Three Reasons Why the Mac Community Makes Me Happy

As some of you know, in recent months, Andrew and I have been working on Alfred, our very own Mac productivity app. It’s been exciting, sometimes tough, but definitely enlightening. And finally, the fruit of our labour, the Powerpack, is nearly ready to be released.

We’ve met and talked to tons of Mac users, developers and bloggers. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to give a talk on social networking for business at the Apple Store in Cambridge, meeting more recent Mac converts.

While I’ve been a Mac user since the late 80’s (thanks grandpa for the hand-me-downs!), it’s only in the past few years that there has been enough of a community for it to really become exciting – which brought me to make these observations.

The enthusiasm of Mac geeks is boundless

This energy could have something to do with Apple’s approach – superlative “everything changes” descriptions – or with the feeling of being a trailblazer by always being on the hunt for a shiny thing more beautiful, more efficient and more undiscovered than the last shiny thing.

Sometimes, I admit, Mac users (myself included) love our gadgetry and possibly annoy those who don’t feel so strongly about their computer setup. But then, if that’s our personality, it’ll be either Macs, cars, stamp collecting or some other obsessive compulsive passion.

From the more practical angle, we spend an obscene number of hours a week at the computer so why not make it an environment that’s a pleasure to use?

So we just celebrate it! We post pictures of our desks on Lifehacker’s workspace Flickr pool, we publish our favourite apps on iusethis and show off our gadgets to anyone who’ll listen. (Or is it just me?)

A great willingness to contribute and participate

As our Mac productivity app Alfred is growing, I can’t begin to count how many offers to beta test, help out and write about it we’ve received. Sure, some are self-serving and coming from bloggers who are mainly looking for an exclusive sneak peek into the app, but all have some sense of altruism, where the ultimate objective is to make the Mac community better.

We have asked for feedback on Twitter, with questions like “Which colour scheme do you use?” to “Who’s still on Leopard and why?” Simple yet important questions, to which we sometimes received in excess of 100 responses within a few minutes from posting. It’s difficult to express how useful this instant feedback has been.

Aside from the practical or technical responses we received, the general chatter about the app and positive comments on blogs and on Twitter have been the fuel to our long evenings and weekends of work. Looking back at the Alfred favourites page is all the motivation we need to keep going sometimes.

The openness of Mac developers

I’m sure most people have worked this out but I’m not a developer, so it’s news to me. Through exchanging with Mac developers who use Alfred, meeting nice folks at CambMacDev and other events, it’s become clear that most Mac developers are willing to lend a hand, share some useful tips or offer feedback.

Even as the non-developer that I am, I’m enjoying the exchanges, gaining some great business insight that will help me shape the future of Alfred. We’re lucky not to be dealing with the Russian roulette that is the iPhone App Store, but there’s still a lot to learn about the Mac ecosystem.

Overall, it’s just a great fun ride to date, and it’s only the beginning! Who knows where the next few years will take us…

[Image credit: Itty Bitty Mac Earrings by PixelParty on Etsy]

LiveScribe Pulse pen: Where were you all my life!?

As an early birthday present to myself, I bought a Livescribe Pulse Smartpen earlier this week. It arrived yesterday and I’ve just been blown away by it so far.

The pen improves on regular pens in two key ways:

  1. It registers anything that is written on paper, effectively scanning my handwriting as I go, which means that as soon as I get back to the computer, the pen transfers it to the LiveScribe software for future reference.
  2. It records all audio in the room, which means I can take a few headline notes without writing down every single piece of information.

Back in university, I had some form of RSI in my right wrist, so I made it a habit to record lessons on tape so that I didn’t need to write everything. In reality, I could never find the time or energy to dig through the 3-hour lecture recording to find the 5-minute segment that interested me, so it was pretty much a pointless exercise.

With the LiveScribe, it all becomes much easier: Tap the pen on the headline note relating to the audio clip you need, whether it’s a title or a graph, the recording will automatically go back to that point and start playing.

Normally, I’d shrug and say that this is a gadget for geeks and will never reach into the real world. Past similar gadgets have existed and gone nowhere fast. The biggest difference? This one prices its accessories reasonably.

The pen itself is £120-£150 so it’s a small initial investment, but Moleskine-style notebooks cost about £1 more per unit than their traditional Moleskine counterparts, and the A4-sized school notebooks are £16.99 for a pack of 4. The paper is thicker than with the Moleskine, which makes me happy as I’m a heavy-handed writer. Next time I need to get some notebooks, I think I’ll get a 4-pack of the pink flip notepad which is far cheaper than Moleskine journalist flip notepads. (Plus it’s pink, wayhey!) The ink isn’t overpriced either, and in a pinch, since it writes like a normal pen, it’s possible to use the pen without the fancy paper (unlike stylus-based systems).

The pen does raise some interesting ethical and legal questions: What if I forgot to mention to someone that I’m recording our conversation? Or maliciously chose to record a private conversation? Of course, I have no intention of doing that, but the technology is now becoming available and affordable to people who aren’t MI5 or hired spies (albeit in a pen the size of a large cigar!) so we’ll undoubtedly be seeing these issues show up on the Information Commissioner’s agenda in the future.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a great new addition to my arsenal of tools to support my sieve-like memory and no one needs to worry about me using it stealthily. I’ll be too busy showing off the piano party trick it can do!

Now you can watch my first pencast below…

My cats’ routine
brought to you by Livescribe

[Note: Before you ask, this isn’t a sponsored post and LiveScribe didn’t give me a free pen. I just am that much of a geek that I get excited over pens.]

Ten Simple Steps for Dealing with the Tech Illiterati

Every office has them; the people who seem to freeze as soon as they’re exposed to new technology. They throw their hands up at the first sight of anything wrong with their computer, always assume it’s “been hacked” and furiously click the mouse or bash at their keyboard louder rather than look for the virus-scanner that’s slowing down their machine to a glacial pace. They’re the tech illiterati.

I must have a friendly personality because, while I’m not in the IT department by any means, I seem to be anyways have been a first port of call for tech support (especially on Macs) in offices I’ve worked in. I usually don’t mind helping out, really!

I used to find myself grinning at the thought that someone needed to be shown something that seemed so obvious to me. Then just over a year ago, I discovered the Quickbooks accounting software, and felt humbled again. It was my turn to have NO idea what I was doing. With monk-like patience and a few pointers from my brilliant accountant, I managed to learn my way around so that I’m now reasonably proficient with Quickbooks.

The experience made its mark though: Learning something you’re new to when you’re scared of screwing up is tough!

Now imagine being freaked out by technology in general rather than just Quickbooks or Photoshop? That’s the relationship many (most?) people have with computers, even today. The difference between them and us is that we’ve developed the confidence to try things, knowing that (generally) it won’t break the computer.

So how about taking 15 minutes to sit down with your tech illiterati colleague to show them how to do something this week? Think of it as time investment: If they learn how to do it and gain confidence, they’ll stop panicking every time that task arises.

How to successfully teach a tech illiterati

  1. Before starting, make sure you’re in a good, open, positive mood.
  2. Before starting, make sure your illiterati is also in a good, open, receptive mood.
  3. Remove distractions: If you can, forward their desk phone to someone else, close email and “misplace” their Blackberry. Without their full attention, you’re wasting your time.
  4. Ask them what they need to achieve and where they’ve been stumbling. Listen to their answer to see what spooks them most.
  5. Take a deep breath. Take another one. Then start teaching.
  6. Go at half-speed: Speak slowly, avoid jargon and show them where you’re clicking. You may know the software or website by heart, but they don’t, so let each step sink in.
  7. Encourage them to take notes: Your student should make their own notes, since your notes or step-by-step most likely takes certain things for granted, skipping steps that are essential in their eyes. For particularly complex tasks, print a screenshot of the page and let them scribble directly on it.
  8. Do it again: After you’ve done the steps once, if you can, let the student do it a second time under your supervision but without any hints/tips from you. This will help the process sink in, yet provide them with the confidence that you’re there to ensure they don’t screw up.
  9. Praise: Give them encouragement, but don’t be patronising.
  10. Go grab a glass of wine and have a giggle at Eddie Izzard’s video on technojoy & technofear.

Ada Lovelace Day: Make Your Own Path

Today is Ada Lovelace Day; organised by Suw Charman-Anderson, the day was inspired by her female friends in technology who felt they were “disenfranchised and invisible”. The idea of recognising the women in our lives who inspire, support and surround us is a good, noble one. I hope it can make a difference and change the lives of younger women who are deciding what career to aim for when they grow up.

But… I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled with the event. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable and on edge, like I’m politely standing still for a picture but my nose is itching hopelessly. It’s the sentiment that the motivation behind this day is that women feel they are being cheated out of the technology roles they strive for.

First, some background on why I feel this way. I’ve been working in and alongside the tech world for some ten years now; first in computer science publishing, where authors were generally male, but the editorial team often overwhelmingly female. Moving to my next role in web marketing, I was mostly surrounded by developers, designers and occasionally another marketing person. Mostly guys.

The ultimate realisation was in the next move to the mobile industry. I wish I had an areal photo of the first large-scale mobile event I attended: Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I was standing in the open outdoors square wearing a fuschia pink cardigan, surrounded by a sea of men in grey and black suits. Not another woman in sight. At that point, it really hit me that I’d landed in one of the most male-dominated industries. And somehow, rather than worry me, it made me smile.

Over these years in tech, I have met some strong, determined women who are very much respected in their field. I’ve also met shrinking violets who felt they should get more recognition for one reason or another. Yet, at no point have I met anyone who was able to truly tell me that the reason they didn’t get where they wanted was purely due to being a woman. At no point either have *I* felt that being a girl made any difference to how my career has progressed.

There are a million reasons not to be where you want to be; lack of drive and passion, poor understanding or knowledge of an industry, chronic shyness or fear of putting one foot in front of the other and walking into a room full of men. But using sex-based discrimination as the sole reason not to be where you want to be today is bullshit.

The topic of gender imbalance at tech conferences often crops up in conversation. Yes, it’s true there are less women speaking at tech events. Yes, it’s true there are less women in tech generally. But it’s changing and fast; mainly due to strong girls choosing to walk into that classroom of blokes. Of these girls, I am truly proud. Of those who spend more time complaining about the lack of recognition rather than DO something worthy of recognition, I’m a lot less proud.

So girls, grab every opportunity that comes your way to learn, gain experience, and don’t be afraid to screw up along the way. The men didn’t always get it right the first time either. Just be bold, gutsy and you’ll be respected for your smarts and wits, rather than for your boobs.

And to those who have done it and continue to prove that girls rock, thank you all for being an inspiration!

Wikio Top 20 UK Tech Blogs

The wonderful team at Wikio gave me a sneak preview at the July rankings for the UK Tech blogs. Amongst the ranks are some of the usual suspects and, just off-the-podium, yours truly coming in at #29 30 this month – up by a smashing 81 places from last month!

Fingers crossed you’ll see That Canadian Girl in the Top 20 next month. 😉

Wikio Top 20 UK Tech Blogs

1 =
2 TechDigest =
3 gapingvoid =
4 Coolest Gadgets +1
5 TechCrunch UK -1
6 The Guardian Technology blog =
7 The Red Ferret Journal =
8 xlab =
9 Technology Blog =
10 Speckyboy – WordPress and Design +2
11 jkkmobile =
12 E-consultancy News Blog -2
13 BlogStorm =
14 Dial-a-Phone =
15 Wonderland New
16 hicksdesign +2
17 NevilleHobson -1
18 Gizmodo UK +1
19 confused of calcutta New
20 Simon Willison’s Weblog +1

[Update: Wikio even gives That Canadian Girl a mention in the July top blogs review. What an honour, thank you Wikio!]

iPhone 2.0: Does it really matter?

So it’s happened. Saint Jobs announced the Second Coming of his child, the Holy iPhone.

The 3G iPhone has arrived

Like Ben, I sat in front of my MacBook watching MacRumors, TUAW and Cali Lewis liveblog and report on the Keynote. Unlike Brian, I wasn’t mad (or privileged) enough to attend the Keynote at the Moscone Center, in SF.

Keynotes are a bit like circus acts. The event is rehearsed to the second, we all watch and wait with bated breath for the grandiose final scene, wondering whether anyone’s going to fall flat on their face along the way. While the keynote was light on substance, the short of it is the new iPhone hardware includes 3G, GPS, and there are a number of software changes – MobileMe particularly appeals to me.

However, the biggest change isn’t in the physical device. It’s all in the perception. Last time around, Apple was looking for early adopters, geeks and IWOOTs* to test-run their product in a giant, live usability testing session. Now that they’ve been able to watch us use the device, it’s time to reach out to the normobs with lower upfront costs. While the tariffs are still in the upper end of the scale, unlimited data makes it completely worthwhile.

As an existing user, I’m grateful that under O2’s reign I’m not given the “brand new customers only” treatment. I can upgrade without getting stung for breaking my contract. All first generation owners shedding their skin in prep for the Second Coming means there’ll be a number of orphaned first-generation iPhones floating around. Mine, for example, will most likely find a new home with my father-in-law, Roy. I’m curious to see what the trickle-down impact of giving second hand iPhones to unlikely buyers like Roy will have on the profile of future buyers.

I think Apple will continue to own marginal marketshare, because the iPhone remains too expensive, too complex and too closed for most, but it’s about to take a significant leap ahead. Are you jumping with me? Or kicking back and shaking your head at the fangirl* that I am? 😉

[* Def. IWOOT: “I want one of those”, otherwise known as saddos like me who can’t resist the latest gadget, even at exorbitant prices.]
[* A fangirl who began supporting Apple back in 1986 when it definitely wasn’t cool to own a Mac!]

[Cross-posted to the Taptu blog]

Upgrade to WordPress 2.5 or stay in the dark, says Technorati

A short word of advice to fellow WordPress users. Not only is WordPress 2.5 so awesomely great that you should upgrade immediately, even if it was just for the beautifully refreshed admin area (after years of staring at the same old UI, it’s so good to see a new one!) but you should upgrade if you want to keep appearing in Technorati.

Good ol’ Technorati, one of the largest blog directories on the web, has announced that, due to some security issues with older versions of WordPress, you need to upgrade to the latest version in order to continue being indexed.

Because of this ongoing problem, we’re discontinuing processing crawls of blogs that exhibit common symptoms of being compromised. We strongly recommend upgrading your WordPress installation. Even if you haven’t been afflicted by a compromise, by the time you are aware that you have been a number of negative consequences may have already occurred (for instance, flagged spam by Technorati, Google or Yahoo!) — this has been reported by many WordPress users.

This will be interesting to watch, seeing as even large blogs like TechCrunch haven’t gotten around to updating yet. Many less techy users will have to wait until their hosting’s control panel updates the Fantastico scripts to contain the latest version of WordPress. Considering the millions of ghost town blogs currently listed on Technorati, I wonder whether this will become a huge Spring Cleaning of all the unloved, dead blogs across the web. This might just turn out to be a good thing…

So, go on, get off your butt and upgrade WordPress to the latest version, and tell those around you to do the same!

SXSWi 2008: "Creative Collaboration: Designers and Developers working together"

I wasn’t so hot on this panel, found there was a lot of navel-gazing and not enough direction. Also, I don’t know what world these guys live in but do they not also have to contend with marketing, business dev, crazy bosses with wild ideas? There was no discussion about how to integrate the real-life demands into collaborative processes. Nice people, but rubbish panel.

Creative Collaboration: Designers and Developers working together
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SXSWi 2008: "Self-Replicating Awesomeness: The Marketing of No Marketing" panel notes

For this panel, I ditched the laptop and only used pen and paper so my notes are less than clear. In fact, I’m lucky if I can read my own handwriting, but the highlights for me were finally meeting the lovely Tara Hunt, a fellow Canadian expat and inspirational blogger.

My notes might be a bit garbled but sue me, I was too busy listening.

“Self-Replicating Awesomeness: The Marketing of No Marketing” panel notes
Panel: Deborah Schultz, Chris Heuer, Jeremiah Owyang, Tara Hunt, Hugh McLeod, David Parmet
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