of course, none of that has stopped newspapers proclaiming that it's dead or blaming it for poor spelling and grammar (presumably in the same way that the song titles that Slade used affected their own ability to spell).

It does seem to me, though, that perhaps SMS might be more similar to another older technology, email, which despite even the best efforts of tech-giant Google has managed to last well in to it's forties (and counting). It provides a fast, simple, reliable form of communication, and it's perceived limitations - the 160 character limit - is perhaps more of a strength than it's given credit for. After all, it's not done Twitter much harm!

Wii U and the Winds of Change

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

Last Friday saw the launch of the Wii U, the first major console launch for six years. As is pretty much the norm with Nintendo, there's a certain amount of leftfield thinking with the controller, which includes a small screen rather like the succesful Nintendo DS handheld console (and less successful 3D version of the same thing).

The console comes with it's own NetFront-based web browser. Not heard of it? Well, it's a variant of Webkit and is mostly found on lower-end mobile phones, plus the PSP and Nintendo 3DS handheld devices. The 'Webkit' part should make it relatively similar to Safari or Google Chrome browsers, although exactly how much so is another thing since Webkit is a fairly loose tag in itself. The browser will be able to do all of the normal HTML5 things, like play video.

Early user testing suggests that it'll be the fastest console browser out there, easily outperforming Internet Explorer 10 on the Xbox. It's an interesting development. In the past, Nintendo have kept an Apple-like grip on the software allowed to run on their devices. However, this would suggest that they may be taking HTML5 games and applications more seriously - even if it wasn't the intention, you can be fairly sure that Nintendo are tech-savvy enough to realise that it's a possibility.

Whichever console it is that finally does fully embrace HTML5 apps, it's quite a race to win. The possibility of playing games on your console, then leaving the house and still being able to continue playing on whatever web-enabled device you happen to have (eg a mobile phone) would be a dream come true for a certain type of game, say a highly addictive football management game, particularly given the massive increases in mobile broadband connection speeds offered by 4G and the ever-increasing area covered by fibre optic broadband.

Exciting times, although I do hope that it doesn't come at the expense of people properly enjoying their journey to work.

Mobile broadband speeds on the rise

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

An investigation in yesterday's Guardian found that mobile broadband speeds have risen considerably in the past two years. Predictably, big cities like London, Birmingham and Glasgow tend to have the fastest speeds (5Mbps+ - basically the complete works of William Shakespeare every second), whilst rural areas enjoy something less supersonic - 0.23mbps in one Welsh village I clicked on, although that's still several times faster than dial-up internet.

On-the-go internet is certainly living in interesting times, with mobile devices being able to cope with increasingly complex data - something that has been well illustrated by the rather clever adverts that Everyone Everywhere (EE) have been putting out lately. As Mike pointed out in an earlier blog, 4G comes with a hefty price tag, at least for the moment, but you'd expect that price to come down as more operators offer the service.

It all does question, though, whether mobile web browsers are currently able to meet with this new demand. There's a bewildering range of them - 24 different browsers all purporting to be "webkit" for a start, and that's without even considering Internet Explorer for Mobile, Opera Mini, Opera Mobile, Firefox for Mobiles, NetFront, ... you get the idea. It's a very, very long list. That's not to say that a standard web browser is the answer, because it really isn't, but some kind of adherance to web standards is getting more and more crucial for the sake of everyone's sanity.

A fresh start for Microsoft?

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

To the 'delight' of thousands of browser-testers worldwide, Microsoft rolled out Internet Explorer across Xbox 360s around the world a fortnight or so ago, almost instantly making it the most popular TV web browser in the world. The browser's based on IE9, sharing many - but not all - of the same features. In the longer term future that may mean Internet Explorer becoming fragmented in to two separate browsers, like the good old days of Internet Explorer for Mac. Whilst it may seem unlikely, MS do have a bit of a history of exactly that sort of behaviour.

In any case, it's quite a coup. Neither Google nor Apple have yet managed to properly penetrate that area of the market, and Microsoft certainly have a huge advantage in already having the device in many homes. It could mean a bright future for the computing Colossus; along with their partnership with Nokia and the new Surface tablet, they are in a position where they could make a significant dent in Apple's current position. So long as they play their cards right, anyway ... and even more importantly, the move also opens the possibility of utilising the Kinect to add a feature suggested by Opera in 2009.

Added to this the rumours washing around Wall Street that Microsoft may be looking to acquire Netflix, it all points to Microsoft making a very determined push to stay put as top dog in the industry.

Web Developments

Originally posted on the Reckless New Media website.

The big web development news of the last couple of weeks has been the creation of, which aims to document the various features of web browsers. The site itself has the support of the vast majority of big players - Apple, Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, Opera, HP, Facebook, Nokia and the W3C - the only area of shaky coverage being the fragmented mobile browser market (although some people might argue that currently that's the area most in need of documentation for what does and doesn't work!).

Certain eagle-eyed viewers may also notice that Apple's logo is conspicuous by it's absence on the website, unlike all the others - possibly raising a wry smile with those who take an interest in Apple's dubious 'support' of open standards.

The announcement's unlikely to set the majority of internet user's pulses racing, although it may mean an exciting future for web applications as a little more time will be able to be spent on adding impressive functionality and a little less on adapting it to run in the myriad of weird & wonderful web browsers available.