Patterns patterns everywhere – The Sequel

26 January 2014

Back in 2010 I posted a piece called Patterns patterns everywhere which used the entry point of various articles on a number of web-sites relating to the, then current, Eyjafjallajokull eruption. I went ont to reference – amongst other phenomena, the weather.

The incomparable Randall Munroe from xkcd.com has just knocked my earlier work into a cocked hat with his (perhaps unsurprisingly) much more laconic observations from last Friday, which are instead inspired by the recent cold snaps in the US:

You see the same pattern all over. Take Detroit--' 'Hold on. Why do you know all these statistics offhand?' 'Oh, um, no idea. I definitely spend my evenings hanging out with friends, and not curating a REALLY NEAT database of temperature statistics. Because, pshh, who would want to do that, right? Also, snowfall records.
Copyright xkcd.com
This image has been rearranged to fit in to the confines of peterjamesthomas.com

 

 


The Great Divide – Worrying parallels between Windows 8 and the Xbox One

17 June 2013

Yosemite Valley

Back in July 2012 in A William Tell Moment? I got a little carried away about the potential convergence between tablets and personal computers. Nearly a year later – and with the Surface Pro only becoming available in my native UK last month – I probably know better. The following is therefore a more balanced piece.

It’s been a while since I put finger-tip to keyboard on this web-site. The occurrence which motivated me to do so was the arrival of my first new home computer since 2008 (yes unfortunately dear reader, the author is that much of a Luddite). The time since 2008 has seen a lot of changes in the technology sphere, notably the rise of the tablet (at probably the third time of asking) and the near ubiquity of end user computing. Certainly in response to the former (and maybe with some influence from the latter) my new laptop (if you can so describe a 17.3” desktop replacement) came with Windows 8 pre-installed.

My new 'laptop'

I am obviously several months too late for my review of Microsoft’s latest OS to have much resonance and my brief comments here have no doubt been offered up by other pundits already. What I want to do instead is perhaps try to tie Windows 8 together with some broader trends and explore just how weird and polarised the technology market has become recently. However, some brief initial commentary on Windows 8 is perhaps pertinent.

The main thrust of Windows 8 is for Microsoft to remain relevant, perhaps not so much in its traditional arena of PC computing, but in the newer world of tablet and mobile computing. I’m sure some tablet fans may take issue with my observation, but my opinion is that Windows 8 is trying to do two, potentially incompatible, things: to be relevant to content creators and to content consumers. I am sure there are all sorts of examples of people creating amazing content on their iPads or Android tablets, however perhaps the surprise here is that it is done at all, rather than done well[1].

Regardless of some content creation doubtless occurring on tablets, I stand by my assertion that they are essentially platforms for the consumption of content; be that web-pages (sometimes masquerading as apps), games, videos, music, or increasingly feedback from the ever increasing range of sensors providing information about everything from the device’s location to its owner’s current heart rate. The content that is consumed on tablets is – in most cases – created on other types of devices; often the quotidian ones which have physical keyboards and pointing devices which allow for precision work.

Fitzgerald demonstrating that you can play two roles

In the past, the dichotomy between content creators and content consumers has been somewhat masked by them employing similar tools. Of course every content creator is also a content consumer, but it has always (“always” of course being an interesting word when what I probably mean is “since the Internet became mainstream”), been the case that there were significantly more of the latter than the former[2]. What was different historically was that both creators and consumers used the same kit; PCs of some flavour[3] (though maybe the former had better processors and more memory on their machines). The split in roles was evident (if it was evident at all) in computers that were only ever used to surf, do e-mail and write the occasional letter; there were probably an awful lot of these. We had a general purpose computing platform (the PC) which was being under-utilised by the majority of people who owned one.

The eventual adoption of tablets has changed this dynamic. Although of course many tablets have processors that previous generations of PCs could only have dreamed of, their focus is firmly on delivering only those elements of a PCs capabilities which most people use and eschewing those which the majority ignore. As always, specialisation and focus leads to superior execution. The author (no fan of Apple products in general) can confirm that an iPad is much more fit for purpose than a laptop when the purpose is watching a film or TV show on a train or plane. Laptops can of course do this, but they are over-engineered for the task and also pretty bulky if all you want is to watch something. Having played Angry Birds on each of Android, iOS and web-versions on a laptop, the experience is best on the smaller, lighter, touch-based devices.

PC and iPad

The reason that the sales of PCs have plummeted while those of tablets soar is not that tablets are better than PCs, nor is it even that they demystify computing in a way that their elder brethren fail to do (more on this later), but simply that tablets are more aligned with what the majority of people want from their computers; as above to be media platforms that allow basic surfing and e-mail. To borrow the phrase from the last paragraph, tablets are more fit for purpose if the purpose is consumption of content.

The flip side of this is what I am currently doing: namely writing this article, sourcing / editing / creating images to illustrate it and cutting some entry-level HTML in the process. I could of course do this on an iPad or Android tablet. However this is much like saying that you can (in extremis) use a foot-pump to re-inflate a car tyre, but why would you if you can make it to a garage / service station and get access to a machine that is dedicated to inflating tyres with greater efficiency. If there was no machine with a keypad to hand, then I might decide to write on an iPad, but it would be a frustrating and sub-optimal experience. PCs are more fit for purpose where the purpose is content creation.

Which market would you rather sell into?

However, we now reach a problem in economics. If we apply the Wikipedia percentages to content creators versus content consumers, then the split is (depending on which side of the fence you place editors) either 1 : 10 or 1 : 100. In either case, someone pitching hardware and software to a content creator is addressing a much smaller part of the marketplace than someone pitching hardware and software to content consumers; aka the mass market. This observation inexorably leads to the types of features and capabilities which will dominate any platforms aimed at general computer users; basically content consumers are king and content creators paupers.

Which returns me to Windows 8. The metro interface is avowedly designed for mobile devices with a touch-based interface. My new machine doesn’t have a touch screen. Why would I need one on a device that supports the much more efficient a precise input provided by a physical keyboard and mouse? Indeed, one of the nice things about my new laptop is its 1920×1080 screen, why would I want to cover this with as many annoying finger smudges as my iPad has when there are much better ways of interacting with the OS which also leave the monitor clean? In fact, on reflection, I guess that the majority of people and not just content creators would prefer a non-smeared screen most of the time.

There seem to be obvious usability snafus in Windows 8 as well. To highlight just one, if you move your mouse (aka finger) to the top right-hand side, one of the “charms” menus appears (I’d really like to know why Microsoft thought “charms” was a great name for this). But what is also at the top right-hand side of any maximised window? The close button of course. I have lost count of how many times I have wanted to close a programme and instead had the charming blue panel appear instead. I spent the first eight years of my career in commercial software development and fully appreciate that there is no such thing as bug-free code, however this type of glitch seems so avoidable that one has to question both Microsoft’s design and testing process.

An early adopter of Excel 2013

Anyway, enough on the faults of Windows 8. In time I’ll get used to it just as I did with Windows 95, 97, XP and 7. Just as I have got used to each version of Excel being harder to use than the last for anyone that has a track record with the application. Of course I’ll get used to Excel 2013, what choice do I have? But this leads us into another economic dichotomy. Microsoft don’t need to win me over to Excel, I’m going to put up with whatever silly thing they do to it in the latest version because that’s a lower hurdle than learning another spreadsheet; even assuming that something like Google Docs offers the same functionality. The renewal rates for products like Excel must be 95% plus, this means that a vendor like Microsoft focusses instead on getting new business from people who don’t use their applications. If this means making the application “easier” for new users, then who cares if existing users are inconvenienced, it’s not like they are going to stop using the application.

As I alluded to above, a general claim made for tablets (and for the iPad in particular) is that they demystify computing, making it accessible to “regular people” (as an aside here we have the entire cool dude versus nerd advertising encapsulated in “I’m a Mac, he’s a PC”, something which I think Microsoft are to be lauded for lampooning in their later campaign). Instead I would argue that tablets offer a limited slice of what computers can do (the genius being that it is the slice that 90% or 99% of content consumers seem to want). They don’t make computing easier or more accessible, they make it more limited and sell this as a benefit using words like “elegant”, “stripped-down” or “minimalist”.

Tablets clearly fill a large market need, I use them myself. However, my Window-centred gripe is when I have to buy a product (a PC) whose basic operation is dictated by a function (content consumption) for which the machine is over-engineered, whereas the function for which a PC is perfect (content creation) is symmetrically and even systematically compromised.

As things stand, maybe Microsoft should not be so concerned about losing the mobile and tablet market (perhaps for them it is already too late). Instead it could be argued that they should be more worried about, though a lack of attention to the needs of their core users, forfeiting the PC market which they have dominated for so long and in which their products (pre-Windows 8 at least) were the ones best suited to the job at hand.

Brothers in arms?

The recent launch of the Xbox One (whatever happened to sequential numbering by the way?) was roundly condemned by gamers as focussing too much on the new console being a media hub (again attracting new users) rather than a gaming platform (again ignoring the needs of existing users). At least one cannot accuse Microsoft of being inconsistent, but alienating existing customers is seldom a great long-term strategy for a business.


Notes

[1] Let’s glide seamlessly over Samuel Johnson’s original application of this image to comment on women preachers; the 18th Century is certainly a foreign country and I’m rather glad that we now [mostly] do things differently here.
[2] By way of illustration, Wikipedia tends to assume the 90-9-1 rule. 1% of users create content, 9% edit or otherwise modify content, the rest consume.[citation needed]
[3] Although maybe the term PC has become synonymous with Wintel based machines, I include here personal computers running flavours of UNIX such as Mac OS and Linux.

 

 


Business Intelligence, a maturing industry?

22 October 2012

Good BI is like a fine port - it takes time in the making

I was recently invited by recruitment consultancy La Fosse to chair an roundtable event for fellow Business Intelligence professionals. We held the meeting last Thursday evening in London. There was a good turn out with delegates representing the following industries (number of attendees in brackets):

  • Insurance and affiliated (5, including me)
  • Investment Banking and affiliated (2)
  • Manufacturing (2)
  • Media (2)
  • Aviation (1)
  • Public Sector (1)
  • On-line (1)

As chair there is always the dread of the tumbleweed moment; everyone staring at each other with nothing to say. However, I needn’t have worried as each of the group members had a lot to share based on their extensive and varied experiences in the area. We started at 6pm, rolled through the call for early departures at 7:45pm and dissolved into smaller groups around 8:30pm. As several people said via e-mail the next day, without journeys home to consider, we could have happily kept talking for several more hours.

There were a number of encouraging aspects to the event. First of all, in chatting to various people before we formally kicked off, I found that many (like me) had worked in a number of industries in addition to the one where they were currently employed. There was general agreement with my view that this can often broaden perspectives and that at least several central elements of BI are pretty transportable between different areas of business endeavour. Of course in-depth exposure to one sector is invaluable, but leavening this with a few years in different sorts of organisations can produce a more rounded individual with a wider range of experiences.

The second encouraging aspect was the nature of the conversations. There was little interest in the latest and greatest technological tools (though we did spend a bit of time on the almost mandatory topic of Big Data). Instead virtually everyone wanted to talk about the human aspects of their BI programmes; past and present. Questions included: how to generate enthusiasm; how to reflect business needs when these were often changing in line with rapidly shifting strategic and competitive environments; how to both provide payback and demonstrate that you were doing this; how to become an embedded part of the business, not a technology bystander. People were happy to offer examples of what had worked (and failed to work) for them and to enrich these with interesting anecdotes and pertinent analogies. I suppose if I achieved anything as chairman (and it was a relatively easy group to chair), this was to ensure that everyone had some airtime.

It would be untrue to say that there was unanimity on all points; some things had worked for some people, different ones for others. However it is fair to say that, at least at a conceptual level, there was a degree of commonality of opinion about success factors. More positively (and in line with my now ancient article A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools), no one felt that the answer to the challenges they faced was the latest dashboard or data visualisation tool. Most people felt that we have had the technological tools and general knowhow to succeed in information-centric programmes for years, if not decades. Reasons for success and failure have always been (and remain) in the rather messier areas of business engagement, sound programme management, strong communications, pragmatism and responsiveness to developing needs.

While the fact that so many BI practitioners shared these (in my opinion) well-informed views is perhaps not great news for the vendors of information platforms and tools, it does suggest that – after a troubled childhood – BI is coming of age. In established and well-understood areas of business what counts is not technology, but how you apply it and align this with what people need. If this approach is becoming mainstream in Business Intelligence, and on the evidence of last week’s meeting is it, then maturity seems to be within reach; truly an encouraging thought.
 

 


Once again I am presenting at the IRM European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference

22 October 2012

IRM UK - European Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence Conference - 2012

This IRM UK event will be taking place in central London from the 5th to 7th November 2012. As ever, it is co-located with the IRM Data Management & Information Quality Conference. Full details may be obtained from the IRM conference web-site here.

The title of my presentation is: “Formulating a Business Intelligence / Data Warehousing Strategy”.
 

 


Facebook squares “puzzle”

1 September 2012

This blog primarily deals with matters relating to business, technology and change; obviously with a major focus on how information provision overlaps with each of these. However there is the occasional divertimento relating to mathematics, physical science, or that most recent of -ologies, social media.

The following article could claim some connections with both mathematics and social media, but in truth relates to neither. Its focus is instead on irritation, specifically a Facebook meme that displays the death-defying resilience of a horror movie baddie. My particular bête noire relates to the following diagram, which appears on my feed more frequently that adverts for “Facebook singles”:

24 or 25?

It is generally accompanied by some inane text, the following being just one example:

I got into a heated battle with a friend over this… I got 24 she say’s 25. How many squares do you see?

Nice grocer’s apostrophe BTW!

I realise that the objective is probably to encourage people to point out the error in the ways of the original poster; thereby racking up comments. However 24?, 25??, really???, really, really????

Let’s break it down…

24 or 25?

Well there is clearly one big square (a 4×4 one) staring us in the face as shown above. Let’s move on to a marginally less obvious class of squares and work these through in long-hand. The squares in this class are all 3×3 and there are 4 of them as follows:

24 or 25?

1…

24 or 25?

2…

24 or 25?

3…

24 or 25?

4…

Adding the initial 4×4 square, our running total is now 5.

The next class is smaller again, 2×2 squares. The same approach as above works, not all the class members are shown, but readers can hopefully fill in the blanks themselves.

24 or 25?

1…

24 or 25?

2…

Skip a few…

24 or 25?

9…

Adding our previous figure of 5 means our running total is now 14; we are approaching 24 and 25 fast, which one is it going to be?

The next class is the most obvious, the sets of larger 1×1 squares.

24 or 25?

It doesn’t require a genius to note that there are 16 of these. Oh dear, the mid-twenties estimates are not looking so good now.

24 or 25?

Also we shouldn’t forget the two further squares of the same size (each of which is split into smaller ones), one of which is shown in the diagram above.

Our previous total was 14 and now 14 + 16 + 2 = 32.

Finally there is the second set of 1×1 squares, the smaller ones.

24 or 25?

It’s trivial to see that there are 8 of these.

Adding this to the last figure of 32 we get a grand total of 40, slightly above both 24 and 25.

Perhaps the only thing of any note that this rather simple exercise teaches us is the relation to sums of squares, inasmuch as part of the final figure is given by: 1 + 4 + 9 + 16, or 12 + 22 + 32 + 42 = 30. Even this is rather spoiled by introducing the intersecting (and interloping) two squares that are covered last in the above analysis.

Oh well, at least now I never have to comment on this annoying “puzzle” again, which is something.
 


A Dictionary of the Business Intelligence Language

12 July 2012

Software Advice article

Michael Koploy of on-line technology consulting company Software Advice recently asked me, together with four other people from the Business Intelligence / Data Warehousing community, to contribute some definitions of commonly-used technology jargon pertinent to our field. The results can be viewed in his article, BI Buzzword Breakdown. Readers may be interested in the differing, but hopefully complementary, definitions that were offered.

In jockeying for space with my industry associates, only one of my definitions (that relating to Data Mining) was used. Here are two others, which were left on the cutting room floor. Maybe they’ll make it to the DVD extras.
The equivalent of the Unicorn dream sequence in Bladerunner, but imbued with greater dramatic meaning...

Big Data Rather than having the entirely obvious meaning, has come to be associated with a set of technologies, some of them open source, that emerged from the needs of several of the major on-line businesses (Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Amazon) to analyse the large amount of data they had relating to how people interact with their web-sites. The area is often linked to Apache Hadoop, a low-cost technology that allows commodity servers to be combined to collectively to store large amounts of data, particularly where the structure of these varies considerably and particularly where there is a need to support unpredictably-growing volumes.
   
Data Warehouse A collection of data, generally emanating from a number of different systems, which is combined to form a consistent structure suitable for the support of a variety of reporting and analytical needs. Most warehouses will have an element of data stored in a multi-dimensional format; i.e. one that is intended to support pivot-table like slicing and dicing. This is achieved using specific data structures: Fact tables, which hold figures, or measures (like profit, or sales, or growth); and dimension tables, which hold business entities, or dimensions (like countries, weeks, product lines, salesman etc.). The dimensions are often nested into hierarchies, such as Region => Country => City => Area. Warehouse data is generally leveraged using traditional reports, On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) and more advanced analytical approaches, such as data mining.

Approximately 5.5 cm isn't THAT big is it?

The above comments are perhaps most notable for representing my first reference to the latest information hot topic, the rather misleadingly named Big Data. To date I have rather avoided the rampaging herd in this area – maybe through fear of being crushed in the stampede – but it is probably a topic to which I will return once there is less hype and more substance to comment on.
 


A William Tell moment?

3 July 2012

Microsoft Surface
Image © Microsoft


Disclosure #1: As is inevitable for any IT professional, the author has used Microsoft’s enterprise products at many points during his career. As is inevitable for any sentient inhabitant of planet Earth, he has used their more broadly targeted software on a daily basis for longer than he can remember (many of the images on this site were created via the combination of Visio supplemented by the non-MS – and horribly old school – PaintShop Pro). He has no direct holdings in Microsoft, but undoubtedly must have some interest in the company indirectly via pension or investment funds; something that would probably also hold for all of Microsoft’s main competitors.

Disclosure #2: Beyond this, the author has been featured in a Microsoft Business Intelligence video; but this did not relate to the endorsement of any Microsoft product.

Disclosure #3: The author can proudly state that he has never owned any Apple product, but does periodically use a corporate iPad and has occasional access to an iPhone owned by someone else (doesn’t everyone?). Rumours that he has three stars at all levels of Angry Birds Space have not been independently verified.

Disclosure #4: The author has neither seen directly, nor further still touched a Surface – though if Microsoft wanted to remedy this situation, he would at the very least guarantee them a thorough (and professionally neutral) review.


It’s somewhat odd to report that I am rather excited by an announcement Redmond’s finest (with apologies to Nintendo America). Like many people I have had a love / hate relationship with the Washington behemoth for more years than I care to remember; having lived through the hype and subsequent let down of every MS O/S since 95. Come to think of it, as my girlfriend suggests, that would be a great slogan: “Microsoft – disappointing expectant millions since 1995!”

Maybe my general take on the firm’s recent output was best summed up by another noted industry commentator:

Perceptive tech industry commentary

“My new computer came with Windows 7. Windows 7 is much more user-friendly than Windows Vista. I don’t like that.”

However, having had to put up with umpteen technology industry commentators sycophantically parroting Cupertino’s “the PC is dead, long live the tablet” mantra over the last few years, it is gratifying to think that there may (and I stress may) soon be a tablet available that is also a proper computer; i.e. one that you can actually do useful things on, rather than fashion accessory cum entertainment centre with a bad browser and support for only for the type of games that you can play equally well on your Facebook page. Please don’t get me wrong, as I mention above, I’m as much a fan of Angry Birds as the next guy, but as a lapsed gamer myself I can hopefully tell the difference between a gaming platform and an amusing diversion.

The ubiquitous iPad has been touted as bringing computing to the non-technically literate masses. Instead it has brought a grossly watered down ability to conspicuously consume at the expense of any support for creative activities. In my opinion, the oft repeated phrase that “there’s an app for that” tends only to work when “that” is a pretty narrow range of activities. I’m on my iPad; I want to update my Facebook status – tick; I want to upload an un-edited photo I just took – tick (on some models at least); I want to tweet something (maybe even including a URL I have copied from elsewhere) – tick (fiddly as this might be); I want to write a lightly formatted blog post without too many typos and which includes a couple of images I have either lightly-edited, or created from scratch – um…

Smarter than the average iPad user?

That’s where most types of tablet seem to hit their limit, Android as well as iOS (and undoubtedly Amazon’s offering as well); casual surfing (be it browser or other app based), checking mail, watching a movie, working out what street I am on, simple social medial interactions. These things are all OK and all are light on content creation. Anything else (even a lengthy e-mail – something I specialise in) quickly becomes a chore. Pointedly, all of the things that I have mentioned working well on tablets, also work at least to close to as well on a decent sized smart ‘phone, which also has the benefit of actually being portable and also (at least in most cases) of being a ‘phone.

So, given my zeitgeist-busting lack of whelmedness with tablets, where does that leave Ballmer’s latest offering. Well, let’s discount the ARM-based, “me too” version (with apologies to my fellow inhabitants of Cambridge; East Anglia, not Massachusetts) and focus on the Ivy Bridge-powered Surface Pro. This is (as far as can be discerned from the [limited] information that Redmond have thusfar divulged) where the real attention will inevitably focus. As the BBC’s (oft lampooned) technology correspondent states:

“At one small business this week – my excellent local optician – I learned that the owner plans to replace all his PCs with Surface tablets when they come out. Why not go straight to iPads, I wondered – only to learn that just about every ophthalmic application was Windows-based.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18626087

I.e. there are an awful lot of proper, grown-up applications out there which only work on the dreadfully uncool WinTel platform. Indeed, outside of the creative industries (like other parts of industry can’t be creative?) and parts of science that rely upon tuned-up versions of graphical software that emanates essentially from the former (or which were provided “free” back in the day by those awfully nice Apple chaps), most business-focussed software (that is not already web-based) is WinTel based.

A long long time ago / I can still remember how / That gadget used to make me smile / And I knew if I did my tricks / That I could save those people's clicks /  And maybe they'd be happy for a while...

The idea of a proper computer that can (as far as we can tell at present) support all of the above, plus coming in a conveniently portable tablet-like package; but – crucially – with adult input devices like (shock-horror) a keyboard and track-pad and (even more shock and even more horror) a DisplayPort port for those tasks (like many of mine) where at 10” monitor is way too small and (Nightmare on Elm Street levels of horror) a USB 3.0 port; sounds awfully like the tablet concept coming of age (or, for those with an historical bent, fulfilling the vision that Bill Gates originally outlined for the device, long before the late Steve Jobs imbued it with his irreplaceable and inimitable coolness).

Many much wiser commentators than me have stated that the Surface will live or die based on the quality and extent of the app ecosystem it develops around it. For me the Pro has all the apps you could ever need, the Windows ones that people use to actually do things.

Of course the devil is in those (perhaps worryingly as yet undisclosed) details. What will the precise specs of the Surface Pro processor and RAM be? What is the screen resolution? How long will the battery last? How good a keyboard substitute will the Type Cover be in practice? Why on Earth does the RT come with Office and the machine set up to run it properly apparently doesn’t? Will Metro be pleasurable to use in those (infrequent) moments when all you actually want is an entertainment platform? These will all become clear in time no doubt, and there is obviously more than enough scope for Microsoft to disappoint me again. However, at present I am holding on to the glimmer of hope that this time they have got it right. If they have, the Surface could be very good indeed. As Don Maclean never sang:

  So bye bye to my Pad with an ‘i’
Get a Surface in to yer place
Won’t you give it a try
Those Angry Birds may may just have to fly
Singing this could be the tablet I’d buy
 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,424 other followers

%d bloggers like this: