09 November 2020

How to deliver excellent software support

Digital dreams

I'm an application/user support engineer at heart, even though some of my recent career history might suggest otherwise (life has a way of doing that), so I particularly appreciate good support when I receive it. I've always prided myself on getting behind the initial question to the root of an issue, and I was delighted to be on the customer side of exactly that scenario this week.

One of my former employers who is a software developer put it very well when he said:

"Technical support is the area that makes or breaks the customer experience"

This is the story of a recent experience I had of great software support.

18 December 2018

Personal heating solutions

Camp fire
I'm what my mum always called "nesh" - a Yorkshire term (I think), which Wikipedia defines as "unusually susceptible to cold weather", so in the colder months I'm always on the lookout for solutions that make my life a little easier (i.e. warmer), whether that's in the office (which can be a little colder than I find ideal), when driving, and when out and about.
For driving, Andy's last car had heated seats and - joy of joys - a heated steering wheel.  Pure bliss.  My own little cars, and Andy's current one have had no such luxuries, so I needed other solutions. 

02 December 2017

Goodbye BeyondPod; Hello Podcast Addict

My Podcast app history

Years ago, I used to use Doggcatcher.  I can't even remember which apps I used before that.  I'd evaluated others, including "everybody's favourite" PocketCasts, but few had the sort of control and customisation I was looking for.  Then, in around 2011 or so, following an online discussion about podcatchers, I decided to try out BeyondPod 2.x, and was hooked, despite some quirks in the UI.

Version 3 was in beta at the time, and resolved many of those from my point of view; one thing led to another, and I agreed to work for BeyondPod's developer for a few hours per week, mostly handling support in their online forum (technically as a self-employed consultant, mostly just because it made international payments that much easier).

In my opinion, Version 4 had some different UI issues, but it did have a lot of functionality that worked for me, and I didn't actually see the UI much in day-to-day use, because for me a Podcast app isn't something that I spend a lot of time interacting with.  I just play my downloaded podcasts.  I may see the player, and occasionally add or delete feeds, or tinker with my playlists sometimes, but that's about it.

09 April 2015

One ring to rule them all ...

I'm looking for neat ideas to get the most from my new NFC ring.  
The March of the Droids event last month included a couple of NFC-related highlights. One was a presentation about NFC implants; the other was a trade stand for NFCRing.com.  I was looking forward to both.   
For those who don't know, NFC (Near Field Communication) is a technology whereby a powered device such as an NFC equipped smartphone can exchange data with a passive NFC tag or another powered NFC device.  The tag doesn't need any power (it draws what it needs from the other device).  It's really short range - for all practical purposes, you may as well assume that the device and tag need to be touching to work.  You can also use NFC between two powered devices (e.g. 2 smartphones) to initiate data transfer, such as sending a photo or your contact details to another phone, although the devices will generally use Bluetooth or WiFi direct for the actual data transfer; NFC is just used to set up the connection.

The same technology is used in Credit Card machines (the powered bit) and modern Debit cards (the passive bit) for Contactless payments.  Many Android and Blackberry phones and tablets have NFC radios, and the iPhone 6 and 6+ have it too, but Apple have restricted it so that it can only be used for Apple pay.

05 April 2015

Tesco Hudl2 Bluetooth keyboard case - a review

In January this year, I bought the amazing value Tesco Hudl2 to replace my aging original Nexus 7 as my primary tablet.  I bought a purple one, together with a matching purple "Soft Touch" folio case.

Purple Hudl2 in use in the keyboard case

I've always been a fan of physical keyboards.  I can type much faster than I can write - certainly for any sort of prolonged periods - and definitely faster than I can get the words that I want (with or without autocorrect interfering) with a touch keyboard of any sort on a phone or tablet.  In particular, a soft keyboard in landscape hides so much of a phone or tablet's screen that it drives me mad. I've tried a number of portable bluetooth keyboards over the years, but have been mostly disappointed.  My favourite is still the Freedom, which folds in half, and opens out as more-or-less a full-sized keyboard, but it's a bit of a faff unless you're sitting at a table with some serious typing to do. 

So with that in mind, this weekend, I spent some Tesco vouchers on a bluetooth keyboard case for my Hudl2.

24 August 2014

Social Extortion - a worrying trend

A personal view, and a call to break the chain

I recently casually "liked" somebody's amusing but rather bizarre post on Facebook.  As a
result, I received a private message from that person inviting me to post one of fourteen equally bizarre posts on my timeline, with no explanation.  The stated reason for this was to raise awareness for a particular charity.  Setting aside the fact that the only person whose awareness would be raised was me, which therefore calls into question the whole point, I declined.  I won't name the charity, because I strongly suspect that they don't even know anything about this particular "campaign". 

This may be an unpopular view, but I see this as a worrying trend in social media, akin to old-fashioned chain letters, first on paper and then by email, which claimed wonderful things would happen to you if you continued the chain, and promised dire consequences for those who broke it.  

Social chain letters are not an ethical way to raise money or awareness

Put simply, it's social extortion, public bullying.

06 March 2014

KitKat and removable SD cards

There has been a lot of panic and online discussion lately as Samsung (edit: and now Sony) have started rolling out KitKat to their devices, and people have suddenly found that things don't work as they used to with their SD cards.

Headline News:  SD cards have NOT stopped working - but some methods that apps used to use will no longer work.

Back when Honeycomb was released, Google introduced a new method of accessing SD cards, which was largely ignored at the time, but is now being implemented by Samsung (and maybe by other manufacturers who have devices with MicroSD card slots).  There's a long Android Police article about it, but here's the TL;DR version.
  • Every app still has read access to every file on your SD card.
  • Every app can still write to your SD card, but it will have to use one of the new methods.  Simply having write access to the card won't work any more. 
  • You do NOT need to root your device to regain write access to your SD card.
If your app doesn't support one of the new methods of writing to the card, you need to contact your app developer to ask them to update their app.  Be nice:  this change has rather been sprung on developers without much warning, so use whatever feedback method they request, rather than leaving a bad review in the Play Store.

04 August 2013

ChromeCast in the UK

ChromeCast dongle
The ChromeCast Dongle
My "other" boss - the one in the USA - managed to get hold of some of the first batch of ChromeCast devices, and was kind enough to post one to me to try out.

Of course, it's not officially available over here yet, which meant I was expecting that there might be some problems, so how did I get on?

23 February 2013

Swype vs Swiftkey Flow

I just commented on Land of Droid's comparative review of Swype vs SwiftKey Flow, and it struck me that my long comment about the differences that had been missed out in that review nearly amounted to a review in itself, so now that SwiftKey Flow is out of beta, here is my own take on the differences between the two.

02 November 2012

Scan as you Shop comes to Tesco

Anything that helps to streamline supermarket shopping is fine by me.   I'm not a fan of supermarket delivery services (I prefer to pick out my own produce).  So, as I'm going to be cruising the aisles myself, in my ideal tech-assisted grocery shopping world, I'd have:
  • To create a shopping list
    a smartphone (Android in my case) shopping list app that
    • allows us to have a shared shopping list that either of us can add to when we spot something we need
    • can be told or will learn what we buy regularly and prompt us to add those items to the list if the normal amount of time has passed since we last added them
    • allows optional easy-to-add-or-remove ad-hoc notes for any item on the list (e.g. Urgent; have coupon; special offer ends on ..., etc.)
  • To do the shopping
    • Something other than a wretched £1 coin/token system to release chained up shopping trolleys.  At branches without chained-up trolleys, I can take just my Android phone and credit card.  Unlike a man, I don't conveniently carry coins in an easily accessible pocket.  In fact, my cash is carried in a rucksack-style handbag, and is deliberately as inaccessible / thief-proof as possible.  I don't use cash much for anything!
    • The shopping list should allow me to teach it the order I'll navigate the aisles to find different types of items in different branches or stores.  I'm mad enough to actually take the time to do the intial set-up once (and tweak as necessary when the supermarkets move things around) to streamline subsequent trips.  Even better would be a Location-aware shopping list - although asking supermarkets to come up with an Android app I'd be happy with is probably a tall order, based on any I've seen so far! 
    • A way to avoid having to put everything in my trolley, queue and take it all out again at the till, and then repack it all after the checkout operator has scanned it.
Back in the real world, we use the Our Groceries shared shopping list, and I make do with a categorised list that isn't in aisle order (most apps can categorise and allow you to set up categories sorted in one order by judicious naming of the categories, but I do most of my supermarket shopping in any one of 4 different branches of Tesco, each of which has a different layout, of course).

Scan as you Shop

As to the queuing at the till part of things, I've been a huge fan of the Waitrose scan as you go system for many years, and disappointed that other supermarkets haven't introduced similar systems, as I don't often shop at Waitrose.

So I was delighted to discover that the Wokingham branch of Tesco has just introduced their own version, and it seems they plan to gradually roll it out to other branches too.  (I believe some other supermarket chains have now started to introduce similar systems as well.)

16 June 2012


For some time now, I've been meaning to build on my mini reviews of DoggCatcher and BeyondPod in the PSC Forums, and perhaps do a comparative review.  However, this intention has been overtaken by the news you'll find at the end of this post.

I was involved in the beta testing of BeyondPod 3.0, which involved a major redesign of the UI.  This addressed the vast majority of my gripes with BeyondPod 2.9.15 and transformed it into something which (to my mind at least) is much more intuitive.

26 February 2012

Phones Show Chat 120 and my quest for a very portable laptop substitute

On a recent episode of the Phones Show Chat, I talked briefly with Steve and Tim about my quest for my perfect second device, so I thought I'd add some more detail here. As a bit of background, I have 2 active SIMs - my main one is in my phone (currently a Nexus S) and is an AYCE contract from Three UK. In general, I'll use this as a hotspot for other devices when I need to. My other one is on GiffGaff. This is a PAYG SIM that can be made to work like a contract if you want it to by using "Goodybags" and/or automatic topups, and uses the O2 network. Most of the time it's in PAYG mode (so costs me nothing when not in use) and I keep it in another phone in my bag, partly for emergencies - if the battery dies on my other phone, or if I can't get Three coverage - and partly to increase my chances of coverage when we're away in the campervan and don't know what to expect on any given campsite. For this purpose when we're going away I add a £10 goodybag that gives me unlimited data for a month (tethering not permitted), plus some inclusive calls and text messages. It occurred to me recently that if this SIM was in a small tablet with an optional decent keyboard, I could effectively have a pretty competent laptop replacement in my bag all the time.

For me, a laptop replacement has to have a decent physical qwerty keyboard good enough to touch type on (so a little thumb keyboard is NOT going to work for me in this scenario, despite its portability) and a screen big enough to view full desktop websites. On the other hand, for media consumption (including ebook reading, podcast viewing/listening, etc.) a small tablet is a better option, as it's lighter and more comfortable to hold for long-ish periods. In terms of form factor, a slightly squarer version of my old beloved Psion5/5mx (i.e. the same width in landscape mode, but a little taller to give a 16:9 display) would be a good size - after all, I did used to carry one around in my bag in the days long before touchscreen PDAs and smartphones, so it clearly passes the handbag compatibility test. The keyboard may have been smaller than even the original eeePC's, but it was absolutely superb with good feel and travel and a conventional layout, so with my small hands I could use it to touch type completely normally. 7" would probably be the upper limit on size to fit in my bag, and even then, only if it's a slim device with small bezels. In with all the other stuff in my bag, it would need to wear a protective case. A 6" device with good display resolution would probably be the sweet spot for me. Oh, and it'll be running Android so that I can make use of all the apps I've already bought and use regularly.

22 August 2011

Party time! Phones Show Chat 100

The Phones Show Chat reaches its 100th episode in party mood, with regulars Steve Litchfield and Tim Salmon joined by Jon Satherley, Kev Wright, Rafe Blandford and myself to discuss what's been a pretty busy week or so in the mobile phone world, plus the usual features, including App of the Week.  This time, mine was Digital Clock for Android.

You'll find it here.

09 July 2011

MechCAD / AceMoney developer Alex Simanov dies with family in Russian plane crash

Yesterday I saw the sad news that Alex Simanov and his family were all killed in a plane crash, as reported by the Miami Herald and elsewhere.

In parallel with this, users of the AceMoney Yahoo group have been unable to post, although for some reason that I don't understand, I seem to be the only person who still can. I have to assume that as a long-standing group member, Alex had either forgotten to set my profile to require approval, or did not feel it necessary. Whatever the reason, we have no way to control it, and I don't know of anybody else who has been able to post without awaiting approval, which is, of course, unlikely ever to be forthcoming.

28 June 2011

Phones Show Chat 93

I was Steve and Tim's guest on the Phones Show Chat again this week.

Discussions included
  • my ever increasing frustration with the Nexus One's lack of application memory, and intention to wait until Samsung release the NFC-enabled version of the Galaxy S2 in the UK
  • a quick overview of my impressions of the Milestone 2 (kindly lent to me by Steve while my N1 was away for repair)
  • the Palm Pre 2 in brief (very brief!)
  • the pros and cons of hardware QWERTY keyboards
  • an update to Google Sites and Blogger which now allows the publisher to switch on a mobile-friendly version (now enabled on this blog)
  • Motorola Atrix / eeePad Transformer / ASUS padphone - transformable phone/tablet/notebook devices
  • Glympse - a short review
  • My app of the week: CamScanner for Android
... and much more.  Full show notes can be found on the PSC Forum

27 June 2011

Glympse for Android and other platforms - a review

Over the years, Andy and I have had occasions where we’ve wanted to find each other in an unfamiliar place.  Both of us have smartphones with GPS and navigation software, but sending a location and using the received location to navigate to always used to be a bit of a challenge. Then Google’s Latitude provided one possible solution - but only once you’ve set up who you want to share your location with. Here I Am 2 (for Android) and other similar apps allow a snapshot of current position to any email address or SMS number, but can be a bit fiddly to use. Recently, I discovered Glympse, and we’ve been using it partly for fun and partly for real while we’ve been away on holiday. The more I use it, the more I find it can do.  

27 May 2011

Tesco trials location aware shopping lists

Tesco has just announced a trial of its new "SatNav" electronic shopping list Android software ... not that there's any "Sat" involved, but any electronic shopping list that can be sorted into aisle order according to the store you're visiting is great news as far as I'm concerned ... always assuming the app itself is any good, of course.

I've been using electronic shopping lists, manually sorted (as best I can) into aisle order since I had my first Psion5, 12 years ago.  I currently use OurGroceries to maintain a shared shopping list with Andy, but getting it in aisle order for minimum-fuss shopping is a bit of a lost cause, especially as we regularly shop in 3 different Tesco stores, so grouping by product type is as far as it goes.

Sadly, the trial is only available in the Romford Tesco Extra store, or I'd be trying it out in a flash! Let's hope that the Reading Extra is the next test site :o)

17 May 2011

The Arc review

Steve's Phone Show review of the Xperia Arc with a little help from me is now available to view (complete with hideous thumbnail, courtesy of YouTube!)

A quick summary:

  • Slim hardware in the middle of the phone, with thicker top and bottom, housing the phono and microUSB slots. Sadly, these are on the sides, not the top (my preferred location for headset socket) and bottom (my strongly preferred location for the charger, to make it easier to use Brodit powered car mounts or desktop chargers). To be fair, Brodit have created a sideways slide-in mount for this phone, but those can never be quite as elegant as a "drop-in" design.  
  • Quite angular corners on the handset - I like it to look at, but not so much in use, but that's really just a personal preference.
  • Crisp screen, but no automatic brightness display, and some slight distortion in the review copy I used. However, this was only noticeable on close inspection of vertical lines close to the edge of the display (e.g. when playing WordFeud ;-) ).
  • A triumph of form over function for Contacts - graphic designers gone mad, without any apparent thought for usability.
  • I couldn't get the WiFi to work with either of the two routers I tried it with. However, Steve didn't have any problems. This is clearly one of those situations where both the phone and router affect the situation.
  • See Steve's views on the camera.
This won't be my device of choice (even without the show-stopping WiFi issues), but I quite enjoyed using it for the week.  

03 May 2011

Playing with the Arc

My Nexus One is stubbornly refusing to recognise my (or any other) SIM card, so while it goes for repair, I'm temporarily using the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc as my main phone this week, as kindly lent by Steve Litchfield.  My thoughts and his to follow in the Phones Show, probably in show 139.

I'm also coming to the end of my contract (which was originally for the Nokia N97!), so I'm starting to look around for my next phone.  However, I don't think this is going to be the one for me. And this time round, I won't make the mistake of getting something for which Brodit don't make a powered mount.  (There is one for the Arc, but with the power plugged in and a headphone / speaker connection, it really does look as though it's sprouted ears, as the charging socket is on the top right, and the headphone socket is on the top left.  Not the most elegant setup in the car!)

When I bought the Dext and found that no Brodit mount was available, I realised just how much I rely on them ... and with the Nexus One's charging socket being sensibly positioned on the bottom of the phone (manufacturers, please take note!) I really appreciate just being able to slot the phone into the cradle with no fiddly cables to plug in separately, especially in my own car where I have a Parrot MKi9000 A2DP Bluetooth handsfree to stream podcasts through the car speakers, so that I can literally just plug it in and go.  In my partner's company car, I have to slum and plug in an extra headset cable wired to the car stereo.  I even have a Setting Profiles rule set up to start my podcatcher/player automatically when it detects power + headphones or my Parrot ;-).

06 March 2011

Words with Friends vs Wordfeud for Android

I don't know how I first heard about Words with Friends. I knew it existed back in December 2010, and was looking forward to trying it out. When I discovered that my best friend of 30 years' standing played it on her iPhone, I was even more keen for it to be released on Android. It arrived in the market on 15 February 2011.

Then I found mention of Wordfeud in the comments about hemorrdroids' video review of WwF, and I've now been playing games in both for a week or so. Wordfeud has been around since before September 2010 (I haven't been able to dig back further than that).

Thank you to all of the various opponents I've been playing against - you know who you are - for providing (often terrifyingly high-scoring) opposition.

Here are my thoughts, observations, likes, dislikes, wishlist and finally a conclusion about the two games head-to-head.

NB: All graphics are taken from the Android Market and/or the developer's website.